The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Italy Gets (Even More) Serious About Its Pizza

A Central Element Of Italian Identity

I don't suppose it comes as any surprise that Italians eat a lot of pizza. About four million a day on average. Americans consume twice as many, but there are a lot more of us. Italians produce all that pizza in roughly 48,000 pizzerie (the proper plural form of pizzeria). There are around 61,269 pizza joints in America, in case you were wondering.

Now, you know Italians are fiercely protective of their food. There are rules and laws and consortia and governing bodies covering everything from cheese to ham to olive oil to vinegar. In fact, there are 138 Italian products that are deemed “Denominazione Origine Protetta” or D.O.P., and an additional 83 that qualify as “Indicazione Geografica Protetta” or I.G.P.. (The English translations are Protected Designation of Origin or P.D.O. and Protected Geographical Indication or P.G.I., respectively.) These designations mean there are strictly enforced regulations in place regarding the manufacture and/or production of things like Parmigiano-Reggiano and balsamic vinegar, just to name two. And if an Italian lawmaker has his way, there will soon be another regulated food in Italy: pizza. Or at least the people who make it.

Forza Italia party senator Bartolomeo Amidei has presented a bill to create a registry for all professional Italian pizzaioli. The purpose of said registry would be to protect Italy's culinary traditions and to prevent clueless consumers from being sold substandard pizza. As one who has consumed many a substandard pizza at a variety of American pizza outlets, I say, “how soon can we implement such a registry here?”

Seriously, the proposal calls for anybody aspiring to graduate from the ranks of home cook to the flour-covered halls of professional pizzadom to complete a 120-hour course. Upon passing the course, which will include 20 hours of food science, 20 hours of pizza-making workshops, 30 hours of food hygiene classes and 40 hours of foreign language study, the prospective pizza pro must then accumulate 18 months of experience at the oven before being allowed to register. Compare that to the “training” the high school kid at your local pizza shack probably gets. But then we are talking about real pizza as opposed to the vaguely pizza-like substances most of those places turn out.

To be sure, there are already some trained pizzaioli in Italy. There's even a trade association of Italian pizza-makers, the Associazione Maestri d’Arte Ristoratori e Pizzaioli, or AMAR. But the head guy, Enzo Prete, believes that even though pizza-making courses exist, they are not regulated or standardized, resulting in a lot of unevenly skilled and inexpert hands tossing the dough in Italian pizza places. “The lack of current regulation has created many problems which stem from the fact that chefs are unprepared,” says Prete. “We're delighted lawmakers are trying to create the register and think it will protect our trade.”

Speaking to La Repubblica, Senatore Amidei said, “As Italians we have a responsibility to defend our culinary traditions. Pizza makes up fifty percent of all restaurant takings in Italy, yet more and more people are being served 'fraudulent' pizza that doesn't conform to traditions.”

Speaking of “fraudulent pizza”, I have to wonder what the senator would think of the tomato casserole that blatantly masquerades as “Chicago-style” pizza. Or any of the “innovative” creations that come out of California, most loaded up with any ingredient that wasn't securely tied down in the refrigerator. Or the “stuffed crust” and “flavored crust” antics of various national pizza chains. I have seen Italian pizzaioli stand shaking their heads in bewilderment at such abominations. But this is America, where we suffer from an inbred compulsion to “improve” things – even things that don't require improvement. I, for one, do not consider “hot dog crust” pizza to be an improvement. A perversion, maybe, but certainly not an improvement.

Let's just say for the sake of argument that baseball, a venerable American institution if ever there was one, was seen by Italians to be in need of “improvement”. Nine men on a team obviously aren't enough. There should be two players covering the bases, so let's add men at first, second, and third. And this whole running from right to left is discriminatory to left-handers, so we'll let them run the bases in the opposite direction. I mean, who says “third” has to be third? Why can't it be first if you feel so inclined. Silly rule. Getting around the bases is what matters. Why should anyone care about the direction? Bats should be wider and flatter, more like cricket bats, and to speed things up, everybody gets just one swing – either you hit it or you don't. Let's make the ball more colorful. How about orange? And since the game is played in the summer, players should all wear shorts and sleeveless jerseys like basketball players do. They'd be much more comfortable. There. That should sufficiently screw with an American tradition. All the main elements are still there, but is it still baseball? As far as I'm concerned, the same thing applies when you try to “improve” pizza.

Look, when God craves a slice or two, He puts in a call to Naples, because that's where pizza was perfected. And here's how they make perfect pizza in Napoli: To begin with, production is limited to two types of pizza: “Marinara” (tomato, oil, oregano, and garlic) and “Margherita” (tomato, oil, mozzarella or fior di latte grated cheese and basil). Two types. Due. Period. No pepperoni, sausage, hamburger, mushrooms, green or red peppers, onions, olives, anchovies, ham, bacon, pineapple, chicken “Alfredo” or any of the other “toppings” Americans love to shovel on.

And the crust of said pizza should have a center which is no thicker than 0.3cm/0.11 inches and an outer edge not more than 1-2 cm / 0.4-0.8 inches. Take that, “deep-dish” and “pan pizza” lovers! The crust should deliver the flavor of well-prepared baked bread. No garlic, butter, ranch dressing, or other “flavorings” required.

Only wheat flour type "00" (doppio zero), a highly refined flour which has been milled to an almost talcum-powder like appearance – white, fine and completely free of bran or germ – is allowed in the preparation of the crust. A pox on you, “healthy” whole-wheat pizza crust!

Pure water is required as is sea salt. The recommended tomato is the “pomodoro pelato San Marzano dell’Agro Sarnese-Nocerino D.O.P.” Tomatoes that are genetically modified or altered are not acceptable. The cheese must be certified mozzarella di bufala campana D.O.P, or an acceptable substitute fior di latte dell’appennino meridionale D.O.P or other certified fior di latte. Cold pressed extra-virgin olive oil is the oil of choice. Basil must be fresh. And it must all be assembled and cooked according to the exacting standards of the Associazione Verace PizzaNapoletana.

These are the standards the proposed registry proposes to protect. A further effort to keep Italian pizza pure was launched earlier this year by the country's UNESCO commission, which is seeking to include the art of Neapolitan pizza-making on UNESCO’s prestigious cultural heritage list. Citing the art of pizza-making as a central element of Neapolitan and Italian identity and a symbol of the Italian brand around the world, the selection commission wants Neapolitan pizza to be distinguished from rivals such as New York-style pizza.

Unfortunately, such measures will have little if any effect outside the Italian sphere of influence. Just look at Parmesan cheese, for example. So even if the registry comes about and the UNESCO listing becomes a reality, don't expect Little Caesar's or Hungry Howie's to start turning out vera pizza Napoletana. The only thing the efforts will guarantee is that Italian pizzerie won't turn out pizza on a par with Little Caesar's or Hungry Howie's. I guess we pizza purists will just have to take our little victories where we find them.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Olive Garden's New Menu Additions: Please Make Them STOP!

Don't Call The Place “Italian”

Here we go again. Another round of cringe-worthy culinary concoctions from the kitchens of Olive Garden, this time in the forms of “deep dish spaghetti pie” and “breadstick sandwiches.”

The first abomination is what OG's pazzo executive chef, Jim Nuetzi, calls “a traditional Italian dish.” Jeez, it's hard to type with your fingers clenched and your hands gripping the edges of your desk. Basically, you take enough spaghetti to feed a large Italian family and stuff it in a pie crust. Then you bake it, cover it with cheese, and slather it with sauce. You can have either the “meatball deep dish” or the “chicken Alfredo” options. OG descibes the latter as “Spaghetti, seven cheeses and Italian bacon baked to perfection in a flaky crust and topped with grilled chicken and our homemade alfredo,”

I am drooling and foaming at the mouth here. Not with anticipation of either of these dishes, but with outrage that any idiota could possibly call them “traditional Italian.” In the first place, the only spot you'll find anything “Alfredo” in all of Italy is at Alfredo's in Rome. The dish does not exist otherwise and it only exists at Alfredo's because the turisti expect it. In the second place, mixing chicken with pasta is not something any Italian cook would ever do. So for this “traditional Italian” monstrosity you get to break two rules for the price of one. And the meatball option isn't any better. In Italy, you can have spaghetti and you can have meatballs, but you can't have spaghetti AND meatballs. Plopping a fist-sized meatball in a pile of pasta and a pool of red sauce and baking it in a pie crust does not make it resemble anything authentically Italian.

Now, to offer the benefit of the doubt – and maybe this is where the chef gets his “inspiration” – there are baked pasta dishes in Italian culinary tradition that often employ leftovers. You take a little of this and a little of that left over from last night's supper and bake it all in a baking dish for today's lunch. I've never heard of the pie crust twist. But does this qualify the concoction as a “traditional Italian” dish? Leftovers? Really? Meh.

And what can you say about a “sandwich” made of Italian-ish ingredients wedged between sliced breadstick halves? Again, Italians have “breadsticks” (grissini) and they have “sandwiches” (panini), but they most emphatically do not have “breadstick sandwiches.” Here your choices are among the ubiquitous meatballs, chicken parmigiana (another thoroughly non-Italian dish), “spicy Calabrian chicken” (whatever the hell that is), and “eggplant parmigiana,” something, at last, that really is Italian, although I would challenge you to find an Italian who would add it to a sliced up soft breadstick and call it a sandwich. And,of course, you can have any of these offerings with a side of French fries. Now that's “traditional Italian!” Uffa!

Don't get me wrong. I'm sure these things are all good. When my choices have been extremely limited, I have eaten at Olive Garden and the stuff they pile on the plates is generally unobjectionable in terms of taste and quality. It's middle-of-the-road, at best: not really bad but not all that good. What is objectionable is the fact that they call any of it “Italian.”

When they first opened in Orlando back in 1982, Olive Garden was a typical example of a “red sauce joint.” With a menu based on the Italian-America food that average Americans had come to consider “Italian” rather than on any form of actual, authentic Italian food, coupled with a faux-Italian décor, the place was a typical “Italian restaurant.” Through various ownership and management changes, it has evolved (?) into what it is today: yet another example of the kind of ho-hum, uninspired, cookie-cutter fast casual eatery that dominates the culinary landscape in the early 21st century. It has reached the current pinnacle/nadir of its existence by attempting to innovate through a strategy of blending American ideas with Italian (ish) ingredients. As a result, it has succeeded in being neither American or Italian. Heck, it's not even decent Italian-American. French fries? Breadstick sandwiches? What's next, hamburgers? Oh yeah....they tried that. Remember the forgettable “Italiano burger?”

Okay, so they have some Italian-looking and Italian-sounding stuff on the menu. It's easy to make something sound Italian. I remember a dish at a competing eatery called the “Piatto di Pollo.” “Piatto di Pollo!” It just sings Italian, doesn't it? It means “chicken plate.” And remember the scam a few years ago wherein OG advertised its “Tuscan Culinary Institute” and gave you the impression that all its cooks were being trained in Italian cooking at some sort of high end academy in Tuscany? The place turned out to be an Italian resort that the company rented in the off-season to which they sent a few employees for a vacation that included the opportunity to watch Italian cooks cook. And it's sad because there have been some real attempts at authenticity at Olive Garden now and then. But every time you think the place has turned a corner, it winds up leading to a dead end – like breadstick sandwiches with French fries. Why doesn't Darden just cut to the chase and stop calling the place “Italian?” Then they'd be free to openly make it into another Applebee's or Ruby Tuesday or Chili's. It's halfway there already. I mean, when your executive chef, the guy in charge of creating your menu, is a guy who used to make cheeseburgers at a steakhouse in Miami, where are you gonna go?

You know what I like at Olive Garden? The chicken and gnocchi soup. Here's what OG says about it: “This satisfying soup is made in our kitchens everyday with roasted chicken, traditional Italian potato dumplings, onion, celery, carrots and spinach. It isn't as rich as a chowder, but it's also not a true broth. Instead, our chefs mix both chicken broth and half and half for a light, yet creamy base. Add lots of vegetables, chicken and gnocchi, and the Olive Garden's Chicken and Gnocchi Soup is sure to become one of your favorites.” And you know what's Italian about it? Nothing. Oh wait, I take that back. It's got gnocchi in it and gnocchi is Italian. So.......instant classic!

I also like the tortellini al forno. This is a cheese and prosciutto-filled tortellini dish served in a Parmesan cream sauce and topped with crumbled bacon. Like the soup, it's about as Italian as sushi on a stick. Don't misunderstand me. It's delicious. I replicated the recipe and I make it at home all the time. Same with the soup. But both are examples of the way OG and similar places correctly assume that if they stick a recognizable Italian ingredient or two in a dish and give it a name with lots of appropriately placed vowels, undiscriminating diners will accept without question that they are eating “traditional” or “authentic” Italian dishes. “Piatto di Pollo,” indeed. That's how Olive Garden maintains its illusory spot as America's favorite “Italian” restaurant. And it's also why you see as many Italians eating there as you see Mexicans hanging out at Taco Bell.

Spaghetti pies and breadstick sandwiches are just two of the reasons I maintain, as I have for years, that if you can't find a good Italian restaurant, there's always Olive Garden.  

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Are You Confused By Cooking Terms?

People Get Glassy-Eyed When You Start Talking “Saute” And “Braise”

I was in a restaurant kitchen the other day talking with a group of cooks. We were discussing techniques and ingredients and generally speaking a lot of “kitchen-ese.” Two of the guys involved in the discussion were seasoned pros who had been around a kitchen or two. The third fellow was a young guy, still in high school, getting his first taste of “the life.” And he was pretty lost.

It occurred to me later that, while cooking and cooking terms are second nature to some of us, there are a lot of people out there for whom the very cooking process is daunting enough and the associated language is confusing and foreign. Those of us who have been reading recipes for decades tend to overlook the fact that there are people who get glassy-eyed when you start talking “saute” and “braise” and “mince” and “dice.” And those are just common, everyday terms. When it comes to “julienne” and “brunoise” and “chiffonade,” you might as well be speaking French. are, but you know what I mean.

Let's say you've come across Grandma's biscuit recipe and it calls for a “dash” of this and a “pinch” of that. Because I have a ridiculously over-equipped kitchen, I actually own a set of measuring spoons that measures dashes and pinches. Smidgens, too. Not that I ever use the silly things: like most cooks, I literally pinch a “pinch” with my fingers. You learn over time how much a two-finger pinch is and how much you pick up in a three-finger pinch. And, of course, since hands and fingers vary in size, so do pinches. It's not very precise, but it's such a small amount it doesn't really have to be. If, however, you really want to know, a dash is 1/8 teaspoon, a pinch is 1/16 teaspoon, and a smidgen is 1/32 teaspoon. (By actual measurement, my own two-finger pinch equals a smidgen while my three-finger pinch is a generous dash.)

While we're on the topic of measurement, some recipes will refer to “dry measure.” That's because there's a difference between measuring dry ingredients, like flour or sugar, and wet ingredients, like milk or water. (Technically, due to its hygroscopic nature, sugar is classified as a “wet” ingredient, but I'm just not going to go there in this discussion. For now, let's considerate it to be dry.) The measuring cups themselves are different. Measuring liquid is done in a cup that is meant to not be filled to the very top. The measurement lines stop a little ways down from the rim and there's usually a spout of some sort to help avoid spills. Dry measures, on the other hand, are supposed to be filled to the top and leveled off. Now, nearly everybody dumps flour in a “wet” cup and tries to pour water from a “dry” cup. Including yours truly. Not such a grievous offense for cooking purposes, but it can really screw up your baking measurements, so you really should use the right tool for the right task.

Okay. Back to general confusion. The first thing you get drilled into your head in culinary school is knife cuts. And there are a bunch of them. Most home cooks will never in their lives “tourne” a potato. (It's a football-shaped cut with seven equal sides and flat ends, if you should want to try it.) Nor will they ever “rondelle”or “paysanne” any vegetable. But to the beginning cook, the more common “chop,” “dice,” and “mince” can be just as confusing. In really simple terms “chopped” refers to larger chunks, roughly cut. “Diced” is smaller than “chopped” and more uniform in size while “minced” produces the smallest cut you can make with a knife. In technical terms, there are large dice (3/4-inch), medium dice (1/2-inch), small dice (1/4-inch), brunoise (1/8-inch), and fine brunoise (1/16-inch), but I'm trying not to get technical here. That's why I won't mention strip cuts like the batonnet (¼ x ¼ x 2 inches),which is also the starting point for the small dice, or the julienne or “matchstick” cut (1/8 x 1/8x 1 inch) that is the basis for the brunoise. I just won't mention that.

“Slicing” factors in here, too but it's pretty straightforward: you take a knife and cut down vertically on whatever it is you're wanting to slice. The only variant would be the thickness of the slice.

Why do you do all this slicing and dicing and chopping and mincing? Because size matters. And shape does, too. The size and shape of the food being cooked affects the cooking time as well as the flavor and the texture of the finished product. If a recipe calls for an onion to be minced and you just whack it into big chunks and toss it in the pot, you're going to get very different – and usually undesirable – results.

Then there's “shredded” versus “grated.” This one's pretty easy. If you have a box grater, you can do both on the same implement. “Shred” a carrot or a chunk of cheese with the large holes and “grate” it using the small ones. Shredding produces long, even strips while grating makes tiny, irregular fragments. Owing to their size and shape, grated ingredients cook or melt faster than shredded ones. And, as in the preceding discussion, the two are not generally interchangeable.

Another confusing “this vs that” cooking term involves sautéing and frying. They're similar but different. You use a pan for both, although technically there is a difference between a frying pan and a sauté pan. The former has sloped sides and the latter has straight sides. Most home cooks don't know the difference and use both interchangeably. Both processes are considered “dry heat” methods. Both use oil. (Yeah, I know oil is wet, but it doesn't contain water, so that....makes it....dry. Just trust me.) Both employ direct heat. Now, the heat's a little hotter in the sauté, which derives from the French for “to jump.” And the food being sautéed is usually cut into smaller pieces. Sautéing involves food in motion. Cheffy types can literally make food “jump” in a pan by tossing it in the air. More mundane home cooks just use a spoon or spatula to stir it and keep it moving. Frying or pan frying (or shallow frying as opposed to deep frying) employs lower heat and utilizes bigger pieces of food, like chicken breasts or pork chops. And you usually leave them pretty much alone as they cook. You don't flip and toss and stir. You put the food in the pan, cook it until one side is done, turn it over and repeat the process.

Let's let that simmer while we go over “simmer” versus “boil.” You run into these terms all the time and it's important to know the difference. If you remember General Science from your high school days, you should recall that water boils at 212° F. (That's assuming you're approximately at sea level. The boiling point goes down as the altitude goes up.) Boiling requires you to crank your burner to “high” and let 'er rip until whatever you're attempting to boil – usually water, sometimes soup, occasionally sauce – starts to bubble and roll vigorously. Boiling occurs when heat agitates water molecules, causing them to release a gas that rushes to the surface in the form of bubbles. Many recipes call for a “rolling boil.” Once in awhile, you'll run across “low boil” or “gentle boil.” And there ain't no such thing. Boil = 212° F. It won't get any hotter no matter how high you crank it or how long you leave it. Boil = 212° F. Period. And anything less than that is some variation of a “simmer.” You want to boil stuff for fairly quick results. Vegetables, pasta, really tough chunks of meat. Boiling renders things soft and tender in a relatively short time.

“Simmering” accomplishes much the same result, only over a longer period of time and with less destructive results than can sometimes accompany boiling. All that bubbling and rolling can tear up delicate foods quickly – and pretty much any food given enough time. When something “simmers,” there is not quite enough heat applied to create big bubbles. The surface tension of the water/liquid is enough to keep the bubbles in check so they don't roil and roll. To “simmer,” you bring your liquid just up to the boiling point and then quickly reduce the heat so that the liquid barely bubbles. Little bitty bubbles around the edges. Maybe no bubbles at all other than the occasional “blurp” that sends tomato sauce flying all over your stove. Somewhere between 190° F and 200° F.

Finally, we'll look at “baking,” “roasting,” and “broiling.” And maybe throw in “braising” while we're at it.

Most home ovens give you two choices: bake and broil. (Okay, “self-clean” doesn't count.) The most basic difference is that when you set the oven to “bake,” you engage all the heating elements and when you turn it to “broil,” you're only using the top elements. But that's really basic. You need to know the difference or you'll wind up with lots of burned food.

When you bake something, you use a gentle, even heat that surrounds the food on all sides. Baking is an example of using the convection method of heat transfer. Broiling is more like using a flamethrower. Think of it as an upside-down grill. The heat is intense and directed. Broiling is an example of heat transfer through radiation; in this case infrared. Most baking is done in a fairly moderate oven at temperatures between 350°F and 450°F. A broiler really cranks out the heat, with an average temperature around 550°. Some broilers are adjustable, with “Lo” and “Hi” settings, but most are either “On” or “Off.” Like a small child, if you leave one unattended for a few seconds, you're courting disaster. Baking is done over a long period of time; twenty, thirty, forty minutes or more. Broiling is a quick process; five to ten minutes at the most.

The difference between baking and roasting is a little harder to define. Basically, there isn't one. The cooking process is the same. The terminology applies more to the food itself than to the process. When you put a cake in the oven, you're not “roasting” it, you're “baking” it. When you put a roast in the oven, you're “roasting” it rather than “baking” it. And the lines can get a little blurry: you can “bake” or “roast” a chicken, for example, but although you generally “bake” a ham, you seldom “roast” one. In any case, it's all a matter of heat transference through convection, which is defined as the movement of air, liquid, or steam around the food.

“Braising” begins with the third method of heat transference, conduction. (Bet you didn't know you were going to get a science lesson today, did you?) You can braise just about anything, but the term usually applies to meat. You generally begin by searing the surface in a pan on the stovetop. Listen carefully; in spite of what any TV chef says, this is not called “caramelization.” It is simply “browning,” a process that occurs through the effects of the Maillard reaction. (Cooks like Michael Symon who “caramelize” everything because they think it sounds “cheffy-er” drive me absolutely nuts.) Then you transfer the meat to a cooking vessel and add a liquid. You don't completely submerge it; you just want it covered about two-thirds of the way. Then it's cooked low and slow for an extended period of time. Braising is an economical cooking method because it allows you to use tough and/or inexpensive cuts. It's also efficient because you can often prepare everything in one pot. After the stovetop work is done, you cover the pot and stick it in a low oven (about 325°F) and let it go until tenderness results.

And if you weren't already confused, how 'bout we throw in “stewing?” It's essentially the same as braising except braising uses whole pieces of meat whereas you cut the meat into small pieces for a stew.

There are dozens of other arcane cooking terms waiting to confuse and confound the novice cook. “Zest,” for instance. Isn't that some kind of soap? But there's only so much demystification one can disseminate within the confines of time and space. Stay tuned for more.

Friday, June 10, 2016

No Dinner Reservations For Old, Fat, Naked People

I Won't Be Going To The Amrita

When July 29, 2016 rolls around, I will not be present for the grand opening of a new restaurant called The Amrita. In the first place, it's located in Tokyo, which is a wicked commute from my current home on the East Coast. Not that I don't occasionally travel to enjoy new restaurants, but 6,881 miles does seem like a bit of a stretch and besides, there are other reasons I won't be going to this one.

Given my culinary preferences, I seriously doubt there will be anything Italian on the menu. I could be wrong. Italian dishes are everywhere these days and The Amrita might up and surprise me with a fantastic bucatini al amatriciana. Who knows? And in any case, my wife is a big fan of Japanese food, so there's that consideration to take into account. Even so, however, there are still other reasons I won't be making reservations at The Amrita. Three reasons, to be exact: I'm old, I'm fat, and I don't like sitting around in paper underwear.

You see, The Amrita, which takes its name from a Sanskrit word for immortality, is one of a growing number of restaurants worldwide that caters to folks who want to dine senza vestiti. That means “without clothes,” for you non-Italian speakers or, as the late Lewis Grizzard was fond of saying, “nekkid.”

Okay, there are thousands of eateries for nudists and other sun worshipers in camps and enclaves dedicated to that sort of thing all over the globe. But The Amrita is fairly unique in that it, like its counterparts in London and Melbourne (the cities in England and Australia as opposed to those in Kentucky and Florida), is not located out in “nature” somewhere where patrons are already slapping volleyballs and swinging golf clubs au naturel. No, these places are smack in the middle of town and they invite all comers to come in and strip down for dinner.

At The Amrita's inaugural banquet, you'll be able to sit at the table in your “hygienic” paper panties and enjoy selections from an organic menu while being served “Adam and Eve-style” by “men with the world's most beautiful bodies” and enjoying entertainment in the form of a “Men's Show dance performance.” (Let's America we have a term for such places, but I suppose “titty bar” wouldn't quite apply in this case, now would it?)

While I am not a habitue of such establishments, I have nothing against them. I used to have a Playboy Club key back in the day and I have patronized a Hooters or two over the years. Those institutions are different in that while the staffs may show varying degrees of skin, the customers must remain completely clothed. Or at least they must if they want to avoid getting tossed out. At The Amrita, everbody is invited to get naked. Well......almost everybody, and that exception leads to the final reasons I won't be going to The Amrita.

The Amrita has standards. (Stop smirking.) In order to be issued your paper undies, you have to be between the ages of 18 and 60. Apparently there is something unappetizing about age spots, stretch marks, and wrinkles. Obviously, the management is not aware of the Italian maxim that says, “a tavola non s'invecchia” – “at the table, one does not grow old.”

You also can't have any tattoos, which should just about guarantee a light crowd these days. However, even if you meet the age criterion and are unmarked and unblemished by body art, you still have to weigh in. Yep, them paper drawers don't come in XL. If you weigh more than 15kg (about 33 pounds) over the average weight for your height, well......there's a McDonald's right down the street.

Mia bella wife would make the age and weight cuts, but she has a couple of discreet tattoos that would not be so discreet under the circumstances, and although I am inkless, I am slightly overage and significantly undertall. (As opposed to being overweight, you know.) On the plus, we wouldn't have to worry about those annoying Instagrammers or about clueless idiots babbling away on their cellphones. All such devices have to be locked away in a tabletop box. (Now there's an idea I can get behind at any eatery.) And we wouldn't have to be subjected to unwanted conversation from other diners: patrons must promise to refrain from being a “nuisance” by chatting up their nearly naked neighbors.

Alas, we couldn't afford the joint anyway: tickets are going for anywhere from 12,000 to 80,000 yen, which equates to $112 to $563 US. On the one hand, I suppose the cost would be somewhat offset by the savings incurred through not having to go out and buy new dinner outfits.

I suppose a certain degree of titillation (no pun intended) is to be expected, but nudity is a great equalizer under such conditions. The sartorial playing field is rather leveled out, after all, when you're wearing nothing but your birthday suit. However, I do think management ought to implement a ban on Viagra, Cialis, and such before dining. I mean, really. I know some of these places are just designed to be temporary pop-ups, but......

And you know, I hadn't before this second considered another aspect. As careful as I am, every once in awhile I do manage to splash or drop or dribble something down my shirtfront or into my lap. Or somebody else does it for me: the manager at the old Italian place that used to be located in Epcot at Disneyworld practically had apoplexy after a waiter spilled olive oil down the leg of my khaki pants. Such things would not be a problem at places like The Amrita. Just have some wet-naps handy and you're good to go. At worst you might have to whip off your little paper pants and put on some new ones. Unless, of course, flambéing or hot coffee are involved, in which case a trip to the hospital might be in order.

No, I guess July 29 will probably find me at Little Italy. It's close to home, you don't have to show an ID to get in there, it's okay if you have a tattoo or two, the only scales are located in the kitchen, you can can get a plate of spaghetti or ravioli for less than fifteen bucks, and everybody – thank God – wears clothes. I'll be there around seven if you'd care to join me.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Delicious, Versatile Bruschetta: The Real, Original “Garlic Bread” – And More!

A Simple Italian Classic

If you're looking for a great appetizer, hors d'oeuvre, or small plate offering for your next party, family gathering, or just as a snack, look no further than the simple Italian classic bruschetta. Enjoyed hot or tiepido (room temperature), bruschetta is delicious and versatile as well as being quick and easy to prepare. In its most basic form, it's the original Italian “garlic bread.” Add some toppings and you can almost turn it into a full course of its own.

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of preparation, let's clear up one major detail: the word “bruschetta,” derived from the Italian verb “bruscare,” is not, has never been, and never will be pronounced “broo-SHET-uh.” Regardless of the way any server at any fast casual or faux-Italian restaurant in the United States pronounces it, the proper pronunciation is “broo-SKET-ah.” Actually, if you want to be completely correct and Italian about it, it would be “broo-SKEHT-tah,” but the anglicized version is close enough to keep Italians from cringing.

“Bruscare” means to roast over coals, so if you have a charcoal grill handy, you're all set. Since, however, it is usually frowned upon to fire up a grill indoors, you'll be fine if you just use your broiler, oven, toaster oven, or even a grill pan – anything that will toast bread to a nice golden color.

As to the bread, a good crusty, rustic loaf is essential. You can't make bruschetta from gummy white sandwich bread. You've got to have something like a baguette, a boule, an Italian loaf, or some other kind of artisan or “country-style” bread. Something you can slice up nice and thick. And the thickness of the slice counts when it comes to piling on the toppings. “Crostini,” or “little toasts,” can be thin and delicate. Bruschette (that's the plural form of “bruschetta”) are meant to be thick and hearty.

When it comes to toppings, the sky's the limit. Olive oil is pretty much a default. In fact, some people believe that bruschetta has its origins in ancient Rome, where olive growers bringing their olives to market for pressing would sample the taste of the freshly pressed oil on chunks of toasted bread. From there you can add on garlic, herbs, tomatoes, cheese, cured meat, anchovies, salmon, olives, capers – the list is limited only by your taste and creativity.

At its most basic, bruschetta is the original “garlic bread.” There is no such thing in Italian cuisine as the “garlic bread” served in American Italian restaurants. Cheap bread slathered to the point of sogginess with garlic flavored butter is something you'll never find on an Italian table, no matter how “authentic” your local eatery claims to be. Real Italian “garlic bread” is just a simple bruschetta, prepared with four ingredients: bread, garlic, olive oil, and salt.

To start, slice your bread about 1/2-inch to 3/4-inch thick and toast it by whatever means you've chosen. Both sides, please. Next, while the bread is still warm, peel a clove of fresh garlic and cut an end off the clove. Lightly rub the cut end of the garlic clove over the surface of your toasted bread. One side or the other is fine; you don't have to do both sides. Don't overdo it. Fresh garlic is powerful stuff and it's easy to go from “flavorful” to “garlicky.” You may like “garlicky,” but not everyone does, so a light hand is better than a heavy one. Now brush the prepared side with a light coating of good quality olive oil. Don't soak it or saturate it: you just want the flavor of the oil. Finally, sprinkle a few grains of coarse salt, like Kosher salt, over the top to finish. And that's it: real Italian “garlic bread.” If you want to throw a little Italian seasoning or oregano on there to gild the lily, go for it. Or you can add some mozzarella cheese on top and stick it back under the broiler until the cheese melts and gets just a little golden brown. Tah-dah! Garlic cheese bread!

There's a little controversy over method here. Some schools will tell you to oil the bread before you toast it. Others say toast first, then oil, the theory being that toasting the bread with the oil on it will affect the flavor of the oil. I've done it both ways and can't really tell much of a difference. That said, I do tend to be a proponent of the “toast first” method.

The most classic form of bruschetta is Bruschetta Pomodoro, or Tomato Bruschetta. And it begins with the procedure you just read. The difference is, in this case you definitely want the mozzarella. If you prefer, you can use fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano instead of mozzarella. And instead of oregano or Italian seasoning, you'll need some basil. Fresh is best but dried is okay. And, of course, some tomatoes. Red or yellow, or a mix of both, chopped or cut to a fine dice. (“Brunoise” is the fancy-pants French culinary term for it.)

Toast your bread and prepare it with the olive oil, garlic, and salt as described above. Add the mozzarella – or whatever cheese you've chosen – and put it back under or in the heat source to melt the cheese.  (A broiler or oven works best: you really don't want to put cheese in your toaster.) While the cheese is melting, mix the tomatoes and basil together. If you're using fresh basil, just tear up a few leaves. If you're going with dried basil, a little goes a long way. Once the cheese has melted and browned a bit, remove the bread from the broiler/oven and top it with the tomato-basil mixture. A drizzle of balsamic vinegar adds a nice little zing, but that's just a “serving suggestion.” Serve warm or at room temperature.

As I said, you can top a bruschetta with just about anything. Prosciutto and mozzarella (or Parmesan) is good. (You know, ham and cheese?) A little smoked salmon, maybe, with some sour cream and capers? Heck, bruschetta is even a good vehicle for egg salad or grilled vegetables – think open-faced sandwich and go from there.

Here's something a little different: bruschetta with gorgonzola and honey. Prepare your basic plain bruschetta and top it with gorgonzola cheese instead of mozzarella. Melt the cheese as suggested and then drizzle the finished product with a little honey. Gorgonzola, arugula, and raisins are also a tasty option, especially with a little red wine vinaigrette.

If you're a fan of fungus, try some mushrooms. Cook up a batch of your favorites and slap 'em on top of the aforementioned toasted, oiled, salted bread.

A little white bean salad makes a great bruschetta topping as does tuna with a little lemon and some capers.

You can even make dessert bruschetta. In these instances, you will probably want to 86 the oil, garlic, and salt. Just toast up the bread and top it with Nutella. Or, if you feel fancy, mix some ricotta with powdered sugar, orange zest, and a pinch of salt. Spread the mixture on your toasted bread and finish with slices of orange and some shaved chocolate or mini chocolate chips.

Inspired yet? I am. Excuse me while I go heat up the broiler.

Buon appetito!