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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, November 23, 2016

Fazoli's: As Italian As Hot Dogs And Apple Pie

“Fast. Fresh. Italian.” Two Out Of Three Ain't Bad

To start with, I actually kind of like Fazoli's. I realize “actually kind of like” is not exactly a ringing endorsement, but it could be worse. The chain's current advertising hook is “Fast. Fresh. Italian.” To which I say, “Okay, two out of three ain't bad.” I say this because Fazoli's is about as Italian as hot dogs and apple pie. It's the American ideal of an Italian eatery, which is to say it's not very Italian at all.

Founded in 1988 in the cultural hotbed of Italian-ism that is Lexington, Kentucky, Fazoli's was a forerunner in the concept of fast Italian. Originally conceived as a pizza joint, it took Kuni Toyoda, a Japanese entrepreneur, to establish the format and menu as we now know it. Toyoda realized that the world didn't really need yet another pizza chain, but that there was a definite niche for fast-food-style pasta dishes. The early, pre-Toyoda pasta offerings were fairly dreadful: small portions of badly overcooked noodles. Toyoda was instrumental in (marginally) improving the quality of the pasta and increasing the portion size. Soon Fazoli's locations were springing up like dandelions. By the late 1990s, Fazoli's had become one of the most popular and fastest growing restaurant concepts in the country. It currently operates or franchises more than 320 restaurants in 27 states and is looking to expand overseas. The chain's appeal is driven by people searching for alternatives to the standard McDonald's/Burger King fast-food menu of burgers and fries. You've got to admit, nobody else is serving up fast-food spaghetti.

Fazoli's current menu consists of what it considers to be “classic Italian” dishes. Things like Chicken Parmigiano, Penne with Creamy Basil Chicken, Chicken Broccoli Penne, Ultimate (Chicken) Fettuccine, Three-Cheese Tortellini Alfredo, and Baked Spaghetti. And then there are the signature “Submarinos” sandwiches, featuring the likes of Turkey Mozzarella Fresco and Turkey Club Classico. Fazoli's also offers pizza, salads, desserts and, of course, unlimited garlic bread sticks. The problem here is that there's not a single authentic Italian item in the bunch. Everything is Italian-American at best and stuff made up to sound Italian at worst. For some reason, Americans just don't jibe with the idea that Italians don't put chicken in their pasta. In fact, Italians aren't much for mixing any kind of meat in with their pasta. You won't find anything “Alfredo” on an authentic Italian menu, and while turkey is a popular sandwich meat in Italy, piling it high on a toasted garlic sandwich roll with lettuce, bacon, mozzarella, and Parmesan peppercorn ranch dressing is anything but “classico.”

To add insult to injury, the few real Italian offerings on the menu are served up American-style. Dining at the Shallowford Road location in Chattanooga, Tennessee the other day, I ordered a simple spaghetti marinara. Now, they don't actually do spaghetti “marinara” in Italy: it's spaghetti al pomodoro, but I don't want to nitpick.....much. What I got was a heaping plate of bland spaghetti with a lot of red sauce dumped over the top. Sorry, that's not Italian. It may be what Americans have been conditioned to expect, but it's simply not Italian. Kuni Toyoda may have made inroads into introducing pasta cooked al dente, but he didn't quite get there and he definitely didn't do anything about the pasta's flavor – or lack thereof. Pasta has to be cooked in aggressively salted water in order to achieve any flavor of its own. Otherwise, it's bland and flavorless. And once it's been cooked, you can't dump enough salt on bland, flavorless pasta to make it taste anything other than salty. I know. I tried.

On the plus side, the tomato sauce with which they top the pasta isn't bad. The texture is good and the flavor is acceptable for the commercial sauce that it is. If only they would prepare the dish in the traditional Italian manner of finishing the cooked pasta in the sauce rather than just dumping the sauce over the top of the pasta. Cooking the pasta in the sauce for a final minute or two allows the flavors to marry and mingle. Ladling the sauce over the top of the cooked pasta does nothing for either element. But again, it's what American diners expect. I've had one or two customers in my restaurants object to “having it all mixed up.” To them I say, “What does this place look like, Fazoli's?”

Something to which I object is gargantuan portions. I had the hardest time breaking my cooks of the habit of piling enough pasta to feed an entire Italian family onto a plate being served to just one person. Kuni Toyoda succeeded in getting Fazoli's to Americanize their portion sizes. Neither my wife nor I could get anywhere near finishing the portions on our plates. And since we were traveling and boxing up leftovers was not a viable option, the food just went shamefully to waste. But to be fair, Fazoli's only provided us with twice as much food as we could eat. I've been in “Italian” places where I've been served three or four times what I'm capable of consuming – and I'm capable of consuming quite a lot. So Fazoli's is not bad by comparison.

And that's why I say I “actually kind of like” Fazoli's. Despite the advertising claims, it's not “classic” Italian. But it is pretty decent “Italian-ish” or Italian-American. The prices are very reasonable, the portions, while oversized, are not staggering, and the food is largely inoffensive. Service is very fast and generally friendly, two elements upon which Fazoli's prides itself. Fazoli's offers table service, another plus above the common fast-food experience. Much of the food is served on real plates with real metal flatware instead of paper plates and plastic sporks. The atmosphere is pleasant and unpretentious and the restaurants are usually pretty clean. Okay, maybe a little Dean Martin on the radio might have added to the ambiance better than Megadeth or whatever it was they were playing when I was there, but, hey, I'm old. What do I know? All and all, non c'è male.

Among the fast-food gamut of hockey-puck hamburgers, greasy chicken, unpalatable fish, and whatever the hell they put in those tacos, even mediocre Italian looks pretty good. So, if you are out and about and just can't stomach the thought of another anemic, run-of-the-mill burger, don't look for golden arches, look instead for a big tomato in the sky. Try Fazoli's and you might “actually kind of like” it, too.

Locations nationwide.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Add An Italian Touch To Thanksgiving

Pigging Out On Turkey Is Not An Italian Tradition

Thanksgiving is not a thing in Italy. Italy has festivals of thanksgiving scattered around the calendar honoring various saints, but a day set aside strictly to pig out on turkey and watch football is not an Italian tradition. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find a whole turkey in an Italian market. Thanksgiving might be observed in the homes of American expats, but American visitors in Italy looking for a traditional holiday meal on the fourth Thursday of November can only hope to luck upon a tourist restaurant serving a close approximation of a Thanksgiving dinner. No, Thanksgiving as we know it is an American-born and bred holiday. But that doesn't mean you can't throw in a few Italian touches.

Most Italians living in the United States have given themselves over to the lure of a big “turkey and all the trimmings” family meal. Most Italian-American families also celebrate the day with a traditional turkey dinner. But both frequently add some recipes with an Italian flair. My family does turkey and trimmings. In fact, by the time I've made the rounds of family and friends over the course of several days, I've usually wound up cooking and serving three or four turkeys and tons of trimmings. I've known some Italians who roast the turkey with Italian herbs and spices. Okay, but not for me. I go with more traditional American tastes for my bird. But I will occasionally “Italian-ize” a few sides. For example:

ITALIAN SAUSAGE STUFFING

Here's what you'll need:

1 loaf Italian bread, preferably day old, cut into 1-inch cubes *
2 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
6 mild Italian sausage links, casings removed
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 large white onion, diced
4 celery stalks, diced
Salt and pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, sage, and rosemary, finely chopped
Fresh parsley for garnish, optional
*(Otherwise, cut up fresher bread and oven dry it)

And here's what you do:

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place the cubed bread in a bowl and set it aside. Pour the chicken broth into a small saucepan and warm it over medium low heat.

In a large oven-safe skillet over medium heat, add the sausage, breaking it up with a wooden spoon or spatula, and cook until browned, about 10 minutes. Remove the sausage with a slotted spoon and transfer it to a paper towel-lined plate. Pour off all but a couple of teaspoons of the rendered fat.
Add olive oil, butter, onion, and celery, and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and translucent, 5 to 7 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add garlic and sauté for an additional minute.

Turn off the heat and add the sausage back into the skillet. Then add the bread and herbs, stirring carefully to combine. Add the warm broth 1/2 cup at a time, stirring to incorporate, until all the liquid is absorbed by the bread. Season with salt and pepper.

Transfer your oven-safe skillet to the preheated oven. (If your pan is not oven-safe, transfer the stuffing mixture to a large baking dish.) Bake until the stuffing is slightly browned and crispy on top but not entirely dry, 25 to 30 minutes. Top with fresh parsley, if using. Serve warm.

Yields 6 servings

Mashed potatoes are a Thanksgiving staple, right? Well.........not always. I introduced my in-laws to fondant potatoes one year and that preparation became the new “go to” potato dish for several holidays to follow. And roasted potatoes are always a hit, especially when you give them an Italian twist.

PARMESAN AND HERB ROASTED POTATOES

Here's what you need:

3 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes (or your favorite roasting potato), cut into wedges
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon Italian seasoning
2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1 teaspoon pepper, or to taste
1/3 cup fresh Parmesan cheese, finely grated
2 tablespoons fresh parsley leaves, chopped

Here's what you do:

Preheat oven to 400°F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil for easier cleanup. Place the potatoes in a large bowl, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with Italian seasoning, garlic powder, salt, and pepper. Toss the potatoes to coat evenly. Transfer to the prepared baking sheet and drizzle with any remaining oil and seasonings from the bowl. Bake for about 10 minutes. (Baking briefly before adding the cheese ensures the potatoes will cook through before the cheese burns.)

Remove pan from the oven, evenly sprinkle with the Parmesan, and bake for another 25 to 30 minutes, or until lightly golden brown, fork-tender, and done.

Garnish with parsley before serving. Serve warm.

Serves 4 to 6

For another taste of fall with an Italian flavor, try:

BUTTERNUT SQUASH SOUP WITH PANCETTA

Here's what you need:

2 medium butternut squash
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
6 very thin slices of pancetta
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
4 thyme sprigs
1 bay leaf
2 quarts low-sodium chicken broth
2 tablespoons heavy cream
Sugar (optional)

Here's what you do:

Preheat the oven to 400°. Halve the squash lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Set the squash on a rimmed baking sheet, cut sides up. Put a piece of butter in each cavity and season generously with salt and pepper. Drape the squash halves with the pancetta slices. Roast the squash for 45 to 50 minutes, or until tender.

Transfer the pancetta to paper towels to drain. Crumble and set aside. Scoop the squash flesh out of the skins into a bowl.

In a large, heavy stockpot, heat the 2 tablespoons of olive oil until shimmering. Add the onion, season with salt and pepper and cook over medium high heat, stirring, until softened but not browned, about 6 minutes. Add 2 of the thyme sprigs and the bay leaf. Stir in the squash and the broth and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring frequently. Reduce the heat and simmer the soup for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Discard the thyme sprigs and bay leaf. Working in batches, transfer the soup to a blender or food processor and puree until thick and creamy-smooth, about 1 minute per batch. (You can also do this with an immersion blender) Transfer the soup to a clean saucepan. Stir in the heavy cream and season with salt and pepper (and sugar, if desired).

Ladle into 6 bowls. Garnish the soup with the crisp pancetta, the leaves from the remaining 2 thyme sprigs, and a drizzle of olive oil. Serve warm.

Serves 6

Buon appetito e felice giorno del Ringraziamento!

Friday, November 4, 2016

The Real Way Real Italians Make Spaghetti

Italians Are The Masters Of Spaghetti

Can there be any doubt Italians are the masters of spaghetti? Even discounting the old “Marco Polo” myth foisted off on a gullible American public in the 1920s by a pasta industry magazine, Italians have been cooking and eating the stuff for centuries. There are hundreds of pasta forms and shapes and thousands of permutations on preparation. There are also a great number of perversions that will never be found anywhere except in Italian-American restaurants in the United States or in a trappola per turisti somewhere on the Italian peninsula. Such dishes include spaghetti and meatballs, spaghetti Bolognese, and fettuccine Alfredo. While these may be Italian-ish, Italian-style, or Italian inspired, they are not something real Italians would ever make.

Nobody can point to a plate of pasta and say, “This is how Italians make spaghetti,” because there are limitless variations according to region, province, town, and even street within a town and individual homes on those streets. That said, there are a few basic techniques that transcend boundaries; things everybody does regardless of region, etc. Perhaps the most basic spaghetti preparation, especially in the southern regions of Italy, is spaghetti al pomodoro; plain old spaghetti in tomato sauce.

I mentioned “perversions” in the opening paragraph. I don't care what your local “Italian” restaurant serves on it's “authentic” menu, real Italians don't do spaghetti and meatballs. Period. No further discussion required. Anywhere in Italy, you can order spaghetti al pomodoro and you can order meatballs. You just can't order them together. Spaghetti is a primo and meatballs are a secondo and never the twain shall meet.

Another example would be spaghetti with meat sauce. Okay, there are abundant meat sauces in Italy. They are called ragù and they are wonderfully flavorful, long-cooking sauces usually comprised of meats other than the American standard ground beef. Real Italian cooks wouldn't know what to do with a jar of tomato sauce and a pound of hamburger. And even if they did, they likely wouldn't serve it with spaghetti, preferring to use a flat noodle like pappardelle or tagliatelle or to incorporate the sauce with penne or another tube pasta. The kind of spaghetti with meat sauce served in the US just isn't a thing.

No, most of the time, if you order spaghetti in Italy, it's going to be spaghetti al pomodoro. And it won't be served in the manner you've come to expect in “Italian” restaurants.

My most recent restaurant venture was not an Italian place. I spent a few months helping out a friend who had a struggling little diner. The diner occasionally ran “spaghetti specials” on weekends, and I kept it on the menu when I took over. But I insisted on a twist: there would be no more piling up heaps of naked, under-seasoned, overcooked spaghetti on a plate and dousing it with quarts of runny red sauce. It would be cooked my way – usually by me personally. And it was advertised as “Italian-style spaghetti.”

It was quite a departure for my cooks. I threw out the first batch of pasta one of them prepared in my absence. It was absolutely bland and flavorless. I asked the guy how he had cooked it and he told me he had put the spaghetti in some boiling water with a little oil. After cringing about the oil, I said, “No salt?” “Well, yeah......a little bit.” “How much is 'a little bit'?” “I dunno. A good pinch, I guess.” “Throw it out. We're starting over.” And I proceeded to dump salt into the boiling water before his widening eyes until it got where it needed to be. I handed him a tasting spoon. “Taste the water,” I instructed. “Tastes like salt water,” he said. “Bingo! And that's how I want it to taste every time. And no oil, okay?”

I explained to him how pasta needs lots of room and lots of water to keep from sticking. No oil necessary. All that yields is greasy pasta to which sauce does not adhere. And I informed him as to how pasta releases starch and takes on flavor during the cooking process. That's why generous amounts of salt are essential in the cooking. It's the only chance pasta gets to develop flavor. You can't add salt to badly cooked pasta and get good flavor. All you'll ever get are salty noodles. I had saved a few strands of what he had cooked. I had him taste and compare it to mine. He was amazed at the difference and said, “I'm gonna start making it that way at home.” That's my mission: converting one cook at a time.

The cooks were also accustomed to holding the cooked pasta on a steam table all day. I put a quick stop to that practice, too. After a fairly short time under those conditions, pasta becomes so bloated and mushy that only an American would eat it. Sorry. It's true. The American palate is so adjusted to the texture of Spaghetti-Os that most Americans don't find anything wrong with overcooked spaghetti. I kept a pot of water boiling on a back burner all day. During the lunch and dinner rushes, I bowed to the necessity of par cooking some spaghetti, holding it in a reach in, and dropping it back in the water on order. Otherwise, we made it fresh from package to plate. Whichever way we did it, the spaghetti was always cooked to just short of al dente and then finished in the sauce, another radical departure for non-Italian cooks.

Again, during peak times, I kept sauce simmering on the stove. Off-peak, we pulled it out of the reach in and heated it up. The best way, the only way, the real way real Italians make real spaghetti is by finishing it in the sauce. Only by cooking for a couple of minutes in the sauce itself will the pasta really achieve any depth of flavor. Otherwise, the pasta and the sauce are like an old married couple sitting in the same room but not really communicating, you know? They're both just kind of.....there. A perfect plate of Italian spaghetti can only come about when perfectly cooked pasta is simmered in perfectly made sauce and then served lightly dressed in a perfectly warmed bowl. Just as the greens are the “star” of your salad while the dressing is merely a condiment, so the pasta should be the “star” on the plate, complimented, not overcome, by the sauce. If you're left with puddles of dressing in the bottom of your salad bowl, you've overdressed your salad. If you're left with puddles of sauce in the bottom of your pasta bowl, you've oversauced your pasta. And no way would I ever, ever just slap a glop of sauce on top of a pile of noodles and call it a spaghetti plate. My Italian ancestors would all take turns coming back to haunt me.

Out of dozens of “specials” I served to the diner crowd – people expecting diner fare rather than real Italian cooking – I only got one complaint from a grouchy asshat who was in a bad mood anyway. “Looks like yesterday's leftovers,” was his enlightened comment. Otherwise, the response was tremendous. We developed “regulars” for the spaghetti. One lady, who came in on Friday and came back for seconds on Saturday – asked if she could buy some of the sauce to take home. Another customer said we beat every Italian restaurant in a fifty mile radius. It's amazing how good plain, simple spaghetti can be when properly prepared.

And here's how to properly prepare it at home:

SPAGHETTI AL POMODORO
(Spaghetti with Tomato Sauce)

Ingredients:

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, minced
2 or 3 cloves garlic, minced
pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
1 (28 oz) can San Marzano tomatoes, whole; (pomodori pelati)
kosher salt
fresh basil leaves, torn
sea salt, for cooking pasta
12 oz spaghetti
2 tbsp unsalted butter, cubed
1 /4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano

Method:

Begin by crushing the whole tomatoes, preferably by hand. If you want a chunkier sauce, this is where you stop. If a smoother sauce is desired, puree the crushed tomatoes in a blender or by using an immersion blender.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the minced onion and a pinch of kosher salt and cook, stirring, until soft, 4 or 5 minutes. Add the minced garlic and cook 1 or 2 minutes more. Don't allow the garlic to brown, or it will become bitter. Add the red pepper flakes and cook, stirring, for an additional minute.

Increase the heat to medium and add in the crushed or pureed tomatoes. Season lightly with kosher salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens slightly, about 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and add in the torn basil leaves. Set aside.

Meanwhile, bring 4 or 5 quarts of water to a boil and add 2 or 3 tablespoons of sea salt. Cook the spaghetti to just short of al dente. Drain, reserving about 1/2 cup of cooking water.

Discard the basil and return the sauce to the heat. Stir in a little pasta water to loosen the sauce and bring it to a low boil. Add the cooked pasta to the pan with the sauce and continue cooking for about 2 minutes, stirring to thoroughly coat the pasta with sauce.

Remove from the heat and add the butter and the cheese. Toss gently until the cheese melts.

Transfer to warmed bowls and serve.

Serves 4

Now that's Italian! Buon appetito!