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Eat at Gastronomia Norma

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I went searching for a good pasta con le sarde and discovered that there are only a handful of Sicilian restaurants in Manhattan. Most of them are only marginally Sicilian, and more pan–Southern Italian. I mentioned this lack in a recent post, and a reader wrote to ask if I had ever been to Gastronomia Norma. No. I had never even heard of it. He thought it was very good and said I should check it out. Well, it turned out to be a few blocks from my mother’s apartment, so I got to the lovely little place quickly, and I’d like to tell you about it.

On first take the restaurant looks like a slightly fancy pizza joint, but as I settled in and gazed around I noticed gorgeous pottery hanging on the wall, dark green and tan, a color scheme I recalled from buying similar pieces near Menfi, in the southwest of Sicily. I learned that the owner had brought the big plates from his hometown of Trapani. There are also wide-mouthed yellow ceramic pots, tall, dark green glass vases, and baskets. The espresso machine and the meat slicer are gorgeous and shiny. A lot of thought went into the ambiance and also, more important, into finding authentic ingredients, as I knew from my first bite of caponata. The man behind the food and the pretty décor is Salvatore Fraterrigo, a native Sicilian but one quite familiar with the New York restaurant world, having worked at Il Buco and at I Trulli, two excellent Italian places. He’s a lively and attentive host, even when the place gets crowded, and it does.

Gastronomia Norma is not a full-on restaurant. It offers no secondi. Pasta and pizza, both baked in the wood-burning oven, are the main things here. But there is also a selection of piccoli piatti, all classic Sicilian, including three types of arancine, Sicilian rice balls. The rice in the squid ink arancine is black as black can be, and the thing is filled with chopped shrimp and tomato. It had my name written all over it. My friend tried the eggplant-filled one, which was also delicious.  And you can get taglieri, excellent salumi and cheese platters, all fashioned from high-quality ingredients. I really liked the carpaccio di polipo, octopus cut prosciutto-thin and garnished with orange, fennel, and olives. The caponata was exactly right, with soft collapsed eggplant, whole green olives, and plenty of agro-dolce flavor. It came with grilled bruschetta brushed with olive oil. And speaking of olives, I loved the olive bowl, marinated in cinnamon and fennel, a combination that encapsulates what is special about Sicilian flavors.

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I hoped to find an eggplant and ricotta salata pizza, and there it was, the Norma. The eggplant was cooked dark and caramelized, making it especially appealing. The crust on all the pizzas has that yeasty, pully, bubbled up, lightly charred flavor and texture that I always look for but rarely find. For me a pizza place without an anchovy pizza is a sorry, sad place. No problem at Gastronomia Norma. It’s got two. The one with roasted cherry tomatoes and pecorino was my favorite, its anchovies first-rate Sicilian-packed. The pizza with mortadella and ricotta was also a knockout, and I loved the pizza with Italian tuna, black olives, and mozzarella, too.

You can enjoy the house-made porchetta in cabbuci, sandwiches made with Sicilian wood-fired rolls, or on pizzas or as a piccoli piatti. I had a cabbucio, of soft and fatty porchetta, provolone, and arugula, with a glass of rosato as my dinner one night, after visiting my mother down the block. And they make my all time favorite cabbucio, the cunsato, with tomatoes, anchovies, primo sale (very young pecorino), and olives, all soaked in good olive oil. I first tasted a cunsato in San Vito lo Capo, in northwestern Sicily, at a beach-side stand, and I went crazy for it. Good anchovies, of course, were a main draw, but the entire package was perfect. And here it is at Gastronomia Norma.

And Norma had what I wanted most of all, an excellent pasta con le sarde, made as a timballo and baked in the pizza oven. I was hesitant when the dark-crusted, impenetrable-looking dome came to my table. It had been fashioned in a mold and turned out onto the plate. How could it be anything but solid and dry? But when I broke it open, luscious spaghetti with all the expected aromas of fennel, sardine, and saffron came pouring out. Raisins and pine nuts were properly present. And it had lots of sardines, some of them almost puréed, some in big pieces. I was very happy with it.

The baked anelletti, with beef ragù and peas, came in a wide baking dish, its bottom lined with tender eggplant slices, its top crisp with breadcrumbs. It was also spot on. I had that with a glass of the house frappato, a light and really fresh-tasting wine made from a Sicilian grape. On another night I ordered a bottle of Cerasuola, a wine I first tasted in Sicily, a mix of frappato and Nero d’avola, fruity but deeply flavored, with, thankfully, no oak anywhere to be found.

I’ve yet to try the homemade sausage, or the saffron and ragù arancine, or the porchetta pizza, or the panelle, a fried chickpea pancake that’s Sicilian specialty. And there are many more Sicilian wines I’m aching to drink.

I will be back.

Gastronomia Norma is at 438 Third Avenue, between 30th and 31st Streets, in Manhattan. (212) 889-0600.

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Baked anelletti, in the back, their arancine con nero di seppia in the pretty white bowl, and glasses of frappato.

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Still Life with a Bowl of Peas, Valencian School.

If you’re behind on your Easter dinner planning and need a quick but traditional Italian verdura, this here is it, especially if you make it with frozen peas—no shelling involved, and in New York frozen is all we’ve got for now. I say this is traditional. Well, the peas, pancetta, and onion combo is classic, but I’ve added some other flavors to deepen and round out the taste experience. I include nutmeg, allspice, coriander seed, vermouth, and fresh mint. This makes a beautiful side for lamb or in an all-vegetable Easter table. You can even leave out the pancetta if you like, but it’s definitely better with it in. Frankly I’d be happy with just this one dish, some good bread, a few glasses of rosé wine, and a slice of pastiera for dessert. What more could one need?

Happy Easter to all my Italian cook friends.

Easter Peas with Pancetta, Onion, Mint, and Warm Spices

(Serves 4)

Extra-virgin olive oil
¼ pound pancetta, cut into small cubes
1 large Vidalia onion, cut into small dice
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
¼ teaspoon ground coriander seed
3 cups freshly shucked peas (or you can use frozen, thawed, and well drained)
¼ cup dry vermouth
¼ cup chicken broth
Salt
Black pepper
10 spearmint sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped

In a large skillet, heat about a tablespoon or so of olive oil over a medium flame. Add the pancetta, and sauté it until crisp but not too darkened. Add the onion and all the spices, and sauté until the onion has softened and everything is fragrant, about 3 minutes or so. Add the peas, and sauté for a minute. Add the vermouth, letting it bubble for a few seconds. Add the chicken broth, and cover the skillet, to allow the peas to cook through to just tender. Fresh peas will take about 4 minutes; the frozen ones go faster. When they’re almost tender, uncover the skillet to let some liquid evaporate. Season with a little salt (the pancetta is salty, so taste first) and black pepper.

Pour the peas with all their skillet juices into a wide serving bowl. Drizzle on a little fresh olive oil and scatter on the mint. Serve right away.

niccca7oise.jpgStill Life with Italian Tuna, by Caron Eastgate Dann.

Recipe below: Tonnato Crostini with Roasted Peppers and a Spring Herb Salad

I learned how to make vitello tonnato when I working at Le Madri restaurant many years back. An Italian cook named Matteo was ordered to teach me the tonnato part of the thing. He spoke only a few words of English, but my Italian was somewhat passable, so I thought we’d get on well enough. We started by making a simple maionese in the food processor, using egg yolks and olive oil. That went fine. Then he told me to add Italian tuna, anchovies, and capers, and then to “make liquid” the sauce with wine, veal cooking broth, and a little lemon juice. The smell was gorgeous. And it was familiar, too,  because my mother used to make a tonnato, but she used Hellmann’s, and its odd sweetly sharp taste came blasting through, despite all the anchovies and such. This was so much better.

So Matteo went off and left me to “make it perfetto.” After a bit of adjusting it seemed pretty perfetto to me, so I called him back for a taste. He tilted the food processor bowl toward him. He looked troubled. “More strong,” he said, and he walked away. Okay. So I added more anchovies, more capers, more lemon. He returned again, looked into the bowl, and now he was clearly pissed. He repeated “more strong,” but louder. So I began to add yet more capers. Then he kind of lost it. He screamed at me in Italian: I refused to follow directions, I did as I fuck pleased, and did I think I was the chef? Sweat dripped from his ears. He looked like he was going to hit me. It was getting very bad quickly. He called me “stupid” and then another word I didn’t understand. Finally the actual chef came over to see what the commotion was. Would I be fired over tonnato? I sure hoped not. I really liked this job. But we quickly got to the bottom of it. It turned out that to Matteo “more strong” meant thicker, not stronger in flavor. Had he just used the Italian word densa, I would have known what he wanted. Not altogether unsurprisingly, about a month later he got fired, after he broke his girlfriend’s arm. She was a timid Tuscan girl who waitressed at the restaurant. It looked like her nose had been broken too, from what I could see.

Despite my rocky introduction to constructing a tonnato, I love this sauce. It contains many of the elements of Italian cooking that are dear to my heart, olive oil to start with, and then anchovies and capers and lemon. It’s sea-tasting without being fishy. The olive oil comes through clearly. I like to use an oil that’s bright and golden and not too bitter. The sauce looks like mayonnaise, but there’s nothing too mayonnaisey about it. It’s great in its classic role, paired with thin-sliced poached veal for vitello tonnato, but it’s so good that sometimes I just whip up a bowl of it as a dip for pinzimonia, or raw vegetables. It’s especially good with fennel, celery, cucumber, and endive. It makes a nice pasta sauce, if you thin it with cooking water and maybe add pine nuts and arugula or fresh herbs like flat-leaf parsley. I’ve made stuffed eggs by mixing cooked yolks with tonnato sauce, basil, dill, and chopped cornichons. Delicious. I really like it with roasted sweet peppers, too. It reminds me of the red peppers filled with Italian tuna salad (meaning olives and capers included) that my mother occasionally made for company, before she decided it was outmoded. I’m hanging on to the flavor combination for this just-verging-on-spring salad. I hope you’ll enjoy it. You can even make vitello tonnato with it, if you want.

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Tonnato Crostini with Roasted Peppers and a Spring Herb Salad

(Serves 4)

For the tonnato sauce:

2 extra-large egg yolks, at room temperature
¾ cup extra-virgin olive (one that’s not too biting, maybe Sicilian rather than Tuscan; I like Ravidá and Olio Verde)
1 5-ounce can Italian tuna, packed in olive oil (I like the Flott and Toninno brands), drained and crumbled
1 tablespoon salt-packed capers, soaked in several changes of water for ½ hour and then drained, plus a palmful of soaked capers for garnish
3 anchovy fillets, rinsed and chopped
1 tablespoon dry vermouth
About ¼ cup chicken broth
Lemon juice
Salt
Black pepper

For the salad:

A handful of chives, cut into 1-inch lengths
A handful of tarragon sprigs
A handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves
About a dozen small basil leaves
A small head of frisée lettuce, torn into small pieces
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt
A big pinch of ground nutmeg
Black pepper

Plus:

1 roasted red pepper, peeled, seeded, and cut into strips
1 baguette, cut into rounds on an angle (three slices per serving)

Put the egg yolks in the bowl of a food processor, and pulse until they’re pale yellow, about a minute or so. Start adding the olive oil in a very thin stream. When it looks like it’s catching (getting thick), start adding it a little faster. When the oil is all used up, your mayonnaise should be quite thick.

Now add the tuna, anchovies, capers, and vermouth, and pulse until everything is fairly smooth. Add enough chicken broth to loosen it all to a still thick but verging-on-pourable sauce (start with a tablespoon, which may be all you need). Season with lemon juice, salt, and black pepper, and give it a final pulse. Pour it into a bowl, and leave it at room temperature. It will set up a bit.

Place all the herbs and lettuce in a bowl.

Toast the bread rounds on both sides.

Add the lemon juice and olive oil to the salad, and season it with salt, black pepper, and the nutmeg. Toss it gently.

Divide the salad onto four plates. Spoon some tonnato sauce onto each slice of toast. Top with a few slices of roasted pepper. Place three crostini around each salad. Garnish the crostini with the extra capers, and give them all a drizzle of fresh olive oil.

Women with Fish

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I am not jealous
of what came before me.

Come with a man
on your shoulders,
come with a hundred men in your hair,
come with a thousand men between your breasts and your feet,
come like a river full of drowned men
which flows down to the wild sea,
to the eternal surf, to Time!

Bring them all
to where I am waiting for you;
we shall always be alone,
we shall always be you and I alone on earth
to start our life!

 

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Still Life with Sardines, by Abad.

Recipe below: Bucatini con le Sarde a Mare

There used to be Sicilian restaurant called Siracusa in downtown Manhattan that closed about ten years ago, and I still think about its ricotta gelato and the escarole torta. They also made a traditional pasta con le sarde (a waiter once told me the chef talked to the fish). It was the only place in town I could get it, and there were times back then when I really needed it, as I still do now. It was put together with devotion, all the flavors—saffron, fennel, raisins, pine nuts—in place. The purveyors even managed to track down wild fennel. Some nights the dish was great, some good, others not so good. It all depended on the freshness of the sardines.

There are only a handful of eating places in New York now that advertise themselves as Sicilian. Cacio e Vino in the East Village is one. They make a great caponata served with panelle, the fried chickpea pancakes that are traditional to the  island. I also love their pasta with cuttlefish ink, with its shiny, slick look. When a recent craving for pasta con le sarde hit me,  I went back to this cozy place and ordered a bowl. In fact, I went back three times in two weeks to taste it. They know what they’re doing, even down to the scattering of breadcrumbs and the al dente bucatini. On my first try the sardines were quite fresh, and all the flavors came together in a sweet and savory way. I could taste the saffron, an expensive touch restaurants often leave out. Another time the same dish had a fishy, oily taste, probably the difference between just delivered and day-old (or two-day-old) sardines. That’s the fragility of these little fish.

Many food people will tell you that you can’t transport authenticity. I don’t find that to be true in New York. With the ingredients we have access to, and a dedicated, often native-born chef, I’ve had dishes that were almost identical in taste, and certainly in spirit, to ones I’d had in Italy. But I’ve found that New York’s sardines can make or break a dish. I see them all the time now in my markets, but they’re never as fresh as what I’ve had in Palermo. The oil-packed fish goes off quickly, so if you don’t catch its freshness fast, it’s not going to sing to you. It quickly turns to garbage. The sardines I see in my markets either come from Portugal or are brought down from Rhode Island (that’s what the fish sellers tell me, so I believe them). So these fish have already been on some journey by the time they reach the market, and it’s hard to say what class they traveled. It could have been coach, or even steerage. What I do now is call my fish shop and ask when the sardines will arrive (at Citarella it’s often Thursday). That way I can at least get them at their best.

When I have a need to cook up a batch of pasta con le sarde but my market says to wait for a better opportunity, I turn to Bucatini con le Sarde a Mare, where the sardines are left in the sea. It’s a real cucina povera dish and a good one. It has all the flavors of pasta con sarde, but with one big ingredient missing. Here’s my version of this traditional pasta.

Bucatini con le Sarde a Mare

(Serves 3 as a first course)

12 salt packed anchovies
Extra-virgin olive oil
¾ cup homemade breadcrumbs, not too finely ground
Salt
½ teaspoon sugar
¾ pound bucatini
1 large Vidalia onion, cut into small dice
1 medium fennel bulb, cut into small dice, plus its fronds, lightly chopped (find one with a lot of fronds, if you can)
½ teaspoon fennel pollen
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

⅓ cup golden raisins, soaked in ⅓ cup dry vermouth
A big pinch of saffron, dried, ground, and soaked in about ¼ cup hot water
⅓ cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
Coarsely ground black pepper
About 5 or 6 large dill sprigs, chopped

Rinse the anchovies in cool water to remove salt. Run your finger down the backbone of each fish to pull off the fillets.  Soak the fillets in several changes of cool water for about 20 minutes to remove interior salt. Pat them dry and then put them in a small bowl, drizzling a bit of good olive oil over the top.

Heat a tablespoon or so of olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. When hot, add the breadcrumbs, and sauté until just turning golden and crisp, about 2 minutes. Add salt and the sugar, and stir it in. Pour the crumbs into a small bowl, and set aside.

Set up a large pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil. Add a good amount of salt, and drop in the bucatini.

Pour about 2 tablespoons of olive oil into a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onion and the fennel, and sauté until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the fennel pollen and the garlic, and sauté a minute longer.

Chop the anchovies and add them to the pan, stirring them around to warm through.

Add the raisins with their soaking liquid, the saffron water, and the pine nuts. Season with black pepper and a little salt.

When the bucatini is al dente, drain it, saving about a cup of the cooking water, and place it in a warmed pasta bowl.

Add the anchovy sauce along with about 2 tablespoons of fresh olive oil. Add the fennel fronds and dill. Grind in a bit more black pepper, and give it all a toss, adding enough cooking water to help form a light sauce that coats the strands of pasta lightly. Serve right away, with a generous sprinkling of breadcrumbs on top of each serving.

Shopping for Food

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Recipe below: Penne with Peas, Ricotta, Pancetta, and Mint

I often shop for food at Westside Market, mainly because it’s two blocks from my Manhattan apartment. It’s no gourmet store, but they have decent pasta, an okay cheese department, and good produce. Their broccoli rabe and escarole is consistently crisp and deep green. I almost always throw one or the other into my cart, along with fresh herbs like basil, flat leaf parsley, or marjoram. I grab an Arthur Avenue mozzarella. Anyone spying my cart will probably guess that I’ll be cooking something Italianish.

Spying into other people’s shopping carts is a pastime of mine. It started out as a search for like-minded shoppers, with carts full of, say, cavatelli, sweet peppers, chicory, soppressata, and other obviously Italian stuff. But it slowly branched out, becoming a preoccupation that led me to observe all types of shoppers. I’ve witnessed many eccentric, disgusting, seemingly haphazard, or just hard-to-pin-down food choices over the years.

In the last two weeks I’ve zeroed in on a few interesting carts. I saw a chignoned elderly woman pick up two packages of sliced American cheese, a tub of crème fraîche, a wedge of Roquefort, a very large chunk of Swiss, an over-the-hill piece of brie, four packages of various crackers—one was Triscuits, one an Italian flatbread flavored with rosemary—chicken livers, chicken sausages with parmigian, chicken legs, chicken thighs, chicken cutlets, chicken wings. What was driving her pursuit of all this chicken and cheese? At this point I’m assuming she lives alone. Who would put up with a diet like this? And the big-bellied guy with a cart filled with bags of lemons, limes, and oranges, well, he’s, I don’t know, maybe a bartender? Then last week there was Sally Field at checkout. I thought I knew all the celebs in the neighborhood. I had no idea she was so petite. But she looks just like she did in The Flying Nun, only drier. I wish I’d seen what was in her cart. Looked like red leaf lettuce sticking out of her shopping bag, but that didn’t tell me much. What a missed opportunity.

And there’s that frozen food man again, with his polished bald head, handsome Roman profile, and weirdly long shoes. His looks are captivating, but what’s in his shopping cart interested me more. I’ve noticed that most people who buy a lot of frozen stuff are usually going for full meals, such as Amy’s Tamale Verde or Chicken Tikka Masala (I’ve never tried those, but people buy them). But my frozen food man only buys individually packaged items like frozen peas (so many people go for them), corn kernels, broccoli, and pearl onions (the only use I know for them is in boeuf bourguignon), and this week, frozen artichoke hearts (I never knew they even existed), frozen pizza dough, and frozen bake-your-own baguettes. What does this mean? I guess it means that the man is cooking, not just heating things up. But, where’s the meat?  And if he’s actually preparing meals, why not buy fresh vegetables? I’m thinking since he shops so often and always buys frozen, possibly he’s a hoarder. But how can anyone keep all that stuff in a city-size freezer?

Yesterday I went to Westside Market and wandered around in a daze, with a blank head, trying to figure out what to make for dinner. I was hoping to find an Italian food shopper to inspire me (like the woman I saw a few days back with all the prosciutto and cremini mushrooms), but the only people who held my interest, and not in a positive way, were two possibly Parsons Design students, one with a half shaved head, vegans I’m assuming, dropping depressing stuff into their hand basket: two tubs of very compact looking hummus (since when is hummus bright red?), lentil veggie patties, shrink-wrapped falafel, a few bags of those gummy fish things, organic potato chips with sea salt, and packages of precut carrot sticks, beet chunks, cauliflower florets, diced onion, all looking lifeless (who the hell buys precut onion?). What a bring-down that was.

I still didn’t have a clue about dinner, but I thought about the handsome bald hoarder and decided to grab a bag of frozen peas. I hadn’t used them in a while. In February, they’re not a bad choice. And then the peas got me thinking about a pasta dish from my childhood. My mother often made penne with frozen peas, prosciutto, and cream. She called it “Northern-style,” I guess because of the cream and lack of tomatoes. So with that flavor memory in mind, I decided to do a variation on the theme. I marched through the aisles with new purpose, picking up whole milk ricotta, a chunk of pancetta, a few lemons, an onion (a whole one, with the skin on it), a bunch of nice looking mint, a wedge of so so caciocavallo, a few bottles of seltzer, a bag of penne, a Lindt almond chocolate bar, a fresh bottle of California Olive Ranch olive oil (my current favorite), and, of course, my frozen peas. I wonder if anyone was looking at my cart and thinking, what is she making for dinner?

Penne with Peas, Ricotta, Pancetta, and Mint

(Serves 3)

Salt
A heaping cup of whole milk ricotta
A drizzle of cream
About ¼ cup grated caciocavallo cheese
The grated zest from 1 small lemon
A few big gratings of nutmeg
Coarsely ground black pepper
¾ pound penne
Extra-virgin olive oil
¼ pound pancetta, cut into small cubes (buy it in one thick chunk, not slices, so you can cut in into cubes)
1 small onion, diced
A cup or so of frozen peas, thawed
A big splash of dry vermouth
½ cup chicken broth
5 large sprigs fresh mint, leaves lightly chopped

Fill a pasta pot with water, and bring it to a boil. Add a generous amount of salt.

While the water is heating, warm a pasta bowl, and add the ricotta, the drizzle of cream, the caciocavallo, lemon zest, a few generous scrapings of nutmeg, a good amount of coarsely ground black pepper, and a little salt. Give it all a mix.

Drop the penne into the water.

In a large sauté pan, heat about a tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat. Add the pancetta, and sauté until crisp. Add the onion, and let it soften, about 2 minutes. Add the peas, and give them a stir. Add the splash of vermouth, and let it boil away. Add the chicken broth, and simmer until the peas are tender, about another 2 minutes. You should have some liquid left in the pan.

When the penne is al dente, drain it, saving about ½ cup of the cooking water.

Add the penne to the ricotta bowl. Now pour on the peas and pancetta mixture, with all its pan liquid. Add the mint and a drizzle of fresh olive oil, and give everything a toss, adding a little pasta cooking water if you need it to form a creamy sauce. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt if needed. Serve right away.

Women with Fish

phoebe_with_fish

My niece Maria has a complicated relationship with God.

 

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