I haven’t yet made any plans to travel to Southern Italy this winter, but I can find plenty of great Italian cooking to enjoy in my own city. I can discover dishes from just about every region of the country, many of them Italian and homegrown chefs’ contemporary takes on Italian cooking. They are always worth tasting even when they don’t really succeed. My own cooking is strongly influenced by my travels to Southern Italy, but it’s also undeniably rooted in New York style. I’m strongly influenced by what I find at my greenmarket and by my continued samplings of dishes at Italian-inspired restaurants around town.
When I eat out I most often go to small neighborhood trattorias in the East or West Village and Lower Manhattan. Quality at these relatively modest places can range from superb to pretty good, and some of them offer one great dish in particular that keeps bringing me back. That’s certainly true of Gigino, in Tribeca, a place neighborhood people love for its friendly atmosphere and homey Italian cooking. They make one unusual pasta dish: spaghetti tossed with roasted beets, anchovies, and escarole. That may sound like an odd combination, but the blending of flavors works beautifully, and it is classic Southern Italian style to sneak a little anchovy into the sauce, not to introduce fishiness, but just to underscore both the sweetness and bitterness of the vegetables. I include on this Winter 2002 edition of my Web site, as part of a round-up of my own takes on some favorite dishes from Manhattan trattorias, my personal interpretation of that wonderful pasta.
Grano is another restaurant I salute in this round-up. It’s a storefront place on Greenwich Avenue in the West Village, run by Maurizio Crescenzo, a young chef from Salerno, a city below Naples in Campania. Maurizio is a hands-on chef who loves being at the stove, and he cooks from his heart, using only the Southern Italian flavors he grew up with. His pasta-with-fish dishes are always fragrant, and the fish always tender, which is not always the case in casual trattorias, where half the time dishwashers and prep boys with little instruction or desire to make a dish correctly fill in for the chefs. At Grano I almost always order a salad followed by a tagliatelle or other pasta with either calamari, shrimp, or lobster, generally simmered with tomato, white wine, and sometimes saffron and fresh herbs, some of the signature flavors of Southern Italian cooking. I especially love Maurizio’s winter salad of pears, ricotta salata, walnuts, and spinach, and that’s what I’ve prepared my version of for this Web site. Maurizio has an affection for the wines of his region and Southern Italy in general, and they are well represented on his wine list. I particularly like the Ciro Librandi Riserva Duca San Felice, a fruity but tannic red from Calabria, made with that region’s indigenous Gaglioppo grape.
Since I’ve wanted to expand my octopus repertoire, I’ve been ordering octopus whenever I see it on a menu. Le Zie, a trattoria on Seventh Avenue, in Chelsea, that serves Venetian food, offers a braised octopus with radicchio, tomato, and celery, ingredients that I wouldn’t have thought to combine. The vegetables are simmered together until soft and then topped with a whole, braised baby octopus. It’s a very good dish, with attractive bitter tones, but one I like even better is Le Zie’s warm potato-and-octopus salad. I haven’t seen it on the menu lately, but luckily my home version came out well. It was merely inspired by Le Zie’s version, not at all copied from it; mine is more a traditional salad dressed with a vinaigrette, while the restaurant’s is more stew-like.
New York City has but a handful of Sicilian restaurants, and the one I like best is a place on Fourth Avenue called Bussola. The restaurant has had several names and decorating themes over the years, but all apparently under the same owner (it was at one point called Briscola, after a Southern Italian card game that I can remember my grandfather’s friends all playing). Bussola has always served a fine pasta con le sarde, which is a hard dish to find done well in this town. One thing that hasn’t changed through Bussola’s makeovers is the appealingly sinister quality of its floor staff; another is its wonderful ricotta gelato, which I began duplicating at home after I first tasted it there many years ago, and which I share with you here.
I will continue to offer interpretations of New York trattoria dishes in future installments of my Web site. If you have any favorite dishes you’ve tasted and would like to recreate at home, please send them along to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And now about Christmas: Even as a child I was a fish lover, able to devour a whole tin of anchovies as an after-school snack, and Italian Christmas Eve, with its traditional plethora of fish dishes, was always my favorite holiday. It still is. I present for 2001 a contemporary Christmas Eve menu patterned after some of the meals I’ve prepared each year for friends and family. It’s a pared-down version of the traditional Southern Italian Christmas Eve feast, which can contain up to thirteen fish courses. My courses are different every year, but the rhythm of the meal is always essentially the same. I start with a cold fish salad, go on to a pasta or rice dish, usually with shellfish, and then serve a whole fish surrounded sometimes with vegetables such as radicchio or artichokes. I’ll close the meal with a Sicilian orange salad, to refresh the palate after so much seafood.
These winter dishes are my way of celebrating Manhattan style. I always find November and December the most exhilarating months in the city, and this year, despite the hideous assault New York recently sustained, the warmth and excitement have all returned. Happy cooking, happy trattoria dining, and a merry winter to you all.