The Calabria Pork Store, on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx.
Recipe: Fresh Shell Bean Antipasto
A few days ago I took a trip to Scarsdale, New York, with Oliver, my 87-year-old father in law, to see a house he had lived in as a child but hadn’t seen since 1937. We pulled up unannounced. Oliver had a browned photo of himself and his parents on the doorstep for proof of past occupancy. He rang the gate buzzer (they didn’t have electronically controlled gates like that when he lived there, of course), and the lady of the house answered. She was really nice, not at all hesitant or suspicious, I guess because he’s so old and didn’t look particularly nuts or anything. I played with their excited King Charles spaniel while Oliver filled the lady in on what the house used to look like three quarters of a century ago and more or less kept to himself any feelings he may have had about the many renovations since.
From his point of view it was a successful excursion back in time, although he was surprisingly pulled together, even unemotional, I thought. (I guess I expected a few tears.) Even so, we did require a reality check afterward, so we made our way down to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx for pizza and some therapeutic Italian food shopping. Saturday on Arthur Avenue is a lovely scene.
I hadn’t been there in a year or so. The stores seemed better stocked and more fun than ever. After a pizza topped with slightly stiff calamari and a few glasses of sour Pinot Grigio at the place next to Dominick’s that I always forget the name of but always wind up in, I headed straight for the Calabria Pork Store. What an exquisite, overwhelming perfume that little place has. I picked up one of their house-made soppressata sausages, which I really love because they’re not too hard and are studded with lots of good-looking white fat and give off a subtle nutmeg aroma.
My sister, Liti, requested that I pick her up a jar of lupini beans, those rubbery, salty, yellow things that my father used to suck on and then spit out the skins all over the lawn. I headed into the indoor market, where I knew I would find the lupinis, and was immediately hit by the sweetest nostalgia. It directed me to grab a lot of other things as well—a jar of hot, vinegary cherry peppers, so great for adding a Southern Italian jolt to just about anything, a big balloon-shaped caciocavallo that smelled like well-salted butter, another dried salami (a short fat cacciatorino), a bag of rosemary taralli, a bag of those tasteless but oh so nostalgically important friselle biscuits that my mother always bought to accompany zuppa di pesce, a few packs of Italian seeds so I could try and grow cipolla tropeana lunga, a bullet-shaped red onion from Calabria, and an apron that reads IT’S HARD TO BE HUMBLE WHEN YOU’RE SICILIAN (a slightly embarrassing purchase, but I got over that quickly enough). Oh, and I purchased a pound of beautiful pink and white fresh cranberry beans. I could have gone on and on, but somehow all of a sudden Oliver seemed to be ready to get out of there.
When I got home I knew I needed to create something with real old-time flavor. I certainly had all the components. I put together a kind of retro antipasto, something that I know my grandfather, wop lover of pork fat, hot chilis, and vinegar that he was, would have highly approved of. Nick, this one’s for you.
Fresh Shell Bean Antipasto
(Serves 4 as an antipasto offering)
1 fresh bay leaf
1 pound fresh shell beans (cranberry or whatever looks freshest to you)
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon Spanish sherry vinegar
½ cup caciocavallo, cut into small dice
½ cup soppressata, cut into small dice
A handful of celery leaves
About 5 thyme sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
2 thin slices red onion, cut into small dice
10 cherry tomatoes, quartered
1 hot cherry pepper from a jar, seeded and minced
Shell the beans. Set up a pot of water, drop in the bay leaf, and bring the water to a boil. Add some salt, and drop in the beans. Turn the heat down to a low bubble, and simmer until the beans are just tender to the bite, about 20 minutes. Add more water if at any time the beans aren’t covered by about 2 inches of water.
Drain the beans, and put them in a shallow serving bowl (you’ll notice they will have lost their nice pink stripes, but even in their beigeness they still taste amazing). Season them with a little more salt, and drizzle on the olive oil and the sherry vinegar. Give them a good toss. The beans’ heat will help them soak up all the dressing. Now add all the other ingredients, and toss gently. Let sit for about ½ hour before serving to develop really good flavor.