Night squid fishing off Procida.
Recipe below: Cavatelli with Calamari, Escarole, and Almond Breadcrumbs
Donald Trump probably thinks one element of Italian-American life is pretty great—all those stereotyped mob thugs, dead, alive, fictional, lurking about, their threats, the bloodshed, the heinous business deals, all hyped on TV and in the movies. I imagine that’s the only side of my heritage that would appeal to him. When I think about this unsocialized man, I want to hold tighter to the culture, art, and beauty I grew up with. My Southern Italian grandparents were the Mexicans of their day, some of my father’s family even sneaking into the country illegally. And of course, when I reflect on my rich ancestry, I zero right in on their gorgeous cooking, making dishes Donald, with his infantile tastes, wouldn’t even consider food. Can you imagine him sitting down to a bowl of calamari and escarole? He doesn’t have the soul.
My family cooked a lot of seafood. I grew up appreciating all sorts of shellfish—octopus, scungilli, eel. I was also introduced to a huge variety of vegetables, I think far more than most kids, instilling in me an early love of intriguingly bitter greens. Green, bitter, and a touch of saline make a perfect trio, one with a deep-rooted flavor memories for me. I understand these dishes, and when I cook them for friends who may not have grown up with this palate, they inevitably understand, not only because it all makes culinary sense but because it’s just divine.
(Serves 2 as a main course)
1 medium head escarole, chopped (you’ll want about 2½ cups)
Extra-virgin olive oil
⅓ cup homemade breadcrumbs
⅓ cup blanched almonds, lightly toasted and then roughly ground
A pinch of sugar
½ pound cavatelli
2 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3 anchovy fillets, minced
A few big scrapings of nutmeg
½ cup chicken broth, or possibly a little more
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 pound small, tender squid, cut into rings, the tentacles left whole
The grated zest from 1 small lemon
6 or 7 large thyme sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
A big splash dry vermouth (about ¼ cup)
A heaping tablespoon of freshly grated Grana Padano cheese
Put up a big pot of pasta cooking water. Add a good amount of salt, and bring it to a boil. Add the escarole, and blanch for 2 minutes. Scoop it from the water into an ice bath to stop the cooking. Squeeze out as much water as possible, and set the escarole aside.
In a small sauté pan over medium heat, drizzle about a teaspoon of olive oil. Add the breadcrumbs and the ground almonds, season with the sugar and a little salt and pepper, and sauté until everything is golden and fragrant, about a minute or so. Transfer to a small bowl.
Bring the water back to a boil, and drop in the cavatelli.
In a large sauté pan, heat a tablespoon or so of olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic, and let it soften for a minute. Add the escarole, anchovies, and nutmeg. Season with a little salt and some black pepper, and sauté until everything is fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the chicken broth. Turn off the heat.
In another sauté pan, heat the butter over high heat. When the pan is hot, add the calamari, lemon zest, and thyme. Season with a tiny bit of salt and black pepper, and sauté quickly, just until the calamari becomes opaque, about a minute or so. Add the vermouth, letting it bubble for a few seconds, and then pour the calamari, with all its pan juices, into the escarole pan. Mix everything around, adding a good drizzle of fresh olive oil.
When the cavatelli is al dente, drain it, and add it to the pan. Toss over low heat very briefly, about 30 seconds, just to blend the flavors. Add a little more chicken broth to loosen the sauce, if needed.
Pour the pasta into a heated serving bowl. Add the Grana Padano, and toss gently. Serve right away, with a scattering of the almond breadcrumbs on top.