Eating Italian
Sure, there's pasta. But there's also fresh-dug shellfish, asparagus, good wine and leisurely conversation as friends share a traditional meal.

By JOHN F. CARAFOLI
CONTRIBUTING WRITER
A month ago at this time, I was eating my way across Northern Italy. When I think about my trip, I get nostalgic for the food, the flavors and the experiences. For me, Italy is all about eating well. My memories prompted me to call my friend, Franco Romagnoli, to come and cook a lunch with me in the Italian style.
Born in Rome, Franco is an expert on the cuisine of his native country. He and his former wife, Margaret, hosted the PBS series The Romagnolis' Table and later opened a very successful and popular restaurant (1979-89) by the same name in Boston's Faneuil Hall Marketplace. He is the author of nine cookbooks, his latest, "Cucina di Magro, Cooking Lean the Traditional Italian Way" (Steerforth Press, 2003, $!8.95).

After going back and forth discussing many exciting course options, I finally said, "Because of the way we cook, we both know our dishes should depend on what is fresh in the fish market and the produce department. I will shop tomorrow and have enough fresh ingredients on hand to create a spontaneous Italian meal."

He fully agreed.

Digging lunch

Living on Cape Cod, I feel we should eat, harvest and cook with foods from our own land and waters. Working in my office that afternoon, I looked out the window towards the ocean. The sand flats in front of my house were exposed. This only happens in a moon tide. What else could I do but grab my rake, clam bucket, and head for the beach?

Just below the tide line, in a rocky part of the beach, I was able to pick mussels and periwinkles. I walked further down the beach to the sand flats and dug huge sea clams. That night, with a few of the clams, I made a linguine and clam sauce. I kept my bounty of mussels, periwinkles and remaining sea clams in a bucket of fresh seawater in my refrigerator for the night. The next morning, I found the periwinkles had spent the night crawling out of the bucket and all over the inside of the refrigerator. It took me twenty minutes to find each and every periwinkle and put them back in the bucket. This time, I put a plate over the bucket.

At 1:00 the next day, Franco arrived with his new wife, Gwenn, to a wealth of fresh ingredients, artfully arranged in bowls on the countertop. After opening a bottle of wine, Franco and I put on aprons and began thinking about an antipasto. Franco's view is that "an antipasto is something that is served before the meal to tease the taste buds, not to kill the appetite." He suggested stuffed squid (I bought some fresh from the fish market) and steamed mussels with a simple topping for our antipasto. I would save the periwinkles for another meal.

Italian structure

As we started to cook, Franco reminded me that an Italian meal is much more structured than an American meal.

"We have very set courses and we don't deviate from our standards," he said.

For example: salads are never served before the main course. For the first course pasta or minestra (soup) is served, but not both. The second course is usually a meat, fish or vegetable. Franco notes that in very few instances, in Tuscany maybe, the meat is just grilled. Usually it is served with sauces that enrich the flavor and extend the quantity of the meat.

The cooking and preparation for our spring meal continued. For our second course we decided on pasta, a delicious, quick and easy "Rigatoni with Tomato-Ricotta Sauce". And for our third course, a vegetable: individual fresh asparagus bundles wrapped in prosciutto, topped with grated parmesan cheese and placed under the broiler for a few minutes. Anyone who thinks they do not like vegetables should try this.

When everything was complete and the table set, our aprons came off and we sat down to a leisurely lunch. While savoring our meal, we compared the experience of dining in Italy verses America. Franco started with this example, "Order a dish of Fettuccine Alfredo in Italy and you know what you are getting. Italian meals are based on tradition. It is what it is! Here in America, things are added to make it something other than the original dish. They add ingredients that don't really fit together."

But, Franco said, "I am not stuck in the past. A cuisine has to be alive and attuned to the times; it should be a continuously developing art, aided by creativity and imagination. There are many chefs in Italy today who create new dishes, inspired variations of old themes. I prefer Italian dishes to be part of an evolution, not a revolution."

The place of subtlety

I agree totally with Franco. For the most part, subtlety is not an American strong point. Most chefs, because of competition, do things to food for the sake of being different. When I read a menu (and there is a technique to writing a good menu), if the descriptions of the dishes are too flowery or complicated, I immediately lose interest. My theory is this: if my mind cannot adjust to all the ingredients, what will it do in my body?

Our meal continued as well as the conversation. I brought out pictures of the restaurants recommended by Franco and Gwen and of the food eaten there. Breaking away from my daily routine and putting aside time to spend with special people over a mid-day lunch, was, for me, eating in the Italian way.

Here are recipes for a spring menu you may like to try. Recipes are from G. Franco Romagnoli's books "Cucina di Magro Cooking Lean the Traditional Italian Way", "The Romagnolis' Italian Fish Cookbook" and "The New Romagnoli's Table" (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988).

* * *
The following two recipes are from G. Franco Romagnoli's "Cucina di Magro, Cooking Lean The Traditional Italian Way".

With a little patience, anyone can stuff a squid's body, which is cooked in a sauce and served as an appetizer.

Stuffed Squid

2 pounds medium squid, cleaned

5 canned anchovy fillets, drained

3 garlic cloves

1 cup loosely packed flat-leaved parsley leaves

2 tablespoons capers

4 tablespoons (approximate) breadcrumbs

4 to 5 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup dry white wine

Freshly ground pepper

Finely chop together the squid tentacles, anchovies, and one of the garlic cloves, the parsley, and the capers. Put the mixture in a bowl and combine it with the breadcrumbs and enough of the oil (1 to 2 tablespoons) to make a paste.

Stuff the body of each squid with only a scant teaspoon of stuffing, because in cooking the bodies shrink about one-third of their original size and the filling expands a bit. If over stuffed, the squid ruptures. Once filled, skewer the bodies shut with a wooden pick. Save any remaining filling.

Put the rest of the oil into a frying pan large enough to accommodate the squid in one layer. Sauté the remaining two garlic cloves in the oil until golden and then discard them. Let the oil cool for a moment, and then add the stuffed squid to the pan along with any remaining filling. Cook gently for 8 to 10 minutes. Add the wine; bring to boil, and cook until the wine has evaporated.

Transfer the squid and sauce to a pan small enough to accommodate the new shrunken size. Add just enough warm water to barely cover the squid, cover the pan, bring to a boil, and cook for 10 minutes. Uncover, taste for salt, and adjust seasonings if necessary, adding a bit of pepper as you please. Bring to a boil for another 10 minutes, or until the sauce has reduced to half its original volume. Serve warm with the sauce and Italian bread. Serves 4.

Rigatoni with Tomato-Ricotta Sauce

This is a wonderful easy dish to prepare for a first course

Sauce

1/2 small carrot

1 small onion

1 celery stalk

3 flat leaved parsley sprigs

4 tablespoons olive oil or unsalted butter

2 cups peeled fresh plum tomatoes

1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Freshly ground pepper to taste

5 more basil leaves

1/2 pound ricotta

3 to 4 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese, minimum

Pasta

6 quarts water

6 teaspoons salt

1 pound rigatoni

Chop the carrot, onion, celery, and parsley to a paste and sauté in the oil (or butter) over medium heat for about 8 minutes until cooked and golden.

Add the tomatoes to the flavored oil. Add the salt and pepper and simmer for 10 minutes. Tear the basil leaves into pieces and add them to the sauce. Cook for another 5 minutes, or until reduced to a good consistency. Cool a bit and then mix in the ricotta thoroughly.

Cook and drain the pasta. Put in a warm serving dish and dress with the ricotta sauce.

Serve immediately with Parmesan cheese. Serves 6.

This recipe, from "The New Romagnolis' Table," is asparagus in one of its most elegant guises: fresh stocks are cooked al dente, wrapped in thin slices of Prosciutto and sprinkled with Parmesan cheese.

Asparagus with Prosciutto

2 1/2 pounds asparagus

1 1/2 teaspoons salt (for the water)

1/4 pound prosciutto

1/4 pound butter

4 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Break off the root ends of asparagus stalk by stalk and discard them. Wash thoroughly and put in boiling salted water to cover. Bring to a boil, cover, and cook about 5 minutes, or until a fork goes through the base of the stalk easily. Take out with tongs and drain on paper towels.

When they are cool enough to handle, divide the stalks into 6 even bundles. Wrap each bundle in a couple of very, very thin slices of prosciutto (the Italian word for ham), securing them with a wooden pick. Butter a cookie sheet and line the bundles up on it, sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese, and put in a hot oven (400 degrees) for about 3 minutes, or until the cheese has melted.

Melt the butter in a saucepan, and when the bundles come out of the oven, put on a platter, pour the melted butter over them, and serve. Serves 6.

The recipe from "The Romagnolis' Italian Fish Cookbook" is an antipasto for a sit-down meal. But it is such a treat that it is well worth the time needed to set the table and begin.

Mussels on the Half Shell

1 pound fresh mussels, scrubbed, "beards" removed

4 to 6 tablespoons olive oil

1 dozen basil leaves, washed, patted dry, coarsely chopped

1 garlic clove

Freshly ground white pepper

Check the mussels to make sure they are all well closed, discard any that remain open. Pour enough of the olive oil in a big sauté pan to cover the bottom, add half the basil leaves, the garlic, and the mussels.

Place over moderately high heat, cover the pan, and cook for a minute or two until the mussels open. Discard any mussels that do not open. Scoop out the mussels, remove them from their shells, and place them back on half shells on a serving plate.

Strain the pan juices through a very fine sieve, add pepper to taste, and pour a bit on each mussel. Add a drop or two of the remaining olive oil to each and then sprinkle with the remaining coarsely chopped basil leaves. Serves 4 to 6

* * *
John F. Carafoli, cooking expert and food stylist based on the upper Cape encourages readers' comments and food question on his column that appears the first Wednesday of each month. Send inquiries to "Cooking with Carafoli" care of, Cape Cod Times Food Editor Gwenn Friss, 319 Main Street, Hyannis MA 02601, or e-mail to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Tips and information are also available at his Web site, www.carafoli.com.
"Tempting the Palate: The Food Stylist' Art," a paper Carafoli presented at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, appears in this month's issue of Gastronomica, The Journal of Food and Culture.

(Published: May 7, 2003)