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There’s a rough, chunky Italian cookie that’s known as brutti ma buoni – ugly but good. At a dinner party of ours last week, the principal dishes all turned out that way: brutti ma buoni. It was one of those days when everything you touch tries to go wrong, and only luck kept the meal from being a disaster. This was the menu:

Mozzarella in Carozza
Spaghetti all’Amatriciana
Stuffed and Rolled Flank Steak
Sauteed Swiss Chard
Assorted Cheeses
Fig and Almond Crostata

I can’t blame unfamiliarity with these dishes, because I’d made them all before; most were even from Tom’s and my own recipes. Mercifully, Vicky and John, our guests for that evening, are good sports as well as adventurous eaters, so they were unperturbed by the appearance of their plates.

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The first setback was the antipasto, my mozzarella in carozza.

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This should have been a good-looking dish, as well as a delicious one. It’s made with slices of bread and slices of mozzarella, floured, egged, pressed together, and fried in olive oil. I’ve made this successfully for years (even wrote about it here once), but this time the egged bread tried to fall apart, and the mozzarella broke through its supposed-to-be-golden crust. Though it didn’t look at all appetizing, it still tasted much as it ought, and we all ate it happily enough, along with a little sauce of anchovy, butter, and cream.
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The spaghetti all’amatriciana also was from one of my recipes, this one in La Tavola Italiana.

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The only thing wrong with the pasta this evening was that the classic recipe uses bucatini, not spaghetti, and I only discovered that I didn’t have enough bucatini for four when it was too late to run out and buy more. Though very plain-looking, the dish tasted especially good because the tomato sauce was enriched by a particularly flavorful artisan variety of guanciale (air-cured pork jowl) that we’d smuggled in (shh!) from our last trip to Rome.
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But then came the stuffed flank steak: braciolone alla napoletana, yet another recipe from La Tavola Italiana. To get the full effect of this near-disaster requires several illustrations.

The flank steak, butterflied by our butcher

 

The stuffing ingredients: prosciutto ground together with parsley and garlic, plus golden raisins, pine nuts, breadcrumbs, an egg, and grated pecorino romano

 

The flank steak trimmed and spread with the stuffing

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Now, here was the first problem: Which way should I roll that meat? Starting at the short side would have made a great blimp of a cylinder, with many opportunities for the filling to leak out during the cooking. So I rolled from the long side, making a long skinny tube.
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The size of it presented the second problem: Do I have a pot that will hold a 14-inch long roll? It had to be my ancient, rarely used 13-quart Creuset Dutch oven. (I could hardly lift the 21-pound monster out of its place in the bottom of a kitchen cabinet.)

Starting to brown the roll, along with chopped onion, carrot, and celery

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I’d placed the roll in the pot seam-side down, hoping it would seal. Nope! What it did was spread open as far as it could around the strings, as the meat shrank during the cooking. With the stuffing exposed that way, I didn’t dare turn the roll at all for the hour of slow, gentle cooking it would need. So I poured in white wine and diluted tomato paste, covered the pot, and looked in every 15 minutes to baste the meat with the juices and be sure it wasn’t sticking to the pot.

When fully cooked, the roll was definitely brutti.
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Maneuvering the meat out of that deep pot onto a cutting board without its breaking apart was a little tricky but we did it. And despite my fears, when I cut off the strings it stayed intact. In fact, it divided into not-bad-looking thick chunks for serving.

And if I do say so myself, the beef and its stuffing were both delicious: genuinely buoni.
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In retrospect, I can see it was a mistake to spread the stuffing all over the butterflied steak. In previous (forgotten, evidently) cases, I must have mounded the stuffing in the center and closed the meat over it, with enough overlap to ensure the stuffing stayed covered. I’d better annotate my recipe to that effect, to avoid imperiling future dinners.

The cheese tray, requiring no cooking or manipulation, was safely beyond my ability to harm it, but my dessert, the fig and almond tart, was one more barely averted disaster. I’ll save the rest of that story for my next post.

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The calendar may say Spring, but both the weather (snow in April!) and the fresh produce in markets still keep sullenly saying Winter. How I yearn for good hot-weather vegetables – especially those that can be made into antipasti for everyday dinners: ripe tomatoes! peppers and zucchini and eggplants from local farms! But they won’t be here for many weeks yet. Casting about for something to tempt our palates, I came upon a recipe in La Tavola Italiana, my own first cookbook, for a tortino di mozzarella; a recipe that I hadn’t made in a few years. Why not now?

In English, “torte” usually means an elaborate layered cake, but in Italy a torta can be a sweet or savory pastry. The diminutive tortino suggests a short-cut version of the breed. This mozzarella torte is a simple baked bread-and-cheese affair, but it really sings if you use excellent fresh mozzarella and good firm bread. Usually I make it with Italian-style bread (as long as the slices aren’t too full of air holes), but I’d just baked a batch of my favorite Joy of Cooking White Bread Plus, so I decided to try that for a change. I also had a large ball of buffalo mozzarella in the refrigerator, which is always a treat.
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The other ingredients are egg yolk, milk, anchovy fillets, fennel seeds, and grated parmigiano – all things I typically have on hand. Here’s the prep work for two portions:

  • Trimming the crusts off four slices of bread and laying them snugly in a buttered baking dish
  • Pureeing four chopped anchovy filets, an egg yolk, and ¼ cup of milk in my mini-food processor
  • Cutting four thick slices of mozzarella
  • Measuring out ½ teaspoon of fennel seeds and 1½ tablespoons of grated parmigiano.
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As dinner time approached, I finished making up the tortino while the oven preheated. The first step was to spoon the egg-milk-anchovy sauce over the bread, letting it absorb all the liquid. Then, to top each slice of bread with a slice of mozzarella. Finally, sprinkle on the fennel seeds and the grated cheese.  No intricacies: a very straightforward procedure.
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The dish went into a 400° oven for 20 minutes, until the cheese was bubbling and just starting to brown on top. Then it had to sit for 5 minutes before serving, so the molten cheese wouldn’t scald our mouths.
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The look and smell of the tortino were very appetizing (which was the point, of course). It tasted rather like a good mozzarella in carrozza but with additional flavor fillips from the fennel seeds and anchovy. A very satisfying cold-weather antipasto that I’ve been ignoring for too long; must make it again soon!

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Tom and I are just back from ten days in Italy – half in Lazio (the part of that region south of Rome) and half in Rome itself. I indulged in lots of food photography, which I can’t resist displaying over my next few posts.

Starting in the countryside, our travels took us to some very different kinds of places for excellent midday meals.

Lo Scoglio

Our first lunch was at a modest beachfront restaurant in Sabaudia, a resort town on the Mediterranean about 60 miles south of Rome. We sat outdoors under a pergola and ate the freshest imaginable fish.

Top left: Penne con grancio (crab). Top right: Spaghetti alle vongole veraci (clams)

Lo Scoglio

Bottom left: Calamari arrosti (stuffed roasted squid). Bottom right: Pesciolini fritti (fried small fish)

 

Il Funghetto

I’ve written previously about my collection of souvenir plates from Buon Ricordo restaurants. This trip I added a new one from a quite elegant restaurant in a tiny townlet called Borgo Grappa. The special piatto is Coccio del Circeo con primizie dell’Agro Pontino. Coccio is a Lazio name for the fish known as tub gurnard – in the USA, sea robin. Most American fishermen regard it as a pest, but we discovered long ago that it makes a fine substitute for bouillabaisse’s indispensable rascasse. In this dish, it’s cooked in its own broth, with local olive oil and young vegetables from the plains of the region’s former Pontine marshes.

buon ricordo piatto

Another outstanding feature of this surprisingly sophisticated rural restaurant was its white truffle menu, to which Tom succumbed: three courses with truffles, plus desserts, for only €60. My antipasto was a zucchini sformato with buffalo mozzarella, but I also sampled all his dishes. Wonderful truffles! NB: The light was bad for these photos; the truffles were much paler than they look here.

truffle dishesLeft to right: Fonduta ai tartufi, Tagliolini ai tartufi, Dentice ai tartufi

 

Principe Pallavicini Winery

For one day Tom had arranged a professional visit to Pallavicini, one of the oldest and most esteemed wine estates in the Frascati hills. After a tour of the vineyard and cellars, and a formal tasting of nine wines, our hosts sat down with us to a delightful buffet lunch right in the tasting room.

Clockwise from top left in the photo are several kinds of local salume; little buffalo mozzarellas and pacchini tomatoes; roasted zucchini, eggplant, and peppers; roasted porchetta; vegetable couscous; and fresh buffalo ricottas.

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Il Giardino

The Abbazia di Fossanova is a 12th-century ecclesiastical complex near the town of Priverno. It includes the monastery where Thomas Aquinas is believed to have died, as well as an austerely beautiful church. After a fascinating morning’s visit, we stopped for lunch at the first restaurant we saw on our local road back to the coast. This was a time-warp of a rustic place: no décor, no pretensions, no tourists other than us, everyone (including us) drinking the house’s carafe wine, and very good simple food.

One of its specialties was this excellent dish of Cecapreti alla Capra. The pasta was homemade and the sauce was made with lamb (so they said; though capra usually means goat) from mountain sheep in the nearby hills.

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This and our other pasta dish, a classic bucatini all’amatriciana, were preceded by grilled scamorza, the local prosciutto di Bassiano, and fritters of rice, potato, and mozzarella. I wish I could show them to you, but my camera was acting up that afternoon and I don’t have photos.

 

And . . .

We had one more magnificent lunch in Lazio – in fact, the best meal of our entire trip. But I think this post has gone on long enough, so I’ll save that story for next week.

 

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It’s not that I actually needed a 15-pound slab of steel on which to bake pizzas.

I was doing well enough with the 20-pound Hearthkit stone that lived in my lower wall oven. But I wasn’t getting the puffy, crunchy rim of crust that’s one of the great pleasures of a true Neapolitan pizza. I realize that you can never really achieve that without an oven that reaches 800°, but other home pizza makers seem to get closer to it than I do, so I’m always on the lookout for better ways.

What started me on the path to a steel was a post on Roland Marandino’s blog Cooking from Books about a stand-alone countertop pizza oven. I was intrigued, so I googled the item and came across a review of it on the Serious Eats website. That author praised the oven but said it couldn’t compete with a baking steel and a hot broiler. Naturally, I had to look into this hitherto-unknown product. The same site had an extensive post about the steel.

I looked, I liked, I e-mailed the link to Tom. Within the hour we’d found the steel maker’s site and ordered one. In a few days it was established in our oven.

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steel

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Did it do the job for us? Well, not perfectly the first time. My fault, I think, because something went wrong when I made the dough. I followed a recipe I’d used before, and I’d swear I got the quantities right, but the dough came out horribly soft and wet, so I had to add a lot more flour to pull it together. It rose quite well, though, so I thought I’d salvaged it.

As dinner time approached, I preheated the steel for 45 minutes at 500°, then turned the oven to “broil” just before putting in the first pizza. Here are the two I made that evening, the first a simple margarita and the second with prosciutto.

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first two

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Not bad, but the crusts didn’t puff up as well as I’d hoped. They browned unevenly too; and in the front of the one on the left you can see ugly scales of dried flour. I hadn’t gotten the bottom crusts thin enough, either, so they were overly chewy. They both tasted good – all pizzas do – but in style they were only slightly better than my stone-baked pies.

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Discouraged but not daunted, I tried again a few days later. This time I used a recipe for Neapolitan-style pizza dough from the Serious Eats site. It made a beautiful dough: soft and pliable, feeling alive in the hands. I was able to stretch it very thin, while leaving a good thick rim – though I seem to be incapable of keeping a round of dough actually round. Then on to the topping and baking.

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second two

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These two may not look very different from the first pair, but they came out considerably better. The thin bottom crusts remained firm, the edges puffed and browned more, and some air bubbles had developed in them (a desideratum for a light, delicate crust). The browning was still uneven, which I think means that my oven is hotter in the back than the front. I’ll have to learn to turn the pizzas halfway through the cooking – especially because the darkest part of the crust was the best-tasting: crisp, crunchy, almost nutty. By the by: Those brown things in the center of the right-hand pizza are mushrooms, not scorch.

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Alas, I fear I still don’t qualify for a diploma from pizzaiolo school. But I’ve become convinced that the steel makes better pizza than the stone, so I’ll just have to keep working at it until I get the technique mastered. And since I don’t really know how much of the difference in the batches was due to the different dough recipes, for my next pizza practicum I’ll make that first dough again – carefully – and see how it comes out. It’s never a hardship to eat pizza!

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