“I’m not a chef, I’m Italian”- David Rocco

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Spaghetti and Meatballs

Buongiorno!! If you come from an Italian American family, odds are you have had your fair share of Sunday night dinners. The family gathering in the kitchen…laughing, having a good time, maybe having a few sips of wine and cooking!! A classic Sunday night dinner is of course, Spaghetti and Meatballs. Every family has their own recipe and that is one of the things I love about certain recipes. Ever family has their own and that is what makes them so special.

I like the outside of my meatballs to get a little browned, but I know that that’s just me. We always have a debate in my household because my family prefers them softer, usually soaking in the tomato sauce. I myself like the exterior a bit crunchier. So I usually end up making two batches so I keep everyone happy and satisfied, that’s just my nature. My secret ingredient in my meatballs is…..wait for it…..ricotta!!! It makes them so light, tender, moist and delicious!! I love my recipe for meatballs; they are as perfect as meatballs can get, in my humble opinion. I obviously have to serve my meatballs with spaghetti and my classic tomato sauce.

Sweet little story about these meatballs…when I made these the other night for my family, as they were frying, the smell really reminded me of what I remember my Nonna Nettie’s Meatballs smelling like. I thought maybe it was just wishful thinking…but then I made a little test meatball (which I always do and highly suggest!) and gave it to my mom to try. She said “wow, these taste like grandmas.” To have my mother say that my meatballs, which I still remember my grandma frying specially for me over the weekend, is the absolute best compliment I could ever get about my cooking.

So try this recipe and let me know how it compares to yours!!

Spaghetti and Meatballs

Tomato Sauce

¼ extra virgin olive oil
1 clove of garlic, minced
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. pepper
½ tsp. red pepper
2 large cans of San Marzano tomatoes
Handful of fresh basil, chopped

Prepare a medium size pot over medium heat. Add your olive oil and minced garlic. Allow the garlic to soften, but not brown. Add your salt, pepper and red pepper. Add your tomatoes and cook them down a little. Add a handful of the basil. Cook for 30 minutes covered on low heat, occasionally stirring.  You can start the meatballs now…

Spaghetti and Meatballs

1 pound of ground beef
1 cup of whole wheat bread crumbs
¼ cup parmigiana, grated
¼ ricotta
Handful of fresh parsley, chopped
Handful of fresh basil, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 large egg
1 tsp. salt
¼ tsp. pepper
½ cup olive oil

1 box of whole grain spaghetti
1 tbsp. salt, for the pasta water

Crumble the beef in a mixing bowl. Add the breadcrumbs, parmigiana, ricotta, parsley, basil and garlic. Beat the egg with 1 tsp. salt and ¼ tsp. pepper in a small bowl. Pour this over the meat. Mix the ingredients with cleans hands just until blended. DO NOT OVER MIX!! If you over mix, you will get really hard, tough meatballs. We don’t want that!! Shape the meatballs in balls. You can make them as big or small as you like, but make them roughly the same size so they cook at the same speed. Heat your olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Put the meatballs in the skillet and fry. Turn them when they are golden brown, around 10 minutes. Cook them for around 20 minutes. As I said, I prefer my meatballs well done. 

Start salted boiling water in a large pot over high heat. Pour in half of the tomato sauce over the meatballs. Cook for an additional 30 minutes in the sauce as the water boils. You will want to cook the meatballs until there is no pink in the center.

Once the water is boiling, add the spaghetti and stir. Once it is al dente, strain the pasta and add to the remaining tomato sauce. Serve a portion of the pasta with the meatballs and sauce over it. Buon Appetito!! 

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Squash Raviolini in Brown Butter with Crispy Prosciutto

Ciao a tutti!! I eat pasta quite a lot, so I am always looking for new and fun things to do with it. When I tell people I have a few favorite pastas, they usually think I am strictly referring to the shape. But the truth is, there is so much more to pasta than the shape! Although, the shape has a lot to do with the flavor. Some just have that bite that I’m looking for, like my old friend orechiette! But, there are other times when I am going for something more classic, like ravioli. Or in this case, raviolini. Raviolis were my childhood favorite and I still absolutely love them. But, I don’t actually eat them that often. I like to have them once and a while to keep the memory special.

The raviolini I used in this recipe are made by La Piana which makes fantastic  pastas (for the times that I’m too tired to make homemade!) These are Squash Raviolini. I made them in a simple brown butter sauce with sage and to add a little extra kick…wait for it….some crispy prosciutto. That’s right…crispy prosciutto. Here’s the funny thing…whenever I have prosciutto around, there is always one or two slices left and I’m never sure what to do with it. It’s like a cookie, you can’t eat just one!! So, I hate to just eat it as is, because then I’ll be sad that I have no more. What I like to do is find a way to incorporate it into a dish that stretches it. I fry it and crumble it in little pieces over the pasta. 

You can use any type of pasta you want with this brown butter sauce and crispy prosciutto, but I love the combination of the slightly sweet, earthy flavor from the squash, the silky brown butter sauce and the smoky, crunchy prosciutto. It’s an amazing blend of flavors. Perfetto!

Squash Raviolini with Brown Butter and Crispy Prosciutto

The Pasta:

1 box of La Piana Butternut Squash Raviolini (or any type of pasta you like!)

Start by preparing a deep pot with water salt over high heat and cover the pot. While it is boiling, prepare the prosciutto and sauce…

The Prosciutto:

4 slices of prosciutto
1 tbsp. olive oil

Prepare a medium size pan over medium heat. Add the olive oil and let it get hot. Add the prosciutto to the pan. Let it heat on one side for around 2-4 minutes and flip it and allow to cook for another 2-4 minutes. Take it out of the pan and let it sit. When it sites for a few minutes, it will really dry and crisp beautifully. In the same pan, you can now prepare the sauce…
The Sauce:

½ stick of butter
Sage (I find I only need a few small pieces since sage is strong)
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. pepper

Add the butter, sage, salt and pepper to the pan over medium heat and allow the butter to brown slightly.  

By now, the pasta water should be boiling, so you can add the ravioli. Cook until al dente, around 5 minutes. The will soften a little in the sauce. Strain the pasta and add to the brown butter sauce. Now, using your hands, crumble the prosciutto over the pasta and very lightly toss. Buon Appetito!! 

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Chef Chat: Gina Rotundo, co-owner of Alloro in NYC

I've lived in New York City my whole life. There's an Italian restaurant every three blocks. Pasta. Chicken Parmigiana. Red and white checkered table cloths. Maybe a wine bottle on the table for decoration. Standard fare. What's so hard to find these days is an authentic Italian restaurant and even more than that, an authentic Italian restaurant adding their own unique twist. And that's exactly what Alloro has successfully been doing since they opened in June, 2008. I had the chance to sit down with the lovely Gina Rotundo, co-owner of Alloro (along with Chef Salvarote Corea, her husband) and talk about the restaurant.

Owning a restaurant is a full time job. On top of that, your husband is the head chef and you have kids. How do you manage?

I am a woman.  I will say unequivocally, my family comes first. Women typically define themselves first through their family and secondly through their work and I am typical. Salvatore and I are full on partners, so he and I support each other both here at Alloro and at home. Also, Alloro is a chef’s restaurant; guests are here for the food.

When we first opened, our regulars were happy to see both of us. But, my children were younger then and didn’t need me as much as they do now. When I do work here at the restaurant, it is at night. That means I am still with our girls all day. I’ve always chosen, and will always choose a lifestyle that allows me to be a stay at home mom. My first job is Stay at Home Mother, and then Alloro is what I do to earn an income.

Homemade Fettuccine in white veal sauce
Courtesy of Michael Radassao Photography
I oversee the marketing of Alloro, the organizing of events, and the booking of private parties. I can do all of this from home while the girls sleep. That’s how I create the balance; it’s not too bad. The restaurant business involves a lot of hours, but I’d say Salvatore feels the brunt of the restaurant hours.

Living close is also helpful. When Salvatore worked downtown, he wasn’t around for the kids as much, but now he comes home in the afternoon, he’s there in the morning to see them off to school, he comes home between lunch and dinners. He does all of his prep early in the morning when the kids are in school, then he comes home in the afternoon when they get home. So, we’ve figured out a way to carve that normalcy of a family life.

We’ve dedicated every Sunday to “Family Day” so 99% of the time we don’t work. Of course, tomorrow’s Easter so that’s an exception. However, we first come here and eat with our family. The kids really like being the owners of this restaurant.  They like tasting all of the new food. They are our internal litmus test. If they like something, we know it’s going to sell. My oldest daughter Giada is never wrong about something! If she says that something is mediocre, it’s not going to be our biggest seller. She and her sister both have sophisticated palates.  

There are hundreds of Italian restaurants in NYC. What do you hope makes Alloro stand out from the others?

Firstly, Alloro is a family run business. We set out to make it different in a few ways – It is family-run, small and creative.  Salvatore puts a spin on classic Italian dishes. Our idea, especially in this neighborhood, with lots of Italian restaurants, is that our menu is completely different from anybody else’s menu. Alloro is a destination place.  

Salvatore also doesn’t cut any corners in the kitchen. He uses high quality olive oil, tomatoes, balsamic – you name it. All of the pasta is homemade; all of the ingredients are fresh. We get deliveries on a daily basis, hope to run out by the end of the night and get it fresh the next day.

With the menu design, he tries to achieve portions that are appropriate so that you can eat 3 or 4 courses and not feel like someone has to roll you home, which is often the way you feel after eating Italian.  

Chef Salvatore and his crew
Courtesy of Michael Radassao Photography 
Food can transport me to another time and make me remember something wonderful. I am always talking about my Nonna's fried cauliflower and what beautiful memories I have of her making it for me. What are some of your favorite food memories?

Growing up in an Italian-American family of immigrants, always meant Sundays were about food and about getting around the table, so that stands out as a memory especially because I see it disappearing and that saddens me. I always make a point of sitting down with my kids and we all eat the same food. A lot of the moms I know are always on a diet, so they're feeding their kids something delicious and healthy and they're not eating anything and not setting an example themselves, which is kind of weird and hypocritical at best, so I don't do that. I always make sure we're always eating together and enjoying the same food. 

I guess my first memories would be my great grandmother's house. She always wore her hair in a bun, I remember the first time I saw her really, really long hair. It was almost to the floor, but it had always been in a bun. She spent so much time cooking, I saw the same thing in my mother, my grandparent's...grandmothers, because the men didn't cook at the time. But an interesting thing happened when I reached the age that my mother thought I should start learning to cook; I couldn't get out of the house fast enough! I wanted no part of it. It seemed like an enslavement to me. I've always enjoyed cooking from the other side, from the receiving end. I don't like cooking; I don't interfere with Salvatore's kitchen; I go nowhere near it. When I prepare meals for my kids, that's what it is- a simple preparation of food, nothing more. 

Another fond food memory....my roommate in Rome was trying to set me up on a date with Salvatore. I said "No more Italian guys, they're all mamas' boys." She said, "But this guy lives by himself, he cooks, he's a chef and it's amazing." And I said "Well then, maybe he's gay." She convinced me he wasn't gay but was an exception to the rule and that I should at least give it a shot. I agreed. The first time she took me to the place he was cooking, he made me straccetti with arugula and parmigiana, which us a very straightforward dish, but it was perfect! The balance of flavors...everything...it was the best I'd ever eaten. And he gave me an enormous portion because he's from the south and you pour out your love with food and the bigger the portion, the bigger the love. 

Then, meeting his family was all about food, because we went down south to meet his family whom welcomed us with a huge lunch. I had never in my life eaten spicy food, ever. I was raised to behave in someone else's house. This meant you eat what's put in front of you, you eat it all and give lots of compliments. Well...I thought I was going to die, it was so spicy! I finished my plate and his mother said "una bouna fochetta"- she's got a good appetite!! And she gave me a whole other portion and I thought I would die again, but I've loved spicy food ever since. It was a blessing in disguise, because she got me turned onto the spice and the food of southern Italy, Calabria in particular, which is where Salvatore is from. And, just seeing that passion-they harvest their own grapes and olives and tomatoes; they make all of their own stuff. All of my food experiences are fantastic, from the receiving end. 

For someone coming to Alloro for the first time, what would you recommend they order?

Lamb, herb cous cous, laurel reduction
Photo by Michael Radassao
One of the things that stays on every single menu is Salvatore’s eggplant…it’s fantastic. It’s simple, it’s his mothers red sauce recipe, it is the best eggplant parmigiana you will ever eat and that’s just a classic dish. So, that’s my first recommendation if you’ve never been here before. The other thing I recommend is to not skip the pastas. Pasta is  his forte - the boy can cook pasta! They’re all homemade, and the recipes are just incredible. A nice bottle of wine…his food has to be paired with wine.  I would say, look at the menu, the way it’s set up and realize it lends itself to eating Italian style. Start with a glass of prosecco, get an appetizer, his soups are also amazing. He has a different one on each menu. You get an appetizer, a half order of pasta, an entrĂ©e and then save room for dessert, this way you taste a little bit of everything. That’s always my recommendation – eat like an Italian!

People think of Italian food as just “Italian food”, not realizing that there are many different regions and regional specialties. Is your menu a combination or do you try to showcase a specific region? 

That’s a good question. My husband was telling me that somebody recently said people don’t realize the wealth that there is in Italy in terms of ingredients.

We don’t highlight a particular region; he’s basically all over the map. People will ask if it’s more northern or southern, they don’t know. But we don’t do the regional thing. He takes his inspiration from all over and he likes to celebrate the richness that Italy has to offer. It’s not just tomatoes. It’s not just pasta. It’s everything. And you see that in his menus.

Are any of the recipes from your restaurant family recipes? And if so, who are they from? 

Summer Panna Cotta
Photo by Michael Radassao
Like any good Italian boy, when people ask him who his first teacher was, he will tell you of course it was his mother. So a lot of the recipes come from or at least have been inspired by his mother’s cooking, especially the eggplant. The red sauce he makes is identical. It’s always the basic stuff, the staples and the staple of any kitchen is a good red sauce. My kids eat it with a spoon, like soup.

What do you want your guests to take away from dining at Alloro?

We set out to open a place that was an extension of our home, so we want them to feel like they’ve come to a great dinner party, like, we went to Gina and Sal’s and it was fantastic and that they had a culinary experience. We want them to enjoy something that they couldn’t necessarily replicate themselves. I say to people all the time, every Italian restaurant you go to, you get the same exact food and it’s stuff you can make at home, really what’s the sense? It’s like going to a movie theatre and they pop up a big screen TV, you paid for the movie, right?  You paid for the big screen. And here, we expect that people pay for the experience. It’s not just a meal, it’s an experience.

Be sure to stop by Alloro and say ciao on facebook! And if you like the beautiful pictures you've seen here, you can contact Michael Radassao