An unremarkable word, and one that is perhaps overused today. It is nonetheless one of the most fundamental and at the same time most elusive keys to preparing food well. Certainly it is the absolute cornerstone of the spectacular and glorious regional Italian fare that has so influenced my approach to cooking. It is also the object of my desire, whether I am re-creating a 100-year-old dish from the hill country between Bologna and Firenze, or creating a new dish to demonstrate on television. It is certainly my design when cooking at home for friends and family and what is expected at my restaurants, Pó and Babbo, in New York City.
Perfectly pristine ingredients, combined sensibly and cooked properly, are what make Italian food taste so good, both in Italy and here in the United States. Reducing the distance and time food spends on its journey from the soil to the plate is the modus operandi for all Italian cooksand those who wish to cook in the Italian style. From the young pizzaiaoli to the savvy homemakers, buying the freshest, peak-of-season produce is a habit that is observed for every meal, every day, always. A special holiday may be celebrated with a complex five-course meal; for other days, an arugula salad with shaved cheese and some spaghetti with hot pepper, garlic, and olive oil may do. But in either case, the rigorous pursuit of incomparable freshness elevates the seemingly banal to the superb.
Prosciutto di Parma with Fresh Stuffed Figs
Figs stuffed with Gorgonzola creates an almost sweet and sour sensation in my mouth that can challenge the prosciutto. To achieve the perfect balance of flavors in each bite I generally cut the figs into quarters and wrap each quarter in a slice of prosciutto.
12 black mission or Kadota figs
6 ounces Gorgonzola cheese, softened to room temperature
2 tablespoons finely chopped walnuts
2 bunches Italian parsley, finely chopped (1/2cup)
8 ounces prosciutto di Parma, sliced paper-thin
Preheat the oven to 450 F.
Quarter the figs lengthwise, cutting down from the stem but leaving the segments attached at the base. Place on an ungreased baking sheet.
In a mixing bowl, stir together the Gorgonzola, walnuts and parsley until well mixed. Using a tablespoon, stuff 1tablespoon of the filling into each open fi. Bake the figs for 8 to 10 minutes, until the cheese filling is bubbling.
Arange 3 or 4 slices of prosciutto on each of 4 plates. Remove the figs from the oven, place three in center of each plate, and serve immediately.
Linguine with Manila Clams, Pancetta, and Chiles
Traditionalist scoff at the combination of pork and shellfish in this Pó classic, but I find that just a small amount of bacon rounds out the flavor in a big way. Traditional Portuguese cooks were, of course, light-years ahead of me with their cataplana of chorizo and clams.
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 medium red onion, minced
1/4 pound pancetta, cut into 1/8-inch dice
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
1 pound Manila clams, scrubbed and rinsed
2 cups dry white wine
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
10 ounces dried linguine
1/4 cup finely chopped Italian parsley
Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil and add about 2 tablespoons of salt.
In a large sauté pan, heat the olive oil and sauté the onion, pancetta, and garlic over medium heat until the onion is very soft and the pancetta is translucent, about 10 minutes.
Add the red pepper flakes, clams, wine, and butter and bring to a boil. Cook just until all the clams have opened, 5 to 7 minutes, and then set aside. Discard any clams that did not open.
Boil the linguine according to package directions, until tender yet still al dente. Drain the pasta and toss into the pan with the clams. Stir gently to mix; this should still be a little brothlike. Add the parsley, pour into a warm serving bowl, and serve.
T-Bone Fiorentina with Sautéed Spinach and Da Vero Oil
This recipe generated the largest number of recipe requests (and the most oohs and aahs from the production staff) of any dish I've ever demonstrated on Molto Mario. Traditionally cooked and simply presented, this is perhaps the definitive Tuscan dish.
1 t-bone steak, at least 3 inches thick (3 to 3 1/2 pounds)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary leaves
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage leaves
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons kosher salt
3/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons best-quality extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup virgin olive oil
6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
4 pounds spinach, washed, spun dry, stems removed juice of 1 lemon salt and pepper
Prepare a charcoal fire or preheat the grill to medium-high heat.
Pat the steak dry. In a small bowl, combine the rosemary, sage, thyme, black pepper and kosher salt until well-blended. Coat the entire steak with the spice mix and brush with 2 tablespoons of the extra-virgin olive oil. Place on the grill and cook until well charred, about 12 minutes on the first side and 9 minutes on the second side. Let stand 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a 12- to 14-inch saute pan, heat the virgin olive oil until smoking. Add the garlic and cook until light brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the spinach and stir quickly, cooking just until wilted. Remove from the heat, add the lemon juice and salt and pepper, and set aside.
Carve the filet and strip steaks off the bone and slice. Divide the spinach and steak among 4 plates, giving each some of the filet, and drizzle each serving with a few tablespoons of the remaining extra-virgin olive oil.