David Ruggerio, chef and owner of New York's Le Chantilly and several other elegant restaurants, says he's wanted to write a cookbook for years, but fans of his refined, classical French cooking might be surprised when they see the book he's just published. Instead of crystal-clear stocks, clarified butter, and finely julienned vegetables, the recipes in Ruggerio's book depend on garlic, olive oil, and San Maranzano tomatoes. That's because for this book, and for the PBS series it accompanies, Ruggerio has gone back to his culinary roots: Little Italy, and the Italian American "soul food" he grew up with.
Ruggerio came to New York cooking school De Gustibus at Macy's this fall to give a lively class. Speaking with a warm Brooklyn accent, his speech peppered with the kind of Italianisms we all know and love from the "Godfather" movies (he does a great "faggeddaboudit"), Ruggerio entertained the audience with stories of his family and friends as he demonstrated recipes from Little Italy Cookbook that perfectly embodied the simple, hearty, impeccably fresh flavors of traditional Italian American fare.
About David Ruggerio and the Little Italy Cookbook
David Ruggerio knew he wanted to be a chef from the age of 14, when he started working after school in an Italian eatery near his Brooklyn neighborhood, but he was almost seduced away from his culinary calling by the lure of his second love: boxing. Ruggerio moved on from his first job to get classical training, both in France (where he worked under such luminaries as Michel Guérard, Roger Vergé, and Jacques Maximin) and in fine French restaurants in New York, but it became clear as he began to move up in the kitchen at La Caravelle that his pro fights were taking too much time away from the stove. So he threw down his boxing gloves and picked up his hot pad full-time, and today he's one of the most successful gourmet chefs in the city. And though he loves the French food he cooks at his restaurant Le Chantilly, Ruggerio's first culinary love remains the family-style Italian American cooking his grandmother still turns out every week. "The difference between French and Italian cooking is that French cooking is a discipline you're trained in. You learn the sauces, the stations in the kitchen -- it's a very complicated cooking. Italian cooking is the simplest of ingredients, the best of ingredients, combined in a very simple way, with a lot of love, like my grandmother does," Ruggerio says. Italian American cooking is a style of cooking all its own, found in parts of town known as Little Italy in cities around the country. (The proper pronunciation, Ruggerio says, is Little IT-ly.)
In the book, as in the PBS series airing nationwide this fall, Ruggerio called on friends, family, shopkeepers, restaurateurs, and home cooks around the country to share their favorite authentic recipes. The recipes, beautifully illustrated in color photos, are grouped together in chapters by theme and origin. The first, Nonna, features dishes Ruggerio's grandmother has cooked for him all his life. Other chapters, like Mulberry Street and Sheepshead Bay, are full of recipes from the restaurants and Italian shops of these neighborhoods. La Caccia, the hunt, includes hearty dishes with ingredients for cool weather, and La Festa is made up of special-occasion holiday recipes. The last chapter, Amici, comprises dishes Ruggerio's friends have cooked for him over the years.
About the Menu
Ruggerio started off with a seafood crostini, perfectly tender clams, mussels, and shrimp topping a slice of toasted Italian bread. Flavored with just a bit of olive oil, garlic, plum tomatoes, and hot pepper, the sweet and briny tastes of the shellfish shone brightly. "Christmas Eve is very dear to Italian Americans' hearts. We traditionally only eat fish on Christmas Eve -- we don't eat meat," Ruggerio said. Many Italian Americans take the opportunity to serve a seafood feast. "Every year, we'd go to midnight mass and then go back to my aunt Mary's house for the Christmas Eve meal. This is how she started it off, every year, with this crostini," Ruggerio said. For a festive touch, we drank a dry, lightly fruity sparkling wine from Bouvet with the crostini. Next came the rich and delicious Penne alla San Giovanni. Ruggerio recounted the story of his first taste of this pasta: A friend who runs an Italian grocery store in Manhattan that still sells homemade prosciutto and other traditional food described it to him, and Ruggerio didn't think it sounded so great ("Pasta with walnuts? Come on!"). His first taste when the friend made it for him changed his mind. "After you taste it, you're hooked on it," Ruggerio said. "If you only cook pasta with tomato sauce, this is really a dish for you to try, because it's something special." The fresh sage, Parmigiano Reggiano, prosciutto, and walnuts, their autumnal flavors brought out by a dose of melted butter poured over the top of the pasta at the last minute, made a sensational combination. The complex, full-bodied, almost chalkily dry Gavi we drank with the pasta was an intriguing counterpoint to the dish's richness.
For the main course, Ruggerio demonstrated a special new recipe inspired by an ancient Roman cooking technique he read about. He wrapped a leg of lamb, first larded with a bit of garlic and rosemary, in grape leaves, and then laid it atop a sheet of rolled-out modeling clay. "Be sure to get the kind that says it bakes to hardness in the oven -- you won't believe the mess the other kind makes when you use it by mistake," Ruggerio warned. He pulled the sheet of clay around the lamb, sealed the seams, and put it in a 475 degree oven to bake. Serving the finished dish is impressive in itself -- you get to crack the hardened clay shell and lift off the shards, revealing the perfectly cooked lamb beneath. "You're sort of steaming and roasting at the same time," Ruggerio said. "It gives you an unbelievable flavor." We drank a robustly earthy Barbera d'Asti from Michele Chiarlo with the lamb -- the almost mushroomy complexity of the wine worked well with the lamb's delicate gaminess. Ruggerio ended the meal with an easy, delicious traditional dessert: Chestnut and Ricotta Semifreddo. Spiked with rum, the sweetened chestnut puree and creamy ricotta combined for a refreshing but rich finale.
Tips from David Ruggerio
- Many recipes for cooking fresh clams and mussels call for putting a bit of white wine in the bottom of the pan while the shellfish are steaming open. "Try to avoid that," Ruggerio says. "I'll tell you why: There's plenty of juice inside the shellfish, and it's so intense, so sweet and succulent. So you don't want to add any wine or other liquid that will dilute it."
- How important is using extra-virgin olive oil? "If you're making salad, or a marinade, it's imperative that you use extra-virgin olive oil," Ruggerio said. "If you're sautéing, it's not absolutely necessary, because extra-virgin has such a delicate taste -- when you cook it, you lose a bit of the refinement. You can buy 100 percent pure for sautéing if you want to save a few bucks."
- Ruggerio has strong feelings about using garlic the right way. First, he said, "Don't buy any of that prepeeled garlic in jars. If you fool around with that garlic, I'm gonna come to your house and I'm gonna bother you. You want the fresh stuff -- don't be lazy." He also said that a lot of Italians, when they're explaining a recipe to you, will tell you to brown the garlic when you're sautéing it at the beginning of a dish. "They're not talking about burning the garlic," Ruggerio said. "You just want the garlic to start to get golden brown, and it really changes the flavor. You bring out the full nuttiness, and richness, of the garlic's taste."
- Make a special effort to find Italian parsley, which has a fresh and strong flavor. "Curly parsley doesn't belong in your refrigerator," Ruggerio admonished. "It has no taste and doesn't do anything for your dish, so don't waste your time."
- Know your tomatoes. "It's January, the weather is freezing outside, and all you can find is tomatoes that if you hit your husband with them, or your wife, you're gonna hurt them," Ruggerio said. "Don't use those tomatoes. Go buy a good can of peeled plum tomatoes." Italian tomatoes mported from San Maranzano are the best if you can find them, but there are plenty of good brands. Try a few to find one you like.
- It's not a terrible thing to precook dried pasta so it's ready when you are, and not the other way around. "You just have to cook it until it's still really al dente, and then toss it with a little oil so it doesn't stick together," Ruggerio said. "How many home cooks, or professional cooks for that matter, can make a sauce, make a main dish, have everything perfectly timed so that everything's ready when the pasta's done? Don't kill yourself." Undercook the pasta, toss it in boiling water just before you're ready to serve it, then toss it with the sauce.