It’s no surprise that Italian cuisine reigns supreme according to the National Restaurant Association’s “Global Palates: Ethnic Cuisines and Flavors in America” report.
Growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., in a predominantly Italian neighborhood, my parents would take me to some well-respected Italian restaurants, namely Gargiulo’s (founded in 1907) and Carolina’s. I can remember the aroma of garlic and the classical Neapolitan cuisine based on the family recipes of the owners. Quite often, I am asked what my favorite food is, and I don’t hesitate to say, “Italian.”
Perhaps this is because of my exposure to Italian cuisine and culture growing up in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. And, oh, those Italian ice shops and bakeries. I frequented the original Sbarro Salumeria, way before it became the large chain it is today. The scent of cheese and meat, hung by ropes from the ceiling, permeated the small store.
When dining at Italian restaurants, I pass on the more modernized Italian dishes, instead choosing traditional ones, those I remember from Gargiulo’s and Carolina’s.
If you have traveled to different regions of Italy, you quickly learn that the recipes are different, depending upon the nuances of the province’s agriculture, climate, local culture and traditions.
I reminisced while reading “Big Flavors from Italian America,” by the editors of America’s Test Kitchen (2020, $29.99). It is a celebration of those beloved dishes, paying homage to the American-born, red-sauced, family-style cooking. Anyone with a fondness for baked ziti, pasta e fagioli, or deep-dish pizza (for me the New York thin-crust pizza) will enjoy exploring the richness of Italian America’s culinary heritage, from the classics many of us ate growing up to less familiar gems hailing from cities across the U.S., along with their backstories. Check out the recipes below. For the recipe for tiramisu, visit https://bit.ly/2W583jD.
The introduction, highlighting the impact Italian immigrants had on American cuisine is interesting, as are the mini-stories peppered throughout the book. One is about why the meatball sub has 15 different names (depending on what city one is in). Another gives the history of fettuccine Alfredo, a dish originally from Rome, and how it was altered by Americans to compensate for the lack of Parmigiano-Reggiano at the time.
The headnote says, “Why This Recipe Works: If you grew up in an Italian American household — especially if your relatives came from southern Italy — you know braciole (pronounced “brah-ZHUL”). You most likely ate it for supper as part of “Sunday gravy,” a long-simmered tomato sauce that’s also packed with meatballs and sausage. If you’re not familiar with this dish, you’re in for a real treat. The basic description — rolled, stuffed beef that is browned and simmered in tomato sauce — doesn’t do justice to its savory deliciousness. ... For our take on this Italian American Sunday supper, we found flank steak had the beefiest flavor. Bread-based fillings were stodgy, so we went with a simple mixture of sweet raisins, fresh parsley and basil, and savory Parmesan cheese. Brushing the meat with oil before applying the filling helped it stay put while we rolled up the braciole. First infusing the oil with garlic in the microwave added another layer of flavor. A quick sear prevented the meat from toughening, and a long braise in an easy-to-prepare sauce kept it flavorful and tender. Some supermarkets sell meat labeled specifically for braciole, but we recommend buying flank steak and trimming it yourself. Look for flank steak of even thickness, without tapered ends.”
Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 325 degrees. Position steak on cutting board so long edge is parallel to counter edge. Using meat pounder, gently pound steak between 2 pieces of plastic wrap to even 1/2‑inch thickness. Trim any ragged edges to create rough rectangle about 11 by 9 inches. Pat steak dry.
Combine oil and garlic in bowl and microwave until fragrant, about 1 minute. Let cool slightly, then remove garlic from oil with fork. Separately reserve garlic and garlic oil. Combine raisins, Parmesan, 1/4 cup basil, parsley, 1/2 teaspoon oregano, 1/4 teaspoon pepper flakes, and half of garlic in bowl.
Brush exposed side of steak with 1 tablespoon garlic oil and season with pepper and salt. Spread raisin mixture evenly over steak, pressing to adhere, leaving 1‑inch border along top edge. Starting from bottom edge and rolling away from you, roll steak into tight log, finally resting it seam side down. Tie kitchen twine around braciole at 1‑inch intervals.
Heat 1 tablespoon garlic oil in 12‑inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until just smoking. Add braciole, seam side down, and cook until lightly browned all over, about 5 minutes. Transfer to 13-inch-by-9‑inch baking dish.
Reduce heat to medium and add onion, remaining garlic oil, remaining 1/2 teaspoon oregano, and remaining 1/4 teaspoon pepper flakes to now-empty skillet. Cook until onion just begins to soften, about 3 minutes. Stir in tomato paste and remaining garlic and cook until fragrant and tomato paste is lightly browned, about 1 minute. Stir in tomatoes and bring to simmer. Pour sauce over braciole and cover dish tightly with aluminum foil. Bake until fork slips easily in and out of braciole, 11/2 to 13/4 hours. Transfer dish to wire rack, spoon sauce over braciole, re-cover, and let rest in sauce for 30 minutes.
Transfer braciole to carving board, seam side down. Discard twine and slice braciole 3/4-inch thick. Stir remaining 1/4 cup basil into sauce and season with salt and pepper to taste. Ladle 2 cups sauce onto serving platter. Transfer braciole slices to platter. Serve, passing remaining sauce and extra Parmesan separately. Serve with pasta. Serves 4 to 6.
The headnote says: “Why This Recipe Works: Cioppino is an Italian American fish stew from San Francisco featuring an abundance of seafood in a garlicky broth of tomatoes, stock, and wine. ... This cioppino is richer, darker, and more complex than more-common renditions. ... We started by making a tomatoey marinara base that relied on pantry staples and came together quickly, bolstering the mix with bottled clam juice and, for a bit of sweetness, dry sherry. Instead of breaking out the food processor to make a traditional pesto to flavor our stew ... we simply added pesto’s key ingredients (olive oil, basil, and garlic) to the mix. ... We bypassed clams and calamari, opting instead for easy-to-find shrimp, scallops, sea bass and mussels. Adding our seafood to the pot in stages and finishing the cooking off the heat ensured that each component was perfectly cooked. We recommend buying ‘dry’ scallops, which don’t have chemical additives and taste better than ‘wet’ scallops. Dry scallops will look ivory or pinkish; wet scallops are bright white. If you can’t find fresh dry scallops, you can substitute thawed frozen scallops. If you can’t find sea bass, you can substitute cod, haddock or halibut fillets.”
For the marinara: Heat oil in large saucepan over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion, garlic, and salt and cook until onion is softened and just beginning to brown, about 8 minutes. Add tomato sauce, tomato puree, basil, sugar, Worcestershire, and cinnamon and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until marinara is slightly thickened, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from heat, cover, and set aside.
For the cioppino: Season sea bass, shrimp, and scallops with salt and pepper; set aside. Heat oil in Dutch oven over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add mussels, basil, sherry, garlic, Worcestershire, saffron, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cover and cook until mussels start to open, about 2 minutes.
Stir in clam juice and marinara until combined. Nestle sea bass and scallops into pot and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium, cover, and simmer until seafood is just turning opaque, about 2 minutes. Nestle shrimp into pot and return to simmer. Cover and cook until all seafood is opaque, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and let sit, covered, for 5 minutes. Serve with baguette slices and lemon wedges. Serves 6-8.
Worth Tasting, April 25, 10:30 a.m. Guided 4-hour culinary walking tour of downtown New Haven, reservations required, 203-415-3519, 203-777-8550, $68. Tickets at https://bit.ly/2FjiwMP. Enjoy tasty samplings from several of New Haven’s favorites. You won’t be hungry after this tour. I will lead this one.