Bella Figura and Zucchini Flower Zeppole

I am so embarrassed that it has been so long since I have written a blog entry. Our only daughter is getting married and I have been preoccupied with making sure that everything is perfect because god forbid I make a “brutta figura”! But I ended up making a “brutta figura” with all of you by not keeping up with my blog posts! If you are Italian, you know exactly what I mean by “brutta figura”. For all the non-Italians read on as I explain in detail of this Italian phenomenon. And for all the Italians out there help me make a “bella figura” by giving me wedding planning advice.

While growing up in my big Italian family, my parents stressed to all of us the importance of always making a “bella figura” so our family looked good. We strived to make “una bella figura” versus “una brutta figura”). In literal translation brutta means ugly and bella means beautiful. Figura means figure as in body shape. Figuratively, these two phrases mean that Italians want to always make a good impression versus a bad impression. Let me give you an example. My first introduction to “brutta figura” was when we would go visit my extended Italian family. The hostess would welcome us into her home and lead us into a beautiful dining room set up with fine linens, china and would serve espresso, an assortment of desserts, and aperitifs.  This was her way of making “una bella figura”. (One time we went to a relative’s house in Brooklyn and we had to sit on plastic covered chairs that went crunch when we moved. I don’t know if this could be regarded as “bella figura”.) For us children, so as not to embarrass my parents and create “una brutta figura”, we were urged to partake of the coffee, desserts and even the aperitifs. Yes, as a child I was encouraged by the hostess to try the aperitifs along with everything else. Although I didn’t care for the aperitifs and the espresso to make “una bella figura” I had to try it. But now when I look back I should not have tried so hard with the Italian pastries. I realize now, this was the only drawback to this “bella figura”. All these good impressions I made, ended up on my “figura” which now I need to work on, so I can make a “bella figura” for my own daughter’s wedding.

As I grew up in the restaurant I watched my father and my uncle practice their “bella figura” on their restaurant customers. My father would ho, ho, ho while my uncle would ha, ha, ha, as a customer told a joke. My brother and I would recognize my father’s overly deep laugh and my uncle’s high pitched laugh as fake. We would look at each other and say, “bella figura”. We knew that our dad and uncle were pretending to understand the joke!

I passed on this “bella figura” concept to not only my husband but our kids as well. In the early years when my husband and I were dating, one day in front of my father, my husband bravely downed a glass of fresh warm goat’s milk that was just milked from our pet goat, Daisy so as to make a “bella figura’. Our youngest child absolutely hates butter. Whenever we would go out to dinner and his entre’ happened to be made with butter, he would have a meltdown. We would have to immediately return it and get something else. Now that he is older and married, he makes sure to make a “bella figura” whenever he eats with his wife’s family who use butter to their hearts content in everything they make! The oldest child who was in the Navy avoided many national incidents by practicing “bella figura”. In the Philippines he partook in eating everything that his hosts, the Philippine Navy, served in his honor. It was the first time and last time that he had roasted pigs face. Another time in Iraq he braced himself to accept a date dredged in yogurt from the fingers of his Iraquee guide. He made a “bella figura’’ and ate it as it was passed from one Iraqi’s hands to another’s and finally to his own.

But “bella figura” doesn’t just relate to food. Italians make sure their clothes are neatly pressed with accessories that match to the smallest detail. From the women with perfectly coiffured hair, to the men with their perfectly trimmed beards, Italians take their appearances seriously. But its not just the way they look! Even things must look good. A dessert, a gift, a garden, an entrance to a home, everything must be perfectly decorated with a flourish! Even with their children’s school studies would parents often ask, “hai fatto una bella figura?” when asking how they did in an exam. And let me explain their generosity! Italians always put their hand in their pocket to avoid “una brutta figura”! Even if someone is making a “brutta figura” in front of you, it is best to avoid noticing it. After all, it is a “bella figura” to not embarrass the person making the “brutta figura”!

In Italy one can even make a “brutta figura” while drinking coffee! I drink cappuccino whenever I feel like it. Whether it’s in the morning or after a meal, I have no problem ordering one. But when I am in Italy, I make sure to only order one in the morning because I don’t want to make a “brutta figura”! Apparently, a cappuccino is only a breakfast drink in Italy. They will serve you one, but rest assured, in their heads they are thinking,” Pfft……Americano!” Also, any real Italian, will never drink coffee out of a paper cup! Or even worse, walk around drinking out of one! That is a huge “brutta figura’!

And now to get back to this wedding. I am not only just worrying about the guest list so as not to make a “brutta figura”. I need to make sure the flowers are perfect on the tables, we present a good meal and it’s served with finesse, so we can make a “bella figura”. But honestly, what is stressing me out the most is my dress! I must find a beautiful dress that fits perfectly on this “figura” (literally) just so I don’t make a “brutta figura” (figuratively). Ohh the consequences of making a “bella figura” through the years and now I risk making a “brutta figura” at my own daughter’s wedding!


Zucchini Flower Zeppole

Male and Female Zucchini Flowers

It’s summer time and my zucchini plants are in full swing! We enjoy zucchini year-round, but you need the summer to enjoy the flowers! My family loves zeppole made with zucchini flowers. The flowers are edible and so utterly delicious that we can’t wait for summer to plant zucchini plants! I am going to show how to make these zeppole step by step! If you haven’t planted zucchini plants look for the zucchini flowers at your farmer’s market. Italians love their zucchini never letting them grow longer than 5 inches and are sold with their flowers still attached. In the picture above I have displayed the female flowers which are attached to the zucchini and the male flowers. I only use the male flowers for the zeppole. They have long stems with no zucchini attached. Some recipes call for the female flowers too but I prefer only the male flowers. The female flowers sometimes are bruised and fall apart.

                                     Ingredients:

10 to 12 male zucchini flowers, washed removing stamen and leaves
1 cup of flour
1 teaspoon of salt
½ teaspoon of baking powder
A turn of pepper mill
1 egg
½ to ¾ cup of water depending how thick you want the zeppole
¼ to ½ cup of oil for frying depending on what size pan you use. You want to have enough to fry in. I prefer extra virgin oil to fry in for extra flavor but any frying oil is good.

 

                                  Procedure:

1. Wash the flowers thoroughly making sure that you don’t inadvertently catch a bee inside the flower!

2. Remove the tiny green leaves around the flower.

3. Next break off the stamen

Take off the stamen

4. Set aside on paper towels to dry. Now to make the batter.

5. Mix the dry ingredients separately and in a separate bowl mix water and egg. Then add the egg mixture to the dry ingredients and mix.

Mix up the batter

6. Now you have some choices!
a. Some people love to stuff the flowers (keeping the stem on) with ricotta cheese mozzarella and grated cheese twisting the top of the flower to keep the stuffing inside. And then coating them with the batter.

Stuffed Whole Zucchini Flower

 

b. You can dip the flower whole (with stem on for presentation only) into the batter.

Frying the zucchini flower Zeppole

c. You can also tear the flower in pieces ( be sure to take stem off) and placing it in batter. And putting batter in oil to fry by tablespoonfuls.

7. Next is fry your choice of flower preparation in heated oil in a skillet. I set the burner on a medium high. I like them a golden brown and then flip it over. Check often so you don’t burn them. It can take about 3 minutes or more on each side. I like to line a plate with paper towel to drain off excess oil.

Drain zeppola on paper towels

8. Finally serve and eat. I sprinkle them with a little grated sea salt. My granddaughter likes them sprinkled with sugar!

Fried Zucchini Flower Zeppole

 

Buon Appetito!

Traditions and Memories! Broiled Shrimp Scampi

What is General Patton doing at Coppola’s?

As 2017 comes to an end I wanted to share a memory of the restaurant.  You see our restaurant wasn’t all about my family and I.  It was also about our customers.  Their memories became our memories.  I learned so much from our customers. The following story is about a picture that hung on the wall in Coppola’s Restaurant men’s room.  Ever since the picture was hung up on the wall in Coppola’s Restaurant men’s room it stirred up a lot of commotion. The infamous picture was of General Patton on June 6, 1944, when the Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy and invaded Europe. The Rhine River was Germany’s ancient line of defense; when American troops crossed the Rhine on March 7, 1945 at Remagen near Cologne, it was all over for the Nazis. General George S. Patton showed his contempt for the Germans by relieving himself into the river. On the rare occasion I went into the men’s room the only thing that I noticed about that 8 x 10 picture was that it looked oddly out of place lost on a blank wall.

General Patton - American troops crossed the Rhine on March 7, 1945
In the early 1990’s before my dad passed away, a loyal customer, the late Jim Quinn, brought in the picture because he said our men’s room needed some sprucing up.  I found this extremely odd but it’s a men’s room and what do I know! Suffice to say that not only has this picture become a conversation piece for years but it has also provoked people to steal. The picture had been stolen so many times that we kept copies to replace the stolen copy. What’s funny about it is that they always left the frame! But that picture stirred up so many interesting conversations.

A conversation that really stood out was when an out of town gentleman (here for the Vassar College Graduation) after returning from the men’s room wanted to speak to someone about that picture. My face flushed from embarrassment, I just couldn’t get the words out on what General Patton was actually doing trying to explain the picture. The customer was an older stately gentleman and I kept stumbling for words. It was at the end of the evening so I just directed him to the kitchen to speak to Jim. My embarrassment was all for naught since the only reason he wanted to talk about the picture is that he wanted to share his story that he was there with General Patton. This gentleman was one of the engineers from the 150th Engineer Combat Battalion that crossed that Rhine River many times during WW2. Well, I had to look up what exactly did an engineer do during the crossing of the Rhine River over 60 years ago. After reading about the 150th Engineer Combat Battalion, I was extremely impressed. I thought I would take an excerpt from the information I found so you can be equally impressed!

“It was during this week, in late March of 1945, that the U.S. Third Army under Gen. Patton, began its famous bridging and crossing operations of the Rhine. After the completion of the Battle in The Ardennes, Patton and his Army turned to the south and east attacking toward the Rhine. Without the luck of the 9th Armored Division, further to the north, who were able to capture the only intact bridge across the Rhine at Remagen, Patton’s Third Army faced the necessity of bridging the wide river with their own resources. There had been a total of 22 road and 25 railroad bridges spanning the Rhine into Germany, but with the exception of the Remagen Bridge, they had all been destroyed.

In a special order to his men, Patton stated that from late January to late March, “You have taken over 6,400 square miles of territory, seized over 3,000 cities, towns and villages including Trier, Koblenz, Bingen, Worms, Mainz, Kaiserslautern, and Ludwigshafen. You have captured over 140,000 soldiers, killed or wounded an additional 100,000 while eliminating the German 1st and 7th Armies. Using speed and audacity on the ground with support from peerless fighter-bombers in the air, you kept up a relentless round-the-clock attack on the enemy. Your assault over the Rhine at 2200 last night assures you of even greater glory to come.” (After Action Report, Third U.S. Army, page 313)

The first unit to cross was the 5th Infantry Division that used assault rafts to cross the raging Rhine at Oppenheim (west of Darmstadt and south of Mainz) in the early morning hours of March 23. The 150th Engineer Combat Battalion (EC inflated the floats for the bridge in the rear area, moved them to the river in trucks, and by daybreak had assembled them into rafts. By 1880 that evening, a class 40 M-2 Treadway bridge was taking traffic. The following day, a second 1,280-foot class 24 bridge was completed in the same area. It was later upgraded to a class M-40 bridge. Without the benefit of aerial bombardment or artillery preparation, units landed quickly and established a beachhead that was seven miles wide and six miles deep in less than 24 hours. Several amphibious tanks of the 748th Tank Battalion crossed with the men of the 5th ID.

When daylight came, the Luftwaffe attacked the enclave with 154 aircraft in an attempt to dislodge the foothold on the east bank. Effective anti-aircraft fires brought down 18 of the attacking planes and destroyed 15 more.

By March 27, five divisions with supporting troops and supplies had crossed the three bridges constructed at Oppenheim. The entire 6th Armored Division crossed in less than 17 hours. During the period of March 24-31, a total of 60,000 vehicles passed over these bridges. After consolidating on the east bank, the Third Army continued its drive to the east, capturing Darmstadt on March 25, and arriving in Frankfurt the following day.

Working as a well-coordinated unit, the Third Army relied upon trained veteran soldiers, dedicated leadership, an excellent working relationship with the XIX Tactical Air Command, a logistical train that moved all classes of supplies and personnel replacements quickly to the front.}

* See Barry W. Fowle, editor, Builders and Fighters: U.S. Army Engineers in World War II, Office of History, US Army Corps of Engineers, Fort Belvoir, VA, 1992. See especially Fowle, “The Rhine River Crossings,” pp 463-476]

But on this very night that the engineer from the 150th Engineer Combat Battalion from WWII had dinner at our restaurant and proudly recounted his experience with General Patton, we had an unusual coincidence occur.  It was 10 pm and I had just locked up the front doors and turned off the sign when someone was knocking at the door.  I didn’t know his name but his face was familiar so I couldn’t turn him away. It ended up being Jim Quinn’s son and grandson to have a drink at the bar.  If you remember at the start of my story it was Jim Quinn who originally gave us the picture of General Patton.  At the time I was thinking that General Patton relieving himself at Coppola’s is still keeping Jim Quinn alive in all of our memories. I really do believe that Jim Quinn must have telepathically sent a message to his son to come in to Coppola’s and have a Manhattan in his honor while he was remembered by all of us!

May all your traditions and special memories keep your loved ones alive this holiday season! 

* After reading this memory to Jim he recalled another General Patton memory. Mind you that General Patton picture was always a conversation starter.  This particular time started with accusations! It came from the mouth of a much younger gentleman. He was actually screaming at my husband, calling him a thief. Apparently, this young man’s grandfather was the photographer who took this particular photograph.  He said there were only two originals and what was one doing in the Coppola’s men’s room. It took some coaxing to calm the young man down and convince him that it was only a copy! Sheesh who knew that a picture could cause so much turmoil! That Jim Quinn knew what he was doing when he wanted to spruce things up or should I say rile up?

See our popular Broiled Shrimp Scampi recipe from our restaurant menu.

Take a Walk through Ischia Ponte and enjoy a recipe for Panettone di Ischia

Castello Araganese

Castello Aragonese

This post is going to be a little different.  Different is that I will be living surreptitiously through my sister in this story.  Even though she lives thousands of miles away in a different time zone we keep in touch through all the current forms of communication.  Not only do we FaceTime on our iPhone, we email, use Skype,  WhatsApp and Snapchat.  Giovanna and her husband Davide have just recently moved to the island of Ischia, located in the Gulf of Naples.  Ischia is our mamma’s native island.

If you have been following my blog, one of my passionate topics I talk about is about my mom and Ischia.  My mom, suffers from Alzheimers and can’t remember anymore and because of that we try to remember for her. Growing up we took many trips with my parents to Ischia taking for granted everything mamma told us.  Both my sister and I remember bits of things that she has told us and we try to piece it all  together by researching.  We both read as much as we can about Ischia.  I even belong to many Facebook groups that have to do with Ischia.

Now, I will make sure to take full advantage of Giovanna living there.  I love taking virtual food tours of Ischia.  If I see something interesting, Giovanna will go investigate and/or taste it for me.  Not only is Giovanna having fun in Ischia imagining walking in our mom’s shoes and remembering her life but I am too.

Giovanna lives in Ischia Ponte where her apartment faces Il Castello Aragonese (the small medieval  castle on a large volcanic rock connected by a bridge).   The apartment is in the same neighborhood mamma grew up in. This area is where the “Crimson Pirate” was filmed in 1951 starring Burt Lancaster and Eva Bartok.

On New Years Day Giovanna told me she was going for a walk to Cartaromana.  Cartaromana is a small beach about a 20 minute walk from Il Castello Aragonese.  It’s a beautiful small beach complete with hot springs. Every time we visited Ischia we made sure to go there.  Even when I was older I brought my children there and they had the pleasure of experiencing this beach.  We always made sure to eat at Ristorante da Maria on the beach, which is still there.  My mom loved for all of us to enjoy the coniglio Ischitana, the famous rabbit recipe that Ischia is famous for.  There is nothing like Ischitana cuisine.

While Giovanna took her leisurely walk I asked her to take pictures along the way and share with me. And she did through snap chat!  I saved the pictures so you can all experience the walk to Cartaromana through Giovanna’s camera lens and perhaps you will enjoy it as much as I did!

Starting the walk to Cartaromana on Via Soronzarao, an antique paththat the farmers and fisherman used to exchange their products. Going up the hill.

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This walk will take about 20 minutes. The path connects Ischia Ponte and Cartaromana and the cultivated hills.

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Signs were everywhere directing Giovanna to Cartaromana Beach!

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The first glimpse of the Castello Aragonese as she walked up the hill.

Castello Araganese

At the top of the hill she saw the full view of the medieval castle.

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Giovanna turned around at the Torre de Guevara and is on the way down. Just beyond this hill is the path leading to the beach. The Cartaromana beach can also be accessed by boat.

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It’s getting dark as she’s nearing the Castello.

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Each time she passed the man on his scooter Giovanna cheerfully greeted him. The second time he gifted her a fresh lemon and orange and wished her happy new year! He said he was impressed by her cheerfulness!

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Going back down to the piazza in front of Il Castello Aragonese

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It’s night now and Giovanna continued to walk to the other side to La Mandra Beach. La Mandra is the beach my mom and her family used when they all lived in Ischia. Goodnight Giovanna and Davide!


I came across Panettone di Ischia on Instagram.  I asked Giovanna about it.  She said she has been seeing them in all the bakery shops.  I decided to make one so I can feel like I am there.  So while I walk with Giovanna through Cartoromana I have been enjoying a piece of panetonne with a cup of espresso. Tell me if it doesn’t look the same!  It was delicious.  Here’s the recipe I used!

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Panettone di Ischia by instagram voraciinsud

Panettone 12

My version of Panettone di Ischia. Sip an espresso while munching on this panettone and let’s pretend we are with Giovanna and Davide in Ischia!

See my recipe for slow rise panettone.

Shrimp Marinara for Feast of Seven Fishes

Just days away from Christmas Eve, I have been thinking about what seven fishes I should make for our traditional Italian Christmas Eve dinner.  Being that both of my parents grew up near the Gulf of Naples in Italy (my dad from Monte di Procida on the mainland and my mom on the Island of Ischia) fish was a focal part of many meals.  My mom came from a long line of prominent fishermen.  Her uncles and grandfather were tall strapping men who made fishing their living.  While my dad’s family on the other hand, made their living farming.  Fishing was just a favorite past time, a perk of living just a mile from the sea. Because of my family’s passion for salt water fishing, my siblings and I spent a major part of our summers fishing on the Long Island Sound.  So needless to say, getting fish for our Christmas Eve dinner was always an adventure for choosing the freshest and tastiest fish.  All this passion for fish also resonated into our restaurant menu.  Our restaurant was one of the first restaurants in the Hudson Valley to introduce calamari to their clientele. For this month’s recipe I thought I would give you our Shrimp Marinara recipe. It’s a simple recipe using our authentic marinara sauce that we used in the restaurant, the 825 MAIN Marinara Sauce.  As a recurring theme with all of my recipe,s the attention to all the ingredients is what sets us apart from the rest. To make this Shrimp Marinara truly special and mouth watering, I would like to share my knowledge from my family’s passion for seafood. There is so much to know when choosing your shrimp for this recipe!

There are dozens of different species of shrimp.  Shrimp are available with the heads and tails on or off, with the shell on or cleaned, and deveined or intact.  One can choose from pre-cooked, frozen, fresh, or previously frozen. And then one has to wonder whether to buy shrimp or prawns.

I have included some information to help you decide on some of the following questions:

1.What size shrimp to get?
A shrimp’s size is measured by the number of individual shrimp it takes to make up a pound. A label of 16/20 means that there are between 16 and 20 of these shrimp in a pound.
The smaller the number, the bigger the shrimp. These labels like “medium” or “jumbo” aren’t regulated and vary depending on the fish monger.  Here’s a general guide when picking shrimp for a recipe.Small  – 51 shrimp or more per pound
Medium –  36 to 50 shrimp per pound
Large –  26 to 40 shrimp per pound
Jumbo – 16 to 25 shrimp per pound
Colossal  – Fewer than 15 shrimp per pound

2. What types of shrimp are there to choose from?
By color:  When one thinks of shrimp you think about the color like brown, white, or pink shrimp.
Brown shrimp mostly come from the Gulf of Mexico, though they’re found down the entire Atlantic coast. They like it warm, so they’re found in shallow waters, and tend to be fairly small with a purple-ish coloring on the tail. Firm in texture, their flavor isn’t the strongest, though they’re thought to have a distinctive mineral-y iodine shrimp flavor.
White shrimp tend to be a little more tender and sweet. With a slightly lighter color and a green-hued tail, they’re found along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts in shallow, muddy waters. There’s also a good number of white shrimp imported from Latin America—especially Mexico and Ecuador—Thailand, and China, all with varying levels of sustainability ratings (see the seafood watch reports for more details.)
Pink shrimp are some of the tastiest shrimp you can find, mild and sweet without the distinctive ammonia taste some of the brown and white shrimp have. Just don’t expect a vibrantly hued patch of shrimp at the market—pink shrimp can range from white to gray in color. You can recognize them by dark blue coloring on the tail; they usually also sport a spot on either side of the body, about three quarters of the way to the tail.
By name: Tiger shrimp, Spot Prawn, Rock Shrimp
Tiger Shrimp are found mostly in Asia, especially in Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan, and China, tiger shrimp have telltale brown striping on their bodies.  They can get enormous in size, up to a foot long, and are the most commonly farmed shrimp in the world. Formed or fresh, they can have a distinctly shrimp flavor, you’ll frequently find them frozen in five-pound blocks in Asian markets. These shrimp have a soft texture.
Spot Prawn– Prawn is a word generally used, among English-speakers, in the UK, Europe, and Australia, while the word “shrimp” is more common in North America. Some people may have the mistaken impression that a prawn is necessarily a bigger creature than a shrimp (possibly due to the other meaning of the word shrimp). In reality, there’s no difference between the two words. Yet for whatever reason, even in the US, the spot prawn is always referred to as a prawn and not a shrimp. It’s found along the Pacific coast from Alaska down to Mexico, and is a delicacy in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest. A fairly large shrimp, at up to a foot long, spot prawns are prized for their sweetness and tenderness.
Rock shrimp are deepwater inhabitants, growing tough and hardy in the cold waters off the Atlantic coast from Virginia down to the Gulf. A few species also live off the Pacific coast. They don’t look at all like their warm water cousins, boasting a very hard (dare I say rock-like) shell and segmented flesh that looks more like a lobster tail than anything else. It tastes, not surprisingly, kind of like lobster, more firm than other varieties of shrimp, but also sweeter. It’s excellent in preparations that typically call for lobster, and a whole lot cheaper to boot. It’s pretty much impossible to remove that tough shell without a dedicated machine, so it’s usually sold pre-peeled.

3. How do you know if they are fresh?
Shrimp are highly perishable, so it’s important to know how to pick out the freshest shrimp available, not just for taste and texture but also for safety. First off, you don’t want any shrimp that smell like ammonia—this is a telltale sign of spoilage, and it’s worth asking your fishmonger if you can take a sniff before buying. You’ll also want to avoid shrimp that are limp, slimy, or falling apart, all of which are signs of decay.

A more advanced sign if you’re buying head-on fresh shrimp: look for black spots on the head first, then the body.

In most cases, you’re better off buying frozen shrimp, even when “fresh” shrimp are available.

4. Do you get fresh or frozen?
Most shrimp sold in the supermarket or at the fishmonger were deep frozen at sea and delivered to the retailer in that state. That display of “fresh” shrimp you see are just the same   bags of frozen shrimp you find in the freezer that have simply been allowed to thaw out in the store before going on display. There’s no way to know how long they’ve been there defrosted, so you’re better off buying the frozen shrimp and defrosting them yourself at home where you have more control over the process and can guarantee that your shrimp don’t spend too long out of the freezer before being cooked. You can also ask the fishmonger for a box of shrimp.

The one exception to the always-buy-frozen rule is when you have access to live shrimp, either fresh from the ocean, or stored in tanks at the shop. In those cases, cook the shrimp as soon as possible after purchasing for best flavor and texture.

5. Block or IQF?
Shrimp tend to be frozen either in large five-pound blocks or by using the IQF (Individually Quick Frozen) method. We recommend opting for the second. IQF shrimp tend to show less damage during freezing. They also make it easy to thaw only the shrimp you need for a single meal at a time.
If you’re buying from a grocery store freezer, take a peek in the little transparent plastic to make sure there is no freezer burn.  Freezer burn indicates that the shrimp have either partially thawed before being refrozen, or have been poorly handled during their freeze, both of which are bad for texture and flavor.

6. How do you thaw frozen shrimp?
Frozen shrimp should always be thawed before cooking. To thaw frozen shrimp take them out of their bag and place them in a bowl under cold (not warm) running water. They’ll be good to go in just a few minutes. Dry your shrimp on paper towels before proceeding with your recipe.

7. Do you get them with shells?
I recommend shell-on shrimp.  Shelled shrimp are often mangled and unappetizing. Shell-on shrimp also tend to be much cheaper. Finally, those shells pack a sweet, flavorful punch, whether you grill the shrimp directly in the shell, or use the shells to add flavor to the final dish like in this Spanish-style shrimp.
EZ-peel shrimp are already split and deveined—you’ll be able to hold onto those flavorful shells and they’ll make your job that much easier.  And they are much more expensive.  If you’re making something where the shrimp’s appearance doesn’t matter—dumplings, for instance—go for it. But if you want a good looking array for something like shrimp cocktail, you’ll probably want to peel ’em yourself. In either case, be sure to hold onto your shells: they can be simmered with aromatics to make a flavorful seafood stock, sauce, or oil.

 8. Does one devein or not?
The “vein” of a shrimp is actually its digestive tract, typically a thin, dark line aka shrimp poop. It’s not bad if you eat it, but it could be sandy and bitter and it’s easy enough to get rid of it. There are a few methods to devein a shrimp. The first and easiest is to just ask your fishmonger to do it. No tools are required for this method.

But it’s pretty easy to do it yourself, as well. You can, with a paring knife, make a shallow incision right through the shell on the shrimp’s back, from its head to its tail, and then pick out the vein.

9. What about choosing Pre-Cooked Shrimp?
“Pre-cooked” shrimp are usually “overcooked” shrimp. They’re  rubbery and bland, and since they’re already cooked, offer no room for flavor improvement and will end up dry when added to dishes. I say don’t bother!

10. Do we check for additives?
Shrimp are occasionally treated with chemical additives designed to increase their thawed shelf life or to get them to suck up and retain excess moisture so that they can be sold as larger shrimp. Check your label and make sure that it lists only “Shrimp” before purchasing.

See our Shrimp Marina recipe.

All My Firsts! ‘Chicken Scarpariello Recipe’

 As I reach this new phase of my life with the last of my kids planning her wedding, I wonder how I got here?  I think it all started with a bunch of firsts:

I was the first born American in a huge Italian family.

I was the first to go to school without knowing a word of English.

I was the first in my family to eat canned spaghetti. (I had no choice because it was served at the school cafeteria.  I had to eat it as the  Catholic nun was glaring at me to swallow.  I have to say it was the worst thing I ever had and so sad that mamma sent me to school without a bag lunch.)

I was the first to date a non- Italian ( It was a big revolt in the family over that first!  There was even a family council over this and major discussions with a wooden spoon. Ouch!)

And I ended being the first to marry the non-Italian ( I fought hard and won.  I think all my younger siblings and cousins should grovel at my feet for that.  Because gasp! I broke the Italian seal of approval!)

The first to go to college.

The first to get a job that didn’t involve food. ( I became an accountant)

I was the first grandchild to take my Nonna for a drive in my car. (I drove her over the bridge twice because instead of getting off the ramp I continued back on the bridge. Nonna was wondering where we were going while she held on to her rosary beads.  I lied and told her we had to take a detour while thinking I need to go to confession!)

Getting my car license really opened up my world of firsts.  Because of it, I picked up Mexican take out.  It was the first time I ate Mexican and introduced my mom and siblings to tortillas.

I had my first bagel at the Marist College cafeteria. I never tasted anything so delicious.  Who knew that bread boiled and baked could taste so good!

Not only have I come a long way but I paved the way for the rest of my American born family! When I think of my own children I am proud that I made their childhood a little more normal than mine.  Even what I keep in the refrigerator has changed big time. I go back to one odd memory of growing up. Of course, I didn’t realize it was odd because this is all my brother and I knew!  On Saturday mornings whilst my parents slept my brother and I would slyly raid the fridge. Peering in with our eyes wide open, the fridge was an adventure! While Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon played in the background we grabbed a lemon to share, cutting it in half and poured salt over the it.  We also grabbed the bottle of olives and helped ourselves to a few.  Reaching in further or I should say as I reached in because being the oldest I had the longest reach, I would find glistening in the rear  the red, green and yellow hot cherry peppers. Nick and I would grab forks and pierce a pepper each. If we were lucky there were leftover anchovies. What can I say? Was this weird? Or maybe there were other choices but our palates craved for what we knew I need to ask my children what snack did they sneak? I really do hope I gave them more normal options like bagels and cream cheese! Or maybe tortilla chips!  In honor of my Saturday ritual with my brother, I am sharing our restaurant recipe of Chicken Scarpariello.  It’s a little different than most recipes because we only used boneless chicken breasts. Hope you enjoy the hot cherry peppers as much as my brother and I do! Maybe you can put on Rocky and Bullwinkle and make it complete!

PS  I love hot cherry peppers so much that I make my own every summer!  I pickled them with black peppercorns, bay leaves and peeled garlic this year! Also Scarpariello means shoemaker.  Don’t ask! It makes no sense to me why it’s called that.

See our Chicken Scarpareiello recipe.

Spaghetti and Meatballs (American-style vs Italian-style)

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One of our most popular dishes that we served in the restaurant was “Spaghetti and Meatballs”.  A big dish of spaghetti with 2 large meatballs doused with our delicious tomato sauce was a big seller.  Twice a week the chefs would be busy mixing the ground meat in a huge mixer and then rolling 500 meatballs at a time. People loved this dish! Spaghetti and meatballs is a standard Italian dish served at Italian restaurants all over the US.  Notice I said the US.  It is not a typical dish served in Italy. If you go to Italy, you won’t find this dish on restaurant menus and if you do it’s probably in a tourist spot to make the American tourist happy. Italy does have a version of meatballs called polpettes.  But they a very different.  They are usually eaten as a meal itself or in soups.  They are made with different meat from turkey to fish. And they are as small as marbles or as large as a golf ball.  Nothing like the baseball or softball sized American meatballs.

Polpettes are usually found more at the family table than on a restaurant menu. My grandmother made delicious meatballs that I looked forward to on Sunday dinner with the family. Pellegrino Artusi was a Florentine silk merchant who in his retirement travelled Italy and recorded recipes. He became famous when he published the first regional cookbook, The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well for the home chef in 1891. When he talked about polpettes he said “Non crediate che io abbia la pretensione d’insegnarvi a far le polpette. Questo è un piatto che tutti lo sanno fare cominciando dal ciuco,” which translates, “Don’t think I’m pretentious enough to teach you how to make meatballs. This is a dish that everybody can make, starting with the donkey.” So needless to say, Italian version of meatballs was an incredibly easy dish to make.

So, you may ask how did those large meatballs doused with tomato sauce over spaghetti evolve from polpettes.  It’s the common story shared by all immigrants traveling to America.  They have to make do with ingredients they can find and afford.

Four million Italians (mostly from southern Italy) immigrated to America from 1880 to 1920. Because the majority of Italians that came were from Southern Italy their cuisine made a huge mark on the Italian/American culture.  When these poor immigrants came to the US they found that their income increased so that they were able to spend more money on food.  They ended up going from eating meat once a week to eating meat every day! And meat was consumed in much larger quantities.  So, the small moist polpettes made with 50% bread and 50% meat that they enjoyed in Italy changed to larger denser meatballs made with mostly beef.

I have to tell you as popular as the restaurant meatball was, I preferred my Nonna’s meatballs.  There was a huge difference! Nonna’s meatballs were soft and succulent while the restaurant meatballs were large and dense.   I think it’s because Nonna made polpettes not the Italian/American meatball.  Here are a few secrets to get a truly soft succulent meatball.

  1. Use 50% meat and 50% bread.
  2. Use day old bread soaked in either water or milk.
  3. Overcooking meat for too long gets dry and tough but the bread keeps it moist.
  4. Do not over mix the meatball mixture. Overmixing make a denser meatball.

Now that I have shared the secret to making a perfect meatball the rest is easy.  And this is why Pellegrino Artusi said, “everybody can make, starting with the donkey.” Not only am I going to share my Nonna’s meatball recipe but I will also include a gluten free version, a vegan, and a vegetarian recipe. My Nonna’s recipe includes raisins and pignoli ( very popular additions in Neapolitan cooking). You can omit them if not something that your family may like. The gluten free recipe I developed for my daughter who is on a gluten free diet.  They are also very good but not as light and airy as Nonna’s.  The Gluten free meatballs are dense like the Italian/American version.  Also, some recipes may ask for bread crumbs instead of the soaked bread.  These meatballs will be denser. I also included a vegetarian meatball made with zucchini and a vegan meatball made with eggplant.  In Italy polpette are made with a variety of ingredients.  Enjoy tryin the different versions!


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See our recipe for Nonna’s Neapolitan Meatballs.

Understanding Olive Oil

Olive oils from around the world

For the past five years, I have been doing seminars for our local farm market.  I concentrate on sharing inside information that I have learned from my passion for food.  This year I decided to investigate olive oils from around the world.  With all this hype on olive oils lately what do we really know about them?

So, let me share how it came to be that I am so passionate about olive oil.   As you probably know by now if you have been following my blog entries, my parents came from Italy to the US in the late 1950’s. So, while growing up we would often go to Italy to visit our relatives.  My dad came from the town of Monte di Procida while my mom was from the island of Ischia.  Both overlooked the bay of Naples.  There is one memorable experience that made a real impact and was the catalyst for my passion for food.  I must have been around 10 years old.  My nonna handed me an empty green bottle and asked me to go to the corner store ‘Rosarios’ to fill up the bottle with olive oil.  My chest filled up with self-importance with this chore.  Never been allowed to walk to ‘Rosarios’ by myself before, I relished this task.  That may be why I paid extra attention to Nonna drizzling the thick green oil over the tomatoes we were going to have for lunch.  I noticed that when she put it back in the cupboard she placed it next to a clear bottle of oil.  I asked nonna why she had 2 bottles of oil.  She explained to me that the clear bottle is used for frying and the green oil is for everything else. That afternoon I took notice on how delicious the tomato salad was.  That taste of olive oil was embedded into my memory.  When we came back to the US I often wondered why we didn’t have that same olive oil.  When I moved out of my parents’ home I was on a mission to find a comparable olive oil.  So, while my friends were all tasting their first beer I was tasting olive oil.

You think I am weird?  Recently I had the occasion to ask my son who went to Italy to visit with his grandmother at the age of 10 years old what he remembers most about that trip. I had been talking to my cousin who resides in Italy and her kids to this day talk about when Josh went to visit.  It was 19 years ago, so I wondered if my son even remembered.  And this is how I know that he is my son.  He said that he still thinks about that delicious tomato and tuna salad that my cousin made.  He still is searching to find that same taste! And I believe it’s the olive oil.

The reason both he and I are so crazed about this olive oil is that it wasn’t until the 1980’s that extra virgin olive oil was even made available in America. In the 1980’s the International Olive Oil Council started sponsoring and promoting research about the healthy “Mediterranean diet.”  This coincided with the Slow Food movement emerging from Turin, emphasizing the European style artisanal approach to crafting food products.  Finally, olive oil was distributed in the U.S. It was successful marketing of olive oil that contributed to the olive boom!  Because of the wide marketing campaign of healthy olive oil, consumption of olive oil worldwide from 1990 to present blew up.  The US consumption increased by 250%.  The United Kingdom increased by 763%. Consumption in Italy Greece and Spain increased minimally because it was always part of their diet. So, Olive Oil business has become a gold mine and everyone wants to get in on it.  So, that’s why you see so many more countries involved in growing olive trees and making oil.

As I have been talking to people and reading up about olive oil, I realized that many Americans although knowledgeable about the health benefits of olive oil, don’t know what a good olive oil is supposed to taste like. For that matter, Americans may not realize that to have health benefits it has to be unrefined extra virgin olive oil.  We have all become so accustomed to the cheaper supermarket big chain olive oils that we have no idea what a good olive oil is even supposed to taste like. Our palates have become accustomed the bad characteristics of Olive Oil as typical. That’s why I have this need to share with you what I have learned about Olive oils and what you may be missing out on!

Good Characteristics of Olive oil are the following:
Fruity, Bitter and pungent (the peppery characteristic you feel at the back of your throat. Olive oil should taste fresh and not heavy and oily.

The bad characteristics are: 
Fusty from olives that are gathered in piles.  Musty when olive is stored in humid environment. Sometimes metallic if it comes in contact with prolonged contact with metal during storage. And the most common is rancid.  It has gone bad. Almost like the taste of stale crackers that are made with fat. Olive oil only has a shell life of 2 years.  But once it’s opened you need to use it within a month or two.

During my seminar, we all tasted olive oils from around the world. So, to understand what we tasted I went over a few things that are important when picking out an olive oil.

There are several factors that impact the taste of olive oils. So, that by understanding what you like will impact what country olive oil you will gravitate to.

  1. variety of olives used
  2. location and soil condition
  3. environmental factors and weather. 2 years ago, Italy had a disease that affected many olive groves.  This past year Spain has been having lots of rain that impacted the olives groves where production was at an all-time low.  You will see a rise in the price of Spanish olive oil.
  4. Olive ripeness. Green olives are bitter while ripe olives are fruity
  5. Timing of the harvest. If you wait too long the olives get too ripe and will bruise causing the olive oil to not taste good.
  6. Length of time between the harvest and pressing. The longer the wait between harvest and pressing the more the olive gets damaged and bruised yielding a terrible olive oil.  That’s why estate olive oil is so much better.  They go directly from the tree to the press.  The bigger national olive oils will collect olives from all over and transport them to a manufacturing plant.  The olives get too ripe and acquire mold.  They are cheaper because it is mass produced but the olive oil is not very good.
  7. The very best oils come from small producers who have complete control over their orchard, the harvesting of the fruit, the pressing of the olives, and the storage and eventual bottling of the product. Ripe olives are easily bruised…
  8. Additionally, the press and the bottling facility must be readily available, ideally on the farm itself. Ripe olives are easily bruised and must be held in small containers before pressing in order to avoid being squeezed by their own weight and begin deterioration. A controlled environment with ultra-sanitary conditions is paramount. The pressing process must be accomplished in the briefest time possible.
  9. Pressing technique. The best oils are pressed within a few hours, and certainly not to exceed 24 hours after the harvest, any delay beyond this time frame has a detrimental effect on the quality of the oil.  The pressing to extract the oil must happen quickly and at a controlled temperature of (ideally) of less than 80 degrees F.
  10. Packaging and storing.
  11. Being a fruit, olives contain natural antioxidants that protect the plant during its lifetime. When the olive tree is very old it contains more of these antioxidants. This is one of the reasons that olive trees are often hundreds of years old and create antioxidant rich products

Estate olive oils –  are the cream of the crop.  They are produces using olives from a single farm.  The olives are usually handpicked and then pressed and bottles at the estate.  In Italy, they are called DOP.  These olives oils are more expensive.

Blends – two types of blends are either blends from different countries or olives from diverse areas of one country are combines.  The bulk blended oils are the most economical but are still high quality.

Color –

  1. Green comes from unripe olives and are slightly bitter.
  2. Emerald tinged have fruity, grassy and peppery that dominate the food that you use them on.
  3. Golden color is made from ripe olives. Golden olive oil has a milder, smoother buttery taste without bitterness. These are good with foods that you don’t want overshadowed with olive oil taste.

Acidity
To start with, if you purchase quality EVOO the acidity level is already low at no more than .8% (That’s less than 1%) Acidity levels are determined solely by the variety of olive and by production methods. Some olives have a naturally higher acidity level. If they are not harvested with care and quickly processed into olive oil they will have even greater levels. Some on the other hand have lower acidity to start but if they are not harvested and processed properly the levels will increase. This is why olives from the same variety and the same grove can produce different grades of olive oil. If the olives are picked and pressed within 24 hours, as all of the ones in my line are, they will never have acidity levels greater than the required .8%.  If oils are blended, as is done routinely with lower grade and refined olive oil it can produce lower acidity levels and then be passed off as “extra virgin”.

So long as the oil is real EVOO (and many are not even though they claim to be) there is no reason to choose based on acidity. It should be based on taste and what one wants to do with the olive oil

Refined Olive Oils
Only about 30 percent of all olive oil production ends at extracting the oil from the olives. Refining involved using solvents and high heat to neutralize the tastes of the oil. This allows producers to use olives that are not in the best condition, and blend from oils from a wide variety of sources (even countries) because the bad tastes resulting from oxidized olives and the mass production process are chemically removed. When you see “Pure Olive Oil” at the store, or a bottle that says simply “Olive Oil,” “Genuine”, “Light”, “certified”, these are refined.  Refined has no antioxidants! So, they don’t meet the criteria for International Olive Oil healthy diet.

HOW TO TASTE OLIVE OIL
Tasting olive oil straight is the best way to judge its quality. Pour a little in a small glass and warm the glass in one hand, while covering it with the other. Now put your nose into the glass to sense the aromas. Hopefully, it reminds you of things like fresh olives, grass, bananas and apples. Hay, cardboard, vinegar, mud and mustiness are some of the aromas that indicate an olive oil has gone bad.

STORING OLIVE OIL
You can keep unopened olive oil in a cool, dark place for up to two years (high quality olive oil will last longer than one that wasn’t great to begin with).

Once you open the container, the oil begins to degrade much faster. A good rule of thumb is to use it within a few months after opening. Keep the bottle tightly capped and away from heat and direct light. The best strategy is to use olive oil often, and go through it quickly.

Extra virgin olive oil and wine also share the same “enemies:” heat, oxygen and light.  Olive oils have a relatively short shelf life and once the bottles are opened and exposed to oxygen, the oils will naturally begin to break down and lose both their organoleptic and nutritive properties.  Freshness therefore, becomes a huge issue, although older oils can still be excellent cooking oils. Storage after purchase is also important.  If possible, extra virgin olives oils are best stored in a cool, dark place like a cabinet.  Do not store or display your oil on or near your stove or on a window sill.

What is Extra Virgin Olive Oil?

  1. the oil must come from fresh olives that were milled within 24 hours of their harvest.
  2. it must be extracted by mechanical means, not from heat or chemicals. It’s called unrefined.
  3. They must not be treated chemically in any way.
  4. Being a fruit, olives contain natural antioxidants that protect the plant during its lifetime. When the olive tree is very old it contains more of these antioxidants. This is one of the reasons that olive trees are often hundreds of years old and create antioxidant rich products.
  5. Extra virgin oil is, in fact, fresh olive juice.

Extra-virgin olive oil (cold pressed) is the best. 

  But how do we know if it is the real thing and not a fraud olive oil?

7 Tips for Recognizing Real Extra Virgin Olive Oil

  1. Do not buy light olive oil or a blend; it isn’t virgin quality.
  2. When extra virgin olive oil costs less than $10 a liter it may not be real.
  3. Only buy oils in dark bottles, as this protects the oil from oxidation.
  4. Look for a seal from the International Olive Oil Council (IOC)
  5. Look for a harvesting date on the label.
  6. Olive oil can get old and rancid. A simple test for a “good” olive oil is to taste a little on a spoon. Not rancid, real olive oil will have a fruity taste in the front of your mouth and a peppery taste in the back of your mouth.
  7. How about the fridge test as stated by Dr Oz? He said that when you put a real extra-virgin olive oil in the refrigerator, it will become thick and cloudy as it cools completely. That is not a for sure test (some oils made from high-wax olive varieties will even solidify) according to a Fridge Test

Olive Oils from Around the World  
When buying olive oil, you’ll see varieties from all over the world.  Most of the world’s supply are grown in Spain, Italy and Greece.  Traditionally olive trees have been located in countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea because they need hot summers and mild winters. But now other countries are participating in the production of Olive Oil which includes other oils that we will be trying from California, France, Turkey and even Israel!

HOW TO TASTE OLIVE OIL
Tasting olive oil straight is the best way to judge its quality. Pour a little in a small glass and warm the glass in one hand, while covering it with the other. Now put your nose into the glass to sense the aromas. Hopefully, it reminds you of things like fresh olives, grass, bananas and apples. Hay, cardboard, vinegar, mud and mustiness are some of the aromas that indicate an olive oil has gone bad.

The following Extra Virgin Olive Oils are Available at Adams Fairacre Farms

Turkey – Kristal –

  1. ($16.63 per quart 25 fl oz. is 12.99 Turkey)
  2. Rich and Intense or smooth and fresh depending on olives used. We are tasting the smooth and fresh
  3. Major producer of olive oil having a long history of growing olive trees

California, US –  California Olive

  1. ($18.91 per quart $9.99 for 16.9 fl ounce)
  2. oil Blend – This all-American pick wowed testers with its smooth, subtle taste—think gentle apple notes with a hint of spice.
  3. Californian olive oil is light in color and flavor, with a bit of a fruity taste.
  4. For cooking!
  5. California heads in production in the US with their 250 different types of olives.
  6. Texas, Florida and Oregon also have entered the market.

Sicily Italy –  Partanna 100% organic      

  1. ($25.59 per quart $19.99 for 25 fl ounce)
  2. This buttery, sometimes it is unfiltered selection
  3. Use it over grilled vegetables and fish.
  4. Modest price for drizzling!
  5. Adams Private Label Olive oil is from Sicily

Israel – Sindyanna of Galilee

  1. ($30.09 per quart 17 oz is $15.99)
  2. fruity blend with green apple and fresh thyme notes
  3. Israel along with Jordan, Lebanon and Syria are actively increasing their olive growing.

Greece –  Gaea Sitia (estate grown) Green and fruity Gold award in 2016 NY International Olive Oil Competition

  1. ($30.10 per quart $15.99 17 fluid ounce)
  2. Greek olive oil packs a strong flavor and aroma and tends to be green.
  3. Greece produces about 13 percent of the world’s olive supply.
  4. History has it that Greece is the place of origin for olive oil because the olive and the tree have a large part in Greek mythology and the olive branch was given to winners at the Olympic games. Although Spain and Italy have surpassed production.

Spain – Pio del Ramo – mild- arbequina or intense Picual or balanced blend        Tasting the Picual today!

  1. ($35.95 per quart – 16.9 fl oz is 18.99)
  2. Spanish olive oil is typically golden yellow with a fruity, nutty flavor.
  3. Spain produces about 45 percent of the world’s olive supply. Largest producer and volume is heavily directed toward export. They export in barrels where Italy is primarily bottled.

Northern Italy – Lucini Premium extra virgin olive oil.  Gold award in the 2016 NY international Olive Oil Competition.

  1. ($37.63 per quart $19.99 for 17 fluid oz)
  2. They have 20 regions that they grow loves along with the island of Sardinia and Sicily.
  3. Italian olive oil is often dark green and has an herbal aroma and a grassy flavor.
  4. Italy grows about 20 percent of the world’s olives. 2nd largest producer of olive oil.

France – Le Chateau d’Estoublon single variety olives

  1. ($85.16 per qt $17.99 for 6.76 fl oz)
  2. French olive oil is typically pale in color and has a milder flavor.
  3. While French production of olive oil are very small by world standards they are very proud of their quality and distinctive taste.

 

See our White Bean (Cannellini) Soup recipe.

Ham and Cheese on Scooped Out Italian!

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This holiday season I bumped into a longtime customer of ours while shopping.  We were on a long line together at Toys R Us and chatted as we waited patiently.  Patience is a great virtue to have during the holiday rush. But I was happy to have this time with her because she shared her very first memory of the restaurant. As she spoke she brought me back in time.  She woke up those old memories of yester year when the restaurant was located in downtown Poughkeepsie.  I remember the holiday season being so much fun.  Downtown Poughkeepsie was hopping with shoppers and workers alike.  Everyone greeted each other on the side walk with reciprocated Merry Christmas’ and Happy Hanukkahs. People carrying fancy packages, coming into the restaurant for a quick dinner all knew each other.  I remembered all the happy faces with big smiles as my dad and uncles greeted each and every customer by name. Downtown was so festive!  It wasn’t just the store fronts beautifully decorated! Even the people were beautifully dressed!  The best department stores were located on Main Street.  There was Schwartz and Co.  were all the men purchased the finest suits.  It was the Up To Date where I learned all about fashion. And let us not forget Santa! The real Santa was at the Luckey Platts!  And there was a jewelry store with beautiful gemstones gleaming in the windows on every block.   My mom introduced me to perfume. Every Christmas I received ‘Up To Dates’ newest scent.  Poughkeepsie was like a mini NYC 5th Avenue!

For the first five years, we lived above the restaurant so I was right in bird’s eye view of downtown Poughkeepsie.  It was electric! The streets were full of people shouting to each other with joyous voices.  The restaurant lunch crowd was mostly business people while at dinner they all brought their families. Back then having a Martini or Manhattan at lunch was common.  There was one lawyer who didn’t drink would order a water in a martini glass with an olive just to be part of the “Martini Lunch Clique”.   Owning a restaurant sometimes makes you privy to people’s secrets.  You would think I saw some not so nice things but I have to say those were rare.  It was all good experiences back then.  All I remember is my dad and mom being so happy.  My dad’s smile was so big.  I think his smile must have been contagious because everyone that came into the restaurant had that same smile when greeting my dad.  How I loved those days!

I had to shake my head a little to bring me back to the present as the woman continued talking.   She had a familiar smile on her face as she recalled her very first introduction to the restaurant.  Back in 1970 when she was pregnant with her first child, she and her husband travelled from Westchester to interview for a job at law firm in downtown Poughkeepsie across the street from the restaurant.  As she recounted that she had been waiting in the car for her husband, I stood there starry eyed as I imagined that they had parked in the large municipal lot behind the restaurant. The very lot that I could see from out the window of our apartment. As part of the interview process the firm’s partners brought her husband to have lunch at our restaurant.  While she was laughing as she told me her story, I was thinking, “Goodness gracious!  She must have been starving while waiting for her husband!” When her husband got back to the car he explained that they brought him to an Italian Restaurant.  The menu was full of the most delicious Italian entrees.  The woman said that her mouth was watering as he described the entrees.  But what shocked the husband was that everyone at his table did not order Italian food! To his surprise, they all ordered grilled ham and cheese on scooped out Italian bread.  As I looked at her big smile as she finished her story my heart warmed because I saw my father’s smile in her.  It never occurred to me how weird it must have been that we served Grilled Ham and Cheese at our Italian restaurant. I thought it was normal that dozens of plates of Grilled Ham and Cheese flew out of our kitchen.  Lunch was served fast to accommodate the workers!  I can still hear the wait staff ordering Grilled Ham and Cheese on scooped out Italian.  I guess from an outsider it really was weird for Italians to be serving Ham and Cheese but not in Downtown Poughkeepsie!

So, as we start a New Year I want to leave you with a memory of the years gone by.  I wonder why an ordinary Grilled Ham Cheese was so special back then.  But maybe it was because the smiles were contagious! Everyone smiled!  So, I am making my New Year’s resolution this year to smile more and I hope all of you will too!  I bet our smiles will be contagious and we will make memories out of the ordinary!

See our Grilled Ham and Cheese on scooped out Italian recipe.

The Story of My Mamma the Movie Star and Spaghetti Putanesca Recipe

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I always thought of my mom as a movie star. Not only was Mamma beautiful but she dressed the part, too! Many would think it odd that I would regard her in this way since she came from a remote volcanic island off the coast of Naples, Italy. When she was born, this underdeveloped tiny island’s main source of income was fishing and farming. Mamma grew up poor, but most of her family’s suffering was attributed to my grandfather having left for almost 4 years to go to Argentina, an unsuccessful attempt at making Argentina a future home for them. During his time in Argentina, the country suffered a collapsed economy and a violent overturn of the government. My grandfather, broken and penniless returned to Ischia to focus on another plan to make a better life for his family.

While Nonno was gone, a successful publisher by the name of Angelo Rizzoli visited Ischia. Rizzoli, an orphan, raised in poverty, having apprenticed as a printer, came to great prosperity. He became one of Italy’s first producers of daily newspapers and ran a publishing house. Rizzoli was also quite active in the production of films. So when Rizzoli first visited Ischia, the town of Lacco Ameno, he fell in love with the beauty of this quaint little island and the struggles of its people. He was inspired to turn this impoverished, quiet, little island into a fashionable destination for the rich and famous. Not only did he want to attract the wealthy from the world of finance and politics, but he mostly wanted the cinematography industry to discover this island. So Rizzoli put his plan in place to turn Ischia into a popular and prosperous tourist attraction by building a hospital (Ospedale Rizzoli), hotels and thermal spas on the island. But it was his work in the movies with his production company “Cinriz” that inspired film-makers to follow in his footsteps and to become smitten with Ischia’s natural charms and beauty.

That’s the back story about how it came to be that in 1951 Burt Lancaster and the crew of The Crimson Pirate came to the island of Ischia in Italy to film a Caribbean swash buckling pirate movie! This movie forever changed the lives of many Ischiatani.

Most of the film shots had the Castello Aragonese as the backdrop. That’s the castle that is located in Ischia Ponte where my mom and her family lived. The Castello Aragonese dates back to 2500 years ago! My Grandmother would often talk about how il castello saved many lives when the volcano would erupt. Being that il castello is located on a large rock not too far from the coast of Ischia Ponte connected by a bridge made of rocks, the townspeople would run to seek refuge from the lava. My deeply religious Nonna would exclaim how the Madonna in il castello thrust her foot forward and the lava miraculously stopped flowing!

As you can imagine the producer needed lots of town people for some of the scenes. So my mom and some of the sisters jumped at the chance to be in a movie! When I was older my brother and I would have our eyes peeled watching this movie hoping to get a glimpse of my mom. Did you know that The Crimson Pirate was the inspiration for Disney’s block buster with Johnny Depp Pirates of the Caribbean?

The movie crew was in Ischia for quite a few months filming. A bunch of them stayed at the Pensione Pineta, a hotel just a block away from my mom’s house. One day the hotel keeper asked my mom as she was out and about, if my grandmother would be willing to supply some laundry service for the guests. My mom, understanding that this could be a lucrative opportunity eagerly accepted for my grandmother. I would often tease my mom that not only did she make a movie side by side Burt Lancaster, but she also washed and ironed his underwear!

While filming the movie one of the props was a big pirate ship anchored in front of il castello. My mom being the oldest of seven grew up very gutsy. She carried a lot of responsibilities on her shoulders as the oldest. When my grandfather left for Argentina my mom was only 12 years old while my grandmother was pregnant with their only son and had to raise 6 young children. So as circumstances would have it, my mom would be my grandmother’s right hand. So at an early age she was able to express herself quite easily with adults. She also learned early on that she would not get any coddling because in a house of seven women and one baby boy lots of responsibilities landed on her shoulders. So if a boy ever mentioned to my mom she couldn’t – you better believe my mom set out to prove him wrong! So keep that in mind while I tell you that a boy once dared my mom to swim to that pirate ship anchored by the castle and dive off the gang plank. So she did! The ship was so tall that when she dove in staright  she could feel the water getting colder and colder the deeper she went.

(I’m going to digress for a moment . She was known as quite the swimmer. One year when visiting Ischia, my children all competitive swimmers were diving off a pier and the Italian men all looked on in amazement. Then right behind the kids my mom dove in. The men all turned to each other and exclaimed how the grandchildren must take after their Nonna! I later told my mom what they said and she beamed with pride!)

I believe that the aura of those movie stars that came to visit the island that one summer in 1951 rubbed off onto my mom. The usually quiet town woke up with all the activity from the movie crew and it changed my mom’s outlook on life. I bet the reason that blue eyes were the number one prerequisite on my mom’s list for husband material was because of Burt Lancaster’s blue eyes! My mom confided in me that when she met my father it was love at first sight when she noticed he had blue eyes! ( I would like to add another piece of trivia to this story : The other actor that starred alongside Burt Lancaster was Nick Cravat. Nick and Burt were in 9 films together. He played a mute in this film because of his thick Brooklyn accent. My dad’s extended family are all from Brooklyn with thick Brooklyn accents! They were the reason for my dad and his brothers coming to America. Small world right?)

That summer not only changed my mom but it also gave a new positive outlook for all of the townspeople too! The filming of The Crimson Pirate not only paved the way for Ischia becoming a chic tourist attraction, but for also becoming a set for a long list of future blockbuster hits!

I am proud to say that my mom shared the stage alongside Burt Lancaster. Ok well, maybe not as a lead, but definitely in the movie! I would like to think that not only was the famous Angelo Rizzoli the catalyst for the rise of Ischia’s tourist trade but forgive me if a stretch it to include my mom too!

See our Spaghetti ala Putanesca recipe.

Italian Easter Bread (Casatiello Dolce)

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I just can’t let Easter go by without writing about my family’s Easter tradition of Easter Bread. It is a paschal ritual in my dad’s hometown of Monte di Procida in Italy. The old fashioned way is to start with a mother yeast that everyone makes themselves called “criscito” which is mixed into sweet bread dough that needs to rise for three days and finally sweet fragrant loaves are baked in a wood burning oven. The name of this bread was called “casatiello” aka panettone. But growing up in my large Italian/American family this old tradition turned into a competitive baking contest. In my family, Lent was not only regarded as a Christian event where we fast and give up stuff (never panettone recipes!) but we also 40 days of planning the art of baking panettone (Easter bread).

One year my dad brought us to Italy to experience Easter in Monte di Procida. While we there we made sure to visit our very large family. Every house we visited the matriarch of the house brought us into a warm room specially heated for the revered panetone. We were shown rows and rows of pans filled with rising dough covered under blankets waiting for Holy Saturday to be baked. Now mind you the judging starts even before the bread is baked. Everyone is eagerly watching their breads rise. If it rises too fast that it will be a big flop. If it rises too slow it will be hard as a rock. At twelve years old I thought this was comical as we all peered into all these pans. We were made to look at these pans as if was the latest discovery! It left quite a mark in my memory because I am chuckling as I envision this in my mind. Every household had their own secret recipe. You may ask why all these pans and pans of breads. Every family makes a large one for themselves. And then several smaller ones for each of the children. And let us not forget the fiancés. The mother-in-law has to show off her baking expertise to her future daughter-in-law.

Here in America my whole extended family practiced this tradition. So you can imagine the amount of Easter bread that was made. But what was even funnier is that my father, the chef, made Easter bread and also my mother made her own batch. It ended up being a contest within our own household. My dad’s brothers and their wives also made Easter bread. And guess what? Yup! Our Italian customers and employees got into the act too!! And you can’t leave out Cafe Aurora the Italian Bakery in our town. They also brought in their own bread to add to the collection!! So by Easter Sunday the restaurant was wall to wall Easter Bread.

The competition itself was not a formal competition but was just informal tastings. It was like “Hey Joe, taste my Easter Bread how good it came out!”. And my dad would proudly encourage the competitor to try his too. Let me share with you all a secret. Lean closer! I am going to whisper. I don’t want anyone to hear me. I don’t know if any of you have ever tried their Easter bread. It’s not that good! Oh my!! I can’t believe I actually said it. Actually it’s an acquired taste. It comes in a variety of ways its either really dry and flavorful or it is moist and light. (Most of my family’s panettone/casatiello was dry! I think they drank it with lots of wine to wash it down!) Some are braided with colored eggs. Always with bits of dried fruit throughout. The custom is to eat this bread at the end of their meal with jugs of wine. That year we went to Italy for Easter I witnessed something that we don’t do in America. The Monday after Easter is also a national holiday. It’s called Lunedi in Albis. In Monte di Procida, the townspeople all go out and have picnics to celebrate spring! I remember Lunedi Albis quite vividly! My cousins and I had a picnic in the vineyards. There are no open fields in Monte di Procida only vineyards. Guess what we ate? Yes, that dry casatiello along with hard boiled eggs! But you know what? It was actually a delicious picnic sitting there on the mountain side amidst the grape vines with the sun overhead!

Over the years our competitors have given up the challenge but I continue on. The craziness that I experienced growing up with this informal Panettone/Casatiello competition has rubbed off on me. With no competition I still keep making loaves and loaves of it myself trying to get the perfect recipe. I always try a new recipe every year. I am still trying to find the perfect recipe that everyone can actually enjoy. It’s not Easter without a battle of the Easter Breads even if it just with myself now. Happy Easter everyone! I need to run to put another batch in the oven!

See our Italian Easter Bread (Casatiello Dolce) recipe.