it's Italian

Times Staff Writer

There are Albert, Ursula and Lydia (Mama) Vera behind the counter at Sorrento Italian Market, almost enveloped by the overflow of Italian products around them, all set for Easter.

Huge imported chocolate Easter eggs, which every man, woman and child in Italy has learned to adore, hang like Chinese lanterns from the ceiling at Sorrento. The place carries stacks of Italian dove-shaped E a stertime panettones called colomba, bread rings and braids, bags of imported candies and biscotti.

But that's just a drop in the bucket.

The Italian grocery store in Culver City has been carrying imported Italian products for 20 years and catering primarily to an Italian clientele.

Suddenly business has gone wild, and the clientele is no longer Italian, French or Argentine.

"Now 65% of my customers are Yankees," said Albert Vera. Simultaneous with the growth of the new breed of clientele has been a 70% to 80% increase in the inventory of imported Italian products over the past 10 years. "Back then, my imported inventory contained a handful of cheeses, some pasta and rice. Now everything from imported cookies to pasta machines is available."

Americans who have discovered the virtues of Italian cooking and the wonders of the regional cuisines search for extra-virgin olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes, unusual and expensive balsamic vinegars, quality arborio (rice). They go in for Italian food items, which, once unknown, have become household words. There are bufala mozzarella (fresh mozzarella made with buffalo milk), carpaccio (raw sliced beef or veal), porcini (fresh and dried Italian mushrooms), white truffles (seasonally imported from Alba), radicchio (red-leaf lettuce from Venice's environs), arugula, (also known as rocket), rapini (a bitter green, also called rape), mascarpone (creamy Italian cheese) and fresh basil. (A glossary describes the Italian products on Page 20.)

Even Italian wines, unsung 10 years ago, are having a heyday. Although Lambrusco, soave and Valpolicella are still the leading Italian wine triumvirate in the United States, lesser-known, but superior wines, such as Pinot Grigio a fresh white wine of the Venice region; Barolo and Gattinara, big, robust wines of Piedmont and Lombardy, and Brunello di Montalcino from Tuscany, are finding appreciative audiences everywhere.

And the demand continues.

Italian food product import figures reported by the Italian Trade Commission in Los Angeles tell the story.

Italian exports to the United States rose 45% in a 12-month period last year.

Imported cereals, which include pastas, rice and other grains, had a dramatic sales growth from $8.7 million (before duty) in 1979 to $34.8 million in 1984. Although imported Italian pasta represents only about 5% of the 2.5 billion pounds of pasta consumed in the United States, the leap represents a whopping 400% increase from 1979 to 1984.

Sales of imported cheese and dairy products grew from $24.7 million in 1979 to $44.5 million in 1984. Canned fruits and vegetables also increased, rising from $16.4 million in 1979 to $47.6 million in 1984. Imported wines and oils had a slight but steady increase. Wine imports sales climbed from $216.3 million in 1979 to $329 million in 1984, with a leveling off in the past four years.

Why the sudden interest in Italian food products?

Massimo Ludovisi, deputy trade commissioner at the Italian Trade Commission, explains it this way:

"In the past 10 years the American public has seen a dramatic increase in 'real' Italian restaurants for the first time. They are discovering that modern Italian cooking--the type found in Italy, not the American-Italian style that has dominated the restaurant scene in America up to now--is far more interesting. When Americans come to dine at my house, they are stunned by the quality and variety of Italian cooking, not just because my wife is a fine cook, but because they never knew such a cuisine existed. Made properly, Italian cooking can be compared to the finest of the French and Chinese cuisines. People have discovered that pasta is not only tasty, but healthy. And the information is spreading."

And spreading it is.

Dozens of modern gourmet Italian delis, operated, not by the proverbial Moms and Pops, but by sophisticated merchants with a nose for growing trends, are mushrooming around the country. That's where you'll find the fancy oils, vinegar, cheeses and pasta in any shape, size and color (chocolate pasta, too).

The word pasta , which only 10 years ago was in rare usage in favor of macaroni , is now a buzzword among the upwardly mobile. If cold pasta salad means "dead pasta" to Italians who have never heard of such a thing in Italy, pasta salads have been a rage among the yuppie generation here. Cooks who insist on fresh, not dry, pasta challenge the technological efficiency of Italian pasta machines that started glutting the market several years back.

Ludovisi confesses that when his family first arrived in Los Angeles seven years ago his wife had difficulty finding proper Italian ingredients; now she finds almost any ingredient needed. "It's almost like paradise in Los Angeles now," he said.

Luciano Morra, the senior trade analyst at the Italian Trade Commission who gauges the sudden development of Italian culinary interest by the appearance of fresh basil in markets, was in despair over its absence in the marketplace until last year. "Basil is a staple herb in Italy. You can't do without it. Fresh basil is poetry. So it was a great day when I found basil I can buy. Then I knew Italian cooking had arrived in America."

Even Italian prosciuttos and salamis, still under embargo by Food and Drug Administration law, have been duplicated close to original flavors and textures by Citterio, a boutique manufacturer in Pennsylvania. "Sooner or later, the FDA will allow an Italian consortium to export prosciutto from Parma, where the best is produced," said Ludovisi. (The embargo goes back to the '60s when a hog disease in Italy caused a shutdown of Italian pork imports to the United States.)

Italian product consumerism has gone beyond dilettantism for many admirers of the Italian cuisine. Hard-core Italian product consumers like Margie Katz, a gourmet cooking teacher who lives in Hancock Park, will travel miles and go to great lengths and expense to find Fini aceto balsamico, a balsamic vinegar produced by a boutique grocery chain in Modena, Italy, at a cost of $36 per undersize bottle. Nor can her Italian cooking be scoffed at. Katz prepares a modern Italian dinner for family and friends that would cause a double take by any Italian cook. "I love cooking Italian. I'll prepare an Italian dinner at least once a week. Sometimes more," she said.

Menus might include anything from homemade fettuccine or ravioli filled with pumpkin to rotolo di pasta, a poached pasta roll filled with spinach and ricotta and baked covered with Gorgonzola sauce. Katz prepares bocconcini (bite-size balls of fresh cow's milk mozzarella only recently made available through independent boutique producers here), much as you would mozzarella marina. After the tiny balls of cheese are dipped in flour and egg, they are breaded and fried to serve laced with tomato sauce.

Katz meets the challenges of serving pasta with a different sauce every time pasta is prepared. For fiori di pasta, she will shape fresh pasta dough into floral-shaped ravioli and fill them with parsley pesto and serve them over roasted red pepper sauce.

Another American hostess rushes home to duplicate the fascinating Italian dishes she's tasted after every visit to Italy or to modern Italian restaurants in Los Angeles. One West Los Angeles hostess served risotto Milanese copied from Harry's Bar in Venice, with an Italian salad containing arugula, which she has started to grow in her own garden. Others return from Italy wanting to duplicate fettuccine Alfredo from one of the several Alfredo's in Rome, or the Pizza Rustica. On the home front, the cooking at restaurants such as La Cocina, Il Giardino, The Rex, Prego, Adriano, Boh! and others, have inspired veteran and novice cooks to try their hand at lemon pasta, or pasta made with Cognac, caviar or salmon.

Even diet books, whose reputation for dreadful food has prevailed undyingly throughout their precarious history, have, happily, gone Italian.

The shopgirl with a diet to worry about and $16 to splurge might be found with her nose in the latest best-selling diet book, "The Pasta Diet," by Elisa Celli (Warner Books), and her fork in goat cheese pizza.

So, all right. What are YOU doing for Easter? Some imported De Cecco dry pasta prepared with, perhaps, a bit of radicchio con olio d'oliva extra-vergine e aceto balsamico?

How about a few authentic Italian Easter dishes like the ones to be served by the Veras, who are originally from Pietremelara near Naples? This year, Vera's mother, Lydia, who does the arm-long Italian sandwiches at Sorrento, will prepare Pizza Rustica filled with three cheeses, rigatoni with marinara sauce and roasted herbed baby spring goat or leg of lamb.

You'll find some of the Neapolitan specialties, such as casatiello , a sweet bread dotted with hard-cooked eggs baked inside, and pastiera, the traditional sweet Easter pie made with bulgur custard and candied citron available for purchase at Sorrento. Those who would like a taste of Eastertime imported panettone, will find the traditional colomba, the dove-shaped bread cake, available as well. The finale, of course, is the imported chocolate Easter egg wrapped in colorful paper, also available at Sorrento market and many other Italian grocery stores.

Ludovisi, who is from Rome, will have no special Easter dinner, except perhaps for lamb. "Easter in Rome means chocolate eggs for the kids," Ludovisi said.

Author Celli, whose family is from the Abruzzi region on the Adriatic coast of Italy, will serve leg of lamb seasoned with garlic, parsley and fresh rosemary, fresh minted green beans doused in olive oil, garlic and lemon, and spianata, a sweet bread similar to the Neapolitan casatiello. Berries with zabaglione (egg-sherry custard) from a recipe in her book will be the finale with espresso.

Here are the recipes from the Veras' Easter dinner and others.

PIZZA RUSTICA

3 cups flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

Dash salt

3/4 cup butter, softened

4 eggs

Mixed Cheese Filling

Sift together flour, baking powder and salt into large bowl. Work in butter as for pastry. Stir in 3 eggs just until mixed. Do not overmix or dough will become tough.

Set dough aside while preparing Mixed Cheese Filling. Then divide dough in half. Roll out 1 portion to fit greased 12-inch pizza pan, bringing up edges to form rim. Pour Mixed Cheese Filling into pie shell.

Roll out remaining dough, reserving small portion of dough to decorate top of pie, to fit over filling. Seal edges. Roll out small piece of reserved dough and cut into floral or geometric shapes. Beat remaining egg in small bowl. Brush beaten egg over pastry. Arrange pastry cutouts over pie dough. Brush cutouts with egg wash. Bake at 350 degrees 45 to 50 minutes or until golden brown.

Mixed Cheese Filling

1 1/4 cup ricotta cheese

1 (1-pound) package tuma cheese, diced

6 ounces mozzarella, diced

1/3 pound grated Pecorino or Romano cheese

5 eggs, lightly beaten

1/4 pound diced dry Italian salami (sopressata)

1/4 pound diced prosciutto

2 links fresh Italian sausage

Dash fresh chopped parsley

Dash oregano

Dash sweet basil, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

Dash pepper

Combine ricotta, tuma, mozzarella and Pecorino cheeses.

Mix eggs, diced salami, prosciutto, sausage, parsley, oregano, basil, garlic and pepper in bowl. Add to cheese mixture.

Note: Tuma cheese is semi-soft cheese often available in Middle Eastern as well as Italian grocery stores. Mexican panela cheese may be substituted.

PASTIERA DE GRANO

(Italian Easter Pie) 4 egg yolks

Sugar

1/2 cup soft butter

Grated peel of 1 lemon

Grated peel of 1 orange

1 tablespoon Marsala

1 tablespoon anise-flavored liqueur

1 tablespoon vanilla

1 tablespoon brandy

2 cups flour

Grain Filling

1 egg, beaten

Beat eggs and 3/4 cup sugar until creamy. Add butter, lemon and orange peels, Marsala, anise liqueur, vanilla and brandy. Mix in flour just until incorporated. Do not overmix. Shape into ball. Chill until easy to roll.

Divide dough in halves. Roll out 1 portion large enough to fit bottom and sides of 9-inch pie plate. Pour Grain Filling into pie shell. Roll remaining dough and cut into 1-inch strips. Form strips lattice-fashion over pie filling. Seal edges. Beat whole egg with 1 teaspoon sugar. Brush egg mixture over pastry. Bake at 350 degrees 45 minutes or until golden brown. Makes 1 pie.

Grain Filling

1 cup coarse bulgur (peeled whole wheat or cracked wheat)

2 cups half and half

2 tablespoons melted butter

1 cup sugar

1 cup ricotta cheese

1/2 cup chopped citron

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

1 teaspoon grated lemon peel

2 teaspoons grated orange peel

Combine wheat, half and half, butter and sugar in large saucepan. Bring to boil. Boil, stirring with wooden spoon constantly to prevent scorching, until liquid is absorbed. Remove from heat. Stir in ricotta cheese, citron, cinnamon, vanilla and lemon and orange peels, stirring constantly, until well blended and smooth.

CASATIELLO

(Easter Sweet Bread)

1 recipe Pizza Rustica dough

6 eggs

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 cup half and half

Divide Pizza Rustica dough into 3 portions. Roll each portion between palms of hands to form long rope. Braid ropes and connect tips to form ring. Place ring on greased baking sheet. Cook 5 eggs in boiling water 5 minutes. Remove, dry and cool slightly. Fit partially cooked eggs inside braid. Bake at 350 degrees 15 minutes. Blend together remaining egg, sugar and half and half and pour over partially baked bread. Continue to bake 30 minutes longer or until golden brown. Cool on wire rack. Makes 1 bread.

Note: Imported prepared sweet bread mixes may be used instead of Pizza Rustica dough. These mixes are available under the names Amore Whole Grain Mix, Semolina Mix and Regular Italian Mix. Packages contain a mix with yeast. These baking mixes are available at most Italian grocery stores.

CAPRETTO

(Easter Lamb or Kid))

1 (4- to 5-pound) leg of lamb

3 tablespoons lemon juice

3 tablespoons vinegar

3 tablespoons water

Olive oil

3 to 4 cloves garlic, split

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon oregano or rosemary

Salt, pepper

1 lemon, sliced

Place leg of lamb in large roasting pan. Combine lemon juice, vinegar and water in small bowl. Pour over surface of lamb leg. Drain and dab lightly with paper towel.

Rub surface of lamb with olive oil. Make several small cuts over surface of lamb and insert split garlic pieces into incisions. Sprinkle surface lightly with balsamic vinegar and oregano and season to taste with salt and pepper. Place lemon slices around lamb. Roast at 350 degrees 1 hour 45 minutes or until meat is done as desired. Makes 8 servings.

ELISA CELLI'S RASPBERRIES

WITH ZABAGLIONE SAUCE

3 eggs, separated

1/2 cup sweet Marsala

3 tablespoons prepared espresso

2 teaspoons sugar

2 cups raspberries

Beat egg yolks lightly. Add Marsala and espresso. Beat until blended. Beat egg whites with sugar until meringue forms stiff peaks when beaters are lifted.

Gently fold meringue mixture into egg yolk mixture. Divide mixture among 4 small dessert bowls or glasses. Top with raspberries (about 1/2 cup per person or as desired). Or place raspberries in bottom of dishes and pour sauce on top. Makes 4 servings.

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