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Beyond ‘The Menu’

Italian food has become California food--the food we eat in restaurants. Cappellini alla checca usurps the hot turkey sandwich; panini vie with BLTs, pizza with burgers. Even coffee shops offer pasta--and not just spaghetti and meatballs. By now, if you are ambulatory with any disposable income, you will have at least seen what I simply call “The Menu”: antipasti . . . insalate . . . paste . . . pizze . . . zzzzz .

We’re getting a little weary.

But there’s a lot more to Italian cooking than The Menu. Those who can afford frequent trips to Italy know this--so do regulars of Santa Monica’s Valentino and Downtown L.A.'s Rex il Ristorante.

Those who ate the Le Donne benefit dinner prepared by 12 Italian women chefs (and one New York chef) at Rex discovered the joys beyond The Menu as well.

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The dinner at Rex had 12 courses. The first three courses (appetizers) came to the table on platters all at once; after that, it was one dish at a time. Each portion was large enough for the food to reveal itself, small enough to make eating 11 other dishes seem feasible. I did slow down around the fifth course (the second soup), then got a strong second wind at the eighth (risotto) and sailed through fish, meat and two dessert courses to the end.

Pasta--that most omnipresent component of Italian cuisine--provided the evening’s most pleasurable moments. Three distinctive dishes demonstrated that pasta, pasta in and of itself , can be a remarkable thing, secondary to whatever toppings or context accompany it.

The chefs at Piperno in Rome, presented thin, short lengths of flat pasta in a fish broth with broccoli. While the broccoli was cooked down to a mere shading in the broth, the pasta itself, supple and firm and full of personality, was sheer pleasure to chew. “ Al dente " does not mean undercooked, as so many American cooks have interpreted it. “ Al dente " means something that can stand up to the tooth, pasta with a little spring and life to it.

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From Il Circolino in Cesena (which is between Bologna and Ravenna in the north), Anna Maria Casadei Belletti offered pretty black tagliolini made from pounded birch leaves. With a beguiling resiliency, this pasta had the quiet, aromatic flavor and slightly numbing effect of birch beer or root beer. Flecks of carrot, prosciutto, zucchini and leeks served only to punctuate and stress this unusual noodle’s virtues.

Most enticing of all was pasticcio di tortellini , sauced tortellini baked in a slightly sweet, flaky pastry drum. This was my introduction to the varied constructions of pasta and short dough, which date back to the 14th Century. While this particular version could have been a bit saucier and moister within, the combination of chewy veal-filled tortellini and sweet pastry was dense, satisfying, definitive comfort food.

Other significant revelations belonged to the bean dishes. Franca Franceschini from Romana, near Lucca, prepared a lovely, simple appetizer of fresh langoustines on a white bean salad that demonstrated precisely how those pearly fagioli should be cooked: to a point of firmness and integrity, yet soft enough to absorb the brightness of good extra-virgin olive oil.

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If one prefers beans cooked to mush, well, why not strain fat red borlotti beans into an irresistible, silken puree, garnished with corn, barley and tiny cubes of pancetta and a ribbon of that delicious olive oil? Festive, texturally sublime, this simple, earthy “Thanksgiving soup,” made by Rossana De Pra from Dolada, was the favorite course at our table.

Not every dish I ate at the hands of Le Donne would work well in Los Angeles restaurants. There seemed, among these women chefs, a bolder use of strongly flavored fish than our halibut-loving population is accustomed to. Angela Campana from Bacco in Barletta stuffed a peppery slice of eggplant with monkfish and made an unusual sauce for it with mussels. Rosaria Martufi from Villa Hernicus in Fiuggi produced a millefoglie, or puff pastry layered with assertive salt cod, potatoes and beautiful black olives; I liked the dish, but many would consider it intensely fishy.

Nor was every dish unusual: Pork fillet with a wonderful fluffy leek sauce would raise no eyebrows on many a menu in town; a zuppa inglese or English trifle would not call out from any a pastry cart.

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Speck , ham cured in salt and pepper and smoked for about 45 days, is generally made from the shoulder, or front leg, of a pig as opposed to prosciutto, which is made from the back leg. In Europe, it is also made from wild boar and chamois, those goat-like Alpine antelopes. Perhaps in Antica Trattoria Suban, her Trieste restaurant, Frederica Suban uses Speck from little Alpine chamois, but here in America, she used an American pork Speck for her risotto with wild fennel: The stick-to-your-teeth rice was, at first, salty, with the wild fennel coming up in a secondary gust. Each dish bore a Speck rosette; chewier, smokier, leaner and less expensive the coveted Parma ham, Speck has its own charms. I expect we’ll see more Speck on Southern California menus--at least I hope so.

If pesto, cappellini alla checca, sun-dried tomatoes, bufala mozzarella and beef carpaccio don’t charm you as they did 10 years ago, not to worry. We may not be stuck with The Menu forever. Things could improve. After all, throughout Italy, Le Donne are cooking up what may become our new favorite dishes.


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