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A guide to the essential foods of Italy [Recipe]

Lou Di Palo of the famed Di Palo's in New York's Little Italy has written the definitive guide to the foods of Italy.
(Courtesy of Ballantine Books)

Di Palo’s in New York’s Little Italy is the iconic Italian deli, the stuff of dreams for anybody who cooks Italian. Lou Di Palo, whose family has owned the store for 104 years, is still working behind the counter.

Lou Di Palo, the great-grandson of the founder, is the fourth generation, along with his brother, Sal, and his sister, Marie. And when you stop in, you’ll almost always find two or more of them there, offering tastes of cheeses, slicing speck or prosciutto, or dishing out orders of eggplant Parmigiana. They make their own ricotta and mozzarella and have for decades.

Now Lou Di Palo has written a book, with Rachel Wharton, that distills everything he knows about eating Italian. It’s called “Di Palo’s Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy: 100 Years of Wisdom and Stories from Behind the Counter” (Ballantine Books, New York, 2014, $28).

Yes, this is the store (though it’s not named) that’s as much a character as the heroine in Ruth Reichl’s warm-hearted novel “Delicious!” about food and love and recipes in New York. Reichl has said, “Of all the stores in all the world, Di Palo’s is probably my favorite.”

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The book even gets a foreword from filmmaker and longtime customer Martin Scorsese: “They’re not just selling food, they’re sharing their knowledge of where it came from, how it was grown and cultivated and prepared over the centuries in different regions of Italy, where different climates and landscapes and traditions yield variations in the taste and texture of different olive oils and cheeses and meats.”

Lou Di Palo first went to Italy on his honeymoon in 1973. He was 22. And that trip, he says, changed everything for him: “It opened my eyes to what I didn’t know.” Since then, he’s been back again and again to search out and meet artisanal producers and to discover what his great-grandfather Savino Di Palo left behind in Basilicata in 1903 when he left to come to America.

In the book, Di Palo writes, “I want to tell you about the affinatore who wraps his cheese in sweet Alpine hay before he ages it. I want to describe the contessa with the magical olive groves in Sicily, the seventeenth generation of vinegar makers with a petrified chunk of 300-year-old vinegar in Modena, the old Parmigiano-Reggiano cheesemaker in Reggio-Emilia who likes to dangle his elbow in the warm leftover whey, as a cure-all for his arthritis.”

“I don’t just sell the food in my store—I love it. This book is about living it.” How can you not sit down in an armchair, pour yourself a glass of Chianti Classico or Mount Etna red, and listen to this man tell you about Italy?

In the book’s pages, Di Palo recounts the story of Little Italy, reveals that mozzarella was originally created by monks a thousand years ago, tells you how to make fresh ricotta at home, how they make the top-grade sea salt in Trapani, Sicily, the difference in the taste of spring, summer, fall and winter Parmigiano-Reggiano, how to buy and store olive oil, how to make a perfect espresso, why true aceto balsamico tradizionale D.O.P has to be so expensive, and much, much more.

Di Palo recounts wonderful family stories and includes a dozen or so family recipes. It’s a book worth buying for yourself and giving as a gift to anyone who loves Italian food and Italy.

You can also buy many items online from Di Palo’s.

Concetta Di Palo’s Ricotta Cheesecake

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Note: This recipe has not been tested by our Test Kitchen.

Makes one 9-inch cake

“This recipe from my grandmother Concetta is a good example of our cooking philosophy: let the ingredients speak for themselves.”

Butter for greasing the pan

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2 cups sugar, divided use

1/2 cup crushed zwieback cookies or graham crackers, plus extra for garnish

3 pounds good quality, fresh, whole cow’s milk ricotta

6 eggs

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1 teaspoon vanilla

4 teaspoons orange blossom water

3/4 cup of heavy cream

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and butter a 9-inch springform pan.

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2. In a small bowl, mix 1/2 cup of the sugar with the cookies, and then evenly coat the bottom and sides of the buttered pan with the mixture.

3. In a large bowl, beat the remaining sugar and the ricotta, eggs, vanilla, orange blossom water and cream together until very smooth.

4. Pour mixture into springform pan. To prevent the cheesecake from cracking, place into a larger pan or oven-proof dish and fill it halfway up the side with water.

5. Bake for about one hour or until a toothpick comes out clean when inserted in the middle of the cake. Remove from the water bath and let the cheesecake cool on a baking rack before removing sides of springform pan and serving.

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Follow @sirenevirbila for more on food and wine.


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