July 10, 2017
American chefs frequently do not understand Italian food. Many can produce technically excellent dishes that lack the Italian sensibility.
One common error is putting in too much. Too much of most anything into most anything. To be sure, there are many restaurants headed by American chefs that serve excellent Italian food but there are far more that just don’t get it.
The usual culprit is what Italians would call the First Course, Il Primo Piatto. This is soup, pasta or rice that is served as a separate course before the the Second Course, Il Secondo Piatto (usually meat, fish, or other protein), which is usually accompanied by side dishes, Contorni, in Italian.
Pasta “specials” are quite prone to this phenomenon. There are many otherwise excellent restaurants that think that if a little is good, more is better, when it comes to their pasta “specials.” Because I love pasta, if I’m at a restaurant that has a pasta special I always ask what it is. More often than not, I start yawning (well, not really) part way through the list of ingredients added to the pasta. After more than 2 or 3 main ingredients (not counting things like garlic, olive oil, and a few herbs) it’s too much. You don’t need shrimp, artichoke hearts, chopped tomato, diced onion, roasted peppers, capers, and olives. It’s simply too much. The distinctiveness of the ingredients is lost.
I’m ragging on pasta because that is the most common culprit at American restaurants featuring “Italian” food. Risotto and polenta are prone to the same phenomenon, however. The most common offense is that both of these dishes are turned into vehicles for butter, cream, and cheese. That is not what an Italian would do. In a typical Italian household, polenta is cornmeal, water and salt. That’s it. There’s not usually a pat of butter or a spoon of cheese in sight unless added at the table to the diner’s preference but even that is rare. The polenta is a foil for whatever is served with it. It is not meant to scream, “Look at me!” That doesn’t mean it isn’t supposed to, or doesn’t, taste good. It’s not intended to be so rich and filling that it tries to steal the spotlight or dampen one’s appetite for the rest of the meal.
Unlike polenta, which is meant to accompany other dishes, risotto is meant to stand on its own as a First Course before the Second Course. Risotto alla Milanese is the only exception. Traditionally Risotto alla Milanese accompanies a veal cutlet (in Milan, of course). No other risotto would be served with the second course in an Italian meal.
I realize that most of the time we do not eat a formal Italian meal, even in a restaurant. Most of us have either what would be the first course (pasta or risotto, usually) or the second course (meat or fish plus a side dish or two), preceded by some sort of antipasto (appetizer), which literally means “before the pasta.” Even so a risotto that is a fat “bomb” overly laden with butter, cream and/or cheese, might be American but it is simply not Italian in its sensibility.
Frequently, the issue is clouded even more but the addition of too many ingredients to the risotto. Look at the asparagus risotto from a few weeks ago. There are no competing flavors: a light broth to add some savoriness, a bit of Parmigiano Reggiano, and a dollop of butter. This is a classically Italian risotto.
I guess I’m really beating this one. I clearly have strong feelings about Italian food and what passes for Italian food in America. Think purity of flavor and simplicity of ingredients. If an ingredient doesn’t support the main ingredient it shouldn’t be added. I believe Italian food is the original “ingredient-driven” cuisine.
Ok, off my soap box an on to a recipe; one that is the essence of simplicity.
I’m going to guess that most of you have not had a frittata. It is a fluffy but firm egg dish, usually with some sort of vegetable included. Sometimes a sprinkling of Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese is added but only if it supports the vegetable that is the star of the show.
Today’s frittata is onion. That’s it, onion. Plus a little olive oil and salt and pepper. The onion is cooked slowly until it caramelizes. The onion in this recipe was cooked for 50 minutes. You should plan on 45-50. It is mostly hands off, though you do need to stir every few minutes.
Once the eggs are added, they are cooked slowly. Unlike a French omelet where the eggs are barely set and there isn’t (supposed to be) a touch of brown, a frittata is intended to be firm, slightly brown, and puffed up and airy from the cooking style.
Although I have converted to making, almost exclusively, a classic Italian frittata, when I was in college I did it the way my Italian Grandmother did. She included a pinch of baking powder and a bit of flour. It was a little firmer than a classic frittata; more like a savory eggy cake.
That frittata, alternating with sandwiches of butter, onion and blue cheese on homemade bread (not on the same day), constitute my lunchtime memories from my junior year in college.
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