I remember with pain that gloomy day, in about 1978, when Italian restaurants in the US switched over to ristoranti, when the red-checkered tablecloth was rolled up and replaced with white linen, when the flashy-but-one-note-radicchio began its dubious ascent, when beautifully-textured boxed pasta became suddenly “inferior” to gummy fresh pasta, when the fiascho of Chianti became a $150-bottle of old Barbaresco, etc., etc…in short, I am appalled that the best Italian restaurant chefs in America stopped cooking the Italian-American classics of my youth. And the drought goes on. Can you envision Michael White opening a place dedicated to chicken parm? I think not.
And yet…Italian-American food can be absolutely, soul-rattlingly wonderful…when done at a high quality level. I make it at home all the time, slaving over the acquisition of ingredients and execution of dishes as if I were cooking frickin’ haute cuisine.
Through many articles and cookbooks I have encouraged other home chefs to do the same: cook Italian-American, but not in a Ragu-jar kind of casual way. Ratchet it up, mi cumpà!
Here are my five fave Italian-American dishes, and how I ratchet:
1. Linguine with White Clam Sauce
In southern Italy, pasta with clams (con vongole) is usually made with a few cherry tomatoes in the sauce. And it is rarely made with linguine, a boxed pasta that has many more advocates on this side of the pond. The poor Neapolitans! Boxed linguine is the perfect, slithery pasta for the most perfect dish in the Italian-American canon: an apotheosis of garlic, olive oil and shellfish flavor. It’s as if the brininess of the clams inflames the garlic, the two ingredients pushing each other to new heights of palate-slam. Unfortunately—truth be told—it is not easy to find examples of this classic in today’s Italian-American restaurants that rise above mediocre. Skip outright the ones that use cream. The ones that focus on oil are often too oily, and the ones that focus on clam liquid are often too watery. Moreover, you’ll regularly find such abominations as canned minced clams, and bottled clam juice. Many recipes, probably to cover up the fundamental insipidity, add other flavors: herbs (beyond the requisite parsley), white wine, onions. The horror. The horror. My linguine white clam is all about fresh clams, tossed for half a minute or so with the pasta. It’s about the briny juice that comes in those fresh clams. It’s about the golden ratio of juice to olive oil that I use, which gets whisked into a near-emulsion. And it is about garlic…treated four different ways in my recipe, to create a crescendo of garlic tastes. Of the thousands of recipes I’ve published…this is probably my favorite one, Italian or non-Italian.
2. Eggplant Parmigiana
One of the things I love about the food that southern Italian immigrants created in America around 1900 is the centrality of eggplant. But nothing pushes the aubergine envelope like Eggplant Parmigiana, which was probably the first main-course I ever loved that was “vegetarian.” The subtle, exotic, almost sweet taste of eggplant is a big factor, of course—as is the fry-in-olive-oil treatment, and the mozzarella meltdown. Of course, the latter two elements can be found in the “other” parmigianas—veal and chicken, which I also love—but eggplant parmigiana, for me, is the best of the three. Why? It is the one that’s most often cooked in a casserole—which gives the oily eggplant time to flavor the tomato sauce by which it’s surrounded. I am bonkers for the fried-eggplant-infused taste of red sauce! My quality factors at home? Above all…make sure the eggplant slices are well-fried (I would never make this dish with un-fried eggplant slices!) A good trick is roasting the whole eggplant part of the way to tenderness—before cutting it into rounds, and coating it, and frying it in oil. The other key for me is Pecorino Romano. Sure, you can use Parmigiano-Reggiano if you like…but nothing screams old-fashioned Italian-American like the sheepy, earthy, barnyardy taste of Pecorino.
3. Spaghetti with Meat Sauce
Oh brother, I have lived through a lot of pebbly-watery or pebbly-goopy sauces that have masqueraded as Italian Meat Sauce, the wonderful thing the immigrants made with ground beef. I have also lived through gallons of the post-’70s “adjusted” meat sauce—the one that intends to fancy things up by emulating Ragù Bolognese, with the addition of other meats, chicken livers, even cream, for chrissakes (’cause we all know how superior “northern” Italian cooking is to southern Italian cooking!!!). But the thing that works best for me, by far, is sautéed ground beef (yielding a wonderfully specific beefy flavor), cooked down only with basic partners—tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, onions, a little dried herb. Cook it too short, and it’s fine, kind of an Italian sloppy joe; but go past the three-hour mark, and it’s alchemically transformed into a molten lava of meat essence. Toss it with al dente boxed pasta (spaghetti is good, but I often use linguine as a substitute), and you have something vastly primal, especially with the addition of freshly grated Pecorino Romano. By the way, this is a great candidate for the save-some-pasta-water technique; if the sauce looks too thick after you’ve tossed it with pasta, “break” it a bit with the addition of a little hot pasta-cooking water.
4. Chicken Cacciatore
There’s lots of dispute about the origins of Chicken Cacciatore. The name means “hunter-style” chicken…but what does THAT mean? I assume that the original, in Italy—for they do make it there—was long ago prepared with another kind of bird, one taken by the hunter (like pigeon, perhaps). I assume that modern chefs—particularly the Italian-American ones, but also ones in Italy—began focusing on the much more reliably available chicken. The dish is relatively rare in Italy today, but years ago became a staple main course of Italian-American dinners. And our dish is different. For one thing, tomatoes play a key role in America. You find them in Italy, too…but our chicken cacciatore is often chicken braised in tomato sauce…along with the almost requisite ingredients, here, of mushrooms and bell peppers. For me, the key to this Italian-American dish is making it more of a sauté than a stew; I like the chicken (and I only use thighs) to be a little browned in olive oil, and to preserve that brown. I like the mushrooms and peppers to be co-sauté items, not wet floaters in a sea of tomato sauce. And, obviously, I’m not a fan of overly saucy Chicken Cacciatore: big chunks of San Marzano tomatoes should join the other vegetables in not too much of a lightly fluid, fairly oily braising liquid. I prefer to cook it in a huge sauté pan with some depth—never a stew pot!
Who doesn’t love meatballs…except vegetarians? But Italian-American meatballs stand out for me on the world meatball stage. Except when they suck, which is often. Why do meatballs in America frequently suck? Hard, dense little meat bombs they can be…dry inside, tough even, with a specific gravity far too high for their weight. However, when you climb Mt. Fluffy…you are really on to something. When I train to climb that mountain, I keep a few things in mind. First of all, I do not find the “gourmet” addition of veal and/or pork to beef to be necessary. It’s not about the meat composition. What is it about? A light hand with the balls. Most important: pouring a cupful of store-bought bread crumbs into your meatballs is DEATH. You need to fill them out with some bread—and that’s why torn white bread, soaked for a few minutes in milk, is essential. Egg is good…even better if you add a few tablespoons of water, as well. I’m not an advocate of carefully rounded meatballs; shape them lightly and keep them lumpy. My other oddity is that I’m not a browning fanatic: a good simmer in tomato sauce, without a pre-simmer browning, keeps them lighter. Most important: meatballs toughen as they cook. I always taste early…like 25 minutes into simmering…to see if they’re cooked through. If I’m cowardly, I’ll let them cook another hour…at which time I usually feel I’d like that hour back!