Thursday, February 13, 2020

Country Rich - Officina Vesuviana, Somma Vesuviana (Na)

Allora, Karen...I'll send you the GPS coordinates.  Let's hope that it doesn't rain....

And that's how my day in the country Campania began with Giuseppe Rea and Francesco Manzo of Officina Vesuviana began.  Well, sort of.   I had been hoping to have a visit - in the country - in the shadow of Mt Vesuvius for quite some time.  Years maybe.  I don'y know how many times in my 25 + years of living in the Campania region have I seen these pieninelo tomatoes hanging by the roadside during the summer months. 
But it wasn't until recently that I decided to take a bite, so to speak, of these pomodori - those special ones - that can only be found  in the Vesuvius area.  Those ones label PDO. Those that only grow in this particular territory. This pear shaped tomato with a pointy end.  Full of strong acidic flavors thanks to where the soil that they call home.

 Yeah, I could have done a little research on the internet, but I wanted something di piu'.  I wanted to see these tomatoes up close and personal.  To talk about them with those who know what they know what they know.
So let's go back to my message from Giuseppe (aka Peppe) Rea. My appointment with the guys from Officina Vesuviana was for 1:30 pm ish on a cloudy Saturday morning.    I pulled up around 1345 - Rea met me with  a smile and a 3 wheeler piaggio which I followed as he opened up a gate that led me to a goose bumpy world of complex simplicity.
Dark grey fertile volcanic soil - exhilarating aromas of fava beans in the air.  Fantasticaaa!
But I came for tomatoes - even though it wasn't tomato season.  You see, that is the beauty of these piennolo tomatoes from Vesuvius.  Though harvested in the summer, they are conserved in a special way - on braided twine - they can be consumed well into the spring.
So I was treated to a spectacular show - simple for Rea and Manzo, but memorizing for those of us who had never seen it up close and personal. 

Giuseppe Rea

Francesco Manzo

Rea sat and went to work, Manzo explained the process. 
And who imagined that as the months went by that the tomatoes' aromas and taste would change/mature - just like a fine wine.

These tomatoes - three varieties - yellow piennolo vesuvio, red piennolo vesuvio dop, and tigrato-tiger stripe - a wild variety from the Galapagos islands.  These tomatoes have a unique flavor - sharing the unique flavors thanks to the fertile soil from the volcanic soil where they grow.

The guys even  harvested an orange tomato, but we will have to just have to wait until next season for a taste...

As Rea worked, I got to learn a little more about Officina Vesuviana - its philosophy, its products.  Besides fresh tomatoes, they make can their tomatoes as soon as they are harvested.  Canned, but in reality they are jarred and vacuum packed in large glass jars.  I had a chance to try and appreciate assai their various pate' made from each variety.  And since we were located nearby the Vesuvius National Park, it would be a crime to not try their mandarin marmalade.  I did.

But I wanted a quick recipe-  here Manzo shares one for a quick tomato sauce- olive oil, garlic and a few of their fantastic tomatoes....

It's philosophy?  As it turns out, Manzo is math, science and history enthusiast.  Did I mention the goose bumps I had when I arrived?  They came back.  We spoke about mathematical sequences, mathematicians, acidity, soil and future projects as he pointed out wild herbs, sprouts, and everything else under that cloudy volcanic skyIt was hard to keep up, honestly.  But no problem - because I made them promise to invite me back ---when the fava beans are ready to harvest.  As well as other spring vegetables such as contogiorni peas.  And in the summer?  I did notice that small vineyard of Catalanesca grapes next to the apricot orchid.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Staj With Me - Staj Noodle Bar, Naples (Na)

I chose a Saturday afternoon smack in the middle of the holiday season to take a walk through one of Napoli's  snazzy chic parts of town.  A crispy clear cold sunny day, you know - the kind that Naples is famous for this time of year.  I chose that particular Saturday to take an early afternoon stroll, window shop, but most importantly - have lunch at Staj Noodle Bar.

Staj - opened up last June and is noted as the first (and only) noodle bar in Naples.  To some a risky decision taken by Chef Lucio Paciello and Rosario del Priore. Naples loves their pizza and traditional dishes.  We'll see. 
I arrived a few minutes before 1 pm - right before the lunch rush.  That was a good thing, because I needed some time to study the menu, absorb all that Staj had to offer.  I must confess that I was a little overwhelmed at the choices - I didn't know where to start.  That's where Paciello stepped in, and sat down.  
Chef Lucio Paciello
He helped me narrow down my choices so that I wouldn't over do it on my first visit to Staj. Including the choice of beer -Whatever - produced by friends of his that he met during his time in Australia.

So we agreed on the following journey- starting with the starters.

Yakitori - grilled chicken skewers, glazed in soy sauce, with sesame and chives

Fried ravioli filled with vegetables,  mustard mayonnaise and rice vinegar

 Fried tofu cubes, with spicy mayo and shitake mushrooms marinated in black tea and soy sauce
 Then it was time to move on to the buns - the bao buns.

 We narrowed the choices down to two...

Bao bun with fried chicken - tartar sauce, daikon, pickled carrots, coriander and toasted sesame

Bao bun with braised pork belly - daikon, pickled carrots, soy glaze and crunchy almonds

 I still had some room - for what really had my curiosity.  Ramen!  Not that add hot water to a cup ramen that got many of us through our college on a budget years - but that real ramen.  Like the type that I enjoyed when I lived in Japan.  That type that you see in the anime movies, as my son would say.  It has been over 25 years since I have eaten real ramen and had forgotten how complex this noodle dish can be.  Paciello and I decided on Ramen Shoyu and he even invited me into the kitchen as he plated up.

Ramen Shoyu - chicken and dashi broth, chashu pork shoulder, soft yolk egg, noodles, daikon, narutomaki and watercress.  By the way, Paciello's noodles are homemade, prepared with soft wheat flour and with buckwheat.

I followed the dish out to my corner table.  Paciello followed me.  He was curious if I knew/remembered how to eat ramen the right way.  He gave me a quick lesson.  Raise the ramen out of the broth with my chopsticks and place the spoon underneath.  Blow softly to cool it down.  Then the crucial part - eat.  Eat it all, without breaking it up.  In other words slurp! 
Here's how it went down.  You be the judge.

Fantasticaaa! - In fact the whole meal - including the beer of choice -

Unfortunately I didn't have room for dessert, though the choices were tempting.  Yea, I eavesdropped on the table next to me as the dessert menu - which included cheesecake - was being read.  No no - resist resist.  That will give me something to look forward to my next visit.  And the one after that.  And the one after that.

So back to my earlier observation - you know - the one about opening a noodle bar in Naples.  Was it risky?  Sure!  As the saying goes - you gotta play to win.  Months of full houses and hot press tells me that the risk is paying off.

So glad I finally staj-ed!

Sunday, December 29, 2019

My Favorite Fantastic Firsts for 2019

You know how I feel about my first course dishes -  as I think about some of my favorites, I was quite surprised to see such a difference in the formats.  Not just spaghetti madness, but dishes that included stuffed pastas, gnocchis, risottos as well as minestras.  So, sit back, look back, and reminisce with me about some of the dishes that made my 2019 fantasticaaa!  

So let's take a look at my favs in chronological order - My list begins back with a blog post back in February 2019.  There I took a visit to Casa A Tre Pizzi in Naples and tried this dish by Chef Francesco Sodano.   

This plate of pasta, inspired by the tradition 'spaghetti, garlic, olive oil and chili pepper'  dish includes cream codfish, tomato water and tomato water for a touch of acidity. The chef's personal touches included a mix of 4 types of chili peppers and fermented black garlic.  

What was really cool about the dish is that Sodano added a bit of mixed dried chili peppers on the side of the plate that could be softly blown over the pasta for an extra kick.

I also visited Taverna Estia last February.  Chef Francesco Sposito's genovese pasta. Pasta alla genovese, for those who don't know, is a classic Neapolitan pasta dish featuring a sauce of beef and onions that have been slow cooked together for hours.Fresh homemade tortelloni pasta filled with onions.  Each package of pasta was placed on top a circle shaped battuta di manzo, which is raw beef finely chopped by hand.  The chef added a juice made from flavorful Piennolo tomatoes as well as tart green apple spheres and a cream made from Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.

I did quite a bit of restaurant hopping last March.  One stop included Re Mauri on the Amalfi Coast.  There I had an opportunity to try Chef Lorenzo Cuomo's  minestra di mare or seafood minestrone.  This is a homage to Campania's beloved minestra maritata - but with seafood instead of beef, pork or chicken.

 Cuomo uses the treasures from the sea such as redfish, mullet, cuttlefish, octopus, sea truffles and cod tripe..  Vegetables include escarole, toasted fennel, and red algae.

In March I also visited a Neapolitan restaurant icon for the first time - Mimi alla Ferrovia near Naples's Central train station. There I had the chance to try many dishes including Chef Salvatore Giugliano's mega ravoli stuffed with sea bass, lime, shrimp and squid sauce.

April lunches included 2 visits to the Sorrento Peninsula staring in Nerano at Quattro Passi.  There, Chef Antonio Mellino and his son Fabrizio treated my palate to some classic dishes as well as some newbies.  I really enjoyed this one.

Seven first course dishes that included this gnocchi with lamb, foie gras and truffles.

A week or so later,  sat down at Don Alfonso 1890.  I always enjoy visiting this 2 Michelin starred restaurant and am always curious as to what Chef Ernesto Iaccarino has cooked up for the new season. He wowoed with with the spicy - yet subtleness  of this pasta filled with marinated grouper and creamy carrot with a spicy pumpkin sauce.

In May I headed to Positano, a tiny yet popular town on the Amalfi Coast.  I went there to visit Chef Emilio Desiderio, who had recently transferred to Villa Gabrisa to serve as Executive Chef.  Here's his spaghetti dish -His spaghettone alla positanese. Spaghettone alla Positano.. The dish includes seafood that Desiderio hand picks on his daily visits to the market - sconcigli and lupini clams.  There are also roasted tomatoes and crunch toasted crostini (bread cubes).

June 2019.  A visit to Caracol - the breathtaking restaurant in Capo Miseno.  Chef Angelo Carannante's show stopping spaghetti iodato. This pasta dish was created by Carannante who was looking to create a pasta moderna - a modern pasta dish.  Something without toppings such as shellfish or other types of seafood.  Something, sleek, black, bare, with just a touch seaweed salad and lemon on top.

So Carannante got his brigade together and began trying out ideas - .  
Oyster sauce...mussel sauce...sea urchin pulp, anenome, then finally cuttlefish ink.  Wow.

Back in June I paid one of many visits to Jose Restaurant.  This restaurant is like a second home and Chef Domenico Iavarone never ceases to amaze me.  That particular summer evening - oops, he did it again - with these two dishes.

A roasted potato ravioli, provolone cheese, zucchini and zucchini.

Then his spaghettone with mussels, basil, and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.

Let's jump to July, shall we? Jam packed with visits to La Fescina Nuova Hosteria Flegrei  where Chefs Antionio Apa and Dario De Gaetano served this assaggio of  their classic ravioli  genovese with Provolone del Monaco Cheese and balsamic vinegar.

Also a visit to Bertie's Bistrot with Chef Valentino Buonincontri.  Bounincontri's gnocchi alla ischitana with rabbit and roasted peppers.

A visit to Ravello's Belmond Hotel Caruso hotel gave me an opportunity to try Chef Nino Di Costanzo's risotto dish.  Di Costanzo, of Dani Maison, was on the Amalfi Coast for a 6 hands dinner where he presented this dish.

 A risotto which included buffalo milk, sea urchins and croutons.

That visit to Ravello gave me the opportunity to meet and try Chef Mimmo D Raffaele's dishes.  He is the executive chef of the hotel and his Spaghettoni 'Ravello' Vicidomini.  His  spaghetti with tomato sauce. 
 For this dish the chef uses spaghettoni produced by Pastificio Vicidomini - an artisan pasta factory that has been around since 1812 located in Castel San Giorgio.  And the tomatoes?  Campania is lucky enough to have a wide range of varieties to choose from.  Di Raffaele uses  a rich combination from the local area such as  Corbari and Corbarello from Sapori di Corbara, mini San Marzano tomatoes, and pomodorini/small tomatoes from the Lattari Mountains which overlook the Amalfi Coast. 
 Last but not least for July was La Locanda del Testardo in Bacoli.  Here's Chef Luca Esposito's  version of the famous Spaghetti alla Nerano which features zucchini.  Esposito adds steamed mussels and Provolone del Monaco cheese.

For my next fav, I'd have to wait a few months.  Until October when I was in Sorrento at Terrazza Bosquet.  I spent an evening trying Chef Antonino Montefusco's dishes included this one. His Ready Ravioli.

 First - a dish with a San Marzano and cherry tomato sauce arrived at my table.  The sauce includes a swirl or two of cacciota cheese and majoram.   Next - a little black box - filled with ravioli.  The box is a play on the ready pasta that certain pasta producers have put on the market. Montefusco's ready ravioli with a cacciota cheese filling. The ravioli is cooked, then fried, then placed in the box until it is ready to be added to that amazing tomato sauce.

The end of the month found me back at Chef Francesco Sodano's table.  But this time on the Amalfi Coast in Maori at Il Faro del Capo D'Orso where he recently confirmed a Michelin star. 

 Linguine, carrots and garum. Garum - a fish sauce that dates back to ancient roman times. Before the anchovy sauce that nearby Cetara is famous for. Sodano's garum includes anchovies and mackeral. Very flavorful with Sodano’s choice of carrot.

November began with another visit to George Restaurant.  This time to congratulate Chef Domenico Candela and his team on their Michelin star.  Congratulate the team and try some new dishes.  Two knocked me out.

 and just like its spaghetti with tomato sauce, Candela's "mare nostrum" is another pasta dish that is fantastic! Linguine vicidomini cooked in red rock mullet extraction, acidic gel with tamarind, nori seaweed and mandarin sauce from the phlegrean fields.

  His cocoa ravioli black diamond dressed in fall colors.  His ravioli is filled with duck,  umeboshi puree, moire, black trumpet mushrooms, skrei cod and a spicy Neapolitan pumpkin sauce.

At the end of the month I took a trip to Milan.  There I had dinner at Vun Restaurant and enjoyed an amazing dinner which took me on a culinary journey with Chef Andrea Aprea.  I loved this particular pasta dish.    

 A dish that for me, was a taste of Neapolitan Sunday.  Tortello pasta filled with buffalo milk ricotta cheese. The chef served it on top of a flavorful dense Neapolitan ragu sauce - tender beef included.

Also in Milan, at Terrazza Gallia, I tried this spicy spaghetti dish served to me by Chef Antonio Lebano. Miseria e Nobilita' - Poverty and Nobility.  A dish named after the 1954 film starring the late Neapolitan comic actor Toto'.  The film is set in Naples in the late 1890s.  Two  families in poverty  have been asked to pretend that there are aristocrats/nobility.  

 Like the ingredients of this dish, Lebano explained to me later.  The dish begins with humble ingredients such as spaghetti, garlic, olive oil  and red chili peppers - the classic spaghetti, aglio, olio e peperoncino. A simple dish.It becomes nobility with the addition of a rich spicy sauce made with  red shrimp heads  that had been smoked on the barbecue, then ground with a mortar and pestle.  This particular shrimp has the astaxanthin enzyme which becomes bright red under high temperatures.

December brought the holiday season and I decided to head back to Sorrento. This time to Lorelei Ristorante and Chef Ciro Sicignano.   Capelletto pasta filled with smoked mozzarella cheese and basil.  The dish arrived  to my table smokin'

The pasta was served on top of a creamy cauliflower and saffron sauce, a drizzle of Genovese sauce, and topped with black truffles.

So that's it for 2019.  And next year? The new decade?  I can't wait to try some new firsts that are fantasticaaa!