Category Archives: Italian

Arrabiatta 

Every time I visit Italy I come back with another version of this spicy Italian pasta sauce.  I have so many versions that the echoes of each Italian swearing their version was the version seem funny. If only because in some cases the different versions came from adjacent restaurants in Rome. Viva la discrepancy!

I took the most appealing ingredients and proportions and came up with my version, which I’ve always liked but recently a local chef gave me a different preparation. The ingredients are the same however the pasta is pre-treated with a lemon mixture before adding the sauce.

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Lemon Pre-Treatment

  • 1/4 C Chicken Stock
  • 3 T Parsley, chopped
  • 2 T Olive Oil
  • 2 T Lemon Juice
  • 1 t Lemon Zest
  • 1 t Red Chili Flakes
  • 1 t Ground Black Pepper

Whisk together, set aside

Arrabiatta

  • 28 Oz Chopped Tomatoes
  • 1 Purple Onion, chopped
  • 5 Cloves Garlic, chopped
  • 4 Oz Pancetta, chopped
  • 2 T Olive Oil
  • 1 t Salt
  • 2 t Red Chili Flakes
  • 2 t Ground Black Pepper
  • 16 Oz Pasta (I used Fusili)

Arra-4In a large pan over medium heat, add pancetta and cook until fat is extracted. Remove the pancetta and set aside. Add olive oil and turn heat up to medium high. Add onion and saute for 5-7 minutes or until golden. Add garlic, sautee for 1 minute. Add dry spices, saute for 1 minute. Add tomatoes and reserved pancetta stir, reduce heat to low then cook for 10-15 minutes or until desired consistency.

Boil up some pasta in a pot until its al dente. When its done drain, then return to the pot over low heat. Immediately stir in the lemon pre-treatment. Stir a few times then remove from heat. Let sit for a few minutes for the lemon mixture to absorb.

Add arribiatta sauce to pasta, stir to coat. Garnish with chopped parsley and grated cheese.

Notes

What I noticed by omitting the lemon from the arrabiatta sauce but adding it to a pasta pre treatment was this – the flavours are more textured. I’ll explain – first you taste the smoky heat imparted by the pancetta and hot pepper flakes. Then a mid palate acidity from the tomato. Afterwards a distinct bright lemon flavour bursts through. Maybe only a foodie can appreciate the difference but in the future I’ll be preparing my arrabiatta this way.

My taster and I had 3 small sample bowls,  each with a different cheese. The winner from the lot was a Smoked Provolone which beat out Parmesan and Asiago. The Parmesan was too strong and drowned out the lemon undercurrents in the pasta. The Asiago was too subtle, its nutty flavours overwhelmed by the red chili heat.

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Italian Wedding Soup

Italian Wedding Soup came up in a conversation and I realized I had never tried it. I’ve seen the bags in the frozen food section of the grocery but frozen foods do not appeal; often being too salty or just tasting lifeless.

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Meatballs

  • 1 lb Ground chicken
  • 1 lb Chicken sausage, removed from casings
  • 1 C Panko breadcrumbs
  • 5 Cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1/4 C Parsley, chopped
  • 1/2 C Parmesan, grated
  • 1/2 C Romano, grated
  • 2 Eggs, beaten
  • 1 t Salt
  • 1 t Ground black pepper

Soup

  • 1 C Yellow Onion, chopped
  • 1 C Carrots, chopped
  • 1 C Bell Peppers, chopped (I used 1 orange, 1 red)
  • 1 C Celery, chopped
  • 4-6 T Olive oil
  • 2-3 C Arugula, packed
  • 2-3 C Spinach, packed
  • 1 C small pasta, cooked and drained (I used tubetini)
  • 1 C White wine
  • 10 C Chicken stock

Prepare
Put all the meatball ingredients in a large bowl and mix by hand. Cover the mixture and refrigerate for at least one hour. Form meatballs about 1/2-1″ in diameter. Bake at 375 for 20 minutes. Set aside

Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large, heavy pan. Add onion, carrots, peppers and celery. Saute for until veggies are tender – about 5-7 minutes. Add wine, reduce heat to low and cook until most of the wine evaporates, stirring occasionally. Transfer meatballs and veggies to a slow cooker, add stock and pasta, cover and cook on low for 30 minutes. In batches, add the arugula and spinach, stirring in the greens until wilted. Continue to cook the lot on low for another 30-60 minutes for flavours to blend.

Deliver
Put soup in bowl then sprinkle with some more cheese. My research assistant suggested serving with garlic bread. Unfortunately that suggestion came too late and we were hungry but its a good thought just the same.

This makes gobs, so in case you aren’t serving 12 people, you’ll be happy to know it freezes quite well.

Wine Interlude
I didn’t have any white wine laying about so I went hunting for something interesting. Italian whites, which at least would have been keeping in the ethnic vein of the dish, didn’t really appeal, usually they are too light or too sweet. This Chilean came as a recommendation from my wine adviser.

We really liked Falernia Sauvignon Blanc solo and paired with the soup – it is dry but it carries an interesting fruit flavour not expected from Chilean wine – green apple, pineapple and pear. Its crisp, medium bodied with a slight shale mineral quality.

Tasting Post Mortem
We liked. Most of the flavour is carried by the meatballs, since the stock and veggies are lightly flavoured. To me it was a little too salty,  next time I might cut down the amount of parmesan in the meatballs or make the stock a little weaker.

Dewey’s

Sister and her family moved to Ohio quite some time ago. One of our first trips to visit them resulted in an addiction to this Cincinnati-born pizza joint. Sure, pizza is pizza but some that do the pie better than others; Dewey’s does it better.

Atmosphere
Branches can be found all over the city but we continue to go to the Oakley Square location for its bohemian neighborhood feel. Its not a big space but they did recently renovate to add 8  feet to it’s width. The interior is pleasant and warm with comfortable tables and booths; definitely try to snag a booth. The glass front facing Madison Rd. creates a connection with the density of people combing the area’s quirky retail offerings.

That said, you should still be aware that  the Cincinnati crowd  descends early for dinner, like grandma early at 5p. The waiting list starts then and continues until about 730p.

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Food
People always ask me why Dewey’s is better. Its personal taste of course but to me it starts with the sauce which is bold tomato, very little salt and a hint of herb – basil and oregano. Its simple. Complex sauces lead to obfuscation of all other ingredients. Layers of complexity are added by the toppings, that is if you order one of the named combinations rather than build-to-suit. The toppings will always include something salty, vinergary and creamy. For example the Green Lantern includes Monz, Goat Cheese, Garlic, Pesto and Artichoke. No meat but ingredients work well together to create an incredible, toothy bite with a balance of seemingly opposing flavours.

To be honest, the other pull for me at Dewey’s is the seasonal Strawberry-Hazelnut salad. Also simple and delicious with just field greens, fresh strawberries, roasted hazelnuts, Gorgonzola and light hazelnut vinaigrette.

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Service
Excellent. Knowledgeable and helpful in case you go into overload scanning the number of choices available. Even at peak hours we have never waited more than 20 minutes for a pie, however you might wait 30 minutes to actually get a seat. Dewey’s has an open view to the kitchen where you can watch the hand-tossing and assembly of your pie.

Price
Moderate. Salads $6-8. Large pies $15-20

If that’s not enough to make you try Dewey’s then you at least have to admire their many tag lines. My favourite is the homage they pay to The Ramones – ‘Hey Ho, Let’s Dough!’.

Dinner: June 2014

Dewey’s Oakley Square | 3014 Madison | Cincinnati, OH

Giacomo

More friends leaving Houston for San Francisco. I’m wondering just how many people can fit into the city by the Bay. While the departing will have infinitely better Italian choices at their destination, we decided to give a local, casual Italian venue, Giacomo, a try for their farewell. Mostly, we were happy with the experience.

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Atmosphere
Its a small space on the fringe of the massive, over-hyped and overpriced mixed-use complex anchoring Westheimer and Kirby. Warm tones, reasonable noise levels and a upbeat, casually sophisticated, non-scene feeling.

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Food
Eggplant Rolls : These were good but as always, a misnomer. The eggplant is simply a container for the ricotta and mozzarella filling and a willing surface for the tomato-cream sauce and fresh basil chiiffonade.  Heavy, yes, but delicious; its hard to go wrong with a tomato-cream sauce.

Roast Pork Bruschetta: Toothy morsels of savory roast pork, chewy smoked mozzarella, all sitting atop a olive-oil broil up of bread rounds with a dash of roasted fennel. Easily a meal in itself, it appealed for its combination of textures and its range of flavours.

Orecchiette Giorgione: Good but not good enough for me to try again. I liked the freshly made orecchiette, however the spicy lamb meatballs were not very spicy and slightly over cooked. The rapini was undercooked and landed in the bowl as a single tangled up blob. A goat cheese round placed top dead centre was good and I liked that I could mix as much as I wanted in each bite.

Roasted Brussell Sprouts : Very good and I will reproduce the olive oil, garlic and pancetta combination at home. These could have been roasted a bit more, I think the inherent sweetness of the sprouts when roasted would have better complimented the salty pancetta.

Wine
Giacomo2Montemercurio Vino Nobile di Montepulciano :  I asked server to bring me her personal favourite bottle of red and this Sangiovese arrived. Bright bing cherry, ripe black plum mixed with a distinct and pleasant grassy undertone, Sahara-dry with a long finish. It paired perfectly with each of the appetizers and the main, peacefully co-existing and at times taming down the richness.

Service
Excellent. Apps came out in 15 minutes, wine glasses were never empty, we were given enough time to schmooze, sip and nibble before the mains arrived.

Price
Middle of the road. 2 apps, 1 side, 3 mains and one bottle of Sangiovese – $150

Dinner: April 2014

Giacomo| 3215 Westheimer | HTX 77098

Frank’s Pizza

Pizza in Houston in more ubiquitous than BBQ and burger joints. The interesting aspect of pizza in Houston, should you have lived in NYC or Chicago, is that they don’t really understand either style. While often stellar, its typically some hybrid of NYC meets Chicago. Nothing wrong with that.

Star Pizza has been my ruler against which all other pizza is measured locally. However, Star is often insanely busy and parking has become an unruly, futile butter-churning episode around their limited space, so I’ve looked for contingency pizza.

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Atmosphere
Frank’s is a small slice of a place downtown near Market Square; a 2-story, shotgun configuration with a surprising amount of seating. It feels Brooklyn; minimalist-chic, cramped, loud, chaotic, largely a University of Houston kids with skateboards crowd. The smell of tomato sauce, oregano and pepperoni blots out your ability to think. And you’re happy about that. You don’t need to think when you can just park it upstairs and watch any one of the flat screens.

Food
IMG_1781I wanted Tomato & Cheese, my partner in crime wanted the Supreme. We got the Supreme, it seemed a good way to end the discussion and really, it didn’t matter. The crust is thin but not NYC thin. Crispy on the bottom but still pliable enough to roll a slice up into a makeshift pizza wrap. Minimal sauce and cheese, heavier on the toppings. Don’t be fooled, though, the sauce here is potent with very ripe tomato and oregano, so a little goes a long way.  The Supreme was well-balanced with the requisite veggies, as well as sausage and pepperoni.

Service
Counter-order, number yell on completion. Worried about not hearing your number called while upstairs watching tele? Don’t. Counter girl got lungs. Medium pizza up in 15.

Price
1 Medium Supreme, 2 St. Arnold’s Lawnmowers – $19

While Star is still my favourite pizza in Houston, Frank’s will get a return visit in the near future.

Dinner: 6 March 2014

Frank’s Pizza | 417 Travis | HTX 77002

Damian’s

IMG_1725Midtown Houston went from bad area to destination neighbourhood in the span of a decade. Its long been knocked off  the top of the list but it seems to have settled on being a good place for the early career set working downtown; ubiquitous McApartment complexes, some decent bars and some truly memorable restaurants now pepper the landscape in the southern shadow of downtown’s skyline.

Damian’s has weathered all the Midtown transitions without missing a beat. In my father’s day this was a grown-up place for oil execs to take other oil execs for dinner – suits queued up their 6-figure cars for valet parking, ate too much, drank too much and made deals.

I had never been to Damian’s so I was curious if, given the changes in Houston, it would still be a suit-laden business destination. Short answer – no. In fact, despite being a much older crowd, it has become, with the rest of Houston, much more casual.

Atmosphere
Sophisticated, white tablecloths, servers in white button-up jackets and ties. Judging by the number of birthday presents adorning tables, an event destination. While the inside is deceptively large and open, soundproofing keeps the white noise at a minimum. It is a dressy place, largely patronized by the River Oaks set, but my jean-clad partners and I were greeted warmly by all.

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Food
Excellent old-world Italian with occasional new-world twists. Excellent wine selection, albeit obviously heavy on the Italians. Full bar.

Sweet Potato Ravioli. I was trying to relate the qualities of freshly made pasta vs. store bought pasta to a friend. However, I was not able to articulate the qualities to her satisfaction. There is a texture and feel  to fresh pasta that is different. You know its – fresh.  In any case, the ravioli here tasted freshly made, the slightly sweet sweet potato filling was good contrast to the slightly salty butter-sage sauce.  Good thing they only came four to a plate.

Flounder Pizaola. I knew beforehand the kalamata olive and caper based tomato sauce might overshadow the taste of the flounder. The sauce was applied in the center of the fish, leaving the ends sauce-free. The fish was fresh and grilled naked, quite tasty solo. However the sauce, topped with grilled shrimp added a welcomed savory depth. There was too much sauce but it was easy to move it aside or use it as seasoning for the accompanying sauteed green beans.

Service
Also excellent, old-world Italian. The white-jacket clad server was quite personable but he noticed we were in conversation so he gave us time without being explicitly told. Dishes came out in 20 minutes and seemed to appear with little fanfare or need for acknowledgement. Plate recommendations flowed as if each dish was a well-known friend. Wine suggestions were spot on.

Price
Edging toward high but comparable quality justifies. Sweet Potato Ravioli, Flounder Pizaola and a glass of Santa Marghertia Pinot Grigio – $46.

Dinner: 18 January 2014

Damian’s | 3011 Smith | HTX 77006

Portland, Maine

With my vast 6 days of experience in Maine, if had to live in the state, I would live in Portland. Why? Its a vibrant, active city with architecture, history, culture, all-weather outdoor activities and the people are more than friendly, they are engaged in life, not just superficial consumption.

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But that does not overrule the fact that winter in 6 months long.

No doubt my favorable experience in Portland was due in part to an evening I spent with my friend, The Way North New Yorker, who lives in Portland and is not from NYC. Part of a trinity of friends, she is the most outspoken. Like her NYC brethren, if you ask her a direct question, you will get a direct answer; delivered unblinkingly and without apology. Friends like this are invaluable and very difficult to find.

While my meal with the Way North New Yorker was memorable, I did not take any photos nor did I break from my wine consumption to make notes. No matter, earlier in the day I did make a serious attempt to break my lobster-only diet momentarily by stopping for lunch at Portland Pie Company. The pizza here is NYC-style and excellent. Bonus – you get to choose your crust: Basil, Garlic, White, Wheat and a few others I’ve forgotten.

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The most memorable part of this stop was the server recommended beer, a local variety, Sea Dog Blueberry – crisp, refreshing and with a very distinct but not overpowering blueberry flavor that even my hot-pepper-damaged taste buds could detect. I was thrilled when I discovered it could be acquired locally in Houston.