Cooking like an Italian

Local experts agree: It’s all about the ingredients

Story by David Warren – Featured Photo by Ashley Evans Photography

While growing up, my parents would regularly take the family to a restaurant called Martini’s. It fit all the compulsory components of a classic Italian restaurant. All the employees were from one family; the owner knew us by name and would sit down and chat, and the food was thick with sauces. It was here that I learned to love Italian food. I believe the real attraction to Italian cuisine is that it can grow with you. As a kid it was all about the spaghetti, around 10 years old I discovered the meatball, in my early teens ravioli rocked my world, and by the time I was in high school lasagna changed my life. Finally, in college, I discovered veal piccata. Since then I have progressed in my exploratory walk with Italian fare. Few cuisines can follow you, mature with you, and surprise you like Italian cooking.

Starting with the Romans, Italians have always been adventurous with their recipes. As the Roman Empire explored and conquered Europe and Asia, they brought back spices, oils, and ingredients from each region. At the same time outside the Emperor’s Palace, the masses relied on The Mediterranean Triad of the vine, the olive and the cereals (and all the products related to them). It‘s this combination of modest and intricate tastes which makes Italian cooking one of the world’s most popular cuisines. The common thread in both these humble and sophisticated dishes is the freshest and highest quality ingredients.

Italy is made up of 20 distinct regions, each with its individual local specialties. Of course, pizza and pasta dishes can be found anywhere in Italy, but find yourself outside the big cities, and cuisines can vary immensely.

Coming to America

Between 1880 and 1920, more than 4 million Italians came to America. At that time, this accounted for more than 10 percent of the nation’s foreign-born inhabitants. This mass immigration of Italians into North America is one of the reasons Italian food has become so prevalent. They brought with them fantastic food like pizza, pasta, and ice cream. Once these immigrants realized their cuisine met with such a positive response, Italian restaurants sprang up across the country.

Like most modern communities, Italian dining is found in abundance in the Lowcountry. The following are some of the keys to great Italian cooking from the local chefs.

It seems that whether you’re at a restaurant or at home, the secret to great Italian cooking is the simplicity and the quality of the ingredients. Add a bottle of wine, and you’re in for an excellent evening.


Tips, Tricks, and Suggestions:

Pomodori Italian Eatery

©Ashley Evans Photography

Amanda Russ: When cooking Italian cuisine, the most essential thing to remember is to keep it simple. The Italians know how to honor their ingredients by not overworking them. For instance, in the summer when the tomatoes are in season, they hardly handle them further than adding a little cracked sea salt, an excellent extra virgin olive oil, and some freshly torn basil. When it comes to pasta, making sure to cook it al dente and reserving some of the pasta water is key. Al Dente means “to the tooth” in Italian, meaning that the pasta should still have a bite to it after it’s cooked. Reserving some of the pasta water to incorporate into your sauce when you’re tossing the pasta will give it a luscious creaminess that will make a huge difference, especially in an olive oil-based dish like agile e olio or an egg-based dish like carbonara. The starchy water helps the sauce adhere to the pasta better, and gives it a rich feel in the mouth. Italians also use all varieties of pasta, changing it up to achieve different textures. They value their dried pasta just as highly as their fresh pasta and use them both in equal measure, depending on the occasion.

Pomodori Italian Eatery – Capellini con Gamberi (angel hair with fresh shrimp)

Ingredients

2 pounds fresh Carolina shrimp

1 clove garlic

3 ripe summer tomatoes

1/2 red onion

Good extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon butter

A splash of dry white wine, anything but chardonnay

Fresh lemon juice

1 bunch of fresh basil, torn by hand

Sea salt

1 pound angel hair, cooked al dente with 1 cup of pasta water reserved

Directions [1] Cook your angel hair according to the directions on the box in heavily salted boiling water. Just before straining the pasta, reserve one cup of the liquid and set it aside. [2] Begin by making a quick bruschetta from the tomatoes, red onion and sea salt. Dice the tomatoes and red onion into your desired size and add a good bit of salt and a dash of olive oil. Taste for seasoning and adjust, remembering that tomatoes without salt is a sin. Set aside. [3] Coat your sauté pan in good extra virgin olive oil and add shrimp and a pinch of salt, sautéing about 2 minutes on each side. When you flip the shrimp, add your garlic and stir constantly, moving the garlic so that it doesn’t brown which would make it taste bitter. After about a minute, add a splash of white wine to deglaze the pan, allowing the wine to cook for a minute so it doesn’t taste raw and acidic. Next, add your butter and the bruschetta tomato blend and stir to combine the flavors. Remove the shrimp and set aside. [4] Add the cooked pasta to the sauce with some of the reserved cooking liquid, about a half a cup to start. Turn the heat to high and coat the pasta in the sauce, turn often to evenly distribute. Taste for seasoning and adjust, if desired. [5] Plate your pasta into deep bowls and top with the sautéed shrimp, freshly torn basil, and a fresh squeeze of lemon juice. Serve hot with a chilled glass of Pinot Grigio or Gavi.


Tips, Tricks, and Suggestions:

Nunzio Restaurant + Bar

Nunzio Patruno also brings the same basic rules of Italian cooking to the table. He feels that the best ingredients also involve freshness. Nunzio buys local whenever possible, not only for freshness but also to support the local economy. He is a big fan of local farmers’ markets. This way, you are sure to avoid any fruits or vegetables that may have spent long periods in warehouses or trucks. He also feels that the best recipes are the ones that are “tried and true.” Once you have a great Italian recipe, don’t keep adjusting it. You need to stay with it and avoid experimenting with a good thing.

Nunzio Restaurant + Bar – Pesto Crust Salmon

©Sue B photography

Ingredients (Serves 6)

6 salmon steaks, 6 ounces each

2 garlic cloves, chopped

1 teaspoon of parsley, chopped

6 basil leaves

2 ounces of extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon of breadcrumbs

1 teaspoon of pecorino cheese

1 cup homemade tomato & basil sauce

Salt and pepper

Directions [1] Heat oven to 400 degrees. On a cutting board, mix together the basil, parsley, and garlic and chop them as fine as possible with a chef’s knife. Place the chopped herbs in a glass bowl and add the pecorino cheese, breadcrumbs, two teaspoons of extra virgin olive oil, and salt and pepper. Mix all together creating a paste. Spread the paste over the salmon steak and set aside. [2] Sauté the salmon steaks in extra virgin olive oil on both sides for about two minutes on each side. Spread 1 tablespoon of the pesto mix over the salmon. Place the pesto crusted salmon on a sheet pan and bake in the oven for 5 minutes at 400 degrees. [3] To serve, place some sautéed spinach and roasted potatoes in the center of the plate. Drizzle fresh tomato & basil sauce all around. Finish by placing the salmon over the vegetables.


Tips, Tricks, and Suggestions:

Michael Anthony’s Cucina Italiana

Ian Mason: It is essential to keep it fresh. The way many Italians start their meal is by going to a local market. When you have a recipe in mind, only cook it if the local market has fresh offerings. Build your meal around one ingredient, and if that specific ingredient does not look fresh, you need to be flexible and change to another recipe. Cooking Italian is all about being flexible and realizing that great dishes come from a few quality necessary ingredients, and not a host of flavors. Because many Italian dishes use just a few ingredients, each one must be the best available. Chef Peter Frazzano also stressed the need for quality, particularly with oils, tomatoes and wine. He feels that these three elements are often the key to a beautiful Italian meal.

Michael Anthony’s Cucina Italiana Penne alla Boscaiola

©Rob Kaufman

Ingredients

1 lb. penne, cooked according to package directions

1/4 cup grapeseed oil

1/2 cup pancetta or prosciutto, small dice

1 tablespoon garlic, minced

2 cups mixed mushrooms, sliced

½ cup frozen sweet peas, thawed

1 cup tomatoes, crushed

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

Salt and pepper, to taste

Cracked black pepper

Parmigiano cheese, to taste

3 tablespoons fresh basil, chiffonade

Directions [1] Cook the penne in boiling salted water as directed on package. [2] In a large sauté pan, heat grapeseed oil and sauté the pancetta, garlic, mushrooms and peas. Add the tomatoes and heavy cream. Season with salt and pepper. Simmer for 2 to 3 minutes. [3] Add the cooked pasta to the sauce and toss thoroughly. Finish with the Parmigiano and basil.