Melanzane alla parmigiana

IMG_1423Even though it’s feeling like fall, we still have some eggplant in the garden, and last month we served eggplant alla parmigiana at the restaurant. In the past, we’ve avoided calling it that on the menu because it conjures up an entirely wrong image of that dish based on the American version: heavy, breaded eggplant with saccharine tomato sauce and industrial mozzarella cheese. The Italian version, as usual, is much more appealing to us. Perfectly seasoned eggplant, light but substantial, coupled with a simple, bright tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, and fresh basil from the garden. Although the dish is called “alla parmigiana” (in the style of Parma) it is actually a dish from Naples. The origin of the name is lost to history. Some think it refers to the use of parmigiano-reggiano while others think it is a corruption of a word referring to shutters which are layer when closed, resembling the layering of eggplant in the dish. Personally, I like to think of it as a Neapolitan take on what they think the cooking of Parma is like. That is, it somewhat resembles lasagne, with its laying of rich but light ingredients. But the actual ingredients are totally Neapolitan: eggplant, tomatoes, and mozzarella di bufala. I actually like to add a little hot pepper as well. To me, it’s like a Neapolitan trying to be a Northern Italian but nonetheless showing his true colors at every step. In any case, the key to every dish with eggplant is finding a way to cook it so that it is savory and meltingly rich without being oily, since eggplant absorbs a significant portion of oil. Cooks deal with this in various ways. Some bake or broil it (not a fan of this one), but the traditional way is to fry it in a lot of oil, with the theory that eggplant will absorb less oil if fried in an abundant amount of very hot oil. I did this for years following the advice of writer Marcella Hazan, and it goes give delicious results. But it began to bother me that the eggplant was absorbing flavorless vegetable oil rather than flavorful olive oil. One could deep fry the eggplant in olive oil of course (a la Mario Batali), but one needs to be well-off like Batali to afford such a method. Since eggplant absorbs oil, I wanted the eggplant to absorb the most flavorful olive oil I could find without breaking the bank. The solution I came up with is to use enough olive oil to cook the eggplant but no more. For me, this means coating the bottom of a saute pan completely with olive oil, but only just. When I place the eggplant slices in in a single layer, they will absorb the oil and brown. When I flip them over and lower the heat, they will actually begin to release some of that oil and that helps brown the second side. This method produces beautifully browned, meltingly tender eggplant, which has absorbed just the right amount of highest quality, flavorful olive oil. The result is that when the eggplant is baked, there is no excess oil which needs to be drained off. The dish is meltingly tender but not oily at all. Traditionally, eggplant is salted and allowed to sit for a a half hour or so while the salt draws out bitterness from the fruit. I do this if I use old, store-bought eggplant. However, I’ve never found fresh eggplant from the garden to be bitter. I still pre-salt it most of the time in order to give the salt time to incorporate itself into the eggplant, but I sometimes skip it if short on time. Some people find that salted eggplant absorbs less oil. Even when made in this lighter style, this dish (like lasagne) is still very rich and substantial. We favor small, appetizer sized portions.

Melanzane alla parmigiana (Make 4 small appetizer portions)

1) Peel, slice, and salt (optional) a pound of eggplant, preferably garden fresh and without seeds. If salting, allow to steep for 30 minutes or so. Slices should be ¼ to ½ inch thick based on preference.

2) Dry off the slices if salted, and brown in a pan with olive oil (see note above). If the eggplant absorbs all the oil very quickly, add a little more. There should be just enough.

3) When one side is browned (about 5 minutes or so), lower the heat and brown the other side. If the pan is really dry and the eggplant is not releasing some of its oil, add a little more. After 5 more minutes or so, the eggplant should be meltingly tender. Taste and correct for salt, and then let drain on paper towels.

4) Using the same pan and any residual oil (don’t add more unless there’s none left) add about ¾ cup tomatoes (fresh or high quality canned), a pinch of salt, and as much hot pepper as you dare. Cook over medium heat until broken down, about 5 minutes. Taste for salt.

5) In a small baking dish, place a layer of eggplant, and add a little of the tomatoes, some parmigiano-reggiano cheese, a little sliced mozzarella (preferably di bufala), and a little basil. Repeat with a second layer of all ingredients. If you sliced the eggplant thin, you might have enough for a third layer, but we don’t like to go higher than that. You’ll need about 4 ounces mozzarella total.

6) Bake at 425 degrees for about 15 minutes until bubbly. Run under the broil for a few moments, just enough to give a crust.

7) We serve it hot, but traditionally it is served only slightly warm. IMG_4774

The Scouring of the Shire

The Shire, painted by JRR Tolkien himself.

The Shire, painted by JRR Tolkien himself.

Among the numerous problems with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy (“They eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25” according to Tolkien’s son Christopher), to me one of the most significant is the omission of the penultimate chapter of the trilogy: “The Scouring of the Shire”. In this chapter, Frodo and his companions have returned home after the defeat of Sauron. What they find there is an evil smaller in scope than the one they’ve just defeated though perhaps no less horrifying to them. The Shire, once a simple, agrarian community of hobbits with simple tastes and ambitions, has become an industrial wasteland, exploited by avaricious locals and dominated by outsiders. What had once been a place of careful stewardship and a recognition of limits has become a place viewed as a means to an end, a set of resources to be exploited, by both locals and outsiders with no long term interest in the health and prosperity of the land. Although Frodo and his friends ultimately drive out the usurpers, the chapter is a reminder of how quickly a healthy, beautiful place can be turned to ruin.

My family and I live just outside the emerging Marcellus shale belt of Northeastern Pennsylvania, and I think of “The Scouring of the Shire” whenever I think of the controversy surrounding fracking. I am concerned about the long term environmental impacts of fracking, particularly the accidents which inevitably happen in such an industry. But I am perhaps even more concerned about the underlying attitude to the land which fracking assumes: that our land and water are resources to be exploited rather than gifts to be protected and cherished.

The proponents of fracking argue that it is safe, creates jobs, and funnels money into rural regions desperately in need of economic development. I agree that it likely is safe, except for the inevitable accidents which one never expects and yet which seem to regularly occur, accidents whose consequences and sometimes irreparable, no matter how much money is thrown at them. And it certainly creates jobs, at least in the short term. And certainly rural places are in need of economic development. Yet, it seems to me that many of these arguments are smokescreens, positive PR for an industry motivated by the same thing that motivates most economic activity: greed. Ultimately, those who will benefit most from fracking are not local landowners and local communities, but the companies doing the fracking, companies who have no long term interest in the places where they now do business. At bottom, their interest is purely economic, whatever their PR might argue to the contrary. The proof of this is that if a well dries up or doesn’t perform, the company packs up and leaves, care for the local community suddenly evaporated.

Even if one could predict a future in which fracking has no negative environmental impacts, I would still be opposed because of the attitude to the land which fracking depends on. Long before the term sustainable came into use, proponents of agriculture practiced with care talked and wrote of “permanent agriculture”, agriculture which could go on indefinitely. Their vision was not for the short term profit of the next quarter or even next decade, but for the flourishing of generations to come. They knew that agriculture which undermined its ability to perpetuate itself was a kind of economic and cultural suicide. Yet, fossil fuel extraction represents such an economic suicide by its very nature. The very essence of fossil fuel is that it is not permanent, that it is the using up a finite resource, no matter how abundant it may appear. It is temporary by its very nature. To my mind, our relationship to the places we inhabit and the economic activity which allows us to survive and even thrive in them, ought to be based on activities which are permanent. Agriculture, properly practiced, is just such an activity. When fracking companies argue that fracking is good for agriculture because it enriches farmers and allows them to stay on the land, I don’t know if I want to laugh or cry. If frackers really cared about the economic health of local agricultural communities, they would buy local agricultural products and pay a premium for them so that farmers can actually make a living farming. They would preserve farmland and oppose thoughtless and ugly development. Likewise, if they really cared about local jobs, they would create jobs that are stable and lasting, not which have an inevitable expiration date. It is astounding and sad to me that a region like Northeastern Pennsylvania, still suffering from the boom/bust cycle of coal would so quickly jump on another fossil fuel bandwagon, destined to repeat the same pattern experienced decades ago.

As in the Shire, what is at stake here is how we view our relationship to the land we inhabit. As in the case of the Shire, we have invited into our region outsiders with no intention of staying for the long term. We have been seduced by short term profits to the neglect of our long term environmental and economic health. I am deeply grateful that my family and I live just outside the Shale belt because though I like to believe we would refuse the economic gains of drilling on our land, I know the temptation would be great. I am certainly in no place to judge those who have allowed drilling on their land. There are myriad reasons why such a decision might make sense in a particular situation. My concern is not with individual landowners’ choices, but with an attitude which has no long-term commitment to a place, but views our land not with an eye to stewardship but an eye to exploitative profit. 

Frodo and his friends, fresh from their defeat of Sauron, knew the power that lay in their hands. I wonder if we can claim that same sense of empowerment, and work to replace the temporary benefits of fracking with the more permanent benefits of sustainable agriculture and other sustainable economic activity? 

Gelato, at last

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The past few weekends we’ve been serving hazelnut gelato at the restaurant. It’s been a long time coming. Although we’ve been making and serving sorbet since the beginning, gelato is much harder to make without large-scale equipment, and this is the first time we’ve been pleased enough with the result to serve gelato at the restaurant.

Gelato is one of the great culinary treasures of Italy. The way gelato differs from ice cream speaks volumes about how Italians think about food. For starters, in Italy gelato is made every day. It doesn’t sit in a freezer somewhere for days or weeks but is made and consumed fresh. Although it is sometimes perceived as being more rich than ice cream, it is actually less so, being made with more milk and less cream than American ice cream. Finally, gelato is kept frozen at a higher temperature than American ice cream, keeping it softer and spreadable. In Italy, the tool one uses is not an ice cream scoop, but a sort of spatula.

The problem with making gelato at home or on a small restaurant scale is that the machines made for that purpose take a long time to freeze the mixture, about 20 to 25 minutes, more than twice as long as professional machines. This longer freeze time creates the potential for the fatal flaw of homemade ice cream, ice crystals, ruining the silky and luscious texture of properly made gelato. All of our earliest attempts to make gelato were doomed for this reason. We also noticed that the high cream content of our mixture (usually 50/50 milk/cream), left a greasy film on the dasher and in our mouths.

And so we consoled ourselves with making water-based sorbets, which aren’t ruined by an icy texture and don’t get greasy from fat. And thank god we could always make a trip if we were really desperate to Capogiro in Philadelphia (the only gelateria in the US we know of that makes and serves it right).

But a few months ago we acquired two new books which we desperately hoped (rather than expected) might help us in our pursuit of the elusive goal of small batch gelato: The Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz, and Making Artisan Gelato by Torrance Kopfer. Although neither book is perfect and both flawed by outrageous flavors we have no interest in (parsley gelato, anyone?), both have helped us unlock the keys to making gelato at home. Here are some things we’ve learned:

1) At home, custard-based gelato is more successful. Ice cream without eggs (aka Philadelphia style) has never come out without an icy texture. Because of our pursuit of simplicity, our favorite gelato flavor is fior di latte (made with sugar and milk only), and we spent a lot of time trying to make egg-free gelato, but we’ve finally concluded it’s just not possible.

2) All instructions call for heating and then cooling the mixture, but we’ve found that chilling for a few hours is not enough. An overnight rest in the fridge does wonders for the texture of gelato and for reducing iciness. The longer it ages the more stable it becomes, which improves texture.

3) In Kopfer’s book, he recommends putting the custard mixture through the blender before mixing in the cream, and we’ve found this to make a big difference. Somehow the fats become more evenly distributed, which helps overall texture.

4) We settled on Kopfer’s suggestion of 2 parts milk to 1 part cream. This has eliminated the greasy phenomenon.

With these principles in mind, we started with one of our favorite gelato flavors and one of the most important in Italy: nocciola (hazelnut). Although ideally one would purchase hazelnuts imported from Piedmont, we actually made do with store-bought, pre-chopped hazelnuts. Can’t wait to take it to the next level with proper, imported nuts, but it’s good to know that store-bought nuts will still produce very good results. Our recipe is only mildly adapted from Kopfer’s book, and it is with immense gratitude and excitement that we share it here:

Hazelnut gelato (adapted from Making Artisan Gelato by Torrance Kopfer)

1) Roast 225 grams (1.5 cups) hazelnuts in a 350 degree oven for 10 minutes, and then grind into fairly fine meal in a food processor. This can be overdone, so experiment. On our machine, we run it for 20 seconds.
2) Heat 3 cups milk to 170 degrees, stirring constantly once it’s above 140 degrees.
3) Remove from heat and stir in the ground nuts, return to low heat and stir constantly for about 10 minutes, making sure the temperature doesn’t go much above 170 degrees.
4) Remove from heat, cover, and allow to steep for one hour or a little more.
5) Strain out the nuts, add 100 grams (1 cup) sugar, and reheat the milk mixture to 170 degrees. Remove from heat.
6) With an electric mixer, beat 4 egg yolks with another 50 grams sugar until pale yellow and thickened, just a minute or two.
7) Temper the egg mixture by slowly drizzling in a little hot milk and mix thoroughly. Once a fair bit of milk has been added, you can add the rest more quickly, and then return the whole mixture to medium heat, and stir constantly until the mixture reaches 185 degrees. Remove from heat and add ½ teaspoon vanilla extract.
8) Process in a blender for just 30 seconds or less, and then pour into a bowl or pot and add 1 cup cold cream. Stir well and place in a sink of cold water to chill the mixture quickly. After 15 minutes or so, cover and place in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours or preferably overnight.
9) Freeze in your ice cream machine (I chill the dasher in the freezer beforehand and cover the open lid with an ice pack to keep everything cold).
10) Place the gelato in a pre-frozen container and let it slightly harden in the freezer for two or three hours.
11) The next day the gelato will be much harder, but still tasty.

Return to the Farm

Every summer for the past six years, we have moved from our on-campus apartment at the boarding school where I was working to our farmhouse in rural Luzerne County. After about eight wonderful weeks of farming and operating our restaurant, we would pack up and move back to campus, only enjoying the farm on weekends and breaks as circumstances allowed. This routine had become deeply embedded and familiar to us, hard as it was to leave at the end of the summer. This year, we followed the same pattern, packing up our belongings and making the much longed-for transition to rural life. This year is different, however, because this year we’re not going back. This year, we’ve returned to the farmhouse to stay for good.

Although it was a long time in coming and the result of careful and thoughtful planning, I’m still somewhat surprised that six months ago I gave notice to my employer that I would be leaving what had been a perfectly decent, satisfying job with benefits and stability, including a free private school education for our children, all in pursuit of operating our small farm and restaurant full time. Many people certainly would think we’re nuts. Much to our surprise, though, that wasn’t the reaction we received as we began telling friends and colleagues several months ago. Instead, we were congratulated. Some said they were envious. Others commented on how important it was to pursue one’s passions. It was at that moment that I realized that we were doing something that many people wish they themselves could do: abandon the job which provides them comfort and stability in favor of pursuing something that feels more authentically like a calling or vocation.

In the end, vocation is really the best word to describe how we think about the change. I liked my former job. I wasn’t unhappy and will miss it very much. But ultimately, it began to feel like settling for our second choice. Since the first day 15 years ago that I began working on a farm digging potatoes in a mess of weeds, I’ve been hooked. Since then we’ve lived in cities and once almost leased our farm to another young couple, but even when moving in a different direction, something deep has always called out that farming is what we should be doing. In this way, committing to the farm full time feels like finally coming home.

Of course, our restaurant figures prominently in our work on the farm. We’re now open every Friday and Saturday by reservation only. But we see the two as part of one unified whole. We think of the restaurant as an outgrowth of the farm. We don’t even have name for the restaurant. It’s just Old Tioga Farm. The work is different on restaurant days, but both support the same mission: to delight our customers with food grown and prepared with love and the highest attention to quality.

Of course, both restaurant and farm are hard work. The summer has been one long blur of 14 hour days and exhaustion. This is our first blog post in four months, and we’ve had to put a temporary hold on most social engagements. But we’ve slowly gotten caught up, and when we greet guests at the restaurant and deliver beautiful produce to customers, there’s no doubt that such hard work is worth it.

As meaningful as our work raising vegetables and running the restaurant is, even that is only half the story because we still wouldn’t have made the decision to commit to full-time work on the farm if we didn’t feel strongly that it was best for our three young sons. In many ways we seemed to have it made. We lived on campus with other families with children. Our boys attended a first-rate private school for free. They had summers at the farmhouse. And yet, despite the appearance of having it all, we felt that something was missing. For starters, WE were missing, because we only saw our kids for about 3 or 4 hours a day during the week, with 3 PM dismissal and 7 PM bedtime. Our childrens’ teachers were spending more time with them than we were. And while this is no time to get into the pros and cons of parents staying at home or working outside the home, for us it felt wrong, that we were ceding to others the most primary formative influence on our children. With my wife having been homeschooled, we knew there was another way, one that might not be right for all or even many families, but which felt right to us. We wanted to bring our kids home, work from home, and have our home and life together the central focus of each of our lives.

Wendell Berry and, more recently, Shannon Hayes and others have written in defense of a home-based life, one in which the home is a place of constructive production and not merely a place of consumption. This vision of the home is deeply meaningful to us. And while we’re not ignorant or naive of the challenges of a life centered around the home, we feel like it is our vocation to work and raise our family in this beautiful and sacred place.

As I write, my former colleagues are beginning their annual faculty meetings in preparation for a new school year. In many ways it is sad to have given up that good life. But mostly it is freeing and liberating to commit to a way of life and work which feels like a vocation. Our family has entered into a new phase in its life. We have come home, and plan to stay.

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On Italian Coffee

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I am obsessed with coffee. More specifically, with Italian coffee (espresso) and the drinks based upon it. But it wasn’t love at first taste. Like many Americans, the first shots of espresso I encountered here at home tasted burned and bitter. But slowly, through travel in Italy and experience with my own machine at home, I came to experience the magnificent glory of a proper shot of Italian coffee.

Technically speaking, a shot of espresso is made by passing water through 7 grams of finely ground and tamped coffee at 195 degrees and 9 bars of pressure, resulting in a one ounce shot in about 20 to 25 seconds. Of course, this requires a machine of quality and sophistication. Italians simply call the drink “un caffè” (Italian for “a coffee”), and it is the foundation of Italian coffee culture.

Properly made, espresso’s character is expressed best by the concept of concentration. That is, instead of thinking of it as stronger, as many do, I think it makes more sense to think of espresso as more concentrated than American coffee. Just as a raisin represents the concentration of a grape, so to does a shot of espresso represent the concentration of coffee in a small, intense, and rich package. Like wine, espresso is rich in aromatics and flavor compounds, and the complexity of its flavor and texture is its chief virtue. Because of its unique extraction method, espresso also contains a layer of “crema” on top of the shot. This crema is the emulsified oils of the beans sustained in tiny micro-bubbles of air. It is one of the unique and divine properties of espresso.

In addition to a classic shot of espresso, Italians drink a wide variety of espresso-based drinks. Most famous, of course, is the cappuccino, a breakfast drink made with a shot of espresso and twice that amount of frothed milk. Italians inevitably think of this drink as a morning beverage, which only tourists order after noon. For later in the day, one can order a caffè macchiato, which is a shot of espresso “stained” (which is what macchiato means) with just a touch of frothed milk. There is also caffè corretto with a shot of grappa or other liquor. There’s also caffè lungo with extra water, caffè ristretto, with less, and caffè Americano, with a lot of water to satisfy American tourist tastes.

Once I had had a proper espresso in Italy, I wondered why it wasn’t made right in the US. Everyone seems to have the same high-quality, Italian-made machine. Why wasn’t it right? Once I bought my own machine and began to learn about proper technique, I realized that attention to detail at all steps makes a huge difference. Indifference or lack of knowledge anywhere along the way can derail the entire result. Beans must be of high quality, freshly roasted, and freshly ground. Water must have great flavor. Tamping and grinding must be done correctly. One’s machine must be meticulously cleaned to perform optimally. In Italy, being a barista is a serious profession, not a weekend or night-time job for college students.

But most importantly, one has to have experience of what good espresso is. Without a standard or target, one doesn’t even know what to aim for. This is especially obvious in the poorly frothed milk one finds at coffee bars in the US. Properly frothed milk should have the appearance and texture of wet paint, like a thick and luscious cream. This result is produced by the incorporation of tiny air bubbles into the milk as it is heated. Frothed this way, the milk can be poured into lovely designs in the cup, known as latte art. For reasons I don’t completely understand, milk frothed correctly also tastes sweeter. Poorly frothed milk, by contrast, look more like soap suds and lacks refinement and delicacy. It often tastes flat or burned. Because some people think milk with lower fat froths better, much of it is quite flavorless.

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Because few of us have easy access to a coffee bar making espresso well, our only option is making it at home ourselves. One can purchase a high-quality home machine with grinder for just under $1000, which seems like a lot to spend until one considers how much daily joy such a machine can bring. Although we’re about to upgrade at the restaurant to a machine more suited for commercial use, we’ve used the Rancilio Silvia for some time, which is one of the best machines for home use. We recommend it highly and would be happy to give recommendations for its use and maintenance. We use coffee beans from La Colombe in Philly and Caffe Fresco near Wilkes-Barre, both of whom do an excellent job. Two coffee bars which do a great job making espresso are capogiro (also a gelateria) in Philly and Square One, in Lancaster City.

Old Tioga Farm Vegetables

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We always try to explain to our guests that Old Tioga Farm isn’t simply a restaurant but actually a farm. In fact, to us the farm is the heart of it all, with the restaurant being one important expression of our commitment to sustainable agriculture. This model of a “farm-based” restaurant is the one that so inspired us in Italy, especially at Lago Scuro near Cremona. It’s a rare model in the US, but one which we find deeply meaningful.

The agricultural business we operate is a CSA offering vegetables and bread. CSA stands for “community supported agriculture”, a marketing model in which customers make a commitment to a particular farm for an entire season in exchange for weekly delivery of produce. It helps the farmer by giving him/her pre-sold product and it helps customers by giving them guaranteed access to produce of the highest and freshest quality. Most importantly, It is a marketing model that puts relationships and commitment at the heart of economic exchange. It makes the whole thing more personal.

Our CSA runs for 22 weeks, from early June through mid-October. Each week members choose which items they would like for that week.We deliver to homes and central pick-ups sites in Bloomsburg on Mondays and Wilkes Barre on Thursdays. Pick-up at the farm is also possible, even encouraged. CSA “shares” range in size from 5 items per week ($350) to 10 items per week ($600). We also offer bread shares (the same bread we make for the restaurant), for $110 for the 22 week season. CSA members also have the ability to make advance reservations at the restaurant. We follow organic and sustainable methods but are not certified.

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Growing vegetables commercially is very meaningful work for us. In a complex world with many problems and few simple solutions, growing food for local customers feels like one important step in the right direction, a step we can take to make the world a better place, if only in a small but concrete way. Buying produce from a local farm keeps money in the local community, ensures fresh, high-quality food for customers, keeps harmful chemicals out of our soils and water, and keeps more small farmers in business. It’s a win-win for everyone.

For more information on our CSA, contact us by e-mail: justin@oldtiogafarm.com

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Best Gnocchi in Rome

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I can make excellent puff pastry, fresh pastas of all kinds. I can cure my own guanciale, pancetta, and salami. Most of these were even successful on the first try. But I can’t make gnocchi. I’ve tried. I’ve really tried. It’s not hopeless, and I hope that someday I will finally master it, but so far it has eluded me. I don’t think I’m alone. The variety of recipes alone suggests the challenging nature of making gnocchi. Some people say to use baking potatoes, others say never use baking potatoes. Some call for egg. Others think that egg will ruin the gnocchi dough. This sort of disagreement says a lot. With only one exception, every dish of gnocchi I’ve ever made or been served in a restaurant is heavy and totally uninteresting to me. The exception are the gnocchi all’ amatriciana served at Ristorante L’Arcangelo near the Castel Sant’ Angelo in Rome. L’Arcangelo is operated by Arcangelo and Stefania Dadini. I first learned of the restaurant from Katie Parla, who has been my mentor in Roman restaurant culture. You can download her Rome dining app here. L’Arcangelo is one of those restaurants which does certain things better than others, which I find utterly incomprehensible and unacceptable, but so it goes. Luckily, it does gnocchi right. Not only does it do gnocchi right, it does it better than any other place in Rome. This isn’t surprising since most Roman restaurants use industrially produced gnocchi. Honestly, the gnocchi at L’Arcangelo are the only gnocchi I’ve ever enjoyed eating.

The best gnocchi in Rome.

The best gnocchi in Rome.

I had always heard that gnocchi should be light and weightless, but I’d never experienced gnocchi like that. L’Arcangelo’s are. They offer the most delightful contrast of weightlessness and substance, just like a well-made pillow, to which gnocchi are sometimes compared. Not only are the gnocchi at L’Arcangelo the best in Rome, so is the all’amatriciana they’re sauced with. The sauce is made with guanciale and tomatoes, and though many places do it well, L’Arcangelo’s is the best I’ve had. The whole dish is perfectly seasoned, rich but moderately portioned. I think they’re the best thing I’ve ever eaten in Rome.

There are many tricks I can try in making my own gnocchi. Some bake the potatoes instead of boiling them to reduce moisture content. Arcangelo says he boils the potatoes with equal parts salt and water. Some day I’ll figure it out. In the meantime, I have the gnocchi at L’Arcangelo to aspire to. Thursday is the traditional day to serve gnocchi in Rome, but Katie’s promotion of L’Arcangelo’s gnocchi have convinced him to serve them most days. You won’t see them on the menu, though. You have to ask. Tell him that you heard about his gnocchi from Katie, and he’ll take good care of you.

Home cooking in Monti

At the beginning of my culinary education, I learned an important principle of Italian cooking from writer Marcella Hazan, who explained that it is not restaurants but home kitchens, especially rural ones, which offer the best cooking in Italy. According to Marcella, to suggest that a restaurant’s cooking tastes of the home is one of the greatest compliments one can offer. This attitude made a deep impression and has shaped our approach to cooking at Old Tioga Farm. Although I’m not inspired by novel cooking and believe that good cooking emphasizes not the chef but the ingredients themselves, every cook or chef still imparts something of his or her personality to his or her cooking.

This fact was clearly demonstrated to me while dining recently at l’Asino d’oro in the Monti neighborhood of Rome. L’Asino is run by Lucio Sforza, who was based for many years in Orvieto before moving to Rome several years ago. Though I enjoyed many excellent meals during my recent week in Rome, my two meals at l’Asino stand out as the best example of rural home cooking which I experienced there, and I can’t help but think of Sforza himself when I think of those dishes. I had the good fortune to eat there for lunch one day (best deal in Rome…three courses, wine, and water for 13 euro) and dinner the next.

Best deal in Rome.

Best deal in Rome.

Well-made, naturally fermented bread.

Well-made, naturally fermented bread.

Crostino with ricotta and pecorino.

Crostino with ricotta and pecorino.

Soup with potatoes, broccoli, and chard.

Soup with broccoli and chard.

Ravioli sauced with tomatoes and mushrooms.

Ravioli sauced with tomatoes and mushrooms.

Turkey meatballs braised with tomatoes.

Turkey meatballs braised with tomatoes.

The first thing I notice when I dine at l’Asino is the lack of pretense. There is no drive to impress, only to nourish. Portions and seasoning are delightfully moderate, allowing one to enjoy a series of small plates without weariness. Vegetables are abundant and feel like the foundation of the dishes. Flavors are easily comprehensible and traditional. It it the cooking of the countryside, the cooking of the poor, the cooking of the home. Dining at l’Asino, I can forget I’m in the heart of Rome and be momentarily convinced I’m dining at the home of a farmer in the Umbrian countryside.

Puree of broccoli.

Puree of broccoli.

Artichoke soup

Artichoke soup

Rabbit braised with tomatoes, onions, and pine nuts. Not the prettiest presentation, but delicious.

Rabbit braised with tomatoes, onions, and pine nuts. Not the prettiest presentation, but delicious.

A love letter to Armando al Pantheon

armandoI had the good fortune a few moments ago to dine at Armando al Pantheon, in Rome. Just steps from the Pantheon, Armando offers a paradise amidst a sea of mediocre and embarrassing tourist traps. As my friend Katie Parla has documented, restaurant culture in Rome has declined in the last decade, and it is harder and harder to eat well in the historic center of Rome. And so Armando feels like the most unlikely and precious of gifts.

Armando is a traditional Roman trattoria. That is, it is family run (multi-generational), small (about 30 seats), and traditional (mostly classic Roman dishes). By a stroke of great luck, it was the first place I ever ate in Rome, and I’ve been going back ever since. The kitchen at Armando is run by Claudio, while his brother Fabrizio runs the dining room, and what is most remarkable about Armando is that Claudio’s cooking is pitch perfect every time. In a city where even the best restaurants do some dishes better than others, Armando has a consistency which places it in a special class.

All good cooking, like most good things, is based on having good taste. This is the difference between a decent and a great string quartet performance, or a decent performance and great performance of a play. Good taste is hard or impossible to teach, but those that have the gift can perceive it. Tonight at Armando, I had one of the most classic and simple of Roman pastas: spaghetti all’ aglio, olio, e peperoncino (garlic, oil, and hot pepper). As I’ve written before, this is one of the most devilish sauces, because its minimal ingredient list requires everything to be perfect and balanced. At the center of successful cooking is proper seasoning with salt, the ability to draw out flavor from ingredients, but in a subtle and unobtrusive way, in a way that simply makes the ingredients taste more of themselves. This is this gift Claudio seems to have. Every bite of his cooking is full of character, but one never tires or wearies eating his cooking, as is the case in so many restaurants, particularly good ones in America. In America, so many chefs seem trained to produce flavors which are exciting for a few bites, but quickly make one weary through over-seasoning or lack of freshness. Others restaurants, such as the one I visited for lunch today, offer excellent dishes, but portion size is so overwhelming that the dishes can hardly be enjoyed through the end before weariness sets in.

This elusive quality of balance and taste is what we strive for at Old Tioga Farm, and dining at restaurants such as Armando inspires us to seek that same ideal. Great cooking is not at all about being a “celebrity chef”, but rather about the ability to be humble enough to make one’s cooking about honoring the integrity of high-quality ingredients.

As my friend Katie explained today, even many Romans have lost the taste for quality that is needed to appreciate Armando. If you find yourself in Rome, go to Armando. You might not speak Italian, you might not be Roman, you might show yourself immediately to be a tourist, but express delight in Claudio’s cooking, heap praise upon the wonderful dishes that come from his kitchen, and you’ll earn gratitude and appreciation from one of Rome’s finest restaurants.

Apple Tart

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We’ve been making a lot of tart and pie crusts this winter, and it has reminded me of an important axiom in our kitchen: trust your instincts and don’t assume recipes and established wisdom are right. About 15 years ago when I started making pie crusts, I followed the old precepts: keep the butter ice cold from the fridge, don’t over work the dough, let the dough chill before rolling, mixing by hand is better. The results were good, but something seemed missing. Slowly it dawned on me that the colder the butter is, the more liquid has to be added to the dough. If the butter softens just slightly, it has more power to make the dough come together with less liquid and therefore less gluten development. So now I mix the butter/flour and let it sit a few minutes before doing anything else. I used to be so scared of overworking the dough that I hardly got it to come together at all, which led to cracking and other problems rolling it out. Now I roll the dough out, fold the ragged edges in on themselves, and repeat that process several times, which produces a uniform, well-integrated dough easy to roll out without any chilling. Finally, though I love working by hand, a food processor is so much more efficient distributing liquid throughout the dough, that when I use the processor I use less liquid, and therefore develop less gluten. My pie crust results have never been more uniformly successful or delicious.

We love apple tarts of various kinds in our house. Recently, we’ve been making the simplest, most classic version possible, with just apples, a little sugar, spice, and finished with a jam glaze.

While teaching our kids to love a wide variety of good and adventurous foods has been more challenging than we had hoped, when it comes to making a sweet treat, our rule is that if you want to eat it you have to help make it.
Our six-year old son Peter helped me make it recently, and I’m happy to share the recipe.

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1) To make the crust, combine 150 grams flour with 110 grams butter along with a big pinch of salt and a very big pinch or two of sugar. Process about 5 seconds in a food processor until the butter pieces are the size of small peas.

2) Let the mixture sit for 5 minutes, then (with the machine running) add just barely enough liquid to make the dough come together (about 3 or 4 tablespoons). I use milk, but you could use water if you had too. Vodka is also great because it is flavor neutral but won’t develop gluten.

3) Without chilling the dough, place it on a well floured board and roll out to about 1/4 inch thickness. Fold the ragged edges in, and then roll out again, and repeat two or three times until the dough is uniform.

4) Roll the crust out a final time to a thickness of about 1/4 inch and place in a pie or tart pan. I often just use a cast iron skillet, which works wonderfully.

5) Refrigerate the dough (covered with plastic) at least a few hours, or preferably overnight. I get less shrinkage and better results with more chilling.

6) Prick the crust all over with a fork, and then place thin apples slices in a slightly overlapping concentric circles. Top with a generous dusting of sugar and little spice (cinnamon maybe, or nutmeg, or whatever).

7) Bake at 375 degrees until the apples and crust are both nicely browned, about 45 minutes. Depending on your oven, you might want to let it bake a few minutes in a lower position to nicely brown the bottom of the tart.

8) Place the tart on a rack to cool. Meanwhile, quickly bring some jam, thinned with a little water to a simmer, and when it seems like a nice thick syrup, use a pastry brush to brush syrup all over the tart, crust and apples.

9) When slightly cooled, garnish with powdered sugar and serve!

This photo makes me smile.

This photo just makes me smile.

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