Annapolis and Venice

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I recently wrote about falling in love with Venice. It reminded me of another city I fell in love with once and still love, though we’ve been apart for a long time: Annapolis, Maryland.

I spent four years in Annapolis while a student at St. John’s College about 20 years ago. After getting married in 2004, Dillon and I lived in Annapolis for a brief but special two months, but until this past September I hadn’t been back since.

On my recent trip back to Annapolis for my first-ever college Homecoming, it dawned on me how much Annapolis resembles that other city so dear to my heart: Venice.

On the most superficial level, both cities are defined by water. Although I never took advantage of the abundant opportunities to sail or row in Annapolis (definitely a regret), water still played an important part in my experience of the city. Early morning walks down to the city docks, taking a short walk down to the Severn River bordering an edge of the College’s “back campus”, exploring the campus of the US Naval Academy (bordered on two sides by water), following a quiet residential street until it dead-ended in water, following the road that hugs the jagged coast of the peninsula, with water lapping disconcertingly close to the pavement with the imposing Bay Bridge in the background, sitting on a quiet bench facing a little cove while holding the hand of my future wife for the first time. All of these experiences of water defined my experience there.

Just as significant, both cities are largely defined by tourism. Main Street in Annapolis is beautiful as one walks downhill toward the water, with a gorgeous vista of the bay straight ahead, but the businesses on that street are mostly focused on tourism. There one finds commercial restaurants, trinket shops, overpriced clothing and jewelry —  businesses that cater to visitors rather than residents. But leave the main streets behind, and one finds a different Annapolis: homes and churches, playgrounds and schools. As I found as a student, spend enough time in Annapolis and its tourist veneer quickly wears off. Avoid the popular spots in the height of the season while going about one’s business. After a while, the tourist nature of the city starts to seem like a thin skin, easily overlooked for the living soul beneath. After a while, I didn’t even really notice the tourism because I was there for other reasons and focused on other things.

Both cities have at times been defined by the pursuit of vice. After Venice lost its maritime empire and began to decline in the 17th and 18th centuries, it survived by attracting visitors from elsewhere in Europe, and it developed a reputation for being a playground for the affluent. It was in the pleasure business, and prostitution and gambling became as much of a draw as art and architecture. Before I even set foot in Annapolis, a friend of my father’s who seemed to be speaking from experience described Annapolis as the sort of place people from DC go to misbehave and not get caught. Indeed, people do misbehave there. Visitors are loud; they drink too much. They do things on their boats that they might not do on land. Every morning feels like an unwelcome wake-up call from the outrageous party raging the night before.

But of course, these cities are not simply dens of vice. Indeed, although that character definitely is felt, it is perhaps more accurate to focus on the daily life of its residents, focused on shopping and living, raising children and working, not on partying and excess. For a while I dated a woman who attended daily AA meetings in Annapolis, a contrast to the party if ever there was one. One could attend mass at St. Mary’s and see not vice but a striving for health.

Perhaps the greatest lesson is that both cities are real places beneath their superficial veneers. Annapolis is not just a place to misbehave, but a place to raise a family. For me it was a place to study ancient Greek and the history of science. Venice is not just a place to see a few sites before moving on, but a place to learn deep lessons about self-government and the fragility of civilization.

There’s nothing wrong with making a brief visit to a place, merely scratching the surface of what it has to offer. But it’s good to know that even the most touristy places have living, beating hearts beneath the surface for those who can invest the time and effort to discover them.

 

 

 

 

An Interview with Giuliano Hazan

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Giuliano-Hazan-BW-PrintGiuliano Hazan is the son of Marcella and Victor Hazan. Like his parents, Giuliano has dedicated his life to teaching and writing about authentic Italian cooking. Although he lives in the US, he travels to Italy several times per year to offer week-long cooking courses near Verona. He also teaches classes at his home in Sarasota, Florida.

In our interview, we talk about how Italian food has changed in both America and Italy, the differences between restaurant and home cooking, and what it was like growing up with a mother who became the most famous Italian cooking teacher in America.

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Justin Naylor: Good morning, Giuliano, and thanks for taking the time to speak today. I’d like to begin by asking what it was like growing up in the Hazan household. After all, before Marcella became famous, to you she was your mother first.

Giuliano Hazan: First of all, I would have to say we ate very well. Mealtimes were always important, and discussions about food were always important. It was something that I grew to enjoy being a part of, very much. As far as her becoming famous – it did happen fairly early in my childhood. The book came out in 1972, and she had been teaching already for a couple of years at that point. I was thirteen years old when the book came out. To tell you the truth, I really don’t remember home life before she was involved in food. That was really the normal thing: she was teaching, and she was writing the books, and so forth. Eventually, my father became involved in that full-time, but I certainly remember very well when he was working at my grandfather’s fur store and juggling both things.

JN: Were there dishes that you remember disliking as a boy, that it was a struggle for your parents to get you to eat? Or did you have a charmed palate from the start?

GH: No, no… liver was certainly one thing that I really didn’t like. I’m not incredibly fond of it, still. Occasionally I’ve had really good, tender calves’ liver that I did like. In our household I learned that I never said that I didn’t like something; I wasn’t ready yet. Raw oysters, raw mollusks in general are things that I’m still not particularly fond of. Other than that, I think I pretty much ate everything. Pasta was, and still is, one of my favorite things to eat.

JN: When did you actually begin to help in the kitchen?

GH: I mostly watched in the kitchen. I seem to remember there was a stool I would sit on; I would just watch what she did. Occasionally I would help out with something; one of the things that comes to mind is risotto stirring. And then, there was this dessert that she always made, called the Diplomatico, which is basically a rum- and coffee-flavored chocolate mousse cake. You have to whip the eggs, sugar, and egg whites to make the mousse. I remember helping out with that as well. Everyone always asks me, “So, you grew up cooking with your mother…” Well, not really. I grew up watching my mother cook, and mostly eating.

JN: These days, people emphasize ‘doing’ so much, but watching can be just as powerful in a certain way. I think watching a master at work doesn’t get quite the respect it deserves. There’s a tremendous amount that can be observed.

GH: I definitely absorbed a lot. If you’re watching something that is of interest, then you’re going to retain a lot more, as well.

JN: Even more than if you’re doing it, sometimes – just to have complete focus on observation.

GH: Yes, definitely.

JN: And of course, one of the most important things about these experiences were the taste memories that you were developing as a child and then as an adolescent – to have a sense from your earliest years of what certain things should taste like. I imagine that was the greatest gift of that experience.

GH: Yes, absolutely. Developing a palate is key to cooking, I think.

JN: One of the other interesting things about your childhood is that you spent time both in the US and in Italy, back and forth quite a bit. Could you talk a little about those experiences, whether as a boy you felt more American or Italian?

GH: It really felt like I was growing up in both places because when my parents moved back to the States I was about 8½ or 9, and at that point I was going to the school in the States, but the entire summer vacation every summer was spent in Italy in Cesenatico with my grandmother, so I was equally comfortable in both environments. This was pretty much through the end of high school.

JN: After high school, you didn’t decide initially to pursue cooking or teaching cooking as a career. What did you end up studying in college and how did you eventually transition to cooking and teaching?

GH: Well, I’d always been interested in theater. When I first went to college I started out as a biology major.

JN: Like your mother.

GH: Like my mother. But I really wanted to do theater as much as I could. There just didn’t seem to be enough time for lab and rehearsal times. And biology didn’t really inspire me that much, as much as I thought it would. So at that point I sort of switched gears. I went to Swarthmore College, and at that time they didn’t have a theater major, so I ended up becoming a French major. I’d studied French in high school and spent time in France as well. It seemed convenient, and I continued doing theater as well. After college, I ended up at a professional theater school in Providence, Rhode Island — Trinity Rep conservatory.

JN: What drew you to theater and made it so captivating for you?

GH: I enjoyed both the directing aspect of it and acting too. I liked the creative part of it, especially from the director’s point of view. I was always fairly shy, and being on stage kind of allowed me to be out there in a safe way because you were playing somebody else. You weren’t yourself.

JN: Absolutely. I think that’s true for so many actors.

GH: That was the draw of it, for sure.

JN: Yet you decided not to pursue it as a career. What were the factors in that decision?

GH: I did realize that the odds of really making it in the theater were pretty slim. I’d been exposed to cooking schools because my mother’s school in Italy started when I was 17, and I’d been involved in that every summer. When I was in Providence, I started teaching classes at the Barrington Community School, and I thoroughly enjoyed that. I always tell people I started in theater and switched to food, but in a way I never really left theater because I think teaching has a lot of the theater in it, and my theater background has also helped me a great deal.

JN: I believe you also spent a gap year after college with your grandmother in Cesenatico.

GH: Yes, I wanted to spend more time in Italy. I’d gotten used to being there and had friends there and wanted to see what kind of work I could do there. I ended up doing interpreting and language work there. I worked for the tourist department in Bologna. Actually, that’s when I first met Matt Lauer.

JN: Oh yes.

GH: He was one of the anchors for a show in Providence, and they were doing a segment in Italy. So the producer who was familiar with my mother and knew me from Providence as well, asked me if I’d go along and be their interpreter in Italy.

JN: Although you spent many summers with your grandmother in Cesenatico, living with her for a year must have given you a wonderful opportunity to know her better.

GH: Vey much so. I was very close to my grandmother. She was an incredibly sweet, generous, and wonderful nonna. She was a very good cook, and she really encouraged me to cook too. She let me do a lot of the cooking and appreciated the things that I cooked.

JN: Was there anything you learned from her that you hadn’t already learned from your mother?

GH: I’m sure there were, though it’s hard to pin down exactly what it was. Little things you learn along the way and absorb. But definitely she was an influence.

JN: Before you settled into teaching and writing as a career, you also made a foray into restaurant cooking. I’d love to hear some stories from that time.

GH: This was when I was in Providence, after I’d completed the two-year theater program. My mother had been asked by a group of ex-students who were investing in a restaurant in Atlanta to be a consultant. The restaurant was Veni, Vidi, Vici. So she did, but she was always a bit hesitant about this sort of stuff. She said, “Well, I’d really prefer it if my son were part of this project, to be on-site since I can’t be.” So that’s how I ended up getting hired to work in that restaurant. I had no restaurant experience, so I was kind of thrown into it. I ended up setting up the homemade pasta station. I also did desserts for a little while, though doing desserts has never been something I really enjoy. I like cooking much better. But then they didn’t really know what position to put me in. I was sort of a chef’s assistant. Mostly my responsibilities were to work on creating the daily specials and regular menu, making sure they were in the same style as my mother’s cooking.

And then, I went to my second restaurant directly from that. There was a call that came in and the chef was not in the kitchen. I answered, and it ended up being a head hunter. They asked who I was, and they knew my mother, and they said, “Maybe we want to talk to you instead.”

JN: [Laughter]

GH: So I ended up being hired to open an Italian restaurant in Portland, Oregon as executive chef. So I sort of zoomed from having no restaurant experience to being executive chef in just over a year. Both of these experiences I learned a lot from. There’s a lot about producing food in a restaurant that’s different from home cooking and useful to know if you’re producing food in larger quantities. I learned a lot from the experience, but I also learned that I really didn’t enjoy the restaurant life. I really enjoyed much more having direct contact with people, the kind you get from teaching. It was during my time in Portland that I wrote my first cookbook. When that was published I decided I wanted to devote myself to teaching full time instead of doing a restaurant. So I just wrote to a bunch of cooking schools across the country, and pretty much everyone said, “Yes, come and teach.” So I started doing the traveling teacher gig.

JN: One theme your mother wrote about extensively was how it was the cooking of the home, not the restaurant, which gave Italian cooking its soul. This fascinated me early in my own cooking education. Could you describe the difference in your mind between restaurant and home cooking, both from the point of view of the kitchen but also as an eater?

GH: A lot of it is the demands of a restaurant, especially in the States where everything is expected to happen instantly. You have to find ways to adapt so you can make things in a way that allows you to put out an order quickly when it comes in. In Italy, it’s not always as much. People are used to being a little more patient. That’s definitely one of the challenges in restaurant cooking.

JN: What would be an example of a shortcut like that?

GH: Well, precooking pasta, which is an awful thing. Or risotto. There’s just no way to cook it halfway and then try to revive it. That really doesn’t work. To me, doing restaurant food successfully meant choosing the right things to serve. For example, slow-cooked braised dishes, things like that. Those are perfect because they were work well to be done ahead of time. Whereas other things are a little trickier.

JN: When you dine in restaurants today, even in high-quality ones, does the food often taste like “restaurant cooking”, for lack of a better term? Do you feel like you can taste that in a restaurant?

GH: More than that, there’s the fact that in restaurants there’s a feeling that you have to put a lot of different ingredients into a dish, otherwise it’s too plain. People here [in the US] expect restaurant cooking to be more sophisticated, whereas in Italy a restaurant where you can say, “My goodness, this is as good as it is at home,” is the highest praise.

JN: Do you think that’s still true in Italy today, that restaurants are still trying to match the standard of the best home cooking?

GH: It depends what kind of restaurant. The small family-run trattoria, that’s still the goal. But as an effect of globalization, there are high-end restaurants in Italy where the food is expected to be much more sophisticated than something you would make at home. That’s not to say that kind of cooking can’t be very good.

JN: What are some other ways Italian cooking in Italy has changed in your lifetime, either in restaurants or in the home?

GH: I don’t think there’s been a huge change. One thing is an emphasis on preparing raw fish, which you didn’t see as much in the past. An increase in famous chef restaurants. And then the very sad trend toward finding more and more fast food. I believe you talked to my father about the closing of Fiaschetteria Toscana?

JN: Yes. Burger King is taking their place, which is the perfect symbol of some of the sad changes taking place, even in Italy. I tell people all the time that it’s not just tourists eating fast food in Italy. It’s very much Italians.

GH: Yes, it is. One of the sad things about Italians is they really try to emulate and imitate particularly American customs. The great example is the outlet: in America they try to create the Tuscan, Mediterranean look, which then the Italians imitate the Americans imitating the Tuscan look.

JN: That’s so sad!

GH: It’s very funny and sad at the same time.

JN: So how about the state of Italian cooking in America today?

GH: You find the more sophisticated, high-end type of Italian cooking, but you still don’t find the down to earth home-cooking type of cooking that you’d find with family-run trattorias.

JN: Yes, and when you do find it, it’s invariably of the Italian-American style.

GH: Yes.

JN: Speaking of Italian-American tradition, where did that cooking tradition come from exactly?

GH: [Laughter]

JN: It’s a real puzzle to me, the way Italian-American cooking is often the exact opposite of Italian cooking in Italy. For example, Italian lasagne is light and delicate, while Italian-American lasagne is heavy and… whatever.

GH: I don’t pretend to have an authoritative answer to it, but you can have my opinion. Mostly the Italian immigrants had come from a life of poverty in Italy, where they couldn’t afford meat or the sauce for pasta was precious. When they started being able to afford more, kind of as a reaction to that, the reaction was I can add more meat, thus the meatball on pasta. I can afford more sauce, thus the drowning of pasta in sauce. A lot of it had to be with being able to have more.

JN: And as you said a moment ago, though we Americans tend to idolize Italy, Italians are often more interested in imitating Americans, and I think you see that in the Italian-American cooking tradition. So, if you’re an impoverished immigrant from Naples in 1905, you’re more interested in embracing the new American abundance than in preserving the “cucina povera” of your past.

GH: Absolutely. You’re trying to get away from scarcity, and so you get a reaction.

JN: What are some restaurants in the US that you admire or enjoy eating in, either Italian or otherwise?

GH: Rather than naming places, I think I ‘d rather talk about what appeals to me in a restaurant. It’s really when you find true, genuine flavors. The skill in finding the best ingredients and just bringing out their flavor without covering it up, without feeling like you have to have a whole bunch of ingredients to make it good. It could be Japanese restaurants where the freshness of the fish in the sushi just melts in your mouth, and you have this feeling of freshness and purity of flavor. Purity of flavor is the key.

JN: When you travel and spend time in Italy, do you find it hard to find restaurants that meet your expectations or standard? For example, in Rome or Venice or Florence, do you feel like you have to pick restaurants very carefully, or do you think there’s a high and consistent standard?

GH: It used to be you could go almost anywhere and have a good meal. I think it’s gotten harder nowadays. You do have to search out places more carefully, talk to people and get recommendations. And in big tourist cities like Venice, unfortunately, it’s harder because of all the tourists. The restaurants cater to the tourists, and they find they don’t really need to be so careful and spend so much money on the ingredients as they can be. They can get away with a lot of stuff.

JN: Is it mostly tourism driving the changes, or is even the Italian palate becoming less discriminating?

GH: Italians eat at mediocre places too. I would say there are fewer restaurants that are up there, that are very, very good.

JN: Speaking of tourism, it’s something I think about a lot, because I take clients to Italy and encourage people to visit Italy.

GH: I rely on tourism too.

JN: Right, and it’s a complex subject with no clear answers – no simple heroes or villains. How would you describe, or how might we foster, what you might call “responsible tourism”? How does one approach tourism so that it’s a blessing and not a blight on a place?

GH: I don’t know how you get people to be responsible tourists… but certainly, to encourage respect for the places they’re in and seek out the local traditions, and culture, and flavors, which is really a way to learn about the people and place you’re visiting. That’s what we do with our school in Italy, to expose people to the best expression we can find of that particular place. We take people to food producers because it’s a food and wine course. The producers we take people to are passionate and proud of what they do, and they’re proud to share it with people we bring to visit them. That’s really the best way to learn and experience a place. But I’m not really sure how to get people to do that.

JN: What do you think a place like Venice can do to preserve itself as a real place, and not simply become a theme park, so to speak?

GH: Ultimately, it’s the pride of the people of the place. Sadly, the population of Venetians is dwindling, so it’s hard. But I think they’ve done a good job, considering the masses who descend upon the place.

JN: You mentioned your own cooking school in Italy. For those who aren’t familiar with it, would you like to give a brief overview of where it’s located and what the activities are, for those who might be interested in joining you on one of those trips?

GH: Sure. We’ve been doing this for close to 20 years now. The area is the Valpolicella wine region, near Verona, and we’ve been collaborating with the Allegrini winery, which has grown tremendously in the past 20 years. They’ve really made a name for themselves as a wine producer of the highest quality. I don’t know if you know that Marilisa Allegrini was featured on the cover of Wine Spectator a few months ago, but it was a big deal because not only was she the first woman to be on the cover of Wine Spectator

JN: Oh, my. Doesn’t speak well for the industry, does it?

GH: If nothing else, it’s speaking a lot about the appreciation of Italian wine as top-quality wine.

JN: So I imagine that every day there’s a cooking class with you at the villa?

GH: Yes, and we take field trips. We go the food market in Padova, which is one of the few thriving open-air food markets still around. We go to visit an olive oil producer. We go to an ancient rice mill, which produces rice exactly the same way with the same equipment since 1648. It’s a mortar-and-pestle system. Rice is placed in these red marble bowls, basically, and these pestles which are powered by water wheels and wooden gears work the rice so that rather than being perfectly polished, as machine-polished rice, there’s a little bit of skin here and there, which adds depth of flavor to the rice and you don’t lose as much of that precious starch.

JN: Is that unique in Italy to this producer?

GH: There are two, but I have done taste tests and this one is the best.

JN: And it’s the one you import, is that right?

GH: Yes, it’s one of the products from Italy we import under the Giuliano’s Classics label.

JN: Also olive oil and vinegar, is that right?

GH: Yes. Another of the field trips is to Emilia-Romagna, where we go to a parmigiano-reggiano factory. You know, there are all these tours that go to parmigiano-reggiano factories; there’s something a little different about when we bring people. I used to bring groups from my mother’s school in Bologna, and so I’ve had a relationship with the consortium for a long time. We’ve been going so long that the person who originally guided us later became the director and has now retired. The cheesemaker there, who is very passionate about the work he does, really appreciates the groups we bring and the importance I give to parmigiano-reggiano when I explain it, so that when they leave they have a newfound appreciation for it. One thing he does that I don’t think he does with many groups is he’ll go and choose a wheel and open it for us. Part of the same trip is going to a minuscule town near Parma where the Spigaroli family runs a farm and restaurant and produces culatello, which you’re familiar with?

JN: Yes, I am, but few readers of this interview will be, so please go ahead and introduce it.

GH: It’s a precious product, entirely made by hand. To give an idea of how precious it is, it’s often four or five times the price of prosciutto di Parma. Massimo Spigaroli, who’s in charge, takes us around and shows us the cellar where they’ve been aging culatelli for 700 years, almost without interruption. You can see the labels which have been pre-sold, with names like Prince Charles and so forth. It’s a special experience. Then we do a tasting and we eat there at the restaurant. When I first met him twenty years ago, there weren’t many people going to visit him. Now there are several groups a day. When I come, Massimo always guides us himself. It’s a mutual appreciation.

JN: How would you describe the difference of flavor between culatello and prosciutto di Parma?

GH: I would say there is a richer and deeper flavor in the culatello. There are also different levels of aging. One thing Massimo has done is rescue historical breeds of pigs close to extinction. When we first started going there were just twelve pigs. Now there are hundreds and hundreds. The black pig of Parma is one of them, and the culatello meat from the black pig is a different flavor than that of another breed. Also it makes a difference whether it’s been aged 15 or 16 months or 39 months.

JN: Let me shift gears a little to ask about your writing. You have several cookbooks on the market today, and of course I’m interested in whether you have a new project you’re working on. But also, if you could reflect a little bit on how cookbook writing has changed during the course of your career, and maybe say a little bit about the state of cookbook writing today.

GH: I think today there is more of an emphasis on the writing part. Cookbooks have become much more personal, with stories behind the recipes. It’s not just a collection of recipes anymore. After all, with the internet, if you need a recipe it’s pretty much easy to find. As far as working on a book, I have a half-idea, but I’ve put it on the back burner. I’ve really focused more on teaching. I do a lot of classes in Sarasota as well.

JN: In your home?

GH: Yes, in our home. It’s sort of a mini-version of our school in Italy, but without the field trips.

JN: I suppose trips to the local supermarket wouldn’t be quite the same.

GH: [Laughter] Right.

JN: But kidding aside, where do you shop for ingredients? Are there farms or farmer’s markets near you?

GH: I shop some at the supermarket, but there are some good local markets, one run by an Amish family that brings in good produce and really fresh fish. During the season, which is the winter here, there is an organic farm that sells the produce they grow on the farm.

JN: Any good options for non-industrial meat?

GH: Not as much. I haven’t found anything particularly satisfying in that respect.

JN: Another thing that has changed during your career is the rise of social media and how it has affected food culture. Instagram, for example, has changed how a lot of people think about and perceive food. Could you say a little about that phenomena?

GH: The fact that it promotes more interest in food is great. There are more people inspired to cook at home, and good, genuine food is becoming more important. Organic and non-GMO to a certain extent may be a little bit of a fad, but it’s also a good trend, and it means that people put more importance on the quality of food.

JN: When I interviewed Samin Nosrat, she stressed that in her book there are no photos, even though she loves beautiful food photography, in part because she has suggested that some people might find such photography discouraging rather than encouraging, because it would be so hard to match. I thought that was an interesting observation.

GH: It’s important to me that the photography in all my books was not there to show how beautiful it is, but as a way to help people reproduce it. I didn’t want the dishes to look like something you couldn’t reproduce. It was a little of a fight with the food stylist because they want to be artistic and go overboard. To me, the most important thing was to reproduce it as accurately as possible.

JN: Let me end with this question: you’re raising two girls, and so I wanted to ask you to reflect on modern parents’ struggle with developing a mature palate in their own children. Any insights into successes and failure about raising kids and teaching them to eat well?

GH: If you expose them to good food, they will recognize the difference and be able to tell the difference between good food and not-good food. You try to set a good example as a parent, just as with good behavior and so forth. At the same time, kids have their own personalities. There’s only so much you can actually control and do. Our two daughters are a good example of that. One is much more adventurous and open to all kinds of different foods and flavors. But at the same time, with the one who is less open – things that she does like, she is really able to distinguish between when it is prepared well and when it isn’t.

JN: Is either interested in pursuing a career in food?

GH: They’re both pretty adamant that they’re not. The oldest one in particular sees that cooking is a necessity if one wants to eat well, which she’s become used to.

JN: Well, thank you, I think our time is up. I appreciate your generous giving of your time and everything you and your family have contributed over the years.

Falling in love with Venice

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Sometimes falling in love with a person or a place takes time. When I first visited Venice I had mixed feelings, as many people do. Obviously the place is a cultural treasure and certain features of the city are unspeakably beautiful. But like many people, after 24 to 48 hours I was ready to go. Maybe it was the excessive crowds. Maybe it was the overtly touristy nature of the place, the theme-park character that many have written of and mourned.

My second visit was the same. I had a remarkable meal at my favorite restaurant, but the next day I was ready to go. It just felt like a place that where I didn’t want to spend too much time. I wasn’t alone in this feeling: the average visitor to Venice spends one day or less.

But I had a feeling that the problem was me, not the place. I had an instinct that if I pushed myself to get beyond the tourist veneer, there were great treasures waiting to be discovered; that if I somehow settled in, I’d be rewarded. I decided to rent an apartment rather than stay in a hotel on my next visit. I decided to visit the same coffee bars and bakeries for a few days in a row to get to know the proprietors. I decided to shop at the markets instead of just eating in restaurants.

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And slowly I began to fall in love with Venice. Some loves are immediate and lasting. Others are sudden but ephemeral. Still others grow slowly, almost imperceptibly, until one wakes up one day and realizes that he or she thinks of the newly beloved person or place every day, that the person or place has become an inseparable part of their own identity. This is how it has been with me and Venice.

I love visiting Italy, and I love taking clients to Italy. I love Rome and Bologna and sharing those two cities with others. But I’ve never seriously considered living in either of those cities. They are places I love to visit, but they’re not home. On my last visit to Venice in September, I was caught off guard and surprised to find myself feeling deeply at home there, particularly the neighborhoods of San Polo and Santa Croce, where I was staying and spending most of my time. I found myself thinking a thought that I’d never experienced before: maybe I would like to live in Venice.

I began wondering what was drawing me. What made the place feel like home? Even more than the sheer beauty of the place, the magical fact that the city is built on water, I realized that a few things in particular were drawing me.

I realized how relaxing it was to be in a car-free city. Despite the human congestion of mid-day, early in the morning and late at night, or even mid-day in certain neighborhoods, Venice is a quiet city, too quiet for some. It’s not plagued with exhaust and speed. Venice moves at a slower pace than the rest of the world, a human pace.

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I realized that in addition to the low-quality restaurants and trinkets and “Vivaldi” concerts with guys in wigs, Venice was home to the very best human culture had to offer. My favorite restaurant is in Venice, and it’s part of a restaurant association dedicated to quality ingredients and traditional cooking. Rome and Bologna have fine restaurants, of course, but no such association, no such community of shared purpose and values. Venice is home to traditional craftsmanship of the highest quality, whether true Murano glass or handmade gondolas. Venice is also home to La Fenice, one of the most famous and historically significant opera houses in the world.

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I realized that all around me were people who shared my values: proprietors operating natural wine bars, merchants selling the freshest fish and vegetables, restaurants putting quality above profit, restaurants with something to say.

I realized that while I love our farm, we spend a lot of time feeling like we don’t quite fit in in our rural area. We love the community of small towns but the culture of cities. In Venice, I found both. I found people who were easier to get to know and friendlier than in other Italian cities. I found a place which supported and nourished the values I wish to live by.

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Venice, of course, is not perfect. Don’t misunderstand me. Like most of Italy, corruption is a real problem (Venice’s last mayor was arrested in 2014). The economy is a mess. And no doubt my experience of Venice is still that of a tourist, of a visitor. But for the first time in my life, I’ve connected to an Italian city which I feel like I could experience not as a visitor but as a resident. One which I’ve fallen in love with, which I think about every single day, and which feels like it could become home.

 

Rigatoni with chicken liver and tomatoes

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I know… you can’t really see the chicken livers, but they’re there!

My last published recipe was for chicken liver pâté. It’s a great way to use up a good number of chicken livers, but not so useful for just one or two.

I’m a big advocate of buying local, pasture-raised chickens, the kind that actually live outside (not in a barn with the door open). Not only is raising animals in such a way more humane, it is also more agriculturally sustainable and more delicious to eat. It’s a pleasure to work in the kitchen with chickens that look healthy and that are fresh enough to have no odor. Buying whole chickens is the most economical, and whole chickens almost always include the heart, liver, and gizzards.

If you find yourself with a single chicken or maybe two, you’ll have a single liver or maybe two to cook. You can always freeze them and wait until you have enough to make pate, but if you’d like to cook them right away, here is a recipe for you.

Rigatoni with chicken livers and tomatoes (for one or two people)

I’ve written this recipe in the most casual style, not only because I’ve never written down exact quantities but also to make the point that cooking is improvisational, rarely exact. A little more of this or that, while making a different dish, rarely makes a dish better or worse, just different.

While the pasta water is heating up, sauté a little onion and/or garlic in a little olive oil. When the onion/garlic has taken on a little color and softened (garlic is much quicker than onion), add a chicken liver or two, roughly chopped with a knife or a pair of scissors.

Sauté the liver until it has lost its raw color, and add a little chopped rosemary and/or sage. When the herbs are aromatic, add some high-quality imported canned tomatoes and crush by hand or with a fork. Season with salt and lower the heat to simmer gently for 10 minutes or so.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta in abundantly salted water until al dente. Just before the pasta is ready, add a little benediction of olive oil or perhaps a pat of butter along with a little chopped parsley. If the sauce is too dry, add a little water, either plain or the salty, starchy pasta water.

Drain the pasta and toss in the pan for 30 seconds or less. Serve at once.

Interview with Meredith Kurtzman

Brent Herrig © 2012

Meredith Kurtzman is a gelato maker and pastry chef based in New York City. She is the former head of gelato production at Mario Batali’s restaurants Esca and Otto. More recently she has worked at Al di La and Milkmade, both in Brooklyn.

To learn more about Meredith, you can read this profile at Eater.com or this lovely piece on her tiny apartment in Soho.

In this interview, we talk about her love of strong flavors, how to make better gelato at home, and how New York has changed in her more than 50 year love affair with the city.

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JN: Good morning, Meredith! Thanks for taking the time to talk. I’d like to begin by having you define gelato. I know you’re probably sick of this question, but for those readers who aren’t familiar with true gelato, how do you distinguish it from American-style ice cream?

MK: Well, basically, gelato has less fat – more milk than cream – sometimes eggs, or sometimes no eggs. It’s held for service at a higher temperature, so it’s softer. It has less air pumped into it than American ice cream, and the good machines, which go very fast, and the nature of the mixture of gelato prevent it from taking on a lot of air. But in Italy the definition of gelato has very strict paramaters. In America, there aren’t any parameters.

JN: So, in this country, gelato could be anything. But, as you say, in Italy gelato has less fat, less air, and is served at a warmer temperature. What affect do those factors have on the final result, as experienced by someone eating gelato?

MK: Fat coats your tongue when you eat it, so if there’s less fat the flavors should be coming through stronger. And the ideal way to make gelato (which is rarely done) is to make each flavor separately, so you can infuse stronger flavor. The texture should be softer – a little stretchy maybe.

JN: Everyone who has ever had gelato in Italy speaks of how special it is. Why do you think it makes such a strong and immediate impression?

MK: Well, even in Italy gelato varies widely – I mean, there’s a lot of bad gelato. But I think it’s the texture. The texture is somewhere between American ice cream and soft serve. I think Americans love soft serve. I think it’s that and I think it’s the quality of the flavors in a good gelateria. The flavors are just stronger, and because it’s served warmer, that also increases your ability to taste the flavors.

JN: How did you first discover and then fall in love with gelato?

MK: I’ve been making ice cream in restaurants since the mid 1990s. At the first restaurant I worked at, the chef’s formulas had a lot more milk than cream. Five years later, my first job in an Italian restaurant was Esca. The chef liked ice cream a lot, so we made a lot of gelato. While I was working there, I went to Naples and the Amalfi coast and had my first really good gelato. I had been to Italy once or twice before, but this was the gelato experience. I came back wanting to learn more about making gelato, and I took a few little courses out in New Jersey. They were always trying to sell you their base. I knew I didn’t want to do it that way. I was like, “I want to use real vanilla beans!” They kind of looked at me like, “Spoil sport.”

I was at Esca for two and a half years and then Mario [Batali] approached me with the Otto idea, that they wanted me to come be there and the center of their dessert program was going to be gelato, big time. We bought a huge machine and had a real gelato case. Before Otto opened, I spent a week with an ice cream maker in Italy. It was really crazy, because he didn’t speak any English, and there was one other man in the class from the Canary Islands. He was also using a base, but he taught me the way you break down a gelato base into sugars, fats – you had a chart, like, Milk is 60% water and 40% fat, so you had parameters to work within to make gelato. Like, It should be 22% sugar, using different sugars in proportions, you put together a formula. I did my initial formulas that way, but after that I just made gelato and paid less attention. But I did stay within those parameters once I got back to Otto. Also, he had a lot of Italian gelato professional magazines and I took them back to my hotel room. As much as I could figure out in Italian, I took a lot of notes.

JN: Where was he from, that gelato maker?

MK: Sansepolcro. It’s where Umbria, Tuscany, and Le Marche meet. He was very generous; we went out to wonderful dinners. I knew I didn’t quite want to make [gelato] his way, but I still learned a lot. It was very inspiring.

JN: As important as that week in Italy was, it sounds like your approach clearly has your own personality. Even though this training was important, your results are clearly the result of a lot of experimentation and self-teaching. What inspired you to go beyond the experience in Italy?

MK: Well, I like really strong flavors. Especially with dessert, what’s the point of eating it if it’s not really delicious? Restaurant ice cream can be really good, and that’s because they do spend more time making smaller batches. So, I bought the small batch approach. I also am a big believer in shopping, careful shopping.  I’ve always gone to the Greenmarket on my own. I don’t let anyone else buy the fruit for me, I buy it myself. Actually, I just enjoy it. I really liked what Victor Hazan said at a talk recently about his wife [and cookbook author] Marcella Hazan choosing each bean at the market individually!

JN: As important as shopping and ingredients have become, especially in the last ten years in great restaurants in the US, do you feel like ingredient shopping for dessert has received the same attention?

MK: Well, there’s less involved. I mean, you’re still using Domino sugar. Some people are going beyond that nowadays, milling their own flour and all that, which I admire. The pastry chefs I admired always were very fussy about the fruit. I’ve been like that all my life. I know some people deride shopping, and they say you should be able to make something great out of supermarket stuff, but I feel lucky that I don’t have to.

JN: Right, absolutely. Are there any other factors in great gelato-making that we haven’t talked about? 

MK: I learned about using stabilizer and dextrose within flexible parameters in Italy. I formulated our gelato using a percentage on the low end of those parameters, obtaining their benefits, but not so you’d notice their presence too much, i.e. a stretchy, gooey texture. When used judiciously, they add something wonderful to gelato. And they’re not artificial. Stabilizers are made out of starches. I think the original ice cream in Sicily, which was made without yolks – I suspect they probably used a lot of carob flour, because that grew there.

JN: That’s exactly what I’ve read as well. I think a lot of people just think sugar is sugar, but obviously it’s not. In addition to dextrose there’s regular white table sugar, raw sugar, honey, and others. You mentioned that dextrose can have a beneficial effect on texture – what are some other ways that sugars differ?

MK: Dextrose is less sweet than sugar; that’s one of the reasons you can use a little and you’re actually making things a little less sweet. It has other abilities which affect the texture. Honey is more sweet than sugar, and also it’s almost like using corn syrup, it will make everything softer, and it has a pronounced flavor.

JN: Have you used much raw sugar?

MK: No, and that’s partly because of expense. There are some choices at some point that you have to make if you’re making larger quantities of things. If you’re making two quarts at home, it’s no problem, but since I was spending heavily in some areas, like hazelnuts and chocolate, I had to skimp in others.

JN: Of course. You mentioned at the beginning that not all gelato in Italy is equal. How would you describe the state of gelato-making in Italy at the moment? Do you feel like the standard is pretty high, or is it actually quite difficult to find good gelato, even in Italy today?

MK: I think most towns have, if you’re lucky, one or two good places. It’s financial  necessity that makes people have to use a base. It’s not because they’re skimping. It’s just very difficult, especially the more flavors you have. It’s crazy to make every flavor separately, and the places that are good usually don’t have a lot of flavors, because it’s too much labor. It’s also skilled labor. I had a fellowship and worked at a good bakery in Sicily; their baked goods were wonderful, but the gelato was made from formulas. It was good, but I know it could have been better.

JN: When you say that the best places wouldn’t have too many flavors, how many are you talking about?

MK: A dozen.

JN: When I take clients to Italy, I always tell them the first thing to do is to look at the color of the gelato. Most that are low-quality have colors that are clearly unnatural, clearly synthetic. It’s also super fluffed up. How is that gelato made?

MK: Well, it’s fake flavoring, like fake strawberry, just like here. It’s expensive to use real fruit, and it’s also difficult. And to be honest, most people don’t really give a damn or don’t know any better. It’s nothing real, and people can replicate flavors nowadays – chemists in the cooking industry – but it’s not the same.

JN: We’ve been talking mostly of gelato so far. Speaking of fruit, could we talk about sorbet? Since in Italy, fruit is used for water-based sorbet rather than milk-based gelato.

MK: It’s best to use fruit for sorbet because the flavor comes through stronger, and you’re not dealing with the water content that’s going to come from the fruit and go into the gelato. If you go to the farmer’s market and buy things, strawberries are $50 a flat, and they’ve gone up every year. People are buying Driscoll’s for $20 a flat – which I hate with a passion. Not in my kitchen! For sorbets, you’re best getting something that’s at peak ripeness and using it very quickly, not letting it sit around. We used to go to the market, bring it back to the restaurant, and then make something that day.

JN: Moving to a different subject, many readers of this interview will be home cooks, and so could you discuss some of the challenges and limitations of making gelato and sorbet at home rather than with commercial equipment in a restaurant kitchen?

MK: Well, any home machine will churn more slowly, which will affect the texture, but you can get the same flavor. One tip is not putting too much into the machine. One mistake people make is they fill it up all the way, and that’s going to take longer to churn.

JN: For example, only churning 1 quart in a 2-quart model?

MK: Exactly. I did a book with Mario Batali called Molto Gusto, and I did the gelato recipes. I tested them with a Cuisinart home model and a Kitchen Aid with a bowl attachment. And, you know, they worked nicely. I’ve heard that the old-fashioned machines with rock salt are supposed to be some of the best, but I’ve never used one.

JN: What is the result of the home machine’s taking too long? Mostly an icier texture?

MK: Well, the whole point of ice cream is you’re making an emulsion, and there’s a lot of water and a lot of fat, and you’re bringing those two things together as quickly as possible so that the water molecules get coated in fat and don’t separate. I think a mistake people make at home is not chilling the mixture enough, and it’s really better if you age it overnight in the refrigerator. It’s good if you chill it down fast after you’ve made a base. It’s just doing the details correctly, and it should be fine.

JN: For a home cook making gelato or sorbet, because of the risk of an icier texture because of longer churning time, how could they use things like powdered milk or a stabilizer such as tapioca flour?

MK: Yes, that’s a very important ingredient, dehydrated milk powder.

JN: I find that when most people publish recipes for gelato, they leave out certain ingredients that could really make a difference for home cooks.

MK: That’s actually changing. Dana Cree recently wrote a book called Hello, My Name is Ice Cream, which does tell you about stabilizers and milk powders and how to use them. You need to know the proportions. And don’t be scared by the word “stabilizer” – that was in Dana’s book, she made it clear that they’re not bad. I work for someone now who had a wheat allergy, and she saw wheat on the label of this very good stabilizer, so now we can’t use them anymore, which is a very big mistake. Every pastry chef I know who has converted to using stabilizer loves them. I think it’s more a matter of principle – misguided principle – that leads people not to use them. Home cooks – you have to know the proportion to use. Some of the better things to use at home are tapioca or guar gum, which you certainly can get through mail order now. And you really don’t need much.

JN: I think it’s just the word “stabilizer.” It makes people think of some industrial product, which it’s not. What does the dehydrated milk powder do?

MK: It absorbs the water in regular milk. Milk has a lot of water in it, so what the milk powder does is absorb some of that water, which then results in smoother texture. Basically, you just don’t want too much water content in your gelato. You don’t want too little – it’s sort of what makes it work – but you don’t want too much.

JN: I was inspired by a British chap who runs a website called icecreamscience.com. He says that he feels like recipes are about 70% of quality and the machine is 30%. So that’s pretty encouraging for someone who can’t spend $10,000 on a machine. Do you agree with that?

MK: Yes, because some of the things we tested [for the cookbook Molto Gusto] came out fine for me. They might not keep as well, but otherwise the flavor is strong, as long as you follow the instructions. It’s hard when you write cookbooks – I tend to want to write a lot of details, because you want people’s attempts to be successful, but in many cases they have to edit for space. You have to leave a lot of details out.

JN: You mentioned freshness. I always tell people that the best places to have gelato really are making it every day. It is literally fresh. Is that naive, or do you think that the best gelaterias in Italy are making their twelve flavors every day?

MK: Yes. Obviously, it’s hard – especially if you make thirty flavors, there’s no way you’re going to churn those every day. And you don’t know how much you’re going to go through. I guess at a busy gelateria they have a pretty good idea, but I’m sure they have leftover and I’m sure they don’t just throw it out. I think making it every day is good for texture.

JN: Since you want to open your gelateria by 11 am or so, it’s also an early start to the day, if you’re making things every day.

MK: After you spin the gelato, it needs a few hours in a freezer to really get right. Ours at Otto needed more time because we did it in a real glass freezer. When we did it, we needed four hours after churning it for it to really set up correctly. And then you’re taking it out and putting it in a gelato case, so then it has to temper.

JN: I think it has been written about you, Meredith, that you certainly weren’t the first person in New York City to be making gelato, but you really kicked off a pretty serious renaissance, so to speak. You were really the first person to bring gelato of an exceptional quality to New York. I’m not sure if you’re comfortable with that description or not, but that’s certainly what a lot of people think. When did this happen, and why do you think nobody before that was making gelato of an exceptionally high quality?

MK: 2003 was when we opened Otto. Maybe they couldn’t afford it, I don’t know. There was this kind of food explosion anyway in those years, of all kinds of things. There was one good place, it was a man from Syracuse [in Sicily] who had a little stand on 4th Avenue, part of a restaurant. He made good gelato; he was very old-school. And there was John Snyder from il laboratorio del gelato. He was the first person to get mass attention. With me it was being at the right place at the right time. Otto itself was unique. It was a huge wine bar, it was casual. Gelato was a big part of the program. Other people had been making olive oil ice cream in New York before me; I didn’t steal their recipes. But people went gaga. Otto was a big deal at first. They would do 900 covers on a Saturday, and it just was a matter of bringing something sophisticated to a larger customer base than a fancy restaurant that might be making olive oil ice cream.

JN: It’s easy to forget that even though it was only 20 years ago, in general the New York dining scene was so different. If you were interested in eating food that was more authentically Italian, there weren’t that many choices, which is hard to even imagine today.

MK: Well, there were very small places that never got much attention. The whole publicity machine, the Internet didn’t exist – the food press turned into a much different thing. Now it’s all about Instagram. It’s not even about the quality of the food, it’s about photographs and publicity, and all that. Most of the chefs I’ve stayed friends with are those who have been around since the mid-90s or before, because we’re not on to the next new thing in just five minutes.

JN: I think it’s what Victor [Hazan] described in his interview with me as “image” versus “identity.” In the world of Instagram – I’m all for beautiful food photography, but ultimately it can look as beautiful as ever, but if it doesn’t have character and soul and flavor, who cares?

MK: Yes. And you know, I’m not Italian; we say we love something of a place, but a lot of people making the best things of a place are not from that place. They may have spent time in that place, but they’re not of the place. But their food still tells a story, and to me the story is really important. I like people who are cooking with a story behind them, not a concept.

JN: Could you give some examples of restaurants or chefs that inspire you in that way?

MK: Well, you have to give credit to Mario Batali. He became something more commercial, but in the beginning he spent time in a place and brought that place [to New York], and I think he was one of the first. Jody Williams, who works with her partner Rita Sodi at Via Carota and Buvette, is doing two different things, and she’s spent time in those places, she’s paid her dues and does a beautiful job. I like Alex Raij, who does La Vara with her husband Eder; they’ve both spent time in Spain and are of that origin, and their food is definitely of a place, with some modern things added. Those are two places I’m loyal to. What I admire about these people is their knowledge of place, to which they add their own soul in the cooking. I don’t go out a lot; a lot of the people I like are not in the scene anymore. I honestly don’t go out to eat a lot because I can’t afford it. I love going to some little hole-in-the-wall places out in Brooklyn.

JN: Who are some of the chefs from the ’90s that you mentioned?

MK: There are people who are doing different things now, like Patti Jackson who was a great pastry chef and now has a “Pennsylvania” restaurant [in Brooklyn], Delaware and Hudson. She spent a lot of time in Italy, and she’s old-school.

JN: What was it like working for Mario? On the one hand, I’m deeply grateful that here’s a guy who put in his time in Italy – he was there for a few years – in a very, serious small place where they’re rolling out pasta by hand. When he came back, there weren’t that many people doing that in New York. But on the other hand, there’s the phenomenon of the restaurant empire. I’m not sure why you have to open six restaurants.

MK: Money.

JN: Do you think it’s that simple?

MK: Yes, you can’t make money nowadays [any other way]. Even the people I told you that I admired have three or four restaurants, and they may open more. If you have children and a family, you can’t do that on one restaurant. I just spent a year working at Al Di La. I like the people there a lot, and they started out as pioneers in that neighborhood. There was nobody else in 1998 besides Mario serving rabbit, and tripe. They were really one of the first, and it was a destination to go there. As time went on, they had children. It runs like it did, it doesn’t change that much. I like places like that. Maybe they need a kick in the butt to modernize a little. But you know how things are going to be, and hopefully it’s consistently made. But Otto became less fun for me because, yes, everything became very corporate, and that’s not who I am. Even as a pastry chef, that’s the only way you can make a good salary – either to work at a really big place, or to run between three different restaurants. At some point, they wanted me to do that, and I didn’t want to. I didn’t have the energy to do that, or the desire, to be honest. I started at Otto when I was in my fifties and retired at 65. If you’re not a good corporate soldier, at some point you get relegated to the outside of things. My time there was over.

JN: Sure, I understand.

MK: But I miss the money and the traveling. I can’t afford to go to Italy anymore. You know who I really admire, who is not in New York? Le Vertu in Philadelphia. They get it, they really get it.

JN: Absolutely! And they picked a region, the Abruzzo, which is not as hot as Tuscany or Sicily or Rome right now.

MK: Yes, it’s a part of Italy I’ve always wanted to go to. When I grew up, one of my best friend’s family was from Abruzzo, and that was one of my first impressions of Italian food, eating with her family. The grandmother was roasting peppers in the cellar, and her grandfather was growing grapes and corn in this tiny bit of yard they had. They were very generous, and that impressed me. It was my first impression of Italian food.

JN: You’ve always worked at a restaurant for someone else, including the ten years at Otto. Why have you made the decision to always work for someone else, as opposed to, say, opening a gelateria of the highest quality?

MK: Financially, it’s a huge responsibility to have your own business. Ice cream is one of the least successful businesses, unless you’re on a boardwalk somewhere, and then you have to have cheap ice cream that kids are going to like. Or, you’re in somewhere that’s so cheap that you could be open half the year. Some people are encouraging me to move upstate and buy an old soft-serve place. I don’t come from a family with money; I need to have a salary. Maybe I’m just lazy and scared; I don’t know.

JN: I don’t think people understand how much of an undertaking it is, the capital investment, and so on.

MK: All of these places that are opening, a lot of them will be gone in a few years. You put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears in a small business. A lot of my first jobs were at small restaurants, and I saw what the owners went through. That’s why I admire someone like Jody Williams so much. She works her butt off. She’s always in her place, she’s always making sure things are good. I saw other chefs who I just knew were tired of that – you know, of fixing the toilet at 2 in the morning, and all those little things. So, either you find really good people to manage things for you, or you do it yourself. It ain’t easy.

JN: You’ve spent pretty much your whole professional career in New York. You’ve been in the same neighborhood in SoHo, in the same apartment even, for forty years – is that right?

MK: Yes.

JN: So you have seen many sides of New York, many changes in New York, both in your neighborhood and in different boroughs over those forty years. Could you talk a little bit about New York as you knew it as a child, then as a young woman?

MK: I think the working class has been driven out of Manhattan, for sure. That’s what I used to like about the city, that it was a combination of all kinds of people. I liked the gritty part. I mean, you can romanticize the past, but I loved the street life that used to exist. It was much more exciting. I think everything is getting homogenized. There are tons of apartments where no one even lives, they are some kind of money-laundering I-don’t-even-know-what. Sullivan Street is still a great block, but on my block there used to be a cheesemaker, a butcher, a fish store, a candy store, a bakery. We still have the butcher, and everything else is gone. There are way too many restaurants in New York now. Nobody cooks at home. I love to cook at home; I go up to the Greenmarket. You see the proliferation of delivery food, and all that. It’s a different existence. I walked down by river and saw the park they built, and it’s beautiful. Some of the money isn’t entirely bad. There are also way more tourists than there used to be, and I wish they could go home and leave us alone a little bit. Especially SoHo; it just became a joke. SoHo [now] is a just place for flagship stores for rich European companies. I don’t know if anybody buys anything in those stores, but they’re full of tourists wandering around with their bored children. There’s nowhere to shop [for food]; you have to walk fourteen blocks if you want to get ingredients.

JN: What drove out those small businesses, like the cheesemaker? I think in most places, what drove them out was the supermarket opening in the suburbs that you can drive to easily — the Walmart, the Hope Depot. But in Manhattan, you don’t just hop in your car and drive two miles to Walmart; you would think that if those local businesses existed anywhere, it would be in these boroughs in New York. But even there, they’ve been driven out.

MK: It’s partly the rents going cuckoo. In the building I live in, there used to be working-class families, and now it’s a very transient population of people who come from, say, Brazil and work here for a few years and then go home, or younger students. The building I live in has a lot of really tiny apartments, and those have always been full of NYU students who stay for a few years and then leave. And they don’t cook! They just don’t cook, so there’s no demand. Also, the owners got older and they got tired. The guy at Joe’s Cheese, he took his mozzarella-making to New Jersey, and he couldn’t be happier. He does mainly a wholesale businesss, which is really where the money is now. It’s like ice cream, honestly: if you don’t develop a wholesale client, you’re not going to succeed. If you just rely on retail, unless you’re on the Jersey shore or something, you will not succeed, period. There’s more and more competition, there are new ice cream places opening every year.

JN: What part of New York did you grow up in?

MK: I grew up about 20 miles outside of New York, in a town called Mount Vernon. I was born in Washington Heights, but once my parents had me my mother got tired of climbing up four flights of steps with a baby. My parents were Bronx kids. Mount Vernon is really a working-class suburb, it’s not fancy, but to them it was something they aspired to.

JN: I imagine you visited Manhattan as a child; what were your first memories of it?

MK: I loved it. My father was an artist; he worked various jobs in Manhattan, so I used to go in town with him to his offices. I remember very vividly – I probably was 13 – we went to McDougal Street. That was 1963, and I thought, This is where I want to be.

JN: So it was love at first sight – you knew it?

MK: Yes, it was love at first sight. It was just the cusp of music becoming huge, and you just felt it. I started cutting school and going into New York as much as I could!

JN: This is a kind of hard question, maybe unanswerable: what you said about SoHo being kind of destroyed by tourism – I spent a lot of time in Italy, and even though I’m a tourist too –

MK: You can’t help it.

JN: You can’t help it – so you go to a place like Venice, which for probably nine months out of the year feels more like a theme park than a real place – it’s also been almost destroyed by tourism. What decisions can be made by a place that is interested in fighting that kind of destruction?

MK: I don’t know how it’s going to happen. Honestly, I think in somewhere like Italy it may be immigrants coming there who are doing very small, working-class things; it’s probably not going to be Italian anymore. It’s kind of a tragedy, but the town I lived in in Sicily was kind of a UNESCO town, and it was still really traditional and really nice. The church was a huge thing. There’s not a whole lot of opportunity. There are all those deserted towns in Italy; because they’re on top of a hill or something, it made them impractical places to be. You hear about the poverty people grew up with; it’s easy for us to romanticize it. People left because it was grinding poverty. Unless you have hungry people coming into those places, for whom it’s maybe better than the sub-Sahara, who may make something of that place – otherwise, everything else will become a theme park. I was lucky to be in Venice in January; it was quiet.

JN: I’m going to be in Venice in January as well, with some customers. We picked January for this very reason. What was it like then?

MK: Very mysterious. I used to – there’s a gelato trade show in Rimini. When I worked for Otto, I got them to let me go, and I would always go to other places within a train ride. It was great. I decided to go to Venice one time; I went to the fair and then took a train up to Venice and stayed for a few days. Like everybody else, I got lost and wandered around, stayed away from St. Mark’s square – somehow by luck avoided all that [tourism].

JN: Did you find any good gelato?

MK: I was actually more interested in the cicchetti bars; I was more interested in eating fish and drinking wine. Honestly, I don’t eat a lot of sweets. If I do, I’d rather make something like a good crostata – it’s my idea of heaven. I only went to one gelato place and it was nothing special; but it was also January.

JN: Are there other cities in Italy that you’re especially fond of?

MK: Well, because I lived in Sicily, we traveled to Catania and Syracusa. The market in Catania was just incredible. The man who ran our fellowship grew up around there; going to the market with him and actually buying food that we were going to cook is my idea of heaven. Whenever I travel now, I try and rent [a property], because as much as I like to go out to eat, I also always used to be frustrated by being in markets and not being able to buy things and cook them. So, that’s my happy place. I love Naples; I’ve traveled much more in southern Italy. I went to Lecce and worked at a cooking school for a week teaching the owner gelato. Lecce had some good gelaterias.

JN: Did Naples remind you a little of New York in its grittier days?

MK: Yes! I stayed in a gritty part where I would round a corner and think, I really shouldn’t be here, but I really loved it. That was what I always thought Italy would be like – Naples. It wasn’t really touristy, that much.

JN: Well, I think our time is up, unfortunately. Thanks so much for your time and insights.

MK: Thank you!

Going deeper with ice cream

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IMG_1064My introduction to making ice cream came from Mark Bittman’s classic How to Cook Everything. It really is a good book, never amazing but always solid and an excellent resource for beginning cooks. I learned from Bittman the difference between traditional custard based European ice cream and eggless “Philadelphia style”. The latter sounded good to me and I quickly whipped up a batch. Sadly, the result was memorable, but not in a good way — a mixture of icy and buttery. Ugh. I next turned to Marcella Hazan, who had been such a reliable guide in so many ways. But, likewise, the ice cream I made from her recipes was disappointing, not so much in flavor as in texture. I began to wonder what I was doing wrong.

I tried other books. David Lebovitz is a highly respected writer, but his book on ice cream offered no help and offended me with ridiculous flavors to boot (parsley ice cream anyone?). Torrance Kopfer’s Making Artisan Gelato was more help; he stressed the importance of processing the mix in a blender and allowing an overnight cure to improve texture. He was honest about the challenges of making ice cream at home, but ultimately his approaches were limited as well.

Eventually, I discovered some information that would have been very helpful to have from the start: home ice cream machines are at a disadvantage in producing high-quality ice cream because they churn and freeze the mixture too slowly, 25 to 30 minutes compared to less than 10 minutes for commercial machines. This slow churn time gives an opportunity for large ice crystals to form in the mixture, producing a result with inadequate smoothness and texture, icy instead of creamy. It turns out that my guides’ closing instructions in their recipes – freeze in an ice cream machine according to the manufacturer’s instructions – was the most important part, and one doomed to fail. Thanks a lot!

So, for years I consoled myself with making sorbet instead of ice cream or gelato. Being water-based rather than dairy-based, an icy sorbet isn’t the abomination that icy gelato is. But being a lover of gelato, I never entirely gave up. Occasionally I would try, tweaking a recipe here or there, trying to reduce the churning time in any way possible. I found two recipes that worked well, hazelnut and chocolate. I opined that the extra solids in these mixtures somehow improved the textures, but I really didn’t understand how or why.

Then I came upon the website icecreamscience.com, run by a British chap with a lot of knowledge and experience making ice cream. He suggested that the result was 70% recipe and 30% machine. He agreed that a professional machine could produce the ice cream faster, but he suggested that with the right recipe, even a humble machine such as I had could produce very excellent results. Part of his solution was to reduce the water content of the mixture (more water = more icy) by simmering it gently for quite a long time, something like 20 to 60 minutes. This amount of time was a bit intimidating, but I would have tried it had I not run into Meredith Kurtzman in the meantime.

Meredith was in charge of gelato production at Mario Batali’s restaurants Esca and then Otto. During her time there, she was considered by most to be the finest gelato maker in New York City. I learned from Meredith that using a little bit of the sugar dextrose can have a beneficial effect on gelato texture, as can the use of milk powders and a stabilizer such as guar or xantham gum. To those who care about using quality, natural ingredients, the term stabilizer might raise eyebrows. But it shouldn’t. Stabilizers are natural products derived from such plants as cassava root.

Just around the same time, I came across two new books which discussed these very things. For the first time in any book I had seen, there was a frank discussion of the limits of home ice cream machines and how different sugars and thickeners could play a role in improving ice cream texture, especially at home where the churning time was longer. Morgan Morano of Morano Gelato published The Art of Making Gelato, in which she discussed the value of using milk powder to soak up extra water in the mix. She also recommends a small amount of light corn syrup and tapioca flour in the mix, all in service of producing a less icy, smoother textured gelato. Dana Cree’s new book Hello, My Name is Ice Cream also discusses these issues. She gives more detailed information on choosing which stabilizer to use and she recommends the use of glucose syrup to improve texture as well. There is deep but understandable science in her book, which is invaluable for making gelato.

In the meantime, I had upgraded my machine from a $50 Cuisinart to a $700 Italian-made Lello machine, which is overkill for home use but perfect for our little restaurant. I was assured that the Lello machine could reduce freezing time to 15 minutes or less, but I was also encouraged by Morano’s and Cree’s assurance that the judicious use of milk powder, alternative sugars, and stabilizer could dramatically improve the results of ice cream, even using a slow-churn machine. If you do use an inexpensive machine such as the Cuisinart, the kind with the insert that lives in the freezer, it is imperative that the freezer be set to its coldest temperature. Freezer temperatures can vary considerably. Mine can be anywhere from -10 degrees F to 15 degrees F. If your insert is 15 degrees as opposed to -10, it will not be capable of freezing your ice cream mixture quickly. Once the ice cream is made, however, the freezer temp should be adjusted to around 10 degrees to prevent the ice cream from becoming rock hard. It’s a little extra work, but worth it.

I’m currently in the early stages of experimentation to find a personal expression of how I’d like my gelato to be, but I am encouraged by the results. Using Morano’s formula as a guide, I produced my first-ever successful fior di latte or sweetened milk, the most exposed and simple gelato flavor there is. On a recent trip to Venice, I was encouraged to see dextrose and vegetable fiber (a kind of stabilizer) in the ingredient list in one of the best and most natural gelaterie in town. Most gelaterie in Italy don’t proudly display their ingredients, and for a reason. Artificial flavors, colors, preservatives, and oils abound. Even in Italy, the search for quality takes effort.

I’m delighted to finally have the knowledge to produce excellent gelato at home. I wish it hadn’t taken 15 years and that I hadn’t received so much bad advice from certain writers along the way, but it’s better late than never. Sometimes success, when it finally comes, is all the sweeter for having been delayed.

On being a guide

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It would have been nice to stand amid these ruins [of Ephesus] reading Paul, or to talk about how to reconcile material happiness with spiritual joy as we were on the very spot where Paul preached, where the ethos of Athens met the ethos of Jerusalem. But our guide never really told us Paul’s story. He spent most of his time instead taking us through the royal palaces, with the grand chambers, frescoes and meeting halls. He gave us those material facts about the place that tour guides specialize in (who built what when), but which no one remembers because they don’t really have anything to do with us emotionally. The Ephesus visit was an occasion to have a good discussion about how to live and what really lasts. But if anybody was thinking such thoughts, they went unexpressed.

David Brooks

When we encounter a great book or work of art, I think it makes certain demands of us if we’re paying attention and approaching it with sensitivity. Because life is a mystery – an ultimately unanswerable riddle of incomparable richness – the best books and works of art reflect that richness. This doesn’t mean that we live our life without convictions, adopting a cynical and nihilistic relativism that lets us off the hook from responsibility of choosing how to live. But it does mean that whatever convictions we choose to hold – whether faith in God, or inalienable rights, or reason, or something else – must be recognized as expressions of faith or choice and not as articles of dogma.

This is an approach to living which was deepened and solidified in me at St. John’s College in Annapolis, a college that eschews the typical lecture approach of education – a kind of dispensing of information – in exchange for a pedagogy of engagement and inquiry. According to this approach, education is not the passive result of receiving information but the active process of synthesizing information through thoughtful reflection and discussion.

This approach has served me well, both in life generally and in my former teaching career. It has also served me well on my culinary trips to Italy, particularly in Rome where we take daily cultural excursions in addition to our work in the kitchen. We visit museums and go on walking tours, and so we study not only cooking but also the history, art, and culture of Rome.

Although there are legions of guides in Rome with better credentials to lead tours of the city and its museums, I like to do most of the tours myself because the experience David Brooks describes above is also my experience. Because our society has embraced an educational model based on passive receiving of information, the almost universal temptation of guides is to take on the role of authority, dispensing for two or three or four hours a litany of facts and technical details which, although they certainly have value, miss the forest for the trees. Those who study art history, for example, are often interested in the technical aspects of the painting (which are certainly important) but they rarely use the painting as an opporunity to engage in reflection, and they rarely ask their clients to engage much in the process either. The tour becomes a one-way street of information instead of a commual effort of inquiry.

Discussions on history tours are full of names and dates which are easily forgotten five minutes later because they’re not connected to anything that matters to anyone. I’ve been on tours of the forum in Rome which give the names and dates of various ruins, but I’ve rarely been asked to reflect on the fragility of civilization (including our own!) —  which seems to me the greatest value of visiting the ruins of the Roman forum. Which consul or emperor did this or that is not going to be remembered ten years later, but having thought about the ways in which our own civilization reflects the blessings and defects of Ancient Rome certainly will.

Knowing that the Colosseum’s proper name is the Flavian Amphitheater because it was built by a father and son of the Flavian dynasty – Vespasian and Titus – will be forgotten by most people before dinner. But discussing the addictive nature of the ancient gladiatorial games and the ways in which people today still struggle with addiction, and pondering whether human combat to the death might one day come again to our own culture… I hope these questions stay with clients long after the tour is finished.

One of the most profound questions I’ve ever heard about Bernini’s miraculous sculpture Apollo and Daphne came not from a professional guide but from another amateur, Sister Wendy. The sculpture depicts the story of Daphne being turned into a tree to save her from the unwanted sexual advances of the god Apollo. But after she becomes the tree — a laurel – Apollo continues to revere it and adopts the laurel tree as his symbol. In speaking of the pagan myth, Sr. Wendy asks us to ponder it from a slightly more Christian perspective. She speculates that the myth represents Apollo getting exactly what his heart desired, but not in the way he thought he desired it. We can agree or disagree with Sr. Wendy’s speculation. That’s not the point. The point is to engage with a work of art not as a series of facts to be absorbed but as a series of questions to be encountered.

At the end of the day, we can study history, art, and literature in order to become more thoughtful people with a more nuanced and mature understanding of life and both its enigmas and truths, not to become “experts” or to prop up our own preconceived notions. When we go on tours, we should seek the same approach. Perhaps it’s not for everyone. Perhaps some would just prefer the ease of receiving information. But I enjoy a different approach, one which invites engagement and reflection.

On being a responsible tourist

enjoy-copertinaI think a lot about tourism. Not only am I a frequent tourist in Italy, but I take groups of clients to Italy as well. I’m also currently in Venice as I write, at the tail end of high-tourist season in late September. With international flights having become so relatively cheap during the past 30 or 40 years, it’s hard to believe that before that, mass tourism didn’t exist as it does today. When Marcella Hazan started offering cooking classes in Bologna in the 1970s, some thought the idea of Americans flying to Italy to study cooking was crazy. At the time, hers was the only such program available to foreigners. Today,  there are hundreds.

Oh, how times have changed! It’s a wonderful thing that international travel is now accessible to those without great financial resources. But mass tourism has created a lot of problems, and has recently enjoyed some pretty bad press. Initiatives in both Florence and Venice have been in the news recently, with the local population of those noble cities upset and disgusted by the effects of tourism on their cities.

In many cities, the demands of tourism have priced out locals from the housing and rental markets. It’s a lot more profitable to buy an apartment and rent it to tourists on Airbnb than to rent it to a local.

Most serious of all, perhaps, mass tourism has the potential to change the nature of a place. Venice, for example, has begun to resemble a sort of theme park rather than a real place where people live and work. A theme park is a place which exists only for the pleasure of its visitors. Disney World doesn’t have an identity separate from its tourist identity because no one actually lives there. It is merely a tourist destination designed for entertainment and enjoyment,  as opposed to real living and working. Venice isn’t there yet, but with more than 20 million visitors a year and fewer than 60,000 residents, it can certainly feel like it, particularly in the summer months. For example, when you go to the fish market in Venice and see more tourists taking photographs than actual shoppers, it creates the danger of the market becoming a mere “attraction” rather than a source of sustenance.

This raises the significant issue of what the purpose of tourism is in the first place. In the past, the “grand tour” of Europe which was so common and almost required for the affluent, was meant to round out their education by offering a first-hand experience of differences in tastes, mores, and culture. Such travel was concerned with expanding one’s horizons and deepening one’s experience of the world. For those who had an influence in shaping national and global policy, experiencing Europe first-hand was nearly essential. The experience was not as much personal self-enrichment as much as personal expansion and growth.

Today, of course, there is no such motivation for most tourism. Instead, ordinary people wish to enrich their lives by experiencing something grander and richer than their ordinary lives. So far, so good. But unfortunately, too often this takes the shape of a sort of checklist tourism. People arrive in Rome and have a list of things they’d like to see and  do: tour the Colliseum, see the Sistine Chapel, eat a pizza, etc. But because of the brevity of their stay and a dearth of preparation, they often lack the experience or context to give those experiences depth. The experiences become shallow and skin-deep. It is merely “sight-seeing”, not engagement. They see the Sistine Chapel, they take a selfie at the Colliseum, maybe they learn a thing or two about both, but they don’t leave with a significantly deeper understanding of ancient Rome or the fragility of civilization. Some might come to Venice for a week and leave not realizing that fish is the heart of Venetian cuisine or that Venice alone kept ancient Republican ideals alive during centuries of darkness and ignorance. They don’t understand that Italians eat in courses and that simply ordering pasta at a good restaurant is a bit offensive. They try to enter churches dressed immodestly, or they eat food outside sitting on public momuments.

The very worst kind of tourist doesn’t really want to experience anything unfamiliar at all. Instead of adapting to local customs and traditions, they demand the experiences they are accustomed to. Perhaps they demand coffee to-go from a bar, something which doesn’t exist in Italy. Or maybe they seek out pizza which resembles what they are used to at home rather than pushing themselves to expand their concept of what pizza is. Perhaps they have no desire to adopt the Italian habit of drinking wine with meals and would prefer to drink Coke. Saddest of all, some might prefer the comforts of McDonalds to the treasures of genuine Italian cooking. Some come to Italy and see all the sights, but they haven’t really been affected by their travel at all. Such a trip represents not enrichment but mere diversion.

This kind of tourism tends to change a place to accommodate such tourism. Why buy the most expensive and high-quality ingredients if tourists are just as happy with lower quality fare? Why serve risotto and risk being misunderstood when a poorly-made pizza with cheap ingredients will be received even better? If tourists are just as happy with a caricatured stereotype of a gondolier, why engage in that profession with seriousness and dignity? Why sell high-quality authentic Murano glass when cheap Chinese knock-offs are more profitable?

So what is one to do? How can one be a responsible tourist, one who respects the nature of a place but wishes to experience and be enriched by it?

I think the most common problem with most tourists is a lack of preparation for their trip, and so perhaps the single greatest thing tourists can do to have a more meaningful experience is to really prepare for the trip. Such preparation might include reading a book on the history of the place they’re going. Watching videos or documentaries to orient themselves to the city, reading guidebooks to understand the local customs and habits. A guidebook is a pretty basic and simple way to prepare, but the fact that one sees at the Vatican a mile-long line to buy tickets wrapping around the walls when every guidebook makes clear you can skip the line by buying tickets online, suggests to me a complete lack of preparation. Small details matter. Knowing that at most coffee bars you order and pay at the register first, or knowing that most Italians drink only cappuccino in the morning, or that (except for gelato) Italians don’t eat on the street… these sorts of things show a basic respect that go a long way. What does it say to an Italian if a tourist can’t even make the basic effort to learn that thank you in Italian is grazie, not the Spanish gracias. I’m not suggesting that tourists need to study Italian seriously or be able to even utter a complete sentence in Italian. But learning basic key words and phrases goes a long way toward expressing respect. Above all, remember that you are a guest in the place you’re visiting. Just as you would defer to the customs, traditions, and rules when a guest in someone’s home, just as you would politely engage your host and defer to them, so to in a place you’re visiting.

To take an even more significant example, the Sistine Chapel is pretty incomprehensible without advance preparation. The entire room is covered in paintings, and the ceiling is far away and hard to look at for long without straining your neck. It’s also completely mobbed. But knowing the circumstances of the ceiling’s painting, knowing that Michelangelo is the artist responsible for the ceiling and altar wall but not the paintings on the side walls. Knowing that Michelangelo painting in fresco, with little prior experience. Knowing what a fresco is. Knowing that the Last Judgment was painted decades after the ceiling and that the figure of Christ more resembles the god Apollo than the more common Byzantine bearded Christ. Knowing these sorts of things allows one to have a deeper and more meaningful experience in the Sistine Chapel. Just walking through without any knowledge of what you’re seeing will allow you to check the Sistine Chapel off your bucket list, but it won’t really enrich your life.

A second way to be a responsible tourist is to spend more time in each place you visit. It’s very common for tourists to choose breadth over depth. A typical itinerary includes something like two days in Rome, 1 day in florence, one day in Siena, a day in the Cinque Terre and 2 days in Venice. It’s a whirlwind tour that doesn’t give opportunities to really get to know a place. According to official data, in Venice the average tourist spends one day in the city and often doesn’t even spend the night! A one night stand with a place is just as unsatisfying as a one night stand of the more well-known type! This kind of itinerary tends to allow you to see much but experience little. By contrast, spending a week in one place gives the opportunity to do more than simply scratch the surface of a place. It allows an opportunity to slow down and settle into a place. No one is going to be an expert after a week, of course, but it’s long enough to have a proper introduction and to feel like you’ve made the acquaintance of a place, hopefully an acquaintance which will someday be deepened by one or more repeat visits.

This might all sound just a bit snobbish and elitist for some. But really it’s not. Snobbery implies the use of knowledge to separate oneself from others, to put others down for one’s own benefit. Snobbery is an awful weapon to wield. My aim isn’t to be a snob, not to exclude or put down others. Rather, my aim is to encourage and inspire, not to exclude but to include others. Not to put others down but to lift them up by helping them lift their vision to a higher standard.

This is why I offer my culinary tours of Italy. My aim is to offer my clients meaningful and rich experiences of places I know well and love. By sharing my passion for a place and sharing what I have come to know about it, I hope to enrich their lives by showing them the best that a place has to offer. We go to Bologna in order to see parmigiano-reggiano cheese made, so that we understand why this cheese is the most famous in the world, worth every cent of its high price, and why there is no acceptable alternative. We go to Venice to experience fish of the very freshest and highest quality and to experience first-hand just how spell-binding carefully cooking of first-rate ingredients can be. We go to Rome to understand that the ancient world continues to inform our own and that we ignore the lessons of ancient Rome at our peril.

In many ways, traveling with a guide is a great option. Although the sort of preparation I’ve recommended is ideal in any case, traveling with a guide you trust takes a lot of pressure off. They can orient you to the city, to its customs and traditions. They can provide meaningful context for the experiences you’ll enjoy, and help you reflect on their significance.

Travel can be so life-enriching, but it can also be destructive of a place. By making the right choices, you too can be part of the solution and not part of the problem.

Esca

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A simple but successful amuse-bouche at Esca: crostino with cannellini beans and parsley.

When I go out for a serious meal, especially at a restaurant serving exquisitely fresh and carefully-chosen fish with a pricetag to match, I don’t expect to hear Teenager in Love on the playlist.

I had been looking forward to a meal at Esca for a long time. Though I respectfully disagree with Mario Batali’s “restaurant empire” approach to his business, it’s clear he has excellent taste, at least in food. A meal that I had at Babbo was one of the highlights of the past few years, and Mario deserves a lot of credit for promoting authentic Italian cooking in a city with deep traditions of red-sauce Italian-American joints. He not only popularized authentic Italian cooking in his New York restaurants, he introduced the US to the Italian tradition of raw fish, or crudo, at his fish restaurant Esca.

It was the pesce crudo which had brought me to Esca. Although raw fish in the Italian style has now made its way onto menus throughout the country, back in 2000 when the New York Times first reviewed Esca, William Grimes rightfully called the crudo appetizers at Esca “the freshest, most exciting thing to happen to Italian food in recent memory.”

I had read several profiles of Esca executive chef Dave Pasternack, a rare breed who is both a chef and literally a fisherman, who sometimes serves his own catch alongside fish flown in from around the globe. From the little I know of him, I admire him. He seems humble. He has been content not to open eight other restaurants or become a celebrity chef. In the short-term-relationship culture of American restaurants, he has stayed committed to Esca for 17 years now. And he’s actually there — cooking in the kitchen, answering the phone — having chosen to stay actively engaged rather than delegating that most hallowed duty of cooking to a team of anonymous and poorly-paid line cooks.

So I arrived with high expectations, which were completely satisfied in some ways, but greatly disappointed in others. The highlight was indeed the pesce crudo. I selected a mixed sampler of six types of fish, each one treated individually to its own proper olive oil and sea salt, chosen to complement the type of fish it accompanied. This appetizer was one of the finest things I’ve eaten in a long time — everything I expected and more.

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Unfortunately, not much else impressed me about Esca. My horror at encountering 1950s doo-wop continued. “Teenager in Love” was followed by any number of hackneyed hits from what is certainly a valid musical genre, but one which seemed completely and utterly out of place in a fine-dining establishment dedicated to exquisite fish cookery. The music contributed greatly to the feeling that the restaurant, located in the touristy theater district, was indeed a tourist trap, an engineered product meant more to sell than to enlighten.

The service was also concerning. Given that I was listening to “Earth Angel” in the background, the service was surprisingly stiff. I love elegance and formality, but not stiffness. I was clearly excited about being there, but my server reciprocated no such warmth, nor did he sense or feed off of my enthusiasm. I sensed no passion or commitment, just a guy doing a job in the stilted way he’d been trained to do it. It made me a little sad.

Equally concerning was the wine list. There were many wonderful bottles on the list, even some high-value ones alongside a disturbingly high percentage of $100+ bottles and a $1200 bottle of Barolo (rich bankers, anyone?). But I also saw a lot of red wines which might be well-known (Barbera, Chianti, Barolo), but which seemed totally out of place with a fish-driven menu. Why did their list include a $550 bottle of rich and jam-like Amarone but no example of the light and refreshing wine Bardolino from the shores of Lake Garda? One thing I love about all Batali restaurants is their use of the coravin device to extract a glass of wine from a bottle without removing the cork, which is a great way for a restaurant to offer, by the glass, an expensive wine which might go to waste if whole bottles were opened. I have drunk some memorable Barolo in this way. But did I really need to spend $82 on a 6 ounce glass of 10 year old Barolo from Oddero? Really? Overall, it was one of the most disappointing wine experiences I’ve had in a good restaurant.

My pasta was disappointing as well: trofie with pesto, mussels, and cherry tomatoes.

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This is a classic dish from Liguria, but it was oversauced with pesto which was muddy rather than bright, and neither the mussels nor cherry tomatoes contributed any clear, memorable flavor, shocking given the laser-precise flavors which characterized my appetizer.

I lost a little confidence in the kitchen and was having childhood flashbacks of Top Gun, owing to the refrain of “You’ve got that loving feeling” clearly emanating from the sound system. I decided to skip a secondo course and move to dessert.

I can think of no better way to end a meal, especially of fish, than with sorbet. I really only wanted one little scoop of something, but in the contemporary American restaurant fashion I was permitted no less than three scoops when one would have been better.

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They were very successful, if perhaps lacking just a bit in personality or character.

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I gave Esca one last chance to wow me, ordering a macchiato to conclude. It was decent, in a standard sort of way, but if only more restaurants and coffee bars would master the art of frothing milk properly! What one wants is frothed milk not reminiscent of soap suds but thick cream.

Having made no real connection to my server, I didn’t regret not seeing him on my way out. It took a few blocks to shake the soundtrack from my head. It has taken longer to shake my disappointment in a restaurant that is doing some things so well, and others with mediocrity. It’s been that way a long time, if one is to believe William Grimes’s first review of Esca, 17 years ago. I certainly haven’t given up on Esca, and it is cruel to make any conclusions about a place based on one visit. But maybe next time I’ll just sit at the bar, enjoy my crudi, and have appropriate expectations.

Please note that this is not a formal review. Among other things, a professional review is based on repeated visits to an establishment and eating through a larger portion of the menu. Instead, I simply offer some impressions of my first visit to Esca.

Chicken Liver Pâté, My Way

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There aren’t many foods I won’t eat. Tripe is one, despite my best efforts. Another is liver. In my early days of cooking, I was assured that what turns most people off about liver is its flavor and texture when overcooked. Cook a nice, high-quality piece of liver to a nice pink medium, I was told, and it would be a revelation. I tried. I really tried. But every time I couldn’t get it down. It always ended up in the trash.

Then, about 11 years ago, during a very brief stage at Osteria Pane e Salute, I was given crostini with chicken liver pâté, prepared in the classic Tuscan manner. They were wonderful, flavorful but mild and smooth in texture. This was liver I could eat gladly.

Somehow, once I got home from Pane, my efforts couldn’t quite recreate the flavor of Caleb’s. The liver flavor was too strong. Something wasn’t right. I put it aside for years.

But this year I was tired of my wasteful practice of discarding the gorgeous livers from the whole chickens I buy from Forks Farm. I was tired of my lazy habit of freezing them — always planning to use them some day, which never came — and I resolved to master the art of chicken liver pâté.

Most recipes call for capers and/or anchovies, aiming for what Samin Nosrat would call a “layering of salt.” Usually I have both capers and anchovies on hand, but that day I had neither. And so, once again I learned the wonderful principle that mistakes or shortcuts often lead to better results. Since I didn’t have capers or anchovies, I just increased the proportion of onions — the sweet onions I grow on the farm — and crossed my fingers.

The results were great, exactly the taste memory I possessed. I still can’t eat a piece of liver straight, but this pâté is one of my very favorite foods. We serve it whenever possible as an amuse-bouche at the restaurant, a gentle and mild introduction to liver for the skeptical. I love the simplicity of this recipe, untraditional but good, and I hope it encourages you too to give chicken liver pâté a try!

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Crostini with Chicken Liver Pâté

Factory-farmed meat is always immoral and very unappetizing, but for organ meats it seems especially sad. The livers of a conventionally raised bird just look unhealthy. Pastured birds by contrast have nice looking livers, fresh and plump. This is a dish I would rather not make than make with factory-raised meat.

Begin by heating a large pan to high heat with a generous bit of olive oil, and when the oil just begins to send up faint wisps of smoke, add about 12 ounces of chicken livers (rinsed and dried) along with 4 to 6 ounces of coarsely chopped or sliced sweet onion. Add 1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt, some fresh sage if you have it around, and saute for just a few minutes until everything has lost much of its raw color.

Deglaze the pan with broth, water, or wine (or a mix), adding enough to come up at least a half-inch or so up the side of the pan.

Simmer in the oven at 325 degrees F° for about 20 minutes, then return to high heat and cook over all but a little bit of liquid. Add a pat or two of butter if possible.

Process in a food processor, adding generous grinds of hot pepper, along with broth and/or olive oil to create a smooth pâté. It should be smooth, but still have some texture. It might look very runny, but it will firm up after resting in the fridge.

Add a little freshly grated parmigiano and freshly minced parsley. Taste for salt, keeping in mind that a bland or mild pâté is an abomination. It needs to be aggressively seasoned. Allow to rest in the fridge for at least an hour or two until firmed up.

To make the crostini, lightly toast little cubes of high-quality bread. I do this in a pan with a little olive oil. Top each piece of toast with a little dollop of pâté and bake in an oven for about 5 minutes at 350 or 400 degrees F°.

Just before serving, garnish with additional parmigiano, pepper, and fresh parsley.

Justin Naylor (chef & proprietor, Old Tioga Farm)