Making Pasta Less Ordinary (aka “The Importance of Sourcing Unique Market Ingredients” Post)

Memo: Pasta at home, from a box, does not have to suck. And it certainly doesn’t require being drenched in generic sauce from a jar. Promise.

Erin’s Easy Pasta Less Ordinary
Serves 1

1/8th box vermicelli pasta, or whatever you have on hand (I used De Cecco brand)
1-2 cloves garlic, sliced thin
1 small tomato, diced
1/3 zucchini, chopped
fresh lemon juice
E.V.O.O.
fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped
1 exceptional ingredient*

*Here’s your first tip: All it takes is one exceptional ingredient — in this case, I used this jar of Tonnino tuna fillets packed in olive oil that I found at my local health store — to make a quick pasta meal just a touch special.

Capers (optional)
Parmesan cheese, shavings (optional)

1.) While the pasta cooks, saute the garlic over medium heat for a minute or two; add the tomato and zucchini. Cook until mixture is warm throughout but not mush.

2.) Drain the pasta and place into a bowl. Top with the saute mixture.

3.) Drizzle dish with fresh lemon juice and premium E.V.O.O. (I’m currently working my way through a small bottle of Arbequina E.V.O.O. from Agata & Valentina)

4.) Add tuna fillets (break up in advance), chopped parsley. Repeat drizzle of E.V.O.O. and lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste.

5.) Gently toss to mix pasta and ingredients.

6.) sprinkle dish with capers*, Parmesan slices.

*Here’s your second tip: Capers — those lovely, briny, green berries — are pasta’s best friend, esp. if the pasta is “nude” like this one (e.g. without sauce).

They will add a certain complexity to the dish, as well as the element of delicious surprise. A $3 jar will last for months. They make bagels extra-special, too. Basically, there is no excuse to not have capers on hand.

Tag … you’re it!

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Tuesday: Simple Italian with a Touch of Ferrari Red (aka the “Trattoria Cinque Discovery Post”)

When I come across a solid restaurant concept, I like to sometimes pretend that I know enough about the business that can dissect why it works.

rustic bread, fresh ricotta, E.V.O.O., black pepper
rustic bread, fresh ricotta, E.V.O.O., black pepper

I was up for the challenge at Trattoria Cinque on Tuesday. This newish neighborhood spot in Tribeca is a good find — crowd-pleasing trattoria-style Italian run by Italians in a venue that could just as easily be the spot for a low-key, midweek meal with a friend (or three) as for a birthday dinner production for 20.

As far as I can ascertain, here’s why it works:

photo-21Start with stylish, but unpretentious, decor: From the street, you want to walk inside.

Stunning (original) exposed brickwork, vaulted ceilings, brown leather banquets, industrial matte black lamps, backlit bottles of lemoncello, chairs and other accents painted official Ferrari red paint — I was told the design is intended to channel the Ferrari factory, circa 1950s, and it works. It’s fun without being gimmicky.

Keep the concept simple: “Cinque” is Italian for “five” and, appropriately, the menu has five beginnings, five pizzas, five big plates, five pastas, five endings.

On top of that, the entire menu receives a makeover about five times a year, to account for seasonality, popularity and whatever else. Plenty of room for the kitchen to engage with the crowd and evolve responsively.

Make it accessible: The most expensive thing on the menu at the moment is a $25 ribeye steak that’s aged for weeks in a meat locker on site. That’s cheap, especially for this neighborhood, but my favorites of the evening (I didn’t try the steak) were priced well below that.

photo-17The first thing I’ll be back for are Trattoria Cinque’s thin, oblong pizzas ($11-$12) like the pizza con gorgonzola e pere, a delicate, ultra-thin crust pie that is finished with white truffle oil and fresh ground pepper. It’s cooked perfectly and evenly throughout, and somehow, that thin crust holds itself together long enough for you to get it in your mouth.

photo-19Also: A fantastic Caesar salad ($10) that is only deserving of such a production:

Each one ordered is prepared from scratch at a tavola, or a large, wooden table placed prominently and dramatically in the main dining room. It’s dining meets spectacle, old world style.

And before I come back for the brasato di Manzo — braised beef short ribs with white polenta ($20), the hearty meat and potatoes dish I ordered on Tuesday — I’d dig into the list of pastas, all of which are made in-house. Entrée portions of pasta dishes run $14-$18, like most of the menu.

Eventually, we got around to desserts … but by then a bottle of grappa and a bottle of limoncello had showed up on the table. It was time to relax.

TIP: Trattoria Cinque is currently offering a “Pie, Peroni & Pigskin special” on Monday nights where $15 gets you a pie and two Peronis. And, presumably, some NFL football on the TVs in the bar area.

Want more food shots? There’s a photo of the frito misto plate — fried calamari, shrimp, artichoke hearts, and lemon slices — after the jump:

Continue reading “Tuesday: Simple Italian with a Touch of Ferrari Red (aka the “Trattoria Cinque Discovery Post”)”

Monday: Birthday Dinner Gone Gonzo (aka the “Cheese Three Ways” Post)

There are few things more enjoyable in the world than sharing a meal with close friends, when everyone makes the time in their respectively busy lives to actually be present, and eat and laugh and tell stories and simply enjoy each other’s company.

photo-3… Which makes my birthday dinner at Gonzo in the West Village just about perfect.

It wasn’t the original plan: Earlier Monday morning I found out that Brooklyn Bowl — the new, LEED-certified, 16-lane bowling alley in Williamsburg with a full menu by Blue Ribbon (where I was going to have a small fête) — was closed Mondays.

I needed options, stat. My research skills kicked into high gear, and I ended up with a list of options that included everything from all-you-can eat/drink rip tips (which are excellent) and domestic draft beer at Brother Jimmy’s BBQ ($15.95) to a 3-course, $35 prixe fix meal at Sojourn in the Upper East Side that includes a wine pairings.

In the mix, from my friends at winedanddined.com:

Gonzo (W. 13th nr 6th Ave) is offering 2 for 1 pizzas on Monday nights and from 5-7 on Saturdays.

At first, pizza didn’t sound quite right. But the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. It was the perfect renegade birthday dinner — going gonzo at Gonzo. A girl can’t ask for much more on my birthday than a literary pun that’s this sweet.

photo-2Plus, the grilled, thin-crust pizzas are unique in the city, a culinary gift from the late chef Vincent Scotto. Oblong, ultra-thin and piled high with premium toppings in complex, sometimes exotic, flavor combinations, they’re certainly unlike any pizza I’d ever had.

I’ll be back to try the pizza with watermelon listed as a topping, but for a first taste we stuck with the classics:

(top) Sausage pizza, topped with ricotta cheese, roasted red pepper puree, romano & bel paese cheeses.

(bottom) Wild mushroom pizza, topped with chanterelle, shiitake & oyster mushrooms, caramelized onions, taleggio, romano & bel paese cheeses.

photo-1We also shared a large meat-and-cheese tasting platter ($25), my picks (counter-clockwise from top left): Capicola, Prosciutto di Parma, Cacciatorini with fig & fennel jam; taleggio, pepper pecorino (center), giant basket of grilled bread slices (not pictured). Few things make me happy like a good meat and cheese plate, maybe a glass of prosecco to go with — oh wait, had that, too.

Prosecco was as much a through-line to this lovely meal as was the cherished company and … of course, the cheese.

That thing with a candle up top? Brown sugar cheesecake. It’s a cheesecake purists will appreciate: a slightly different, darker sugar taste (molasses?) comes through, but the flavors aren’t so radically changed as if whole candy bars are thrown in, a la Cheesecake Factory. It’s really, really good. My one critique? With the circular shape, you get less buttery, gram-cracker-y crust.

TIP: The pizzas are definitely larger than our server let on — don’t let them up-sell you. Go with a group and share a mix of the cicchetti, Venetian-style small plates ($7-$11), or maybe a couple of appetizers, plus the pizzas. Two-for-one pizzas makes group dining that much more affordable — and fun.

Wednesday: The “Everything Is Good Here” Post, (“Here” Is Adrienne’s Pizzabar)

I just roll my eyes when you ask a server what they recommend and they say, “Everything! It’s just so good!” in that mindless, chipper way. Umm, no. We weren’t asking if you recommended eating here. We’ve already decided to do that. We were asking which items you, server who has eaten most everything on the menu, prefers. 

photo-10photo-9Anyhow, we didn’t pose that question to anyone at Adrienne’s Pizzabar in the Financial District. But we did sample nearly every section of the menu — an antipasti, a 10″ pizza and a pasta entree, baked in the pizza oven — and it was all damn delicious. 

photo-8The mixed antipasti misto ($16, small): A bounty of fresh vegetables, roasted and served virtually naked, with just a touch of olive oil, salt, pepper and the occasional spice. The flavor of the vegetables shined. Plus, several toasts topped with bruschetta; a lentil and a white bean salad; thin-shaved slices of salumi and prosciutto; cubes of cheese, a basket of rolls and olive oil and vinegar for dipping. This antipasti, with a glass of wine or two on the picnic tables out back, would be a light and lovely dinner in itself. 

photo-11… And then the pizza came. We ordered the vesuviana pizza, topped with anchovies, olives, capers, spicy red peppers, basil ($15), and it was almost mouth-orgasmic. The way that the hot peppers played off the saltiness of the capers, anchovies and olives; the balance between cheese, homemade au natural tomato sauce, the soft, springy dough base — this truly unique pizza was the favorite among dishes that were all excellent. 

photo-12The conchiglie imbottite, pasta shells stuffed with ricotta, spinach, marinara ($10): Baking the shells made the cheese bubble and crisp on top, while the ricotta inside stayed light, creamy and smooth; the tomato sauce puree was vibrant, fresh and simple, the dominant flavor tomatoes. (I like this kind of marinara sauce, which actually let the tomato shine through). This entree could easily be a meal in itself. 

… While I can’t (yet) guarantee the excellence of whole menu, based on the excellence of this first experience, I am confident that more picks than not are bound to be a success. I am definitely going to be back for more.

Dinner: A Wine Bar for Those with Appetites

When I saw that the food menu was buried at the back of a lengthy cocktail menu and wine list, I vaguely worried that Vero Panini & Wine Bar would turn out to be that type of place that overcharges for small portions and justifies its actions by calling them “tapas,” or “antipasti”: fingerling panini sandwiches, appetizer-sized salads, underwhelming charcuterie. Worse still, the food could be an afterthought entirely.

photoAnd then my antipasti plate ($14) arrived: Ultra-thin slices of proscuitto and salami virtually blanketed a generous bed of arugula and frisee salad; cubes of pecorino, tomato slices, pepperoncini bits, olives, small ribbons of roasted peppers were scattered everywhere; drizzled, dotted lines of aged balsamic vinegar zigzagged across the whole thing. This is no mere antipasti plate, but an antipasti salad of gargantuan proportions. Paired with one additional smallish appetizer, or maybe even just some extra bread (the plate comes with a container with about a dozen toast points) it’s easily enough for two.

photo(2)The panini my dining partner had was of an appropriate, sandwich size and won this giant compliment (paraphrase): “We had the most amazing paninis for lunch one day while we were touring wineries in Italy; our guide took us to a local little lunch spot. This is the closest thing I’ve had since — they make them exactly like this.”

Dinner: Thursday, April 9, 2009

photo-41

If you’re holding the square block and can see the square hole, sometimes you just gotta put it in.

I had pizza on the brain, so when I discovered the curious-looking Fiorella oven-baked (frozen) pizzas imported from Italy during a meandering wander through Chelsea Market … done deal.

It wasn’t until I got home that I realized the only labeling anywhere on the vacuum-sealed bag anywhere was the price tag, which certainly didn’t tell me how to cook it. No instructions inside, either. (The pizza was wrapped in plastic wrap — not exactly mass-manufactured.)

photo-24Neither does Prodal’s website — well it does, but in Italian and Celsius. I managed, pizza’s pretty hard to screw up. Other than the crust being so thin it’s sort of floppy when you cut it, if you try to cut it and eat it like a slice, not a bad gig. 

COST: $4.25 (cheap!)
PREP TIME: 10 minutes preheat, 7ish minutes baking. 425 degrees (ish)

Check out the pie in all its anonymous vacuum-sealed glory after the jump:

Continue reading “Dinner: Thursday, April 9, 2009”