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Posts Tagged ‘pasta’

Spaghetti and Meatballs

Serves 4-5.

1 ½ lbs. spaghetti
6 cups tomato sauce
1 lb. ground pork
1 lb. ground sirloin
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 tbs. ground onion (about a quarter of an onion)
1 tbs. parsley or thyme, finely chopped (only one)
2 cups fresh white breadcrumbs (stale white bread ground in a food processor)
2 eggs, beaten
¼ cup whole milk (enough milk to wet crumbs without them sitting in a big puddle)
1 pinch chili flakes
¼ cup parmigiano reggiano, grated
Vegetable oil, to coat the pan
Salt and ground black pepper

  • Soak breadcrumbs in milk for about 5 minutes or until all the milk is absorbed.
  • Add onion, garlic, chili flakes, grated cheese, eggs, herbs, pepper, and salt (if you like things on the saltier side like me, a small palm-ful is good). Mix everything well. Add meat. Mix gently until just combined.
  • Form golf ball sized balls. Don’t tightly pack the meatballs. Only handle them until just round. You can also make one tiny marble sized meatball (cook this one in the pan to make sure your seasoning is right. If it needs more salt, just sprinkle the formed meatballs with more salt).
  • Meanwhile, heat up a big pot of water to a rolling boil. Make the spaghetti according to the package.
  • Heat up a pan on high. Add oil and let it heat up. When almost smoking, add the meatballs, trying not to overcrowd the pan. It’ll probably take two batches of cooking to get them all.
  • Sear the meatballs on all sides. Take them out of the pan and set them aside.
  • Drain the excess grease from the pan, if there is any. Lower flame to medium and add tomato sauce. Scrape the brown bits off the bottom of the pan. Let tomato sauce come to a bare simmer. Add all meatballs to sauce and let simmer for about 8-10 minutes to finish off cooking.
  • Toss together spaghetti, meatballs, and sauce. Serve with more cheese on the side.

The key to this recipe is the use of fresh breadcrumbs and soaking them in milk. I had always used dry breadcrumbs (the kind in a can) and the meatballs always came out a little too dense. The milk-soaked fresh crumbs give a lightness and creaminess to the meatballs. Almost as good as grandma’s.

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Lunetta
920 Broadway (Southeast Corner of 21st)
(212) 533-3663

Following the trajectory of many yuppy social climbers, but not many restaurants, Lunetta’s trail leads from Brooklyn to Manhattan. The first Lunetta is located in Brooklyn on Smith Street. In November 2007, the second Lunetta opened on Broadway in the Flatiron District to some shaky reviews in the New York Times Diner’s Journal, likely a bit of a shock considering the popularity of the original Brooklyn branch. It’s been about three and a half months since it’s opened and it seems to me this restaurant is slowly, but surely getting its bearings and nestling in comfortably in its new home on a trendy corner on Broadway.

I went on a Wednesday with my girlfriends, Pri and Kaitlin. The restaurant was relatively empty when I first arrived at 7pm, but by the time we left at around 9pm, it seemed like almost every table was occupied.

Upon entering Lunetta, you’ll first notice the elegant, yet eclectic decor. Presided over by richly green plants and leaf patterned wallpaper, marble tabletops and leather banquettes sit underneath clusters of 1970s-esque globular hanging lamps. The space, in short, is perplexingly divine.

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The bruschetta, in its own separate section, seems to be a specialty of the house. On this occasion we tried three: the tuna, the chopped liver, and the ricotta with hazelnuts. The tuna was firm, yet flaky with a hint of acidity from the tomatoes and olives. Kaitlin acutely observed that the tuna would have benefited from more olives for added punch.

The ricotta was smooth, citrusy from lemon zest, and crunchy from the hazelnuts. I thought that overall it was a creative dish, but needed more contrasts in flavor to liven it, perhaps with the addition of bright herbs or a sprinkle of lemon juice. It was Pri’s favorite by far. She marveled at its simultaneously sweet and savory flavors.

For Kaitlin and me, it was all about the chopped liver. I’ve never been a huge chopped liver fan, turned off by it in high school when my mom brought home some from the Second Avenue Deli (at that time actually on 2nd Ave). She urged me to try it and like a good little girl I did, immediately made a face, and declared, “it tastes like feet.” Since then I’ve tended to avoid it, but my experience with chopped liver crostini in Florence was fairly pleasant so I gave this bruschetta a try. It was sublimely delicious. Its deep, rich, darkly complex flavor finished with a hint of smokiness. The texture was dense with a seemingly contradictory whipped airiness. Kaitlin and I fought over the last lump.

The fried artichoke appetizer satisfied that little part (in my case, not so little) inside all of us that craves salty, crispy, fried things, but it wasn’t exactly what I had expected. The way it was described made it sound like there would be crunchy whole artichoke leaves, but instead it was shards (some kind of sharp) of artichoke and fried herbs dressed with a splash of citrus. A tip: don’t eat the herbs, I think they were sage. They were too bitter and pungent and I think its purpose was to flavor the dish with its aroma rather than be consumed. The mound was fun to pick at, but at $12 I thought it a tad overpriced.

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The fennel beet salad was spiced with ground cumin which was unexpected, albeit this time in a very pleasant way. The scallions were a lovely finishing touch. I’m not sure I would order this again, even though I like beets. It didn’t wow me and normally I like beet salads with some kind of cheese (blue or goat, typically). If you love beets, however, go ahead and order it, you won’t be disappointed.

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For my main course, I had the meatballs, served over housemade tagliatelle (slightly flatter and wider than fettucine) for an extra $5. It was inexplicable to me that they would serve meatballs in tomato sauce with absolutely no starch as a main course. The meatballs were noteworthy with a pronounced creaminess and heft, minus any leaden density. The tomato sauce paired very well with the meatball, but the bites where I had the sauce on its own on the pasta were a wee bit bland. Maybe if there had been some Parmigiano cheese? All in all, a dish I would gladly order again.

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Pri’s tagliatelle with braised short ribs was described by the manager as bolognese and while I’ve had true, authentic bolognese (only a hint of tomato and more of a meaty, slightly creamy sauce), I’m glad they changed the name on the menu from bolognese to ragout. The sauce was thin and the meat lay in shredded chunks. It was also a tad under salted, but Kaitlin preferred Pri’s pasta to mine, so to each his/her own with that.

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Kaitlin had the Wednesday night special of snapper en cartocchio, basically snapper steamed in a paper package or “en papillot” to you Francophiles.

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The snapper sat on a bed of vegetables and was supposed to be drizzled with a truffle vinaigrette or truffle oil of some sort; however, the two bites I took (from two different sides of the fish), while light and tasty, provided no hint of truffle and truffle’s a pretty tough flavor to mask, so that was a little disappointing.

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One other snag was that when Kaitlin got to the middle of the large piece of fish she discovered it hadn’t been cooked all the way through. The waiter gladly took it back into the kitchen to finish cooking it, but that type of hiccup can be disruptive to a meal. The fish came back about 10 minutes later and by then Pri and I were pretty much done with our dishes. I was told that the snapper had first been offered as a part of a special Valentine’s Day prix fixe menu and had been so popular Chef Shepard decided to include it weekly, so maybe they’re still working out the kinks on cooking times and temperatures. It was a shame too; conceptually, it is a wonderful dish.

By this point I was stuffed beyond stuffed. We ordered dessert anyway and as I was only planning on taking one bite I let Pri and Kaitlin choose. They ordered the citrus crostada, which definitely would not have been my first or second choice because, in general, I don’t enjoy citrus-based desserts. Well, thank god I let them choose whatever they wanted. The dessert completely took me by surprise. The tartness and sweetness of the grapefruit and orange, somehow, miraculously remained mellow against the buttery, doughy, sugary crust (which, from its appearance, seemed like it was going to be brittle and crunchy, but wasn’t at all). All of it was drizzled with a thin vanilla cream sauce that rounded all the flavors and textures out. The crostada, apparently, changes seasonally (a month or so ago it was an apple crostada), so get this while you can.

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My overall impression of Lunetta was of a toddler advancing from a crawl to walking strides. It may wobble on occasion, even fall down, but you see the progress and the potential for where it is headed. You know it’ll get there eventually and you breath a sigh of contentment and anticipation at what you see in its future.

Dinner for Three:

  • Tuna Bruschetta – $3.50
  • Ricotta Bruschetta – $3.50
  • Chopped Liver Bruschetta – $3.50
  • Fried Artichokes – $12
  • Fennel Beet Salad – $10
  • Meatballs (over Tagliatelle) – $15 (+ $5)
  • Tagliatelle with Braised Pork and Short Rib Ragout – $17
  • Snapper en Cartocchio – $26
  • Citrus Crostada – $9
  • Bottle of Falanghina – $36
  • Total (excluding tax and tip) – $140.50

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Butter
415 Lafayette Street (Bet. 4th Street and Astor Place)
(212) 253-2828

For my second and final Restaurant Week meal I went to Butter with seven colleagues. It’s somewhat of an annual tradition for us. Last year we went to Blue Smoke, this year it was Butter.

After my experience at Chinatown Brasserie (across the street, coincidentally), I was nervous about how a ragamuffin troupe of young 20-somethings, some dressed in work gear, some in jeans, would be received at such a trendy establishment, but everyone from the woman at the coat check to the hostess that led us to our table was perfectly polite and pleasant.

We were seated downstairs in a rounded banquette with a small two person table attached. The decor at Butter differs whether you’re seated upstairs or downstairs. Upstairs there’s a slightly more trendy, yet Zen-like feel. Downstairs, with its glass wall of wine bottles, red velvet banquettes, and pulsing classic rock play list, possesses a vibe that suggests a sexy, dim lounge, an ambiance that’s perfectly appropriate for nighttime play but a bit much for a 6pm supper.

I struggled to hear what was being said across the table as Oasis and U2 blared in the background. Eventually, someone (with a heart) lowered the volume of the music to a tolerable level.

Of course we all sampled the bread and butter. We each received a slice of (cold) crusty white bread and a cube of cornbread. The cornbread was comfortingly sweet and moist. The waiter served us two kinds of butter: one French cream with sea salt and another herb one. The herb was the bigger hit of the two with its mild, but distinct flavor.

Most of us had the cavatappi (curled tubes) with lamb sausage to start. The cavatappi was perfectly al dente and each piece of pasta was evenly coated with the well-seasoned tomato sauce that was more creamy and sweet than soupy and acidic. The lamb sausage was lean (well, as lean as sausage can be), savory, and delightfully spicy. The dish, as a whole, was full of flavor and enough fat to be satisfying, but not so much fat as to feel like a lump in your stomach by the time the entree arrives.

I ordered the pork osso buco for my main course. The pork was undeniably tender, as braised pork should be, but the taste was reminiscent of any generic meat stew with caramelized onions. The flavors in the sauce were muddled and one-dimensional with only the occasional onion breaking things up. I was thoroughly unimpressed. Most had the pork osso buco. Another popular choice at the table, per the waiter’s recommendation, was a grouper over mashed potatoes that was light and flaky, but under seasoned.

For dessert I partook of the dark chocolate and caramel sea salt tart topped with a vanilla creme anglaise and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. As one of my coworkers pointed out, the tart tasted like a Snickers bar, but gooier and crumblier with a deeper and darker chocolate flavor. The first few bites were heavenly; unfortunately, it quickly became clear that the combination of the caramel and sea salt, which brought out the darkness in the chocolate, made the tart too rich overall, even with the vanilla ice cream. I left half of it on the plate.

I left Butter that night full, but not satisfied. I had a sneaking suspicion that my fellow coworkers felt the same way as we quietly filed out of the restaurant. As I rode home in a cab, I ruminated over my experiences with Restaurant Week thus far and decided that Restaurant Week was everything I had been fearful that it would be: not worth it. At both meals I spent $50-$60 dollars, the same amount I pay at restaurants where I’ve found far superior meals (Momofuku Ssam Bar and Alta, just to name a few) with similar, only slightly less formal atmospheres.

The next morning, I canceled my last Restaurant Week reservation.

  • 8 Pre-Fixe Restaurant Week Meals – $280
  • Scotch on the Rocks – $14
  • Bottle of Gewurztraminer – $39
  • Bottle of Pinot Noir (off the RW Menu) – $35
  • Total (excluding tax and tip) – $368

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I actually had a low key Friday evening to myself for the first time in a looooong time. No frantic Christmas shopping, no holiday parties, no family dinners, just me, Moo Shu, a slew of Monk reruns on DVR, and a big bag of clams in the fridge. I cooked up some spaghetti with clams, a quick and easy standby, perfect for when I want to cook without thinking. It came out better than ever.

I suppose my whole not-caring-much nonchalance added that little bit of magic needed to raise the dish to a new level. Like that guy that only likes the girls who play hard to get…maybe.

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Spaghetti with Clams

Serves 2-3.

3/4 lb. spaghetti (linguine or angel hair would work too)
18 littleneck clams, rinsed and scrubbed (cockles and cherry stones work well too, just be aware of the change in cooking time as cockles are much smaller than littlenecks and cherry stones are larger)
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 tbs. parsley, chopped
2 tsp. lemon zest
4 ½ tbs. lemon juice
2 tbs. unsalted butter
3 ½ tbs. extra virgin olive oil
2 pinches red chili flakes
Salt and pepper

  • Heat a deep sautee pan over a medium high heat. Add 1 tbs. of the butter into the pan along with 1 tb. of olive oil.
  • After the butter has melted and the oil has heated (about 2 minutes), put the garlic in the pan and sautee it for about 1 minute or until cooked and lightly brown. Add the red chili flakes.
  • Cook the pasta according to the instructions on the package in a pot of boiling, well salted water. A few seconds before you drain the pasta, carefully reserve 3/4 cup of the water. Set aside for later.
  • At this point, add the clams and 1 tbs. of lemon juice to the pan. Stir the clams around and lower the heat to low. Cover the pan and allow the clams to steam open. This should take approximately 9 minutes. Check back after the first 7 minutes though, just to make sure you don’t end up over cooking them and making them rubbery.
  • Once the clams are cooked,  check the clams for any that are unopen. Now don’t go nuts and start tossing half the clams out if they aren’t open. They’re probably just not done cooking yet. They won’t all cook at exactly the same second. If you see a bunch (more than 4) unopened, give them another minute. You may wind up with no unopen clams at the end or there may be one or two. These are the ones that were dead to begin with. Do not, I REPEAT, do not pry them open, you little cheapskate. Let them go. Toss them. Your digestive tract will thank you.
  • Add the cooked spaghetti to the pan. Stir it all rigorously to mix the sauce, clams, and pasta. Turn off the heat.
  • At this point, add the 3 remaining tbs. of lemon juice, the lemon zest, cracked black pepper, 1/2 cup of the reserved water, the other 1 tbs. of butter, the other 2 ½ tbs. of olive oil, and about 2 tsp. (like two really big pinches) salt. Toss the pasta once more. The strands should be glossy from the sauce, but there shouldn’t be so much liquid that it completely floods the bottom of the pan. There should just be a thin film of it on the bottom (see photo below). Taste the pasta for seasoning. Add more salt, pepper, or chili flakes if necessary.
  • Garnish with parsley and serve with a small bowl for the clam shells.

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See that? Just a wee bit of sauce at the bottom with the strands all glossy and ready for their closeup

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I was at a loss on Sunday for what to make for dinner. The boy (Matt) was coming over and all I knew was that I had a major pasta craving. The weather was wretched Sunday night and having already gone to the Wintermarket, I was done with the whole “going outside” thing.

I scrounged around my kitchen. In my pasta drawer, I had half of a box of rigatoni, some lasagna sheets, half of a bag of fusilli lunghi (love, love, love it, very underrated pasta shape…maybe because it’s not “real” or classic), and a full box of penne. Alright, I could work with penne, I thought. But I’m a stickler for matching sauces to the appropriate pasta shapes. For me, saucy, non-chunky sauces or oil-based sauces go best with thin strands like spaghetti or angel hair, or large tubular pastas like rigatoni or tortiglioni. Creamy, non-chunky sauces (think carbonara) go well with wider strands like fettucine or linguini. “Sauceless” chunky sauces with things like veggies (i.e. a primavera) are better with penne or farfalle. Regular fusilli or gemelli for pasta salad in my house.

What I ended up throwing together Sunday night was penne alla vodka, a classic Italian-American favorite found in most pizza joints and old-fashioned Italian American restaurants (like the kind with checkered tablecloth and chianti bottle candles). Despite its inauthenticity, I love it. The dish is a delicious balance of sweet, savory, creamy, cheesy, and a little hint of je ne sais quoi from the alcohol. Meanwhile, penne alla vodka defies all of the “rules” I just mentioned. It’s a non-chunky, cream-based sauce and yet I pair it with penne. I’ve also been known to do a fusilli lunghi alla vodka, which worked well too. Just goes to show you that these rules are just a general guideline, not Gospel.

The other great thing about this dish is that I typically have all the ingredients already; thus no need to leave the house.

Vodka? Check. Heavy cream? Check. Parmiggiano cheese? Check. Penne? Check. Tomato sauce? Check. Either ham or bacon or proscuitto or pancetta? Check.

I put a little twist in my version by adding halved grape tomatoes. I just feel like the dish can get heavy and the tomatoes add a little texture and great bursts of tangy, sweet freshness amidst the sea of cheesy cream.

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Hello vodka, old friend

Penne alla Vodka

Serves 4.

1 lb. penne (or some other tubular pasta or fusilli lunghi)
3 cups tomato sauce (check out my previously posted recipe)
1/2 cup, approx., heavy cream or half and half
1 1/2 pints of cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
1/3 cup vodka (unflavored, naturally, save the Stoli O for your holiday party)
1/2 lb ham, pancetta, bacon, or proscuitto, cubed
1-1 1/2 cups Parmiggiano Reggiano cheese, grated
1-2 pinches red chili flakes (optional)
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

  • Heat up a deep sautee pan or frying pan over a medium-high flame for 2-3 minutes.
  • Pour enough olive oil in the pan to lightly coat the bottom (probably about 3 tablespoons). Let oil heat up for another minute. Test the heat of the pan by dropping in a cube of ham. If it sizzles on contact, the pan’s ready to go. If it just sits there, lolling around in the oil, wait another minute. Skip this entire step if you’re using bacon. It’s so fatty you don’t need additional oil.
  • Put all the ham in the pan. Break up any pieces that are stuck together. Move the ham around until all the cubes are spread out in one layer over the bottom of the pan. Now, don’t touch it. You want them to brown and fry up a bit on both sides, not steam. This is especially true if you use bacon.
  • After 3-4 minutes on one side, the ham should be crisp. Stir the ham to cook the other side. This should take another 2-3 minutes. Again, hands off until it’s done!
  • Once the ham is all browned and your home smells like bacon, lower the heat to medium-low ad toss in the tomatoes. Let the tomatoes soften and break down a little, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes. If you used bacon you might want to pour some of the excess fat out before you add the tomatoes.
  • Add the tomato sauce, vodka, and chili flakes. Let the sauce come to a bubbling simmer. Then lower the heat to low and let it continue to cook for 10 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, boil the penne according to the directions on the package.
  • Pour in the cream and stir to combine everything. Simmer the sauce for another 20-25 minutes to cook off the alcohol in the vodka and to let the sauce reduce down/thicken.
  • After the 20-25 minutes have elapsed, stir in the 2 cups of grated cheese a little bit at a time.
  • Season with fresh cracked pepper. At this point taste for salt, season with salt as desired. If you feel like there’s still too much alcohol flavor, simmer on low in five minute increments until it achieves the alcohol level you like.
  • Gently pour the penne into the pan with the sauce and mix carefully so it doesn’t splatter.
  • Serve with some extra grated cheese, if desired.

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Double, double, toil and trouble, fire burn and fat ass bubble

If alcohol’s really not your thing or you don’t have any on hand, no worries. Just omit it, simmer the sauce for a combined 15-20 minutes instead of 30-35 minutes and call it penne alla pink! Or penne al sugo rosa (translation: pink sauce)! Or penne pepto!

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Ohhh yeah, that’s the stuff

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L’Impero – 45 Tudor City Place (bet. 42nd and 41st St.), (212) 599-5045

Yesterday one of my favorite dining companions, Zack, and I went to L’Impero for its “Domenica Rustica” (translation: “Rustic Sunday”) Prix Fixe 4-course dinner for $42: a deal that we felt we had to investigate following Frank Bruni’s recent re-review of L’Impero and Alto when Michael White took over as Executive Chef, replacing Scott Conant. Plus, we use any excuse to try out a lovely restaurant (in this case we pretended we were wholeheartedly celebrating Veteran’s Day).

Let me begin with the decor. Ever since reading Bruni’s description of L’Impero’s interior as “evoking the upholstered interior of a very large coffin,” it was difficult for me to see it as anything but, especially with the effect of all the glowing candlelight. Lucky for me, Zack supplanted that imagery with the suggestion that L’Impero’s decor is reminiscent of the dining room of a luxurious ocean-liner due to the classic American sconces along the walls and what we agreed looked like “catering hall” chairs. Almost no windows added to the feeling of floating somewhere on the vast seas. Is a cruise ship really better than a coffin, you ask? Hmmm, maybe not. Then there were a few things that seemed out of place: the small tealights perched atop skinny black metal rods clipped onto the edge of some of the tables, the nubby, 1970’s-esque, dark brown booth/loveseat-type alternatives to the “catering hall” chairs, and the six toilet paper rolls lined up vertically from ceiling to floor in the bathroom.

The meal began with a warm slice of crusty bread and, as part of the 4-course meal, a bowl of olives, Parmigiano cheese, and slices of cured meat. The olives were small, pitted, and tasted strongly of the rosemary and orange peel in which they were marinated. The slices of meat (not certain if it was sopressata or something else) were salty, fatty, and delicious, but nothing special. The cheese was fantastic. It was crumblier than I’m used to, but less salty while still maintaining the typical sharpness of Parmigiano cheese.

We asked the waiter to recommend a light, red wine that was versatile and in the $50 range (the cheapest bottle of red was $45, a little steeper than we’re used to). He told us he would send the sommelier over to assist us. It took far longer than it should have for him to come over and in the meantime, no one had taken our order (although we did get more bread). When the sommelier did finally get around to coming to us, he spouted some completely inappropriate joke about the “Michael Jackson” of wines since the red wine he recommended was trying to be white (“Um, since when was Michael Jackson Native American?” Zack wondered aloud). At least the wine he recommended was a pleasantly fruity, light red from Valle d’Aosta, a northwestern region in Italy, that went very well with each dish.

For our starters, Zack had the stewed octopus and I had the spiced pork terrine. I had eaten pork terrine before, but upon reading the Italian name for the dish “coppa di testa” (which I know to mean “headcheese”) I figured I would be in for a different kind of treat. Headcheese, if you’re unaware, is a cylindrical loaf made of bits of meat from the pig’s head, tongue, and sometimes other strange parts mixed with gelatin and allowed to set, then it’s sliced like ham or turkey. While a tad more adventurous than I normally order, it turned out to be delicious. The slices of headcheese were so thin and delicate I didn’t even need to use my knife to cut it. It was seasoned with fennel seeds and had a very subtle mustard vinaigrette drizzled on top. Alongside the headcheese were pieces of grilled bread and the perfect accompaniment of a radish and fennel salad, very lightly dressed. The salad added a much needed tartness and crispness to the crusty bread and the salty, soft headcheese.

Zack’s octopus was stewed in a light tomato sauce along with chickpeas, olives, and capers. The octopus was very well cooked, tender, and sweet. The chickpeas added an earthiness to the dish with the olives and capers providing refreshing little pockets of salt and tangy brine. Zack remarked that it reminded him of pasta alla puttanesca (pasta in a tomato sauce with olives, capers, and a base of anchovies).

For the secondi (or pasta) course, I had the orecchiette alla pescatore, pasta shaped like thick contact lenses (orecchiette actually means “little ears,” not contact lenses) tossed in a sweet tomato sauce with onions, mussels, cubes of fish, and octopus. The orecchiette had the soft, irregular texture of freshly made pasta and the tomato sauce was amazingly sweet without being cloying or losing its complexity. The seafood, again, was perfectly cooked and tender.

Zack had the spaghetti alla chitarra with tripe braised in tomato sauce sprinkled with breadcrumbs. The freshly made spaghetti had a similar rough texture to my orecchiette and instead of typical stick straight strands, these strands of spaghetti were a little wavy, almost like Chinese egg noodles. I’m not normally a huge fan of tripe, but this was braised very well and tasted mildly like smoky bacon. With help from the crunchy breadcrumbs and the tangy sauce, the tripe and chewy spaghetti worked very well together.

I had the grilled hangar steak for my meat course. This dish consisted of five thick slices of lean hangar steak (cooked perfectly medium rare, just as I had asked for) atop Pecorino dusted, fried potatoes and grilled radicchio. The potatoes tasted decadent with their cheesy, crunchy crust and went very well with the deep, charred flavors of the steak and the sweet, bitter radicchio.

Zack had the meatballs served in tomato sauce (a very tomato sauce filled meal, yes) with mustard greens. “Do these taste heavy to you? I mean they’re good, but…” Zack said as he handed me a large chunk of meatball. I had to admit that it was a little dense, as if the ground meat had been overworked, and I couldn’t help but think two things: 1) these are just meatballs, good meatballs, but average not-great meatballs, nothing special and 2) my meatballs are better. Sorry, Mr. White, it’s true. So, needless to say, after every other dish being quite special, I was a bit underwhelmed by that one.

And lastly, for dessert, I had the pumpkin pudding while Zack had the chocolate “panna cotta“. The pumpkin pudding was topped with a dried fruit marmalade (sticky, candied raisins, golden raisins, dried cranberries, etc.) alongside a scoop of cinnamon gelato. The pudding had the consistency of a very soft pumpkin pie filling and was not too sweet, which I greatly appreciated after such a large meal, and the cinnamon gelato was refreshing, emitting a not unpleasant floral aftertaste that Zack claimed he couldn’t detect. The one thing I did yearn for was some textural contrast, something that had been very much present in all of the other dishes. A crunchy or crusty element would have added greatly to the dish, but, as I said to Zack, “then it would just be pumpkin pie.” Maybe I was just craving pumpkin pie.

Zack’s chocolate “panna cotta” was served with espresso gelato. I use the quotation marks because it came as a crumbly chocolate cake. Perhaps there was a tiny dollop of cooked cream in the middle of the cake, but I didn’t detect it in the couple of bites that I had. Cooked cream should have a flan-like consistency. It should not be a dry miniature cake. Zack enjoyed his dessert, but I thought it lacked the spark and sophistication of the some of the other dishes.

All in all, the Sunday prix fixe at L’Impero is a great deal and the atmosphere is very nice for a special occasion (I just hope your meal isn’t marred like ours was by a fourtop of moronic, loud, drunk out-of-towners celebrating a birthday behind us). Was the meal perfect? No. Did I leave L’Impero sated and content? Yes. Did I gasp a little when it came time to pay? Yes. Did I agree with much of what Bruni said about L’Impero, positive and negative? Mmm…maybe, but you should just go see for yourself.

  • 2 4-Course Prix Fixe Dinners – $84
  • 1 Bottle Valle d’Aosta Red – $55
  • 2 Bottles Water – $17
  • Total – $156 (excluding tax and tip)

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Writing my first real post for this blog the other day about the Neopolitan-style pizza and the tomato sauce I learned how to make with Mirella gave me a hankering for some good ol’ spaghetti alla carbonara (see About Me page). I made it last night for my sister and boyfriend. They seemed to enjoy it (see last photo at bottom of post).

Spaghetti alla carbonara literally means, “spaghetti in the style of the coal miner.” Legend has it that coal miners used to make/eat this dish because it doesn’t involve many ingredients and you can carry the cheese and meat around with you and then pick up some eggs from the henhouse on your way home at the end of the day, then quickly whip up this meal…or something like that. Who knows? No matter what the story, this dish is undeniably delectable and everyone should try it at least once.

 

In case you don’t know, this delicious pasta dish consists of spaghetti in a Parmigiano cheese, bacon, and cream sauce (how can you lose with that combo?). Some of you who are familiar with carbonara may exclaim, “But you’ve left out the main ingredient, Sherry! The eggs! MY GOD, THE EGGS!” Calmez-vous. I tend not to include this in the descriptor for those unfamiliar with this dish since it sometimes leads people to imagine a giant platter of pasta topped with scrambled eggs and bacon, which it definitely is not.

 

I learned this recipe while I was, you guessed it, living in Italy, but have tweaked it since then. Mirella showed me how to make the “real deal.” I say “real deal” in quotes because she is, after all, a native Florentine and this dish is traditionally Roman. It’s analogous to a native New Yorker having a fabulous recipe for fried chicken. But just because the recipe’s not completely authentic or hasn’t been handed down generations doesn’t mean it’s not good.

 

All I can say for sure is that this dish (and recipe) is fantastic. It’s so quick and easy you’ll wanna make it every other night (but practice some self-discipline and don’t, you’ll get fat, yeah…you will). The main thing about spaghetti alla carbonara is the technique, not so much the complexity of ingredients or number of ingredients.

 

Traditional Italian carbonara recipes call for guanciale (cured pork jowles), but guanciale is difficult to find. Americanized recipes for carbonara, instead, call for pancetta (Italian cured bacon, similar to American bacon, but not smoked and comes in round slices, not strips) which is delicious, but for this, I prefer regular smoked bacon (anything but maple smoked). I love how crispy bacon gets, as opposed to the more crusty chewiness of pancetta, plus regular bacon’s much easier to find at any supermarket. You’ll also notice I call for quite a bit of garlic. The number of garlic cloves really depends on how much you like garlic. I LOVE it so I always say the more the merrier, but I know not everyone shares my amorous opinion so if you’re not a huge fan, cut it to 2 cloves, instead of 5.

 

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Spaghetti alla Carbonara

 

Serves 4.

 

1 lb spaghetti, snapped in half while still uncooked (or linguine)

4-5 cloves of garlic, minced

1/3 lb bacon, diced into tiny cubes

2 cups (Approx.) Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, grated

4 large egg yolks, separated from their whites (whites discarded or saved for something else)

½ cup reserved pasta water

½ (Approx.) cup heavy cream or half and half

Salt and Pepper

 

  • Boil a large pot of water for the pasta. Follow the instructions on the box for the timing and do not overcook the pasta. Another thing that’s important about the timing of the pasta is that you want all the other ingredients waiting for the spaghetti to finish cooking, not vice versa, because you must add the eggs and cream to the very hot pasta or else it won’t become the glistening, smooth sauce that it should. So if you think the rest of the process (chopping, mixing, sauteeing, etc.) will take you awhile, don’t start the recipe by boiling water for the pasta. Wait until you’ve gotten through a couple of steps to put the water on.

  • Heat a frying or sautee pan over high heat. Once the pan is hot, add the bacon to the pan. Break up the bacon and spread it out so it’ll fry, not steam, and then leave it alone. Don’t keep stirring it or it won’t come out as exquisitely crisp as possible. After it has fried on one side for about 3 minutes, stir the bacon around so the other side will cook (don’t worry about literally flipping every single speck of bacon over). Let it fry until it’s completely cooked through, about another 3-4 minutes.

  • While the bacon is cooking, whisk the egg yolks in a bowl. Add the cream, cheese, and lots of black pepper. Stir them all together. Set this aside (not in the fridge).

  • Turn off the heat under the pan. Scoop out the bacon onto a plate (lined with paper towels to make yourself feel better about eating bacon and cream, if you’d like).

  • Once the bacon is no longer searingly hot, add a couple of tablespoons of it to the egg and cream mixture to raise the temperature. This is called “tempering” the cream and it’s important because if you don’t, the cool cream might curdle when it hits the hot pasta. But if you’ve added the warm bacon to the eggs and cream, the overall temperature of the cream mixture will slowly and gradually rise, thus preventing curdling. If the bacon cools significantly you can add all of it to the cream mixture, but if it doesn’t, you can just add it to the spaghetti later.

  • Dispose of excess bacon fat in the pan by pouring it into the garbage or in a bowl to cool first and then dump it (do not pour blisteringly hot oil/grease down the drain, it’s bad for the drain).

  • Using the residual oil in the pan, heat up the pan again on medium heat (this shouldn’t take long since it’s probably still hot from the bacon). Add the garlic and cook until brown. Keep your eyes on it, garlic can go from golden, brown and delicious to black, burnt and nasty very quickly. This should take about 2-3 minutes. But also don’t be fooled by the black bits of bacon in the pan that cling to the garlic and make it look burnt. Just watch the garlic carefully and use your common sense that it wouldn’t have burned in 30 seconds and it’s probably just the bacon bits in the oil.

  • At this point, the spaghetti should just be finished cooking. Reserve a cup of the water the pasta cooked in before draining. Drain the pasta and transfer it to a large pot or bowl. Working quickly, add the egg and cream mixture, garlic, and bacon (if you haven’t already incorporated it all into the cream mixture) to the pasta and stir vigorously and I mean, vigorously (I typically use two large wooden spoons or a big spatula and tongs). This is also very important so that your eggs become a sauce and not Sunday’s western scramble.

  • If the pasta seems dry or there’s not enough sauce, pour in 2 tablespoons of the reserved pasta water at a time until it is sufficiently loose and stirrable; however, if it’s still clumping too much to stir easily after about 6 tablespoons, add a bit of cream about 2 tablespoons at a time so the sauce doesn’t get too watery and bland. If you’ve added extra water and cream, I would suggest adding more cheese as well. Taste and add salt if necessary.

  • Serve immediately.

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