Billy Reilly, a friend for many decades, called Sunday to invite us to meet him in the North End of Boston for dinner, saying he was in the mood for a good Italian meal. “If he’s really in the mood for fine Italian food,” Todd yelled from the other room, “why doesn’t he just drive up here and we can eat in?” Billy was well aware of that option — back when he was a bachelor he came to the house on many weekends, arriving with a jug of what we called table wine, back in the day, as well as other goodies like salami, cheese or bread from favorite North End haunts.
But Billy had a restaurant in mind and wanted to host us for dinner, the generous guy that he is. So we drove into town and made our way down Hanover Street and suddenly saw him walking at the corner of Parmenter Street. I hopped out and walked under Bill’s umbrella while Todd went to search for parking.
Settling in at our table, Billy was upset that someone on the street had bumped into him. “Didn’t even say excuse me, what’s wrong with this generation!” He was carrying a rather large golf umbrella, but that was no reason to be disrespectful, I assured him. The moment was quickly forgotten as we caught up on our lives over some wine and reminisced over how we would meet at this restaurant 40 years ago, which was previously in Paul Revere Square, a stone’s throw away. Our conversation included grandkids, of course, and politics was included courtesy of our waitress, a new arrival from Naples. Everyone knows that pizza, especially the Margherita (a simple pizza of tomato sauce, basil and a small amount of cheese), was born in Naples. I shared my story of taking a 16-hour train from Rome to Sicily with one of my cousins and how the conductor came around when we were passing through Naples to tell us to lock our compartments for safety reasons. I asked the waitress if this was still the case and she confirmed that there was, but just near the station. When living in Naples, she said she would leave the door to her apartment unlocked. I have never been to Naples, except on the train, but I am grateful for the cuisine of the area, especially pasta, my favorite. Whenever a dish is described as Napolitano, I usually love it.
Our chat with the waitress reminded me of several different trips to Italy. My first visit to Bologna, when Todd and I were hosted by my son George for a birthday celebration, was exceptional. We experienced homemade ravioli that were made by a Noni in a side room where we could watch her in the process. As I recall, the ravioli were stuffed with swiss chard, ricotta with a hint of nutmeg and the sauce was a simple slow-cooked butter and sage with a sprinkle of the best Pecorino Sarde from Sardinia. On our first meal of the visit we had panna cotta, a sophisticated gelatinous dessert, and decided that we would order it at every meal as we toured the countryside to find the recipe we liked best. We also experienced Limoncello for the first time. After an afternoon of vineyard hopping around Tuscany, we returned hot and tired and were treated to a glass of the delicious nectar of the gods, thinking it was like lemonade. After a few sips we needed to take a nap it was so intoxicating and delicious.
On another memorable trip to Genoa, we stayed in a little town called Nerve, which was close to the fancy, jet-setting Portofino, but less ostentatious and less expensive. It was here that we enjoyed the best fish dishes I had ever tasted.
We were amused at how seriously Italians take their regional culinary rules. For example, when I asked for Parmesan cheese to top my pasta dish, which included seafood, our waiter responded with shock. “No, no, no, it is not possseeebill,” he insisted, refusing to bring cheese to the table — there was no convincing him otherwise. I have repeated this story many times to Italians and they have verified that Parmesan cheese cannot “You no can do!” be used on fish. Years later, when I discussed this with one of my Italian relatives, she said it was true that it wasn’t allowed to put “Parmy” (as we called it in the restaurant) on fish, it was fine to use Pecorino Romano. Go figure.
The town of Nerve was a showcase for little food shops that had a very narrow focus. There were wonderful butchers, dessert shops and bread bakers. There was even, indeed, an egg shop, which had been there for a hundred years and had beautiful antique shelving that held baskets of various size and color eggs. Martha Stewart would have swooned, I thought. The eggs were the best. At the cheese shop there was every variety from all over Italy and servers behind the counter were dressed like surgeons, offering small tastes, good humor and just wonderful hospitality. This way of life is disappearing as young Italians migrate to the cities and there is no one to take over the family business, so I cling to these memories as the true Italy.
On a trip to Alba, we experienced fresh, table-side truffle for the first time. Truffle is a delicacy, but much cheaper in the region where they are cultivated. The simple pasta dish that I ordered with truffle grated on top at tableside was presented with the waiter asking “Piu, Piu” (meaning more) after each grate. We asked for many swipes of the cheese grater, only realizing when the bill came that we were being charged for each. Every time we said “Si,” it was about six dollars, I recall, but this was 30 years ago. I can only imagine the cost now.
On a trip to Milano, famous for risotto, prepared with every conceivable veggie and or seafood, I had many opportunities to savor the Milanese breadcrumb mixture, made with flat leaf parsley and grated cheese. The meat is topped first in this before an egg wash like veal, chicken or pork Milanese. I have always loved thin slices of whatever with this topping and fried in olive oil, and I particularly love it with a chopped tomato, basil and olive oil salsa topping.
It is wise when experiencing a new, unfamiliar dish to ask for the sauce on the side, especially for kids. Encouraging kids to try new foods can be challenging, but so exciting. A familiar refrain at my table with my grandkids is “I didn’t think I’d like it Noni, but … and then when they ask me to make it again, I know I have a winner.
Italian chefs have been preparing recipes for years exactly the same way. This is important to their retention of their local culture, but seems odd compared to the innovative spirit that is the backbone of the vibrant American economy and has made us a food leader in the world. When I decided that I loved the swordfish butterflied and prepared with the Milanese topping and fried in olive oil as a menu item at Rosalie’s, my customers loved it. When a group of Italian men who were studying at MIT came to visit Rosalie’s, they were incredulous that we would offer Swordfish Milanese because the topping included Parmesan cheese. But my attitude is that rules are made to be broken, and it has served me well through the years.
Swordfish Milanese, serves 4
Mix a few cups of dried Italian bread crumbs or Panko crumbs with a half cup of grated Parmesan, three tbsp. flat leaf, chopped, and salt and pepper in a pie plate.
In another plate, beat two eggs with a quarter cup of milk or cream.
Wash a pound and a half of swordfish, about one inch thick (or pork or chicken) and pat dry with paper towels. Slice into scallopini slices, about a half inch thick (butterflied).
Dip the fish in the breadcrumbs first, then in egg wash and then back in breadcrumbs for a thick coat. For thinner coating just dip once in egg and then in crumbs.
Heat 1/4 cup good olive oil in saute pan over medium heat and fry the cutlets without crowding them over medium-high heat. About three minutes on each side, depending on the thickness of the meat or fish.
Remove to a rack covered with paper towels or paper bag to absorb excess oil.
You can rewarm to serve them hot, or serve at room temperature topped with a tomato salsa or another topping of your choice. Just a half lemon is nice, too.