Sitting on a high stool the other night at Bambolina in Salem, we had a perfect view into the kitchen, giving us the chance to study their pizza-making operation. The focal point of the open kitchen is a large, round, tile-faced wood burning (with no gas assist) oven where the temperature is hot enough to cook a pizza in a couple of minutes (about 900 degrees). Artisan pizza is hot these days, with smaller pies that cost more than traditional Italian pizza — and that are worth every penny.
Growing up in East Boston where we would give directions by referencing pizza places (take a right at Tony’s, then go left at Maria’s), we were acquainted with delicious pizza. Going to Santarpio’s on a Friday night was always a special experience, as was a visit to the original Pizza Regina in the North End. Both establishments had superb pizza and waitresses served as entertainers with responses that were borderline rude, but always fun. With that background, I have to say I’m thrilled with the current evolution of pizza into a fine food.
I am not from the pineapple and ham toppings school of California pizza, however, there are many Pizza Biancos (with white sauce instead of red) that I really like, featuring toppings that include porcini mushrooms, prosciutto, multiple varieties of cheeses, pesto, or homemade fennel sausage, the latter of which we ordered and loved at Bambolina Friday night — among the best pizzas we can recall having in recent years. While Todd did have his half with tomato sauce, mine was “senza pomodoro” — without tomato — not because I prefer it that way but because my stomach insists on it. Nevertheless, when pizza is made on a beautiful, store-made crust and baked off in a wood burning oven, the sauce is less important anyway. We started with a very crisp mixed greens salad with a nice light dressing and the pizza was perfection. Although many people can’t adapt to the variations offered in pizza today, including the smaller pies with much bigger prices at the artisan places, I love a great pizza — old style or new.
Homemade pasta comes and goes — that’s something I loved offering at Rosalie’s 35 years ago — and it seems to be back of late! Pastaio Via Corta in Gloucester makes several varieties and they are helpful in pairing a sauce with the pasta. They also have a nice selection of olive oils, cheese for grating and a few select sauces like pesto. Last night I made a Bolognese sauce with duck breast that I ground myself with a little pancetta and served it for a small dinner party with Pastaio’s fresh spaghetti. Down memory lane, I served escargot swimming in herbed garlic butter in dishes imported from France. In fact, it was those dishes, bought at my favorite thrift shop, Bootstraps, in Beverly, that inspired me to add snails to the menu. And how thrilled was I to find cans of escargot at Market Basket — they never cease to amaze! That’s the other thing that is worth noting — years ago you’d have to travel far and wide to find the range of ingredients available in your neighborhood today. I was sure a trip to Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge or Savenor’s in Boston would be needed to find the escargot, but there they were at the local Market Basket. Of course, you don’t need any fancy dishes to serve them in, you can use mushroom caps to bake them as I did at Rosalie’s back in the day. I just could not resist those escargot dishes — especially not at $2 each. I can honestly say I’d rather have that custom ceramic dishware than a new outfit. Perhaps I am losing it, as my mother would often accuse when I was growing up.
Another delightful trend in turning ordinary foods into “premium” foods revolves around donuts. We like to take rides on the weekend and explore our beautiful North Shore, and we’ve been pleased to find nice things happening with high end donuts. While it might seem ridiculous to drive 45 minutes or more for a donut, an amazing one can be found at Buttermilk Baking Company in Newburyport. It is a plump creation, baked not fried, filled to order with a to-die-for fresh cream indulgence. The charming little local movie house, the Screening Room, which features the latest independent films, is a short walk away if you want to make a day of it. There’s also a new bakery/restaurant that is serving wonderful homemade donuts called Honeycomb Bakery in South Hamilton (our grandsons declared it a thumbs up after we took them for breakfast recently). The price, $3.50 each, sounds high, but handmade products are supposed to be more expensive than the more mundane foods that are manufactured on huge production lines!
Four or five in the afternoon is not my favorite time to eat, but if that’s what’s required to enjoy oysters for a dollar a pop, count me in! There are several establishments that are offering the dollar deal to generate business during their slower times, and the trend seems to be catching on. And they are nicely served very chilled on a bed of crushed ice with a few dipping sauces. Fried oysters in a light batter are favorites, too.
Avocado mash on toast seems suddenly to be everywhere. At Superfine in Manchester-by-the-Sea, soon opening a second location in Marblehead, they serve a portion that is both generous and luscious for just five dollars on really good bread from A&J King. It is on the appetizer menu.
The avocado toast is also beautifully served at Tartine in Beverly, an upscale coffee shop on Cabot Street that serves the wonderful Illy coffee from the impeccable Italian coffee company. Made on premises are wonderful quiche, cakes, soups and salads. It’s a great place for a glass of wine and a light supper.
Risotto seems to be making a comeback, too. A new take on the popular rice dish that is quick and easy is cauliflower risotto. This winter veggie usually ends up in a cream sauce, but I think you will find my version delicious. Also, besides rice, farro, bulgur and many other grains make a healthy and satisfying risotto knockoff. I can just hear my Milanese friends criticizing my “no rules” approach, saying “No can do cauliflower risotto, no can do farro!” Italians love to make the rules about food, happily, because I love to break them.
Arborio rice is preferred for this dish when you are making “normal risotto.”
For this cauliflower version cut the flowers from a small head of cauliflower. I love the different colors available, like the carrots you see everywhere now.
Using a food processor coarsely grind enough flowers so that you have about three cups. Don’t overdo it. Set aside.
In the processor chop coarsely a medium onion, three cloves of garlic and a little fresh rosemary or thyme.
In a medium heavy pan melt three tbsp. butter. Add the onions, garlic and thyme or rosemary and saute, stirring for a few minutes. Remove from the butter with a slotted spoon.
Raise the heat and add a tbsp. olive oil and the cauliflower. Stir to coat and slightly brown all over.
Stir in a quarter cup of Marsala wine.
On another burner heat three to four cups of chicken or beef broth. Adding a half cup at a time, stir into the cauliflower.
Halfway through add the sautéed onion and garlic and stir.
Repeat until the cauliflower tastes tender, about 15 minutes
Add a half cup of raisins, if you like, that you can soak in the Marsala wine to plump, a third of a cup of grated Parmesan cheese, salt and white pepper to taste. A half cup of goat cheese or a soft cheese of your choice is nice here. Stir to mix.
Sprinkle with toasted walnuts or pecans at serving time.
To toast, spread the nuts on a sheet pan and spray with a little olive oil and bake in oven for 10 minutes, stirring once.