On my subway ride to work, there’s one conductor who says, “This is Times Square, Center of the Universe. You have connections to the N, R, A, C, E, F, D, and Q trains…”

Center of the Universe or not, as I’ve mentioned before Manhattan at its best isn’t the easiest place in which to live, and at its worst it’s a cockroach-infested hellhole. Maybe it’s time for me to move out.

Or maybe not. To everyone reading this in the suburbs, you can keep your three-car-garage, your manicured lawn, your 1.5 million sq ft mall. For one simple reason. Which is: for the curious home cook such as myself, this town is paradise. The availability of obscure ingredients here is like nowhere else I’ve lived. And I’m not just talking about forays into unfamiliar cuisines from such far-away places as Ethiopia, Korea or New Jersey. I’m talking about the pleasure to be found in revisiting a seemingly familiar culinary tradition, plumbing its depths, and looking beyond the obvious.

For instance: Italian.

When people speak of “Italian” food in this country, what they often mean is the slippery, indigestible fare of an Olive Garden TV commercial: fettucine alfredo, baked zitti, spaghetti with meatballs. I have nothing against these dishes. In fact I enjoyed a fine eggplant-parmesan-on-a-hero this very evening from my local Italian joint. Its authenticity was questionable – it was prepared by a Guatemalan and the place is owned by a pair of Moroccans – but it nonetheless hit the spot.

However when it comes to real Italian, I implore you to leave you comfort zone and make contact with things which are – by American standards – unorthodox. Many surprises await. Indeed my father just returned from the city of Ferrara in the north of Italy, where he dined on the local speciality of Assina.  This seductive sounding dish is, in fact, Donkey. The last time I looked it is not to be found on the Olive Garden menu. Very good, apparently. Came in a lovely stew. Tasted like beef.

So allow me to suggest two great Italian ingredients for those willing to venture off-piste. Don’t worry, these are not ‘stunt-eating’ dishes like donkey stew. But neither are they to be found in your local Stop n’ Shop. Ladies and gents, I present: Bottarga (cured mullet or tuna roe) and Guanciale (pig’s jowl.)

Bottarga

Bottarga – as mentioned above – is the cured roe pouch of either the grey mullet or tuna. It can be bought pre-grated, or in chunks which are dense and slightly plasticky to the touch. I bought some from an Italian bloke in Chelsea Market called Roberto. (According to the cruel but not wholly inaccurate stereotype, there are two breeds of Italians. The attractive, urbane ones who come from the North. And the unshaven, rather shiftless ones. They come from the South. Roberto – a Sardinian by birth – is definitely of the latter species.)

I asked Roberto how bottarga tastes. “Ah yes, inna Sardinia we enjoy to eat the bottarga very very much. It have, eh, how you say…”, at which point his eyes narrowed and his lips moved noiselessly as he ransacked his English vocabulary for the right descriptor. He failed. “Eh, the bottarga, it have… full flavour.” Full flavour. Well, that’s one way of putting it. As a teenager, I was once teargassed by a hoodlum in Paris. This was significantly more enjoyable than my first sniff of unadulterated bottarga, which to the unprepared nostril is nothing short of unspeakable.

Bottarga is the very quintessence of fishiness. Imagine anchovies, condensed to their essence, and then left in a warm closet to ripen.

But like anchovies, when diluted and then brightened with citrus, parsley and garlic, Bottarga becomes transcendent. Fishy, yes, but savory and complex and satisfying. I owe this recipe (which I have adapted slightly) to Matt Wright’s most excellent Wrightfood blog. Never has a dish been simpler yet more compelling. Photo at the top of this post.

Spaghetti with Bottarga, parsley and lemon

  • 2 good handfuls of spaghetti
  • 1 clove of garlic, finely minced
  • 1 handful of fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped
  • Bottarga to taste – about 2 tablespoons*
  • Olive oil – about 5 tablespoons
  • Squeeze of lemon
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest.

*If your Bottarga comes pre-grated, you’re in good shape. If it comes solid, you will need to mince it very finely. 

Warm two bowl. Cook your spaghetti to al dente.

Meanwhile, in a frying pan, mix together 1 tablespoon of bottarga and the garlic with the olive oil. Warm this over a low flame to take the edge off the garlic.

Drain the pasta when done. Tip into the oil/bottarga pan. Toss to combine. Add squeeze of lemon. Add in the parsley, pinches at a time, until everything is nicely coated with green flecks. Add more bottarga to taste.

Divide between two warm bowls, and a little more oil and parsley if needed.

Serve straight away.

 

Guanciale 

If Bacon’s posh sibling is Pancetta, then Pancetta’s aristocratic cousin is Guanciale. Pigs have a lovely and fleshy double-chin, and this is where Guanciale comes from. In comparison to bacon or pancetta, Guanciale is monstrously fatty, rather more unctuous in texture, and definitely more porky in flavour. It is most commonly associated with the pasta sauce sugo all’amatriciana.

Improperly made with pancetta or bacon, amatriciana can be overwhelmed by smokiness and taste like you’ve just thrown some bacon into a simple tomato sauce.  (Which you probably have.) But using guanciale, it develops its own personality, and tastes altogether more porky, rich and rewarding.  Recipe below, reproduced without permission from Mario Batali’s excellent Babbo cookbook.  (Original recipe here.)

Only change I would make to this recipe is my preference of rigatone to bucatini, but that’s immaterial. Also if you don’t have the time or inclination to make your own tomato sauce, a good pre-made brand is fine. (The Rao’s brand is expensive, but the best I’ve tried.) Substituting parmigiano reggiano (which you are more likely to have) for the pecorino is acceptable.

 

 

Bucatini All’amatriciana

Serves 4

¾ pound guanciale thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves
1  onion, halved and sliced ½-inch thick
1 ½ teaspoons hot red pepper flakes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 ½ cups basic tomato sauce
1 pound bucatini
1 bunch of flat-leaf parsley, leaves only
Pecorino Romano, for grating

1. Being 6 quarts of water to a boil and add 2 tablespoons of salt.

2. Place the guanciale slices in a 12- to 14-inch sauté pan in a single layer and cook over medium-low heat until most of the fat has been rendered from the meat, turning occasionally. Remove the meat to a plate lined with paper towels and discard half the fat, leaving enough to coat the garlic, onion and red pepper flakes. Return the guanciale to the pan with the vegetables, and cook over medium-high heat for 5 minutes, or until the onions, garlic and guanciale are light golden brown. Season with salt and pepper, add the tomato sauce, reduce the heat, and simmer for 10 minutes.

3. Cook the bucatini in the boiling water according to the package directions, until al dente. Drain the pasta and add it to the simmering sauce. Add the parsley leaves, increase the heat to high and toss to coat. Divide the pasta among four warmed pasta bowls. Top with freshly grated Pecorino cheese and serve immediately.

Basic Tomato Sauce

Makes 4 cups

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 Spanish onion, chopped in 1/4-inch dice
4 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
3 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves, or 1 tablespoon dried
1/2 medium carrot, finely shredded
2 (28-ounce) cans peeled whole tomatoes, crushed by hand and juices reserved
Salt, to taste

In a 3-quart saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic, and cook until soft and light golden brown, about 8 to 10 minutes. Add the thyme and carrot, and cook 5 minutes more, until the carrot is quite soft. Add the tomatoes and juice and bring to a boil, stirring often. Lower the heat and simmer for 30 minutes until as thick as hot cereal. Season with salt and serve. This sauce holds 1 week in the refrigerator or up to 6 months in the freezer.

 

12 Responses to Off-piste Italian.

  1. Your photos are A-M-A-Z-I-N-G and I feel compelled to look at all of them before reading anything! I do love NYC, but I fear I could never live there. Not hip enough ;)

    • Will says:

      Thank you so much for the very kind feedback!

      Not hip enough to live in Manhattan? Believe me, I’m about as untrendy as they get. I wouldn’t know a pair of skinny jeans or a cool East Village bar if it smacked me in the face. My idea of a crazy night is a beer at home after work, then some ill-fated experiment in the kitchen involving a leek.

      Anyway, thanks again for the generous words.

      Will

  2. Ann says:

    I can see why you’d want to stay in New York…for that reason alone! I’ve had to ORDER quinoa because the stores don’t sell it here! I lived in Sicily for three years and while a lot of the foods were what you see anywhere – they had some amazing food! Including the Buccatini All-amatriciana….which is FAB!

    Speaking of FAB – your pictures are a feast for the eyes!

    • Will says:

      Ann, I really appreciate the generous words. Sicilian cuisine is indeed special.. I visited Catania once and was bowled over.

      Anyway, thanks for stopping by my blog.

      Will

  3. Becca says:

    Hey Will, I second Ann and JavelinWarrior about your pictures, but for me it’s the quality of the writing that stands out. I think you have an easy conversational style that’s funny and compelling, and offers something just a little bit different from all the other food blogs out there. I particularly enjoyed your last post about the silliest meal of your life (because I agree with you on every word), and the one on Chicken Tikka Masala (as an Indian who has lived in England for the past 5 years, it spoke to me on many levels). Anyhow, I’m just writing in to tell you that I really enjoy your posts, so thank you.

    • Will says:

      Greetings Becca. You are incredibly generous. I really do appreciate it, especially your observation that I’m somewhat different to many of the other food blogs. I try to be. Most importantly, I try not to avoid being smug or sanctimonious. May I add you to my email list so I can send you updates of new posts? In the meantime, notes like yours are just too kind.

      Best wishes,

      Will

  4. Love this Will!!! I whole heartedly approve of all of your Italian diatribe…you are right on! (Though the adjective “porky” is not such an enticer for me.)
    Your writing is brilliant and I love your photos. I need a lesson from you. What lens are you using? What light are you using at home?

    Anyway, I love it all. I need to try bottarga…can you believe I never have?!

    • Will says:

      Hi Elana, grazie mille for being so nice. Sorry about the word “porky”. It just came to me.

      In terms of equipment, all my photos are done in natural light next to a window in my apartment. If it is overcast and cloudy, so much the better because you get nice soft, diffused light. If the light is harsh and sunny, I tape some tracing vellum over the window to soften. Often I use a bit of white card to bounce some light back from the opposite side of the light source. Important to keep an eye on the white balance. All pretty low tech stuff.

      Camera is a Nikon D90; I shoot with either 50mm f1.4 or 35mm f1.8 prime. Although to be honest I could probably get about 85% of the results with a decent point-and-shoot. It’s so easy to get suckered into thinking that equipment is the most important thing, when actually it’s all about the light. Then I do a bit of post production in Adobe Lightroom. Next time you are in NYC happy to hang out and do a few shots!

      Ciao!

      Will

  5. Judith says:

    Many years ago in a small town in Italy, b.b.v. (before becoming vegetarian), I ate porchetta stuffed with wild herbs, garlic & onions. I have never forgotten the flavor, and if confronted in the future with another, I might forget my principles and stuff my mouth. It sounds like you had the same experience with guanciale. Food can make life even more pleasurable if one opens up to it. Your blog is totally delightful, full of humor and intelligence.

  6. Indrani says:

    Yum. Your writing and gorgeous photos, as usual, made me suddenly hungry.
    I’ve always been curious about bottarga (ever since reading about it in the River Cafe cookbooks when we lived on Rectory Road!) and I can’t believe I’ve never tried it still. Will remedy that shortly.
    I once cured my own guanciale at home (after begging the butchers at Savenors in Cambridge for the jowls during a butchery class) and it came out so intensely porky-tasting that I thought I’d done it wrong and that it had gone a bit off. Then I brought back a big chunk of guanciale from a nice salumeria in Rome (snuck it through customs!) and it was even funkier. So porky.

    • Will says:

      You cured your own guanciale? That is impressive. I wouldn’t have the nerve. Agreed on the porkiness factor. I’m not sure I’d want to eat it every day. But it is satisfying from time to time.

      As usual, thank you for reading!

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