A crazy, pork-liver-filled, spur-of-the-moment dinner reminds a New York restaurateur of the value of cooking with restraint
Salvatore owned a little trattoria-style place in Foligno, Umbria, called il Baco Felice, and I loved it because of its simplicity and reliance on quality ingredients, many of them produced by Salvatore himself. In simple low-key places in Italy, that reverence for la materia prima (quality ingredients) is harder and harder to find. He has wound up working for a friend of his, an esteemed winemaker in Montefalco called Marco Caprai, cooking meals and teaching cooking classes at the winery. Recently they came to the U.S. to put on a series of wine dinners in New York and Chicago, and Salvatore insisted on coming and cooking with me at Porsena.
Salvatore's cooking was a reminder to me and a reaffirmation that sometimes what you don't put into a dish is as important as what you do.
As soon as he landed, he hightailed it over and decided he should make a lentil soup. Fortunately we had prized Umbrian Casteluccio lentils hanging around in the dry storage left over from New Year's Eve. He hustled into the kitchen and started chopping away at the vegetables (celery, onions, garlic) for the base of the soup. As he bustled about asking for things, I discovered my Spanish-speaking prep cook speaks pretty good Italian. I also discovered that while I speak great Italian and pretty good Spanish, I cannot speak the two simultaneously.
Salvatore is a character and very jolly. He kept up a running commentary on the world as he sees it as he cooked, chatting about leftist politics and what makes a good wine all at the same time. He decided that we should cook dinner together the following Sunday and that we should make sausages. I don't have a meat cutter or a sausage stuffer, I said. That's fine, he said, I can call this guy he met at Eataly and have him cut my meat for me. Problem solved.
I encouraged him to make fegatelli, my favorite dish, pig's liver wrapped in caul fat and seasoned with bay leaf and wild fennel pollen. He proposed chick pea soup with pasta and lentil and salt cod salad. Over the next few days, my chef Sebastian and I decided that this was actually the perfect opportunity to go buy ourselves a meat cutter and sausage stuffer, and we ran around gathering equipment and ingredients in preparation for the big night. Salvatore popped in and out, coming for dinner when he could, praising me for things he thinks I do right and chastising me for the things he thinks I could do better. He said my spaghetti vongole needed a big splash of color from some red chili pepper, which made Sebastian laugh, as he and I had argued about this very issue in the beginning. I'd wanted to use tiny dried hot Sicilian chilies for the flavor, but Sebastian thought the jarred Calabrese were better and prettier.
Salvatore thought the lamb sausage pasta was great, but the greens, he wondered, shouldn't they be cooked more? Italians like their vegetables really cooked and it's one of those things I forget because I actually have never been able to decide what I prefer. For me its one of those things that really sets Italian and French food apart—the degree of doneness on the vegetables.