The five of us recently spent 9 days in Rome. Highlights included gelato (as many as four times a day, some days); poking around the Forum trying to find artefacts; the energy of our neighbourhood, Monti, where on the first night we were bemused by the presence of a klezmer band marching up and down the street playing Hava Negelia, and the buzz continued from there; the Colosseum, both in the day and at night, when – as The Son wrote in his journal – “It is a marvel, lit up like a golden monument”; and the constant and abundant supply of good food and wine. The Author also had the opportunity to meet a couple of fellow writers, which is not an easy thing to do when you work from home and have a solitary craft. And I managed to cook for a morning at a restaurant in Eataly.
Leaving one kitchen in one country to go work in another kitchen in another country might not be everyone’s idea of a holiday, but that’s just the kind of gal I am. Anyway, it wasn’t intentional. On our first full day in Rome, we meandered out to Eataly (if you take meander to mean that we took the Metro, followed the signs, and then got thoroughly lost, even – or perhaps especially – after asking for directions in Italian and receiving them in Italian). By the time we found it, we were footsore, hot, and hungry, and at the entrance to the restaurant, neither The Author nor I were able to summon up the Italian words for “Table for 5.” When The Author said politely, “Non parlo Italiano,” the host gave us a beaming smile and in a classic Brooklyn accent said, “How’s your English then?”
Well, it’s pretty good, and as a matter of fact, so was his. It turns out that Andy Luotto, the owner and creative force behind La… Vicino al Pane is originally from Brooklyn, but he has spent most of his time since he was 14 in Italy. Before we ordered, Andy talked us through the menu and let us know that everything – from starters to desserts – contained bread in one form or another. Even the gnocchi was made, not with potatoes, but with breadcrumbs. Then after we had finished our meal, Andy sat down with us and chatted about life, food, and how to make the polpettone (meatloaf) that The Oldest had polished off and raved over. The Author and I had also enjoyed the meatloaf, but we were particularly taken with what is usually a simple peasant dish, focaccia with butter and anchovies. Andy told us it was so good because he makes the butter himself.
“You make your own butter?!” I exclaimed, mostly because I didn’t think anyone besides me would even consider doing that.
“Oh, yeah, we get the best cream, and that makes the best butter. How long are you here for? Come in some morning and I’ll show you.”
I warned Andy that I would, and he reiterated the offer. “I’ll put you to work cleaning vegetables,” he said. He may have thought that was a warning; I took it as an open invitation.
And that’s how I found myself, on a Thursday morning in Rome, working at a busy restaurant owned by (as I discovered) a famous chef. To be honest, I think Andy was a little surprised that I showed up, but I would never miss an opportunity to learn something new, especially in the kitchen. Alas, Andy didn’t need to make any more butter for that day, but he showed me his technique for presenting it, and then he got me stripping cime de rapa (broccoli rabe). I was told to keep only the leaves and the little broccoli heads and to throw out the stalks. Based on what i’d been eating in Italy up till then, I could see this was standard practice, but oh my goodness what a waste! The things I could make with the contents of Italy’s compost bin! (Actually, there was no composting as far as I could tell, which is certainly one way – maybe the only way – that Italy could up its game on the food front.)
The morning passed with Andy chatting away to me about his upcoming change of menu and the recipe development, and I undertook various menial kitchen tasks relegated to me by Giuseppe, the head chef. I didn’t mind the tasks themselves, but I couldn’t understand Giuseppe, who only spoke Italian, and so I had a first-hand glimpse of what it must be like for our foreign students at the College when I quickly rattle off some instructions. (I have to remember to speak slowly, demonstrate a few times what needs to be done, and then be patient!) I would occasionally ask Andy if I was doing something correctly, and his response (one I can definitely learn from) was along the lines of, “It’s all good — as long as you’re having fun!”
And I was. I did cut my thumb when i was cutting up some potatoes (part nervousness, part not understanding what was expected, part unfamiliar knife) and I felt like a dumb amateur. Andy was very kind about it and gave me a blue plaster (kitchens really are the same everywhere). I then helped mix and wrap up the famous polpettone, and Giuseppe showed me his tying technique to keep the whole thing together in the oven. Another chef, Paolo, whose English was quite good and who was in charge of the bread as far as I could make out, very kindly showed me some of the different breads that are used for different recipes, and he even showed me a spreadsheet of the different dishes and how well they sell. Andy gave me a taste of the amaro that a friend had made and given to him and that he is using to make caramelised bread crumbs for one of the new desserts. All in all, a pretty good morning.
My favourite part was when I asked Andy why he put bread in every item on the menu. He looked at me like I was an idiot and said, “That’s the theme of the restaurant!” (Vicino al pane means “near the bread.”) I realised I had to re-phrase my question to why is it the theme of the restaurant, and then this is what Andy told me:
When he first moved to Italy, he lived with his Italian dad, who was well-known in the film industry. Embarrassed by his non-Italian-speaking son, Andy’s dad wouldn’t let Andy eat with him when he was entertaining, which seemed to be often. So Andy would eat in the kitchen. After every meal, the cook Maria would brush all the breadcrumbs into her hand, and then she would kiss them. And then, maybe the next day, she would make something delicious from them.
It’s a simple story, but it means a lot. It certainly means a lot to Andy, who opened a restaurant with this in mind, and who dedicated one of his books to Maria. It also means a lot to me, because I feel that when you put so much into an ingredient (whether it’s making the bread, or growing the cime di rapa), if you throw any of it out, you are throwing out your time, and your energy, and your wealth.
Andy told me to stay as long as I was having fun, but as lunchtime approached, I knew the fun quotient would go down; working in an unfamiliar kitchen, plating unfamiliar dishes to order at a breakneck speed, in a language I can barely understand, is not my idea of fun. So I said my goodbyes and gave my thanks for a great experience.
A few days later it was time to head back to the UK. The Author was becoming more glum and more energetic as the hour approached; there was so much more to see, and we had to try to see it all! Michelangelo’s Moses in San Pietro in Vincoli, the Santa Maria Maggiore with the coffered ceiling gilded with gold that Columbus brought back from his travels, more of the Forum, a final sprint through some amazing perfumeries, some wistful glances at classic motorbikes. I, on the other hand, was looking at a different form of art, and trying to hold back the tears as I took some last photos of food. I am not exaggerating.
Our trip to Italy has left me energised and totally reinvigorated. As soon as I got home, I was ready to cook some of the things we had sampled, or that we had made at our AirBnB with the fabulous ingredients from the markets and nearby stores, including Eataly. The food in Italy is not expensive by UK standards, but unfortunately Italian food in the UK is. So our budget after our trip is less world-traveller, and more cucina povera. That’s okay, because I’m totally into that. And these stuffed onions bring together the best of both worlds.
inspired by Marcella Hazan, Yotam Ottolenghi, Andy Luotto, and Maria
Serves 6 as a main course, 8-10 as a side dish
Every time I serve this vegetarian dish, the kids think they are eating meat, and even The Author has to admit that, despite the lack of his favourite food group, they are really good and filling. The cheese and eggs help to bind the breadcrumbs and make the whole thing very sausage-like, but if you prefer a looser filling (or you want a vegan version) you could substitute chestnuts for the cheese and omit the eggs entirely. They would make a great vegetarian alternative to turkey for Thanksgiving. They would also, if you’re feeling fancy, make a stunning side dish as an alternative to the usual stuffing.
They are not particularly difficult or time-consuming to make, but if you wanted to get ahead of things, you could make these a day or two before you want them and keep in the fridge to cook alongside whatever else you’re serving.
Also, don’t worry about being too precise with the measurements. The key is to use what you have, and as Andy would say, to have fun!
- 3 large onions
- 1 celery rib
- 3 TB olive oil
- ¼ cup water or white wine
- 1 handful parsley, chopped
- small handful marjoram, chopped
- 25g grana padano cheese
- 200g taleggio, mozzarella or other soft, melting cheese
- 2 eggs
- 2-3 cups stale bread, cut or torn into small pieces (you could use the food processor for th
Peel the onions, cut in half from root to tip, and carefully – so they don’t rip – pull off the outer layers. These will be the “wrapping” for the stuffing, so you want to only keep the larger layers. When you get to the smaller, inner layers, stop peeling. You will be dicing these inner layers for use later, but you can set them aside for now.
Bring a large pot of water to the boil. Once it is boiling, add a handful of salt, and when it returns to a boil, add the large onion layers. You may need to do this in stages. When the onion layers are wilted, remove them with a slotted spoon to a colander, and then continue blanching the remaining layers.
While the onion layers are cooling, finely chop the remaining onion and the celery. Heat the olive oil in a medium sized frying pan, and when it is hot, add the celery and onion and some salt and pepper. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are wilted. Add the water or wine to the pan and, using a wooden spoon or spatula, scrape the bottom of the pan to get up the delicious, caramelised browned bits. Scrape the whole lot into a mixing bowl, and add the rest of the ingredients (except for the blanched onion layers). Mix well, and taste for seasoning.
Now stuff the onions. Hold a blanched onion layer in one hand and, using a tablespoon or just your fingers, add enough of the stuffing to create a nicely filled parcel that can still come together at the seam. Place these parcels seam-side down in an oiled or butter baking dish, packed fairly snugly. When they are all in, dot with butter, add a little white wine or oil to the bottom of the pan, and bake, covered loosely with a lid or foil, at 170C (350F) for about 20 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for another 10 minutes until the tops are lightly browned.