Cook Like an Italian Grandma With Frankies Spuntino Kitchen Companion

italian cooking frankies 457The Franks (Falcinelli and Castronovo) behind Frankies Spuntino 457 Court Street teamed up with Peter Meehan to create a traditional Italian cookbook that reads like your favorite piece of non-fiction feel-good. Even better, follow the Frank's instructions and you can create a drool-worthy meal that would make Nana proud.

I have a special place in my heart for the Brooklyn restaurant since my husband and I held our rehearsal dinner in their backyard. So when I cracked open the pages of this beautiful book, I relished re-creating my favorites from the menu.

I was able to make the sauce last through the gnocchi marina with fresh ricotta, braciola and even had some left over to freeze. The sweet potato crostini, however, was gone in one sitting. (You can buy your own pesto, or make the parsley pesto in the book. I did. It was easy, fresh, and delicious.)

This is how you too can make your own sauce (gravy, as some people call it), a fresh pasta dish, and appetizer for a hungry crowd.


Tomato Sauce

Escoffier codified the mother sauces of French cooking. In the Italian-American tradition, there is only one: tomato sauce. Call it marinara (we do), call it gravy (we don't), call it whatever your grandma called it. It's tomato sauce. There's almost nothing we won't cook in it or put it on.

The real deal-what we grew up with and the way we would do it if we had our choice (and didn't have so many vegetarian friends and customers) would be to make that sauce, then simmer up a batch of braciola or meatballs in it, and then use the resulting meat-infused product as our "tomato sauce" in all its myriad applications. And if you're not catering to vegetarians, we advise doing just that: make a triple batch of sauce, use it to simmer up braciola or meatballs (or any of the other dishes suggested on pages 134-39) and then use that tomato sauce, fresh or from the freezer, whenever tomato sauce is called for in these pages.

Use good Italian canned tomatoes and high quality olive oil when making this sauce, and take your time-there's no rushing it. When you're cooking the garlic, you want to very, very slowly convert the starches in it to sugars and then to caramelize those sugars. Slow and steady. (See the photos in the photo section for a visual clue.) Then get the tomatoes in and let them simmer. Not a ton happens over the four hours-no epic deepening of color or furious reduction-but it cooks as much water out of the tomatoes as possible without turning them into tomato paste.

Makes about 3 quarts

1 cup olive oil

13 cloves garlic

One 96-ounce can (or, if you can find it, 1-kg) or four 28-ounce cans Italian tomatoes

Large pinch of red pepper flakes

2 teaspoons fine sea salt

1. Combine the olive oil and garlic in a large deep saucepan and cook over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes, stirring or swirling occasionally, until the garlic is deeply colored-striations of deep brown running through golden cloves-and fragrant. If the garlic starts to smell acrid or sharp or is taking on color quickly, pull the pan off the stove and reduce the heat.

2. While the garlic is getting golden, deal with the tomatoes: Pour them into a bowl and crush them with your hands. We like to pull out the firmer stem end from each of the tomatoes as we crush them and discard those along with the basil leaves that are packed into the can.

3. When the garlic is just about done, add the red pepper flakes to the oil and cook them for 30 seconds or a minute, to infuse their flavor and spice into the oil. Dump in the tomatoes, add the salt, and stir well. Turn the heat up to medium, get the sauce simmering at a gentle pace, not aggressively, and simmer for 4 hours. Stir it from time to time. Mother it a little bit.

4. Check the sauce for salt at the end. The sauce can be cooked with meat at this point, or stored, covered, in the fridge for at least 4 days or frozen for up to a few months.

 Gnocchi Marinara With Fresh Ricotta 

This tomato-and-ricotta treatment is the classic. Mix it up by swapping the cavatelli for the gnocchi in this recipe and the gnocchi for the cavatelli in Cavatelli with Sausage & Browned Sage Butter on page 102. 

Serves 6

3 cups Tomato Sauce

Potato Gnocchi (page 98)

½ cup grated Pecorino Romano

1 cup fresh ricotta

1. Put a large pot of water on to boil and salt it well.

2. Warm the tomato sauce in a saucepan.

3. Cook the gnocchi in the boiling salted water, about 4 minutes. Drain well and portion them out among six serving bowls. Top each portion with ½ cup of the sauce and then with a couple of tablespoons of grated cheese and a large dollop of fresh ricotta. Serve immediately. 

Potato Gnocchi

When we were opening the Spuntino, we asked Falcinelli's grandma Anne Martucci for her gnocchi recipe. She made the best. She was happy to roughly sketch it out for us over the phone. We took that information into the kitchen and gave it a shot. The resulting gnocchi were okay-good, even-but not exactly like hers.

Falcinelli dialed her up for a follow-up consultation, and that's when she realized we were honestly intending to serve her gnocchi at our restaurant. After that, she made every effort to communicate all the nuances of how she made them-like looking for the crystals as a sign the potatoes were perfectly cooked and giving the dough a good kneading, something that is rarely done with gnocchi in our experience.

And then, especially in the early days of the restaurant, she followed up on those lessons with frequent visits to the Spuntino-and she didn't hold back when we missed the mark and the gnocchi sucked. This recipe, which we've made about ten thousand times since our gnocchi finally got Anne's seal of approval, should save you from getting into that kind of trouble.

Makes enough for 6 servings

1½ pounds baking potatoes (3 good-sized potatoes)

½ teaspoon fine sea salt

1 large egg

¼ cup grated Pecorino Romano

1½ cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for shaping and dusting the pasta

1. Peel, quarter, and rinse the potatoes. Put them in a pot, add water to cover them by at least an inch, sprinkle in a large pinch of salt, and bring to a boil. Cook the potatoes until a thin-bladed knife meets little resistance when poked into them. (Falcinelli likes to use what we call "the crystal method." He says the potatoes are perfect when you crack one open with your fingers and it looks like it's dotted with tiny crystals.) Transfer the potatoes to a colander to drain and cover them with a dish towel to help them retain heat as they dry out a little bit.

2. When the potatoes are cool enough to handle but still warm, pass them through a food mill or a ricer. (Lacking either, use a potato masher or a couple of forks with long tines to mash them, working them over evenly but not aggressively. You want crumbled potatoes, not potato paste.)

3. Combine the egg and cheese in the bowl of a stand mixer, add the potatoes and the flour, and work them together using the dough hook. Start slowly, then increase to medium speed. Knead the dough for 4 minutes, or until it comes together in a shaggy, integrated mass that clings to the hook.

4. Remove the dough from the mixer and knead it by hand on a floured surface for a couple of minutes to smooth it out. Cover it with a damp kitchen towel so it doesn't dry out as you work.

5. With floured hands (and with more flour close at hand, in case the dough gets sticky) grab a handball-sized piece of dough and roll it into a chubby cigar shape-thicker in the middle than at the ends. Then roll it into a snake ½ inch in diameter, working your palms from the middle out toward the ends. Cut the snake into gnocchi-sized pieces. (We use our thumbs to gauge how wide they should be.) Pinch each gnocchi and arrange on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper or a kitchen towel (to keep the pasta from sticking to the baking sheet). Repeat with the remaining dough. Use at once or hold the gnocchi in the refrigerator for a few hours.

6. To cook, drop the gnocchi into a large pot of boiling, well-salted water and cook for 2 minutes after the first few begin to float on top of the water. Drain, sauce, and serve.

Toasts for Crostini

Get a good, airy baguette or the Italian version known as a stirato and have a container of Parsley Pesto (page 48) ready.

1. Cut the baguette into ¾-inch-thick slices on the bias-an angle of  30 degrees or so-which maximizes the surface area of the sliced bread. Use a brush (or, failing that, the back of a spoon) to dress both sides of each slice with parsley pesto-enough to stain the bread green, but not enough to soak it. (If you want to complete as much of the crostini making process ahead of time as possible, you can paint the bread with pesto a few hours before grilling or griddling or toasting it to order.)

2. If you're equipped for it, toast the bread in a panini press (or that George Foreman grill that you bought during a late night in front of the television) until it's crisp-about 2 minutes. No panini press? No problem. Pop the bread into a toaster oven set at high heat for about 3 minutes, until toasted, crusty, and warmed through.

3. Top the toasts with any of the toppings on the following pages while the bread is still a little bit warm, and serve.

Sweet Potato

Enough for 6 to 8 crostini

1 sweet potato, roasted (see page 45)

Olive oil

Fine sea salt and freshly ground white pepper

Scoop the flesh out of the potato skin and mash it in a bowl, drizzling in enough olive oil to make the mash creamy and nearly loose-maybe 2 to 3 tablespoons per potato. Season the mash with salt and white pepper. When you serve, mound 1½ tablespoons mash on each toast and drizzle with olive oil.

The Frankies Spuntino Kitchen Companion & Cooking Manual ($16.47) -- Amazon

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