New on the menu: Assunta’s polpette

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Polpette with tomato sauce, da Burrasca

By all family accounts, Paolo’s nonna Assunta was a formidable woman. Built with the bone matrix of a longshoreman or a linebacker, she was as tough as boiled beef and brooked no nonsense from either God, man or beast. She spent most of her life in the lean, hardscrabble existence of a contadina in Vicchio di Mugello until the family moved to their vine-strewn patch of earth in Florence.

She was bawdy in the way of die-hard country-bred Tuscans: every morning along with her caffè d’orzo she’d pop a raw clove of garlic into her mouth and chew forcefully, under the awestruck gaze of young Paolo and his siblings. To their little nose-wrinkles of disgust she’d laugh and say “Meglio puzzare d’aglio che di coglioni” [better to stink of garlic than of balls].

She had a farmer’s obsession with the land and a workaholic’s mania for industry; even in Florence and at an advanced age she was unflagging in her cultivation of the large orto and the tending of her flock of chickens and rabbits (over whose care and caprices she’d cuss lavishly). She was also the main cook in the nine-odd member family—and the bane of her daughter-in-law, Paolo’s mother—until an octogenarian stroke plunked her firmly into a wheelchair. Though still a force to be reckoned with, she was reduced to a state of clamorous resentment at her lot and wept bitter tears over the severing of her connection to mother earth. She was chucked out the door of this life kicking and screaming.

But for all her salt and crust, she was tender and artful at the stove: a culinary virtuoso deftly slinging the down-home classics of the Tuscan repertoire like some kind of hillbilly Puccini. Her pappa al pomodoro was sublime and is perhaps the dish for which Paolo loved her most (and which he recreates in the cart, in season), but a close second was her polpette: crisp, burnished croquettes with an earthy bass line of ground chicken and potato and a bright, delicate counterpoint of lemon zest and herbs.

In honor of dear, indomitable old Assunta—and because they’re just so flippin’ good—we’re now serving these delicious, surprisingly light beauties at the cart. Garlic clove optional.

 

Gnudi and other news

We’ve set off a sort of Spring molotov cocktail at the cart: ebulliently slinging a number of dishes to lighten the winter-encumbered spirit as well as the carb-weary waistline (well, kinda).

Naked ravioli

Gnudi (gnudo meaning nude) are little balls** of ravioli filling that are unashamed to be unadorned; they’re a naturalist primo rebelling against the chafe of fresh pasta, refusing to be swathed in anything but a light veil of sauce, a modest sprinkle of parmigiano. Ours are made as they typically are in Tuscany: with fresh spinach and ricotta, and we offer them with either a tangy tomato sauce or–for purists–a simple dressing of butter and sage. (In Tuscan trattorias, you’ll also often find them topped with meat ragù). Either way you go, our gnudi are vegetarian and you’ll find them as a daily special this season.

Oh, and because around here we geek out on food facts, here’s an interesting one for you: gnudi go back centuries; they actually pre-date pasta. As is typical of the origins of many Italian recipes, it’s a humble, poor-man’s dish born out of the contadino tradition: whatever seasonal, inexpensive vegetables were at hand got shaped into small rounds along with a bit of cheese or egg, and were topped sparingly with whatever sauce could be mustered out of the family larder.

Sformato: a taste of ancient Greece and Rome

Many folks approach the cart, read “sformato” on the menu and are stumped: “How sweet is it?” “Is it a dessert?”

Actually, the sformato has various linguistic guises: it’s called flan in France and Spain (this word is often used, perhaps confusingly, in Italy too, and thus it appears in our menu description), and pudding in English. Note that a sweet pudding is a budino in Italian. Technically, all of these can be classified as “pudding” in terms of their basic ingredients (see below), however the sformatoin reality, is pudding’s oldest form–and it is always savory (salato–i.e. NOT sweet).

It was the savory version (as a vehicle for life-giving eggs) that was deemed most salubrious by the health-conscious ancient Greeks and the predominant way they consumed their “pudding”. The ancient Romans, however, in their penchant for wanton excess, preferred to make theirs sweet, using eggs, cream, milk and honey in abundance–thus giving birth to the concept of dessert pudding (as well as, inadvertently, to Weight Watchers). All of these old versions of pudding have two common elements: eggs, and a cream of some sort to bind it up nicely. As the pudding plodded on down through antiquity, different countries gave it their own imprimatur, be it savory or sweet.

The word sformato in Italian means literally “un-molded”, and refers to the cooking preparation wherein small molds are filled with a mixture of seasonal vegetables, egg, béchamel and cheese, baked in a bagnomaria, and then turned out, or unmolded, onto a plate. The sformato is sometimes likened to a soufflée, but this is misleading as it is somewhat heavier and denser, while still remaining delicate and refined.

In winter we offered a lovely sformato of cauliflower, Italian kale, béchamel and parmigiano. Currently, in keeping with the season, we’re serving up a delicious artichoke version.

Quintessentially Spring

Paolo’s father has a gigantic orto (vegetable garden), and one of the things he grows–to the great satisfaction of the entire family–is bacelli (fava beans). When he was very young, our son would simply toddle out and eat them right off the vine, shucking them deftly and scattering the gaping pods about him till he had a small green mountain at his feet. In Tuscany, fava beans are traditionally eaten this time of year raw (because they’re so tender), along with a young, fresh pecorino cheese. For a simple family meal at home the washed pods are piled up in the center of the table along with a platter of cheese and a big basket of bread, and everyone shucks their own till the table–in the end–is a great chaos of thick green husks, bread crumbs, spilled red wine and crumpled napkins.

Alternatively, you can shell the beans, cube the pecorino, and toss them in olive oil and vinegar as a wonderful salad–fresh, vibrant, singing with flavor. This is how we’ve been serving pecorino e fave lately at the cart as a special.

Pecorino toscano & fava beans - photo Nico Galoppo

Pecorino toscano & fava beans – photo Wolf & Bear’s

 

Inzimino lovers, take heart!

We’ve been running the squidalicious inzimino as a (practically every) Friday special, so if you’ve a hankering just check us out on the Twitters or Facebook for updates.

As always, thank you for your support and appetites!

** We understand that the proximity of the words “nude” and “balls” is somewhat disconcerting. It couldn’t be helped.