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.

Arista and the best sandwich this side of the Arno

In a town like Portland filled with excellent sandwich slingers, to crown any one as the best is a fool’s game, a folly of personal opinion and pure zeitgeist between two pieces of bread. But we like to think we’ve got a serious contender.

Legend has it that back in 1439*, Cosimo de’ Medici convinced Pope Eugenio IV to shift the Greek and Roman Catholic ecumenical council from plague-ridden Ferrara to Florence and allow the Medici bank to host the guests. While in Florence, the Greek cardinal Basilios Bessarion tasted some Tuscan-style roast pork that really tickled his cassock: he promptly declared it aristos!, using the Greek word for “the best.” Apparently the Florentines thought he was using a name for that particular cut of pork; they found it simpatico and adopted the moniker themselves–and thus the word arista strolled amiably into the Tuscan lexicon. However, I’d wager that there was also a certain appeal in the idea that the Florentine way of cooking pork trumped all others.

For our arista sandwich, we use Carlton Farms pork loin which is encrusted with herbs (including foraged fennel pollen) and roasted. The bread is homemade schiacciata (Florentine-style flat bread–think flatter foccaccia), liberally slathered with an incredibly zesty and tangy salsa verde (a heavenly concoction of parsley, garlic, capers, egg and anchovies), drizzled with sughino–the pork’s pan juices–and cracked black pepper, and topped with fresh watercress. It just might make you bust out the superlatives in Greek, too.

*The charm of legend notwithstanding, evidence of the use of the word arista in Tuscany goes back to even 1287.

April fish: a story

 

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Holy mackerel

Some years back, I (Burrasca wife Elizabeth) was working at the bookstore in Florence, when a package arrived. Thinking it to be books, I opened it and was puzzled to find a heavy, terra cotta-colored brick wrapped shoddily in bubble wrap.

The (Italian) owner walked up, saw the brick, and went ash white. “What? What’s the matter?” I asked. He told me in grave, measured tones that sending a brick is mafia code–meaning, specifically, that if a business owner doesn’t cough up the pizzo (extortion money) he’ll likely find a brick or two through his plate-glass windows in the near future.

Holy sh**, well zero-to-thirty the place revved into panic mode. Before long, the quiet little book shop was swarming with carabinieri (including a swaggering, slim jeans-wearing Commandante who looked like a sexy Latin version of Kojak, only with way-cool facial hair), phones were ringing like church bells on Sunday and I was giving a deposition as to the delivery guy’s description and what was said, etc. I pondered the prospect of continuing to work in a place that might wind up a charred pile of bomb-blasted rubble–a little monument to the far-reaching tentacles of the Camorra or ‘Ndrangeta.

By the way, the date was April 1.

Only a few hours later did we find out that one of the courier company’s employees took it upon himself to play a little prank on us all. In Italy, there isn’t such a thing as an April “Fool”–rather, there’s an April “Fish” (pesce d’aprile).

Or in this instance, an April Asshat.

Le novità: new on the menu & such

Cari amici, head on over to the menu page to see what Paolo’s been up to at the cart! Inzimino fans: don’t fret, even though we’ve phased it out for the moment, it’ll make a cameo appearance from time to time :-) And be on the lookout for pasta specials and other goodies. (Apropos of this, if you haven’t already, do follow us on Facebook and/or Twitter in order to keep up with the shenanigans).

Ciao – a presto!

 

The Burrasca year in review

Because you can’t possibly have gotten enough of them, we too are jumping on the year-end wrap-up hurdy-gurdy and offering up a summation of 2013 – or, as we like to think of it, the Year of Lunatic Change – to appease the demanding New Years’ Eve Gods. Here goes.

The event of greatest moment was of course the big move from Italy to the States. 2013 was the year in which we quit our jobs, sold our house and (many of our) belongings and hightailed it out of Florence, only to land happily in Portland, OR.

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All our crap arrives in PDX

It was also the Year of Fiendish Bureaucracy (if you’re uncomfortably familiar with life in Italy you’ll understand that this is not hyperbole): we survived, just barely, all the paperwork entailed in selling a house in the Bel Paese, paying taxes, and officially divesting ourselves of Italian residency, securing Paolo’s immigrant visa, and starting a business in the U.S., etc. etc.

2013 saw us logging some travel miles: Paolo’s wooing of U.S. Immigration officials required two trips to incredible Naples (read: food orgy), proving that every bureaucratic cloud has a savory lining. We also journeyed to our beloved Val Gardena in the Dolomites for some much-needed R & R and canederli before crossing an ocean to open a food cart.

It was also the year we got robbed. That sucked.

And it was the year we opened Burrasca, the little yellow cart that could.

Tutto sommato, 2013 was a pretty voracious year in terms of our energy and patience, but an exciting one nonetheless. Looking forward to what 2014 has in store – here’s to new horizons, new friendships and a tall-timbered city full of good cheer and wonderful things to eat and discover!

Peposo: the dish that built Brunelleschi’s Dome

While history would have us believe that behind every great man there stands a woman, I’d argue similarly that behind every great monument there is a food.

The laborers who built the pyramids were fueled by the flesh of some twenty-odd cattle and two dozen sheep and goats a day. The bellies of the motley international crew working on the Taj Mahal were stoked on rich meat curries and roti. And the cornerstones of the great cathedrals of Europe were heaved into place by the brute kilocalorie force of hefty animal rations and bread and rivers of ale and wine, more than any religious zeal or act of papal ego.

And that crowning glory of Florence’s own magnificent cathedral, Brunelleschi’s dome–the astonishing lid atop the great Renaissance treasure-chest–has a similar protein-centric backbone: the peposo alla fornacina dell’Impruneta. Our story begins….

cottourns

Once upon a time, in Impruneta–that rolled-up-sleeve sort of town that insinuates itself into the vineyard-strewn hills just south of the Tuscan capital and which, since at least 1098, is famous for its rich clay soil and the terracotta it produces–a group of rough-hewn, bestubbled laborers in the brick furnaces were hard at it, hunger licking at their insides like flames, and, as Italians throughout history are wont to do, discussing their options for lunch.

{Though our protagonists may be medieval men, you can bet that the Tuscan they were talking differed little from that of today. Get a group of contemporary toscanacci together and you’ll hear much the same speech: those aspirated, throaty c’s that sound like a bellows in the hands of an over-enthusiastic chambermaid; the muscular cadences and roughly chopped syntax, spiced up with good-natured ribaldry and liberally seasoned with blasphemous-yet-benign oaths and abundant raucous laughter}

Eventually, the foreman–a pragmatic, no-nonsense sort of fellow in charge of loading the hot kilns that spit forth their bounty of red tiles, bricks and orci (earthenware pots)–wipes the sweat from his brow with an oily rag and calls over an errand boy. Handing the lad a few coins, he says “Fetch some beef. The cheapest you can find.” Cattle–particularly the ancient, revered race known as Chianina–being plentiful in Tuscany, this was an easy enough task. And while the nobler cuts were earmarked for those with plenty of florins in their pouches, the poor-man’s cuts, such as muscolo, were within a laborer’s reach.

The boy presently returned with a good quantity of meat. It had been abundantly seasoned with pepper so it would keep, and the foreman added even more (thus the name peposo, deriving from pepe [pepper], meaning a peppery dish). He cut it into small chunks with a crude pocketknife and threw it into a large terracotta pot. Knowing the sinewy beef would need to cook at length in order to soften into something less resembling hide and more forgiving to medieval dental work, he grabbed a full flask of the ubiquitous red wine–Impruneta being in Chianti country, after all–and up-ended its entire contents into the pot. He then placed the pot just inside the maw of the roaring furnace, where the heat was mellower, and left it there to slow-cook for hours.

Later, when the scent of the simmering meat had become almost too much to bear with any pretense of fortitude, and fatigue made them stoop like willows, the men dragged the pot from the kiln’s mouth like an unwilling molar and hunkered down around it, reaching in with great chunks of bread and scooping the meat up into their mouths. That heretofore tough cut of cow now yielded to their hunger like an impatient virgin; it was butter-soft, and dripping with a velvety, wine-dark sauce which their rustic bread soaked up like perfect absolution. They washed it down with still more wine, clapped the foreman on the back, and were satisfied. And from this auspicious beginning the humble peposo of Impruneta was to go on to achieve something very grand, indeed….

Brunelleschi’s dilemma

In 1420, when scaffolding enshrouded the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence and the great cupola was under construction, the workers–perhaps understandably–tended to blow off the steam that comes from sweating over such a colossus of engineering by climbing down to take their meals and disappearing for what was, to Brunelleschi, a rather alarming amount of time into the rough-and-tumble osterie hidden in the sinuous alleys nearby. They would come back thoroughly soused, mount the scaffolding unsteadily, sing bawdily, and recommence their work with visibly diminished dexterity. The brilliant architect hit upon a solution. Since the four million-odd terracotta bricks used in the dome’s construction were being fired round-the-clock and brought in daily from the kilns at Impruneta, he ordered a continuous supply of generous potfus of peposo and had them delivered with the brick shipments and hoisted up onto the scaffolds, along with countless loaves of bread and a carefully rationed (and watered down) quantity of vino. The men thus lunched under their boss’s watchful eye, high above the teeming city, leaving Florence’s taverns to the riffraff.

And so it was that the rich red earth of Impruneta helped nourish Brunelleschi’s vision, just as the peposo–born of Impruneta’s kilns–nourished the men who would help him realize it.

–by Elizabeth Petrosian

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Burrasca’s peposo

Our peposo is served as it often is these days in Tuscany: with polenta. It’s a wonderfully warming dish, perfect for winter. Come see us and taste for yourself the savory foundation upon which the Duomo was built–there’s no telling what fabulous things you will accomplish with a bellyful of the stuff!

Backstory: inzimino

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The origin of the word zimino (in + zimino signifying “in ‘zimino’ sauce”), as with that of so many foods, lies somewhere far back in the dusty recesses of history. Under murky layers that evoke the not-so-far-away Arab world, the exotic scent of cumin (cimino in outmoded parlance), or even the unleavened (azzimo) bread of the Jews–the word’s etymology has been the subject of some debate. The most general consensus is that the word is of Arabic origin: samin or zamin, which means fat, fleshy and seems linked to the concept of a fatty or rich condiment or sauce. Moreover, the traditional liberal use of spinach in this dish would also seem to point east, to Persia: wherein lies the august ancestry of this inky-green vegetable.

Though the precise etymology may evade our grasp, we know that the recipe is very old, traces of which go back at least as far as 1300. It was a classic piatto povero, or poor-man’s dish, making up for its lack of silk-purse ingredients by beefing up with vegetables and bread. Originally, the dish was strewn with bits of salted, dried fish such as baccalà (Florence being land-locked, after all)–a cheap ingredient that packed a flavor punch and stretched to help fill many bellies at a time. It is believed that the strong flavor of the fish demanded an equally muscular, spicy sauce in order to achieve the proper balance–clearly something even the most impoverished medieval Florentine was unwilling to forego. And so, with characteristic Italian ingenuity, a rich, zesty sauce was born–for which the Arab word zamin was most likely adopted and italianized over time.

Other versions in other regions have since evolved: in Liguria, Sardinia and even Corsica, some with chick peas instead of calamari (or totani or seppie), or swiss chard instead of spinach, and they are all worthy of our praise. But the classic, über-Florentine recipe remains that of squid simmered at length in a rich stew (or umido) of spinach, tomato and red wine, to be accompanied by garlic-rubbed toasted bread and–hopefully, ideally–shared in good company. It’s a bold, inky dish–as wine-dark as Homer’s Aegean–lusty and redolent of both earth and sea. It’s exactly the kind of thing a famished, humble laborer in the age of Petrarch would tuck into, and feel a richer man for having eaten it.

–by Elizabeth Petrosian

Come and try our version of this Florentine classic–ti aspettiamo!

Comfort

When we lived in Florence and the cold, impossibly damp, wintry weather made our bones rattle, and we layered on sweaters in order to cut down on the exorbitant cost of heating our old stone-walled (small) house, Paolo would make meatloaf for dinner. He would season and combine the ingredients and form a shapely round loaf, and whip up a bright tomatoey sauce that had at its base a flavor-packed soffritto. The charming little loaf cooked in its zesty bath of sauce and meanwhile, Paolo would see to it that the equally-important potatoes were on a slow fire: these lovelies always filled our kitchen with the ambrosial scents of fresh rosemary, sage and marjoram (snipped from our garden minutes before), and would send shock-waves of sudden hunger throughout the house. Our kids would emerge from their lair and I would surface from that deeply-buried place called freelancing-from-home and we would gather in the small, oven-warmed, perfumed kitchen and feign to chat when all we really wanted was to hurry to the table, already set in happy anticipation, perhaps a candle lit because a mundane weeknight dinner suddenly felt festive, special.

And we would eat up the food, every last bit of it, and mop up the sauce with little chunks of bread, and warm ourselves in the good, soft glow of conversation and togetherness.

–by Elizabeth Petrosian

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So here it is: Polpettone con Patate alla Contadina–Tuscan meatloaf with country-style potatoes–served with Paolo’s cart-made bread, $8. We hope you’ll come ’round and give it a try, and we hope you’ll enjoy it as much as we do in famiglia!