The Italian-American Renaissance
Chef Mario Batali is New York's pope of italian gastronomy. He likes a strong Espresso with a drop of grappa or sambuca when he is in a romantic mood, and is putting the zing back into this cuisine which had gone off the boil, showing off its values of simple gourmet pleasure.
AMONG THE FADED SANDWICH AND SNACK BARS IN JOHN F. KENNEDY INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, THERE IS A SMALL STALL SELLING PANINI AND GELATI AT THE END OF TERMINAL 1, WHERE ALITALIA PASSENGERS FROM NEW YORK BOARD. This mockery of Italian cusine is as unimpressive as their internationally bland neighbours, but the absence of a sashimi bar by the usual Japan Airlines gate, or a croque monsieur vending machine for Air France, makes their presence in the international zone of an American airport remarkable all the same. Remember that New York has good reason to feel indebted to its Italian visitors. In addition to the immeasurable contribution they have made over more than a century from a demographic, economic and artistic standpoint, New York owes its gastronomic culture to this European civilisation... From a culinary point of view, “Nuova York” is more than just a hub for Italian culture, like São Paulo, Buenos Aires and Sydney have become. It is a little piece of Italy that has successfully launched a new life in the New World and waves across the pond at its European ancestors with an air of independence.
The American chef Mario Batali, born in Seattle, on the other side of the United States (he admits that he only discovered New York on his way to Brazil, a destination he never reached), is the Michelin-starred figurehead of this New York Italian cuisine. Del Posto is the only Italian restaurant in New York City with a Michelin star (with the notable exception of the seafood restaurant Marea), the French guide being markedly more open to cooks from its country of origin. This is his most ambitious restaurant, cited by the New York Times as one of the six best in the city. As for the man himself, most local critics agree that he has the stature of a living legend. His enormous company includes twenty restaurants that stretch far beyond the borders of New York and Westport, that urbane Manhattan colony in New England: it is drawing in the crowds in Las Vegas, Los Angeles and as far as Singapore. The impression he gives of being everywhere, which is magnified by his insatiable writing, charity and television work (including the extremely combative series “Iron Chef”), makes him a culinary variety of those heroes who started out with nothing, like Ralph Lauren, Walt Disney or the rapper Puff Daddy. Mario Batali is a chef with Italian and French Canadian roots, who began a classic but nonetheless dazzling career with some of the big luxury hotel groups (several of the Four Seasons on the West Coast), before suddenly dropping everything for a sort of pilgrimage to Italy. He stayed there three years to reflect on traditional cooking in a family trattoria eating establishment in the hamlet of Borgo Capanne, with a population of two hundred people, halfway between Bologna and Florence. It was only after returning from this distant retreat that he developed into the media personality, Mario Batali, whose orange Crocs have become as famous as Lenny Kravitz’s black glasses or Madonna’s tiny underwear.
Modern gastronomy could be accused of focusing too much on performance. Some chefs make it into a way of drawing attention to their talent, to demonstrate the sophistication of their work, or they turn it into a sort of acrobatic display. Mario Batali is happy focusing on producing gourmet food. “I stick to tuning in to the huge gourmet repertoire that Italy has invented through its long history.” So he explores the various manifestations of this considerably rich theme: he has a pizzeria, Roman-style trattoria, mozzarella bar, steakhouse, seafood establishment, wine bar, gourmet restaurant and another traditional eatery (Babbo, which serves the best macaroni and cheese in New York, according to Didier Elena, Alain Ducasse’s Executive Chef at the St. Regis Hotel). Batali has an almost pedagogical approach: he honours American taste for its clear concepts and loyalty to itself, but draws out the numerous sub-genres of Italian classicism. He turns each of them into a noble art and gives them a renaissance after a long and inactive period during which they endured the small-minded, mediocre and eccentric image of Little Italy, while a sincere and profoundly original version of Italian cuisine was budding outside Manhattan, from Staten Island to San Francisco. To get a feel for this great-tasting trend, head to Dominick’s in the Italian Bronx one Sunday lunchtime. Your waiter will recommend you a sumptuous artichoke with chicken broth stuffed with panada, eggs and bacon. Outside, in the warm but wild micro-climate of Arthur Avenue, the Appian Way of this little Italian empire, chocolate cannelloni sit behind a shop window on the opposite pavement.
When asked about the difference between Italian and New York Italian cuisine, Mario Batali says that, “each of them have the same passion for ingredients and simplicity. Italy has a huge range of regional expressions that no city of any size could contain. But New York is still the best place in the United States for eating Italian. To paraphrase the food columnist Arthur Schwartz: in the same way that cooks in the region of Apulia celebrate their local agriculture, Italian cuisine in New York combines ingredients from the Hudson Valley and the north-eastern United States with as little processing as possible.” To him, there is little point in invention when it comes to cooking. Being a chef involves relying on your pallet and arousing it with an unusual piece of meat, or a surprising vegetable. But that is less about new ideas than new resources. It is in this vein that Mario Batali recently opened Eataly on Broadway, a genuine temple to Italian food. With its columns of parmesan in the shape of ancient ruins, a rotisserie with the bodywork of a cabriolet, pizzas so large they would threaten the unflappable Naples, trimmings as fine as cigarette paper, or its mozzarella workshop that has been devotedly set in a niche of Carrara marble, you feel like you are somewhere between a luxury shop, a World’s Fair pavilion and a theme park. Mario sees it differently: “This is the American dream, Italian-style.”
SERVES 6 – PREPARATION TIME: 30 min – COOKING TIME:14 min
Prepare the filling: soften 1 chopped onion in 60 g (2 oz) butter. Once browned, add 170 g (6 oz) of chicken breast diced into 5 cm cubes and 110 g (4 oz) of Italian sausage meat. Cook for 10 min. Leave to cool and finely blend the mixture together. Stir in 55 g (2 oz) ricotta cheese, 30 g (1 oz) fontina cheese, 3 tablespoons of fresh goat’s cheese, 2 tablespoons of marjoram, 2 tablespoons of chopped parsley, ¼ tablespoon of grated nutmeg. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
The filling is ready. Prepare 625 g (22 oz) of fresh pasta dough, and roll it out in four batches using the finest setting on your pasta machine, then form 5 cm wide strips. Distribute teaspoonfuls of filling every 3 cm along half the strip, then fold the other half over and press down to remove air bubbles. Cut an agnolotti using a round grooved cutter and place each of them on a baking tray dusted with flour. Bring 6 litres of salted water to a boil and drop the agnolotti gently in. Simmer for 3-4 min. Simultaneously melt 60 g (2 oz) unsalted butter. Season with salt and pepper. Drain and pour the agnolotti into a large warm dish. Add the butter, grate a large black truffle on top, give one final twist of the pepper mill and serve.
SERVES 6 – PREPARATION TIME: 20 min RESTING TIME: 2 hrs 10 – COOKING TIME: 4-5 min
Mix 7 g ((¼ oz) of dried yeast, 2 pinches of sugar and 300 ml (10½ fl oz) of warm water. Leave to rest for 10 min then knead this mixture in a food processor with 500 g (17½ oz) flour, 2 pinches of salt, 60 ml (2 fl oz) olive oil until you get a consistent elastic ball. Finish by hand until the dough is sticky. Put it in a mixing bowl under a cloth and leave to rise 2 hours until it has doubled in volume. Preheat the oven to maximum temperature. Divide the dough into two pieces, roll them out on greased oven sheets, brush with tomato sauce and add cubes of mozzarella. Season with salt and sprinkle with oil. Cook 4-5 min, sprinkle basil and serve.
SUMMER CAPRESE SALAD
SERVES 6 – PREPARATION TIME: 15 min
Cut 300 g (10½ oz) of mozzarella into 1 cm thick slices and keep the whey to one side. Put them in a dish. Scoop out 1.5 kg (3 lb 5 oz) of cherry tomatoes (or any other original variety) and cut them up. Put aside the juice, and place them on the mozzarella slices. Mix 2 tablespoons of champagne vinegar and 6 tablespoons of olive oil, the whey, the tomato juice, salt and pepper. Pour into a dish and add 40 g (1½ oz) of chopped basil and serve.
BATALI IN 7 DATES
1960 - Born in Seattle, the US city furthest from New York.
1982 - Works as a pizza chef while studying drama.
1985 - Becomes a sous-chef in San Francisco, then head chef at the Four Seasons Biltmore luxury hotel in Santa Barbara.
1989 - Resigns and retreats to an Italian hamlet with a population of two hundred, where he studies traditional Italian cooking for three years.
1993 - Opens Po in New York, his first restaurant, which he sells five years later to set up Babbo, capital of his future restaurant empire.
1996 - First broadcast of his programme “Molto Mario” on the Food Network channel.
2010 - Opening of his twentieth restaurant in Singapore, followed by the Eataly megastore in New York.
Production: Sandrine Giacobetti - Text : Julien Bouré - Photos : Jean-Claude Amiel