Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Torn between two pizzas

My friend Tom, the aspiring pizzaiolo whom you met last week, seizes every chance to try and browbeat me into making a pie. "Enough with the pastas already," he harangues, implying that pasta making is, at best, a dubious skill. "You love pizza. You should make pizza. What's wrong with you?"

I told you he was a pain in the ass, didn't I?

In the couple decades I have known him, though, not once had his bullying proved successful. Until now.

Last week, after an item entitled "Roman-style pizza farce" appeared on this blog, an item where I may have mildly criticized his pizza-making abilities, my vowel-deprived compatriot managed to whip himself into an uncontrollable frenzy. Like a good man suddenly possessed (think Father Damien in "The Exorcist" except not as cute), Tom decided that he simply would not rest until I attempted to reproduce a pie he'd made, so as to see if I might make it as well. 

He emailed to me his demands, commented upon them on this blog, Skyped me incessantly to argue his case fully (and freely); the cheap bastard even picked up the phone one afternoon just to insist — insist I tell you — that I walk a mile in his King Arthur-dusted kitchen clogs before so recklessly stomping on them again.

I worry about my friend. And believe he isn't well. His blood pressure is not so good and so he must be medicated. Did I mention that he drinks? Probably shouldn't have. Forget I said anything, okay.

And so, after consulting, on Tom's behalf of course, an eminent mental health specialist in Vienna (or maybe it was Moonachie?), I decided to do the responsible thing and to make a freaking pizza, so that my dear, afflicted friend could just finally calm down. 

Here's how it started, a dough made with "00" and all purpose flour, adapted from a recipe provided by none other than my nemesis (thanks, nemesis). I'm not sure about this, but methinks it did not rise quite enough, as the dough turned out to be a bit dense. (That, or Tom is one very fine saboteur masquerading as an innocent bearer of alleged-to-be-simple pizza dough recipes.)

Into a baking pan (per Tom's Roman-inspired method) and topped with a quick fresh tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella (that's a type of cheese, Tommy).

Fifteen or so minutes in the oven at 550, and there you go.

The "upskirt" shot: Considering that this was my first completely solo attempt at pizza-making, I would argue that it turned out pretty well. It tasted good. But the crust didn't char properly, and the dough, as I said, was more dense than it ought to be.

An associate (one with strong ties to Tom, I might add) offered a less encouraging assessment: "It's definitely not the worst I've had."

Oh, joy!

There was enough dough to attempt a do-over, but instead I went in another direction. Just garlic, fresh rosemary, fresh mozzarella and olive oil.

Tasted even better than the first one, but, alas, the dough was of the same (defective) lineage.

You may commence with the brutal criticism now, Tommy. Just watch your blood pressure, okay. 

And don't call me. Please!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Roman-style pizza farce

True friends stab you in the front.
—Oscar Wilde

If you're one of those people who reads the "Comments" on blogs (I am) and who does much reading of this particular blog (I hope you do), then you may already be familiar with my friend Tom. He's the pain-in-the-ass who, commenting under a variety of different names, often will go out of his way to make me look bad.

He has accused me of recklessly devouring endangered species (not true), rigging taste tests to advance my personal favorites (also a filthy lie), championing food items he deems putrid and disgusting (sfogliatelle, for instance). Hell, he's even talked trash about my Sainted Mother — and she's not even alive to give him a good smack and tell him to "shuttup already!"

He's a bad one, this Tom. The capo di tutti curmudgeon. It's a wonder he has any friends at all.

And yet, ruthless as he may be, the man makes some very fine pizza. Often he makes his very fine pizza for me.

A couple of days ago I got an email from Tom. In the subject line were two words he knew would be intriguing to me: "Roman-style."

Turns out that Tom had been sampling the pizza al taglio (by the slice) at the recently opened Campo de' Fiori in Brooklyn, where he lives, and found himself inspired to bake his own square Roman-style pie. (He was no doubt aided in this endeavor by his trusted companion, the lovely Beth, a fine baker of all things, though he did not choose to mention this.) Knowing my fondness for pizza and for Rome, where they buy their pizza by weight, not by slice, he decided to photo-document the event and then forward the pics to me.

But there are risks in releasing such documents — made more perilous when you release them to the man you have poked at and prodded for months, sometimes viciously and always in a public forum.

With age, I have learned, wisdom does not always come.

And so here I give you my friend Tom's version of "Roman-style" pizza — only this time I get to comment on his work. Feel free to join in. He's a big boy, and can (probably) take it.

TOM (via the aforementioned email) Forget wet doughs. I actually kneaded this with my own two paws. Part whole wheat, too.
MM Whole wheat! Are you serious? Geez, Tommy, why not slip into your organic-cotton overalls and swing by the food co-op for a reusable shopping bagful of acai berries! Grow a pair, would you, and make a real pizza dough.

TOM Docked the dough so it wouldn't puff up too much in this beat-up and brown cookie sheet.
MM My, my, what a cute little plastic toy you have there, Tommy. Can I borrow it to spell out funny words in the sand? Maybe next time you can use it to make a Sonny Corleone-at-the-toll-plaza cookie. (You punch the bullet holes into Sonny with the toy, get it? I didn't think so. Hey, Beth, how do you live with this clown? Has he even seen "The Godfather?")

TOM Tomato sauce is standard but the cheese is asiago, havarti and Argentinean parm.
MM I don't know why I should expect better from a man with only one vowel in his name. (Actually, only one vowel in each of his three names.) Looks like Ragu to me, Tom. And you have heard of mozzarella? I've never eaten a pizza in Rome with those cheeses on it. (Back me up here, Joe.) You oughta be ashamed.

TOM Only took 12 minutes to bake at 550.
MM Big freaking deal. One time I ate two sacks of White Castles in less time than that. I don't get your point.

TOM Plenty of olive oil in the pan virtually fried the crust crispy and not too bready. Just right.
MM I'd give you props for presented this pizza in a manner that is similar to the way many Romans eat it (two slices joined cheese side to cheese side) but my bet is that you don't know what I'm talking about. As for the pizza, well, Roscioli it ain't. But... Well, alright, it looks pretty good. Fine, it looks better than pretty good. Happy now?

MM Next time you're up the house I expect you to make me a couple of these pies, Tommy. Only let me give you some of my sauce, okay. And the flour. And cheese.

I've got way more vowels than you have. And they count for something.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Googootz: Part II

Where were we?

Right. Time to cook the cucuzza.

As I explained when last we met, use a cucuzza (Hell, we're all friends here, you can just call it "googootz.") as you would a squash.

First thing you should know is that the skin can be quite hard and so it must always be peeled, never eaten. Sounds easy, but it isn't always. If you're lucky to score a soft-skinned googootz a peeler should do the trick, but often as not it will require a sturdy knife. I'd suggest cutting the cucuzza into six- or eight-inch sections and then peeling away the skin. Safer that way.

The soft core on the inside, the part with the seeds, must also be removed. After which you can go ahead and slice, dice, shred, whatever you like.

Hey, do what you want, it's your googootz!

In the past week I've made four different dishes: an appetizer, a pasta course, a main and even a dessert.

Fried cucuzza sticks I have to say, these were really terrific. All's I did was roll some pieces in cornmeal seasoned with salt and pepper and fry them in olive oil until crisp. The crunchy outside was a perfect match for the cucuzza, which, now that I think of it, has a kind of creamy texture when it's cooked.

Strozzapretti alla cucuzza Here we have the obligatory red sauce, only with the one addition. It's how a lot of my people prepare their googootz. And it's good. One thing, though: Unless you want the cucuzza turning to mush, I'd suggest adding it after the sauce has finished cooking, then simmering for just another few minutes.

Giambotta This is an Italian vegetable stew, but when my family makes giambotta with googootz we always add chicken, which I guess makes it a chicken stew. This is a special kind of dish; summers just wouldn't be the same without at least one giambotta. I've got my recipe below. It's worth trying, at least once.

Cucuzza ricotta cheesecake I'm not a baker. And don't know what possessed me. All I'll say is that, despite my best efforts to screw it up, this cake turned out really good. Good enough that I've included the recipe below. Be warned: I don't know what the hell I'm doing here, so proceed with caution — and change whatever you want. Please.

Googootz & eggs Hey, I was looking for an easy lunch and this did the trick. You got a better idea?

Makes 4 servings
1 googootz (peeled, cored and diced into 2-inch pieces)
1 red onion
1 carrot
8-10 garlic cloves (fine, use less, see if I care)
Piece of pancetta (or bacon or proscuitto), diced
Olive oil
Fresh rosemary and oregano
Hot pepper to taste
2 or so cups white or blush wine
4 chicken thighs

Saute the onions, garlic, carrots, pancetta, hot pepper and herbs in olive oil until tender. Add the chicken thighs (skin down), season with salt and black pepper and simmer at medium heat for 15 minutes.
Add the wine (use more if it doesn't cover the thighs) and simmer for 45 minutes.
Remove thighs. When cool, remove skin, pull the meat from the bones and return meat to the pot. Add googootz slices and simmer for 15 minutes.
Let it all cool down, then toss it in the fridge overnight and have something else for dinner.
Giambotta is always better the next day.

Cucuzza ricotta cheesecake
1 googootz (peeled, cored, roasted until most of its moisture has evaporated, then finely diced or run through a food processor)
1 lb ricotta
3 eggs
1/4 cup diced citron
1/4 cup unsalted pistachios
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup flour

Mix everything together in a bowl, then pour into a 10-inch baking pan.
Cook at 400 degrees F for 30 minutes.
Refrigerate after it cools and eat it cold.
For some reason, I don't know why, it's better this way.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Googootz

Calm down, it's just a squash.

My people call it "googootz." So do I.

Louis Prima sang about it. Old-time Italian-Americans, if they are very fond of you, might refer to you as it. ("Hey, googootz! Siddown, have a glass of wine with me!")

It is, in fact, a cucuzza, technically a gourd but used as a squash.

Size? Big. I've seen six footers.

Origin? Said to be southern Italy.

Due to its, er, shape, it is sometimes referred to as the "Serpent of Sicily."

Yes, of course it is.

Anyway, simple as they are to grow, I have never had much luck growing googootz here in Maine. And so this year, inspired by cousin John's enormous ability to coax the beauties to life under the most trying conditions, I decided to give the crop just one more shot.

This, by the way, is John. You can see why I might be inspired by such a man, yes?

And so in late spring, to the horror of my fellow community gardeners (not you Ann), I built a big trellis out of cedar so that my googootz, should they arrive, might have a place to climb and to grow. With an able assist from my dear cousin, I had gathered not one but four different seed packets — all from sources in Italy — thinking this would surely increase my chances for success. After the seeds were planted in the ground I sat down next to the trellis, dialed John in New York on my cell, and asked him to please summon his very best shaman prayer to bless the summer growing season, which he did graciously, if with a bit of sarcasm.

And I no longer have trouble growing googootz in the State of Maine.

Recipes? They're coming; just not today.

That's all for now. Take us out, boys.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Best eats on Maine's coast

As fall approaches, we here in "Vacationland" (Hey, it wasn't my idea for a slogan!) turn our thoughts to the visitors who follow the turning leaves.

And they are turning already, the leaves. Quickly.

You gotta eat when you're here, right? Okay, here are some ideas.

This is by no stretch the definitive Maine dining guide; in fact, it's pretty arbitrary. For one thing it's focused solely on the coast, and comes to a screeching halt in Camden. That leaves out towns like Bar Harbor, among others, the whole Mount Desert region in fact. I'd recommend driving up there; Acadia National Park is beautiful. I just haven't done much dining past Camden is all. And the dining I have done hasn't left an impression.

There are as many lobster-focused places as I could comfortably include, as most visitors to Maine demand this. And knowledgeable road-food types will note that some big, near cult-like names do not appear here at all: Flo's Hot Dogs in Cape Neddick comes to mind, as does Becky's Diner in Portland and Red's Eats in Wiscasset. I love a good hotdog, but never understood the Flo's thing; the dogs, and their toppings, I think, are drab. Becky's is a friendly enough place; I just don't think the food's anything special. And as for Red's, I never drove by the place when the line wasn't around the corner, and enough people whose opinion I trust insist it isn't worth the wait. (One of them, a budding haikuist, travelled clear from Boston one afternoon just to sample Red's famous lobster roll. She drove home that evening, reliable sources inform me, muttering over and over a single-syllable word that begins with Letter No. 6.)


Anyway, I've organized the towns from south (or west if you prefer) to north (east), as the vast number of road warriors would be driving in this direction.

Enjoy your trip.

This is the first town in Maine over the I-95 bridge from Portsmouth, NH. If you're into the outlet store scene (I thought you said you were coming for the foliage!) then it's probably on the itinerary. Like Mexican? Loco Coco's is better than the places around the shopping outlets, and only five minutes south. Go to the Cantina side and hang at one of the high-top tables near the bar. Try the fish tacos, or one of the Picadas. Specials are often good. And they serve Dos Equis on tap. Or, if you're looking to do the lobster pound thing right away, head down to Kittery Point and the Chauncey Creek Lobster Pier, where locals bring their own tablecloths and make an evening of it.

This is not likely on most travelers' must-visit Maine towns, and I'm not suggesting that it should be. However, I recently had a very nice pizza at Blue Sky, in the Atlantic House hotel. Try the Pizza Margherita, done in a wood-fired oven. Surprisingly tasty — if the only dish I've tried here. (I warned you this was going to be an arbitrary list, didn't I?) Afterward walk across the street (and way back in time) to The Goldenrod for candies, ice cream and a peek at the fountain service counter. (In case you don't know, York Beach is not unlike a funky beach town you might find along the Jersey Shore.)

I could eat the biscuits and sausage gravy at the Maine Diner all day, which is why I'm glad I don't live here. Add some baked beans on the side and you're good to go. Oh, they have other stuff on the menu too, including terrific homemade Red Flannel Hash on Saturdays.

Precious few places in Greater Portland offer a water view (Don't get me started!) but the Black Point Inn on Prouts Neck overlooks plenty of sandy beach. I wouldn't recommend it for dinner or even lunch, but the outdoor porch is a swell spot to have a late afternoon drink if you're in the nabe. (Don't tell anybody, but Glenn Close has a place a few houses away. I almost ran over one of her dogs once. The pooch's fault, not mine. And Glenn couldn't have been nicer.) If you're out to do a picnic on one of the area beaches, you won't find better fixins than at The Cheese Iron.

There are better lobster pounds, but none has a more perfect setting than The Lobster Shack at Two Lights. Actually, this isn't a true lobster pound (the lobster dinner comes in only one size: small), but the fried clams and shrimp are real good, as are the onion rings; the chowder's worth having too. The real draw here is the outdoor setting, all the picnic tables just steps from the rocky coast. And, yes, there really are two lighthouses.

This is where I live, and I know it best, but it's also where most travelers will stop, and so I'll try and telegraph some of the more notable spots that visitors might enjoy.
Fore Street Yes, it's as good as you've heard. Make a reservation, or go super early to snag a table. I just eat at the bar, but even that gets crowded fast.
Novare Res The most interesting beer selection in a brew-centric town, and the best food of all the beer joints. Plus, there's outdoor seating, woefully lacking in these parts. The banh mi sandwich is real good.
Miyake Hands down the best sushi, but the chef may also be the most inventive in town. Plus, it's BYOB.
Nosh If you like a good plate of salumi, this is the place. It's also got sandwiches and excellent fries, even poutine.
The Grill Room The best burger in town, and among the best fries.
Hugo's Top-notch grub from perhaps the town's finest chef. Plates are on the "precious" side and so it's not for everybody. About as high-end as it gets in Portland, though casual.
Bresca The only Italian worth a stop. But it's tiny, so plan ahead or make other plans.
Micucci Grocery The focaccia (pizza to some) dubbed the "Sicilian Slab" is not to be missed. And the sfogliatelle is very respectable. Grab some of each and head up Fore St. to the Eastern Promenade for a great view of Casco Bay while eating on a park bench.

The L.L. Bean-dominated shopping magnet isn't much for great food, but Buck's Naked BBQ has some pretty decent chow, Day's Crabmeat (in Yarmouth) is good for a crab roll and freshly made fries, and Harraseeket Lunch (not a fave of mine, but others dig it) is right on the docks if you're looking for a post-retail-experience fried seafood/lobster kind of thing.

Just south of Bath, on Georgetown Island and close to Reid State Park, is the quintessential Maine lobster pound, Five Islands Lobster. It consists of three shacks on a working dock and so you'll likely see lobstermen unloading their catch while you're there. For the setting alone, it's worth a detour.

An ultra-tourista t-shirt town, for sure, but occasionally I find myself sailing into this picturesque port by boat and stopping at the Boothbay Lobster Wharf for a lobster roll (it's jam-packed with meat). Get some melted fake butter and pour it on the roll. You won't be sorry. And they sell beer by the pitcher.

Yes, Moody's Diner is everybody's fave, and it's definitely good and cheap, not to mention heavy on the Maine atmosphere. But if I were going to eat at one place while blasting through town it'd be Morse's Sauerkraut. The European-style market (sausages, wursts, like that) serves breakfast and lunch in a very small annex to the food market. We're talking German pancakes and fresh pierogies and sauerbraten and schnitzel here, folks. It's seven miles off Route One. And you're not likely to leave the market empty handed. (Chocolate-covered Halvah for munching in the car anyone?)

If you're in this part of the state, odds are you're taking in the scenery and just relaxing. In which case make the effort to be around Waterman's Beach Lobster for lunch. There are picnic tables right on the water, a small beach actually. The crab rolls are great, the lobster rolls are good too, and the pies are worth the extra calories. Oh, it's BYOB, and closes for the season September 26th.

Two places are a must here, and they couldn't be more different: Conte's 1894 and Primo. I'll let the Conte's link speak for itself. As for Primo, this is one very fine restaurant, perfect for any occasion, serving what might be the best food in all of Maine. My favorite thing about Primo is the antipasti bar they added to the top floor this summer. Stunningly good, with lots of house-made salumi. Almost makes me want to move out of Portland to be closer. (This summer they also had oysters for a buck apiece on Sundays.)

I never had a really extraordinary meal in this town until Natalie's opened in the Camden Harbour Inn a couple years ago. The restaurant is unlike any I've seen in Maine; like its owners the place drips with European flair, part sophisticated haute dining room, part bordello. Guess you have to see it. The food? Crazy good, if a bit pricey. I've had two meals here. One was the best poached Scottish salmon I've ever eaten, the other a lamb dish done two ways, both of them fab. A must for highly discriminating types. (Francine is said to be quite good as well; careful when clicking on the link, though, as they choose to serenade us with music while we're visiting their website.)

I know, I know. Your favorite spots aren't here. Sorry. I did say this would be an arbitrary — and visitor-focused — list.

But feel free to add your favorite spots, or criticize mine, in the "Comments" section below.

I can take it. And it will provide everybody else with more to ponder while they take in the turning New England leaves.