Monday, April 26, 2010

The Breakfast Club, Part 2

Continuing with my trip down memory lane (brought on by the "death" of my laptop and the subsequent retrieval of old files, including our brunch menus)...the Pasquino American Sunday Brunch in Rome...

Since the Pasquino restaurant, the spot we'd secured for our brunch venture, was a part of the landmark Pasquino English-language Cinema complex, we decided to play with the whole movie/Hollywood theme -- hence "The Breakfast Club" moniker (after the 1985 John Hughes flick). Full disclosure: In a recent conversation with my friend Patrick, he reminded me of our original working title for our brunch spot, before we'd even secured a location: Daney's. That's right, like Denny's, but combined with Dana. The Americans in the group found it hilarious, and Patrick even printed out a terrible prototype of the logo, having doctored the bright yellow Denny's sign. I wanted nothing to do with "Daney's." Grazie a dio I was able to talk them out of it and we moved on to a location with an already built-in theme with which to work. Can you imagine me, slinging hash in a hairnet at Daney's?! Holy crap.

Team Breakfast Club:
We enlisted the help of my American roommate Leah, for kitchen help. Our friend Elizabeth pulled out her long-dormant waitress skills from her post-grad days. We brought in a couple of other Italian friends to help serve, and we put Peppe behind the bar, our "Calabrese Connection" whom we taught to mix a mean Bloody Mary. Martin helped in the kitchen, but felt his "talents" were best utilized in the front-of-house (he ended up doing a little of both). Gareth and Patrick were our friendly English-speaking male servers, helpfully flirting with our young female clientele. We realized we were still short-staffed in the kitchen though, so we turned to a young American college student named Paul, per Patrick's recommendation. (Us: "Does he have experience in the kitchen?" Patrick: "He sure looks like he could cook up some pancakes!") We arranged for an "interview" with young Paul to make sure he was rigorously vetted. We met at one of our favorite spots at the time, Ombre Rosse, next door to the restaurant (where we had something close to a group 'corporate account' bar tab). After being subjected to torturous questions from us ("How much bacon do you think you could handle cooking at one time?", "Quick! What are the components of a cobb salad?" and "How awesome are cats!?" [Gareth]), we hired the poor guy -- who, incidentally, ended up making a fine short order cook.

We got to work on our menu, knowing we wanted to include brunch staples that weren't available anywhere else: pancakes and bacon, eggs served a variety of ways with classic sides, bagels and lox (for me), sausage biscuits (for Martin), and that elusive Eggs Benedict, for us all. Bagels were nowhere to be found in Rome, so I had to make a few dozen of them at home every Saturday night (quite a task, as it turned out). In addition, I had a full baking roster to round out our menu: New York cheesecake, brownies, and a variety of other sweets and savories. We had several booze and broccoli Romano-fueled dinners over which we discussed menu items and their respective names. We decided to name each dish after a film or a movie reference. Some favorites? "O Bagel, Where Art Though" was fitting as a riff on the Coen Brothers' Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? but also because of the difficulty of finding a damned bagel in The Eternal City. And I still chuckle thinking about our name for a vegetarian sandwich: "Honey, I Left Out the Meat!" (Also hilarious were the various Italian pronunciations of these dish names by our Italian servers who had no clue about what they were ordering from the kitchen: "Cosa sono i pan-cake??") Even our drinks had some great names, including a "Fellini" instead of a bellini, and a "Something About Bloody Mary." Genius, no?

We secured our food orders through our various restaurant and green market connections. One of our biggest dilemmas was finding passable "American style" smoked bacon. We located a purveyor, but the bacon came packaged in whole slabs of pork belly, so we convinced Patrick to sweet-talk the owner of a nearby alimentari (food shop) into letting us use his meat slicer for the bacon. We had a built-in laundry service, as Patrick owned the Wash 'n Dry laundromat in the neighborhood. Gareth created CDs to provide our brunch soundtrack. We revved our publicity engines by plastering the city center with our brunch posters, and of course, utilized the ever-effective Italian method of raccomandazione: word-of-mouth.

And so, with all of these elements in place, we began the first real American Brunch in Rome, THE BREAKFAST CLUB, on April 1 (no joke), 2001. We did approximately 90 covers -- restaurant parlance for one customer's entire order, however many courses that may entail -- that first Sunday. We were a hit! We turned tables 2 to 3 times in those 4 hours. We were buzzing along. It wasn't perfect, but it was clear we had a great concept on our hands, and there was definitely an audience hungry for good, authentic brunch food prepared with love and served with a smile.
We celebrated afterward at our old haunt next door, Ombre Rosse -- a bunch of chairs gathered around a couple of small tables outside under the umbrellas in Piazza Sant'Egidio. If memory serves me correctly, we spent all of our week's profits on rounds of drinks for the remainder of the evening. We were exhausted. But it was gratifying, for sure. And fun. Really, really fun.

Stay tuned for part 3...

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Breakfast Club, Part 1

I'm one of many people who firmly believe that Sundays were made for brunch. It's a distinctly American concept (and one facet of food culture New York can be credited with perfecting), though brunch's popularity has spread around the globe. To wit: in places like Italy, where Sundays have traditionally been days of rest centered around a large family lunch, brunch is catching on. Kind of.
As an expat living in Rome, I spent a lot of Sundays with friends lounging at trattorias for some curative pasta and hair-of-the-dog vino. But every so often, we'd long for a good old American brunch: the savory-sweet combos of pancakes and bacon, the perfection of Eggs Benedict. And a bagel, for the love of the Lord, a bagel. Since Italians are so enamored of many American concepts -- Mickey Mouse, McDonald's, Hollywood -- it's easy to see why brunch, in all its yummy goodness, would also become an appealing "trend." What we witnessed all over Rome, however, was failed attempts at "American brunch" (quotation marks intentional). Versions of Italian Sunday lunch got slapped with the brunch label all over town. Those places that actually tried for traditional brunch menu items got lost in the execution of the dishes. Hell, even The Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood failed miserably. But time and again, my friends and I would hope against hope, dragging our hungover bodies into any place with a "Vero Brunch Americano" sign outside. 

This scramble for scrambled eggs took a pivotal turn for the worse one afternoon when we sat down at a pretty restaurant not far from Campo de' Fiori that boasted "Eggs Benedict" on its sign in the window.  After waiting for an hour and a half for what we'd decided must be the most perfectly-cooked eggs benny ever, we were served a piece of toast cut in half, topped with a hard-boiled egg and a slice of tomato. And fries. Upon further inquiry, our server admitted that the chef didn't really know what Eggs Benedict was, and that they were new to this whole brunch thing. You don't say. Well, we put in a good effort trying to explain, in Italian, the finer points of eggs benny and well-cooked bacon and hash browns. Then we looked around the table. Wait a minute, we thought. We're sitting here with an American chef (me), an American who'd bartended for years (Marty), a guy who'd had some history in the service industry (Patrick), and one Brit who loooved bacon and would do anything for a proper Sunday brunch after a night slurping suds at Sloppy Sam's (more on that some other time: Gareth). Why not do our own American brunch in Rome?!

Through a connection of ours, we set up a meeting with one of the owners of the newly-opened Pasquino restaurant, a subterranean risto-lounge next door to the much-loved Pasquino English-language cinema. It had all the qualities we were looking for in a space: it was new, fun and modern, in a great location in the center of Trastevere (a great nabe in Rome, a mishmash of old-school Romans, international expats, and American students), and most importantly, it was closed on Sundays. We cut a deal to give a percentage of our brunch profits to the owners in exchange for the keys to the place on Sundays. And so, The Breakfast Club was born...

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Pesce d'Aprile!

Yes, it's April 1st everyone: known in America as April Fool's Day, and in Italy, bizarrely, as Pesce d'Aprile, translated as "April Fish." All over the Italian peninsula today, giggling school children are sticking colorful paper cut-outs of fish on unsuspecting schoolmates' backs (hilaaaaarious, I know). Of course these pranks aren't limited strictly to fish, or to schoolchildren. But today in New York, the sun is finally shining and it's 63 degrees out. So I don't really care about pranks right now. I want to take in the sunlight and the temperate weather.

So, at the risk of seeming like a humorless twit, I'm going to skip the practical jokes and concentrate on the pesce part of the Pesce d'Aprile: fish. When I think of spring warmth and sunshine, I think of Sicily. And lemons. My first trip to Sicily was in the month of April, and it was a glorious week with some of the most amazing Italian food I'd ever tasted (authentic Sicilian is still perhaps my favorite regional Italian cuisine). The recipe below highlights the island's wonderful citrus, in a dish of Fish with Salmoriglio -- a light, lemony, herby sauce shot through with plenty of garlic that's a perfect foil to meaty or oily fish. Pesce spada (swordfish) or mackerel would be the most likely fish varieties used in Sicilia. I like to use the large bunches of dried oregano that come from Sicily and Calabria as the main herb in the sauce, though adding a bit of parsley and rosemary work to give the sauce some extra green notes, both in flavor and color.

Salmoriglio is best with white, flaky fish or steak fish, I think, but also works with shellfish and grilled meats. Whatever you pair it with, it imparts a bit of sunshine to the dish --  a bit of agrumi (citrus). Very Sicilian. And much better than that other Sicilian notion involving fish, particularly popular in Corleone: sleeping with the fishes. Buon Pesce d'Aprile! And buon appetito! 

(4 servings)

4 1-inch thick slices or fillets of whitefish (about 1½ pounds), cleaned
1/2 cup good quality extra-virgin olive oil (preferably Sicilian
2 lemons
1 clove garlic, peeled and chopped finely
Pinch of oregano, or a mix of fresh herbs (oregano, parsley, basil, rosemary, thyme)
Salt & pepper to taste
- In a small bowl, zest one of the lemons (careful not to include the white pith), and juice both lemons. Stir together with garlic. Slowly add 1/3 cup olive oil in a stream to make a sort of citronette. Add salt and pepper to taste. Set aside. (If you want the garlic taste to be mellowed, heat this mixture in a pan and warm for 5 minutes to cook the garlic a bit).
- Warm a couple of tablespoons of the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medum heat. Sprinkle the fish with salt just before placing it in the sauté pan. Sauté until golden brown. Flip and proceed the same way on the second side.
- In the meantime, chop the herbs finely. Add to the lemon-garlic-oil mixture. Adjust seasoning as needed.
- Transfer fish to a platter, drizzle with the salmoriglio sauce, and serve warm or at room temperature.