Friday, August 29, 2014

MARKETS: Mercato di Pesce in Catania, Sicily

It's a wild and memorable stop on any giro in the historic center of Catania, Sicily's southeastern city-on-the-sea, in the shadow of Mount Etna: the Mercato di Pesce, or fish market. It encompasses more than just fish, but the daily catch from local waters is really the star of the show here in the mercato. And what a show it is, every day!

Catania is Sicily's second-largest city, with 300,000 residents in the city proper and 1 million people in the metro area. Much of the city's beautiful architecture, like that of the surrounding Val di Noto, is barocco (baroque) -- ornate and expressive with detailed facades and embedded sculpture. Like its surrounding towns in the Noto Valley, Catania was rebuilt after the great earthquake of 1693, and so these towns were redesigned in the popular style of the era, which happened to be Sicilian baroque, disseminated from its origins in Rome. The fish market's fortunate positioning places its entrance just off the Piazza del Duomo, with the gorgeous pale grey-blue facade of its baroque church. The market has been in its current location since the beginning of the 19th century, when the galleria for the market was dug from the site of the historic center's 16th century city walls. 

Once you enter the market, all the tranquility and beauty you just witnessed in the Duomo and the nearby fountain turn to chaos and shouting, hawking and salesmanship and showmanship. That Sicily was once the provenance of the Arab world, (and its proximity to North Africa) can be felt here, viscerally. The mercato di pesce is part Italian market, part souk. The fishmongers are yelling pleas of "buy my fish, it's the best!" and "There is no fish fresher than mine!" and some say simply "Signora, signora, what can I offer you? Best price just for you!" On the whole, these fishmongers are selling more or less identical products. As you wade through the fish stalls (and I do mean wade: wearing wellies is a better idea than wearing sandals or flip-flops), the prices are more or less on par, so the only thing separating these stalls is the quality of the merchandise...and the marketing skills of the sellers. In the photo here, you see some of the most typical seafood for sale: anchovies and sardines, and shrimp of all sizes, including the delicate and delicious gambero rosso, or red shrimp from the Gulf of Catania, best eaten raw. There are triglie and branzino and orata (various Mediterranean white-fleshed fish), and calamari and octopus.

There is famously fresh tuna in these waters, much of which comes from the west and north coasts of Sicily, between the island and Calabria on the peninsula -- most of which either gets cooked and canned sott'olio (in oil) for Sicily's famous high quality preserved tuna fish, or sold to Japan, where its vertiginous prices are paid by the Japanese sushi and sashimi purchasers. But you can find it here, its flesh a fresh semi-translucent ruby red. And you can find its white-fleshed steakfish friend, pesce spada, or swordfish, all over Sicily. It's particularly good here. I purchased some for our dinner later that night, to be composed of entirely market-bought items. I also bought some beautiful whole calamari.
I was ecstatic to find neonati, teeny-tiny "just born" whitings that, grouped together by the hundreds, would make the base for polpetti -- little fish "meatballs." Other interesting items in the fish market include bottarga (salt-cured tuna roe) and ricci di mare, sea urchin. Such items are typical in these parts of southern Italy, and we'd been gorging ourselves on pasta with sea urchin and pasta with bottarga since we arrived down south a week earlier. So I went for something a little different. With my fish gathered and a menu coming together in my head, I passed by a few stalls in the fruit and vegetable part of the market, and then we were off for a swim in the sea just down the street from our apartment. And then, and only cook!

What did I make at the end of the day? My take on various Sicilian specialties and flavors, using locally purchased ingredients, of course. I made those polpetti with neonati, bread crumbs, egg, herbs, and spices, and deep fried them. I took the gorgeous swordfish from the fish market and sliced the steaks as thin as possible, then stuffed them with an eggplant caponata (sweet-and-sour ratatouille) I made from market vegetables, and rolled that into involtini. I made a sort of salsa verde (green sauce) with basil, mint, and parsley from the herb plants on our apartment's terrace, and spread that on top of the oven-cooked swordfish.
And I took the calamari, cleaned them, and chopped the tentacles up and tossed them with bread crumbs, parmigiano cheese, seasoning, and lemon zest, and stuffed the calamari with this mixture. I baked those in the oven as well, and in the meantime made a spicy sauce from the gorgeous local pachino cherry tomatoes and basil and garlic from the market. I served that with the calamari, on the side. It was a memorable meal that we accompanied with a chilled Sicilian white wine from grapes grown in Mt. Etna's volcanic soil, and finished off with some local fresh figs and wild fragoline, tiny strawberries. I found everything we used, except for the bread crumbs and the raisins and pine nuts, at the mercato di pesce and surrounding vegetable market. That's what I call a local meal.

Cin-cin to Sicilia and her gorgeous culinary gifts!

Footnote: If you're not lucky enough to be staying in an apartment with a kitchen, or aren't much of a home cook, there are some terrific, highly-recommended restaurants within a stone's throw (and sometimes inside) of the fish market. Three of these are:
- Ambasciata del Mare
- Osteria Antica Mare
- Trattoria La Paglia

Friday, August 22, 2014

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Red Bar Brasserie, Southampton, NY

Sometimes I review restaurants that have recently opened or that offer something new to the dining public. But just as often, I like to write about a restaurant simply because it gets it right, and often it has been getting it right for many years now. Red Bar Brasserie in Southampton is one of those places that falls into the latter category. There's nothing earth-shattering here, no molecular gastronomy or $100-a-pound lobster salad to set tongues a-wagging. Simply put, this is and continues to be a restaurant where I want to eat. Where pretty much everything on the menu appeals, and it's almost certainly well-executed. And it's been open for almost 18 years -- which, in the seasonal setting of The Hamptons, means it must be doing something right, both with summer tourists and with locals. That alone is a feat worth celebrating.

Restaurateurs Kirk Basnight and David Loewenberg have created a dining room that works equally well for a group of friends having a social evening or for a couple enjoying a romantic candelit dinner together (again, not an easy line to straddle). Chef Erik Nodeland has created a menu featuring local produce, seafood, and meat whenever possible -- and the East End provides an ample bounty for those chefs looking for delicious primary ingredients. His dishes pair French and Mediterranean technique with an American sensibility, and the results are generally excellent.
Appetizers to try (though they do change seasonally) include a fluke crudo with avocado, cucumber, citrus, and chiles, as well as a similar-but-spicier Hawaiian poke (pronounced POE-kay) with avocados, cashews, a spicy sesame vinaigrette and plantain chips. For those interested in rich meats, the braised pork belly with pickled rhubarb, baby arugula, and ricotta salata is a nice option. Or go for broke and indulge in the foie gras terrine with candied kumquats, pistachios, and crostini. The signature main is a truffled chicken breast with mushroom risotto and french beans, though I rarely order chicken in a restaurant (I reserve that for home cooking), so I'm more likely to go for the duroc pork chop or a savory steak, of which there are several to choose from on the brasserie menu.

But since I'm out in eastern Long Island, I'm much more inclined to get a fish dish. Recent temptations include the miso-glazed local tilefish (I'm seeing a lot more tilefish on menus lately, and it's great eating) with spinach, leeks, shitake mushrooms and meyer lemon. Also of note is the striped bass (also local) with littleneck clams, chorizo, potatoes, tomatoes, fennel, and white wine. Of course, Long Island duck breast is always a good choice in these parts, and Red Bar always has it on the menu. Right now it's the seared breast with lentils du Puy, butternut squash, braised kale, and bing cherries. 
I liked the Asian-inflected version I had last year even better, with bok choy and a tamarind broth that made me want to lick the plate. As for desserts, interesting options are a fresh fig and frangipane tart with vanilla ice cream and raspberry sauce, or the toasted coconut and almond bread pudding with a mango-pineapple sauce. Or, you could go for the ever-so-retro Baked Alaska. There's something about the showmanship of that dessert that makes it a perfect restaurant dessert choice. It requires some great service in the dining room to pull it off properly, setting the whole orb alight with rum and fire. Red Bar Brasserie is more than capable of this, since their dining room service is generally welcoming and top-notch. This, along with interesting and well-executed dishes from the kitchen, makes Red Bar Brasserie what can now be considered a perennial Hamptons favorite, and one of my go-to spots "out east."

Red Bar Brasserie
210 Hampton Road
Southampton, NY  
(631) 283.0704

Friday, August 15, 2014

RECIPE: Concia, a Roman Jewish tradition

Rome's Jewish ghetto, 2 pm. I'm starving and sweating in Rome's midday heat and humidity. I don't want pasta, or risotto, or even any secondo that is served warm. I want room temperature and cold dishes, and something refreshing and flavorful with an acid kick. I want concia (pronounced "CONE-cha"). 

What is this dish exactly? It's one of many examples of cooked vegetables marinated in an acid (in this case the vinegar) to preserve the vegetable. That it adds interesting depth of flavor may be just a happy coincidence: like many dishes of Jewish origin, this was cooked and then eaten a day or two later, on the sabbath, when observant Jews are not allowed to cook or do work of any kind. Concia, a dish specific to the Roman Jewish ghetto, may have originated in Rome. But it may have been brought there by Jews fleeing the Inquisition at the end of the 15th century in Spain. Many Spanish Jews fled to Italy, and brought with them an interesting array of foods previously unknown to Italian palates. That this dish so closely resembles the Neapolitan "scapece" may be another link among Jewish cooks: once Naples was conquered by the Spanish a decade or so after the Inquisition began, the Jews in Naples may have fled to Rome, where "scapece" became "concia." Indeed, "scapece" is incredibly similar in sound and spelling to the Spanish "escabeche," which is the identical culinary concept. 

But whether we have the Spanish or the Romans to thank for this dish, it's definitely got Jewish roots. And it's definitely delicious. Enjoy this cooling dish on a warm night throughout the summer months -- and pretend you're sitting on the sidewalk of a trattoria in Rome's beautiful Jewish ghetto...


*6 medium zucchine, about 2 pounds
*1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
*6 medium cloves of garlic
*Half a bunch of mint, leaves pulled from the stems, and torn or sliced into a chiffonade {alternatives include flat leaf parsley and/or basil}
*2 teaspoons kosher salt
*Freshly ground black pepper to taste
*1/4 cup red wine or balsamic vinegar
*{freshly grilled bread, optional}


- Trim the zucchini at both ends and slice into discs or lengthwise strips about 1/8 - 1/4 inch thick
- Heat the olive oil in a pan, toss in 2 of the garlic cloves, and allow to infuse the oil for 30 seconds
- Throw in enough zucchini to cover the surface of the pan, but not so many that they overlap -- approximately 2 zucchini at a time. Salt and pepper to taste. Cook until golden brown. Repeat with the rest of the garlic and zucchini.
-  Once all the zucchini has been cooked, return it all to the pan to heat through. Add the vinegar and the mint, and stir to mix the flavors.
- Let sit for at least an hour and as much as one full day to allow the flavors to marry. Serve over grilled bread, if you like.