Saturday, August 16, 2008

Little Italy Needs to Start Thinking Big

Fig.1 Italian flag throwers

Our three levels of government, as well as the Congres National des Italo-Canadiens, have graced us with yet another Semaine Italienne de Montreal; this, the 15th edition, was once again held in Little Italy. And while I greatly commend all of the organizers for supporting and promoting Italian culture within all of the Montreal communities, I do take issue with the way in which the event was organized, or lack thereof, by the merchants of St-Laurent Boulevard in Little Italy, who failed once again to demonstrate any zeal, dedication and passion evident in other Italian festivals in cities such as Boston and New York. What will it take for the St-Laurent Street Association to organize themselves in such a way as to provide the public with as much diversity as possible?

For example, where's all the street food? Most of the restaurants have placed patio tables well into the street in the hopes that the passer-by's will sit and be served, but missing are the smells and visuals associated with food prepared and served right before your eyes. Now I'm well aware of the fact that the restaurant owners on St-Laurent do not want street food sold for fear that it would take away from the sit down crowd, but I for one don't believe that some freshly sliced prociutto or fresh olives served in a paper cone will stop people from having supper.

Street food is older than Rome itself and is as much a part of Italy as the leaning tower. The taste of simple, pure street food works on so many levels; from the aroma of the food to the visual pleasure derived from food prepared just for you as everyone looks on--and by the adventure which ensues when you walk with your food; sightseeing is so much more appealing when you have a sausage panini in your mouth.

The merchants of St. Laurent--as well as all of the Montreal Italians living in and around the city-- need to find that Italian pride which comes out every four years for the World Cup. Every restaurant on St-Laurent Boulevard, from St-Zotique to Jean-Talon, should setup on the street and serve something different from the restaurant next to them to ensure proper variety and representation of the Country they are there to honour. And when I say all, I mean all of the restaurants and pastry shops should be opened and displaying--no exceptions. While I saw sausage paninis already prepared and sitting in an aluminum tin for sale (don't they know how many more people they'd attract if they grilled that sausage on the spot, the smell of freshly sauteed onions and peppers that would accompany the sausage is enough to drive a person crazy.) And what about the paninis with cold cuts sitting behind a display case? The mortadella had already begun to change colors and the lettuce had wilted. Don't they know that by slicing the cured meats in front of the costumer-like they do in Italy- it not only provides the much needed show the hungry buyer needs but also makes the sandwich taste so much better. Sadly missing from the event was Italy's favorite food; none of the restaurants had a pasta stand on the sidewalk.

The restaurant owners will tell you that if the pedestrians eat too much while strolling up and down the street, they won't have a sit down meal in their establishments. Yes, this will happen, some people will consume too many street eats, but, what I believe will also happen by having more street food, (as well as more activities for the kids) is a surge in attendance. It might not happen the first year but as people catch on it would become an event not to be missed, such as the Feast of Saint Anthony's in Boston's North End.

Fig. 2 Porchetta at San Lorenzo

Now that I've got all of that out of my system, let's talk about the good and fun aspects of the Semaine Italienne de Montreal. Many of the restaurants did a great job creating that terrase feel by placing tables well out into the street. I also saw a beautiful whole porchetta being spit-roasted over some hot coals out on the sidewalk at the new swank San Lorenzo eatery. My wife liked the shoes on display outside the Rubino store and my son liked all of the soccer apparel on sale outside Evangilista Sport, and I quite enjoyed seeing all of the scooters and Fiat 500's, as well as the small kiosk by the Opera de Montreal, some of the costumes used by the opera company were on display.

Fig.3 Pizza Margerita from Pomodoro

As for supper, some friends had recommended I try the pizza at Pomodoro. My quest for great pizza has brought me to Napoli, Rome, New York and Boston. Montreal had always left me a bit disappointed in the pizza department. The pizza at Pomodoro, however, did not disappoint. It was a beautifully cooked thin crust pizza which wasn't overloaded with toppings allowing you to taste everything on the pie equally. The crust was well stretched and cooked until the outer part developed that signature blackened texture, which I believe adds more flavour to the pizza. The only change I would make is to the mozzarella, which on my all dressed, was slightly rubbery. A "fior di latte" fresh mozzarella would have, in my opinion, improved it. The pizza with porcini mushrooms was a definite winner. The taste of the wild fungi worked well with the firm but supple crust and hand squeezed whole plum tomatoes. The crunchy fried calamari were also very good.

Fig.4 All dressed pizza

After a great meal we finished the night off as they do in Rome; by taking a "passeggio" while eating a gelato. Looking at all of the people, I couldn't help but once again wonder what this "festa" could become if all Italians cared a bit more.

Pomodoro. 6834 St-Laurent Boulevard

514 667-3867

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Italian Corn

Fig. 1 Despite the bad weather, Mario's new cookbook inspires the grill hound to get out there and try new things.

My wife is convinced that Italians have a way of making everything their own. She contends that it isn’t enough for our egos to bask in the fact that it took an Italian to figure out that the earth revolves around the sun, or that an Italian discovered the New World; or that we produce some of the best cars and clothing this world has ever seen. (I could go on and on, but I digress.) However, upon looking through my new Mario Batali cookbook, Mario Batali: Italian Grill, I’m starting to realize that maybe my wife has a point.
This very functional cookbook is typical no-nonsense Mario; full of great grilling advice and saturated with wonderful ingredients. But what got me to thinking about whether Italians have an issue with self-importance occurred when I came across Mario’s grilled corn on the cob recipe.

Fig. 2 One big heap o' corn in St. Philippe, just outside of Lachute. A beautiful part of driving through the small, scenic roads of Quebec during the summer is the abundance of local farmers selling their fruits and vegetables. Not to mention all of the hot dog and fry joints.

Quebecois love corn on the cob; even I don’t like to mess with a good thing. Boiled or grilled, slathered in rich butter and doused in salt; perfect! But Mario--a cook who advocates the simplicity of fresh ingredients-- theorises here that if you slather anything in parmigiano-reggiano cheese it will taste better. Normally I would be inclined to agree with Mario, but the local corn, like those I picked up just outside of Lachute from a corn farm, are perfect. Plump and very sweet as a result of all the rain we’ve been seeing.
That being said, far be it from me not to try anything once, or to doubt one of the greatest Italian inspired cooks of all time.
Here’s Mario’s corn recipe as seen in Mario Batali: Italian Grill.

Fig. 3 Grilled corn on the cob Mario's way.

Corn, as Italians would eat it.
Makes 6 ears.

6 ears corn, shucked
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 to 1 ½ cups freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano
About 2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
Hot red pepper flakes

Preheat a gas grill or prepare a fire in a charcoal grill

Place the corn on the hottest part of the grill and cook for 3 minutes, or until grill marks appear on the first side. Roll each ear over a quarter turn and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, then repeat two more times.

Meanwhile, mix the oil and the vinegar on a large flat plate. Spread the parmigiano on another flat plate.

When the corn is cooked, roll each ear in the olive oil and vinegar mixture, shake off the extra liquid, and dredge in the parmigiano to coat lightly. Place on a platter, sprinkle with the mint and pepper flakes, and serve immediately.

My wife and I both agreed that while Mario’s version has its merits, the cheese and vinegar take away from the sweetness of the corn. I also find that the use of red pepper flakes in their whole form are useless because they don’t adhere properly to the corn. For a proper spicy flavour, use ground chili peppers, or, do what they do in Mexico and sprinkle the corn with cayenne pepper.

Fig. 4 If you're going to eat corn do it right. Forget spreading the butter with a knife, it doesn't work; the butter always melts off the corn. Instead, unwrap a fresh pound of butter and roll the hot corn on the block. Don't forget the salt.