Monday, August 30, 2010

Al Dante: A documentary about family, pizza, and Montreal

Fig.1. Stefano Faita is genuine and passionate about pizza; his shirt says it all.

I received an email from the CBC asking me if I would review and blog about a documentary entitled Al Dante: Respect the Pizza. Al Dante is part of a six part summer series showcasing food, film and music in Montreal. While the show is about pizza, it’s also about local food celebrity, Stefano Faita. The show follows Faita on his quest for pizza, the premise (which feels slightly contrived at times) begins as Faita is seen speaking on the phone, presumably to his editor, about how his next article (Faita writes a weekly column for the Journal de Montreal) will be about pizza. What ensues is a quest, not solely for pizza itself, but rather, for reasons on why a simple pizza can be so sublime.
Faita’s passion for food and Montreal help make this documentary a treat to watch.
The documentary takes a look into Faita’s family history as well as the Faita family business: Montreal institution, Quincaillerie Dante. Faita`s background parallels the history of thousands of immigrants who made their way into this city, especially in the area of Little Italy. The documentary also does a great job showcasing the importance of the Jean Talon Market as a hub, a nexus fed by the masses of immigrants who over the years have made this market into the marvel it is today.
Faita visits the Jean Talon Market in search of fresh ingredients (the part where Faita seeks the help of Mr. Birri and his cohorts is especially amusing); he visits Bottega where he samples pizza made in a real Napoli pizza oven, and eats Nutella pizza for dessert (which is still very popular all over Italy) but what stands out for me is Faita’s emphasis, probably unbeknownst to him, on how with a bit of practice, great pizza can be made at home. He makes pizza for breakfast, he makes pizza with his daughter and he shows people (in his cooking school) how to make pizza at home.
Having sought out pizza all over Italy, New York, Boston, New Haven and Montreal, I can confidently tell you that the quest for the best pizza is an unattainable quest; but, Faita shows us that making pizza yourself brings you one step closer to sublime pizza, and your family and friends (and especially your kids) will think it's the best pizza they've ever had.

The Montreal summer series, which will air in September, is hosted by CBC news co-anchor Andrew Chang. For the complete schedule or to watch Al Dante: Respect the Pizza on the Internet, visit

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Old School Pasta Salad

Fig.1. Il Talismano is a must have for serious Italian food enthusiasts and food historians.

The more pasta research I do the more I realize North America is violating the tomato. A key part of my research involves old Italian cookbooks, and in these old cookbooks tomato skins and seeds are used and eaten. One such significant tome in Italian culinary history is a book called, Il Talismano Della Felicita. Il Talismano was first published in 1927 by Ada Boni. Boni was an upper-middle-class Roman who was enamoured with food, so-much-so, that she published Preziosa, a food magazine which ran from 1915 to 1959. Il Talismano has seen many editions since 1927 and it is unclear what changes have been made to Boni’s original work. Publishers have altered Il Talismano to suit changing tastes, lifestyles and product availability. Boni’s second book, La Cucina Romana is also a must have for anybody interested in the history of Italian cuisine.

In most of her recipes, Boni repeatedly calls for tomatoes to be used whole, seeds and skin and all—something I myself started to do with my tomato sauce with incredible results. When did it become normal to remove the skin? I see countless celebrity chefs make that small incision on the top of the tomato, boil, shock and peel. Well I’m here to save the humble tomato, the skin is full of lycopene, and the seeds (which contain glutamic acid) are responsible for most of the fruit’s umami flavour; and those of you who feel like you might choke on a tomato skin, maybe it’s time you start chewing your food.

Fig.2. This salad gets better the longer it sits. The fresher the ingredients, the better the salad, if the garlic isn't very fresh the dish won't work; and don't skimp on the olive oil.

Maccheroni in Insalata (Translated from, Il Talismano Della Felicita, Boni, Editore Colombo)
Serves 6

Here’s a recipe Boni herself writes, “is a perfect summertime pasta.” This is an old recipe not seen much in Italy anymore. It’s a recipe that brings the purity of ingredients to attention, so it’s vital that the ingredients be fresh. I had to calculate the quantities because Boni’s cookbook, vague on exact amounts, calls for a little of this and a little of that; however, feel free to add more of something you might like. The term “maccheroni” was used (and is still used today) to refer to many different types of pasta and does not refer to the little elbows used in Kraft Mac and Cheese. Any type of dry pasta will work in this recipe. You could have extra dressing depending on what kind of pasta you’re using, add the oil dressing in increments, if you have extra, use it as salad dressing.


Maccheroni 600grams, (I use a 500g pack plus ½ cup of penne)
Fresh tomatoes, diced 1 ½ cups
Fresh Basil, chopped ½ cup
Fresh celery leaves, chopped ½ cup
Fresh oregano, chopped 2 tablespoons
Extra-virgin olive oil, 1 cup (Use the really good stuff)
Fresh Garlic, 1 small bulb, or 4 to 5 cloves, finely diced
Salt and pepper

Fig.3. The basil, celery leaves, oregano and tomatoes are from my garden, the basil is from the market


Wash the tomatoes, which should be ripe, and dice without eliminating the seeds or skin. Chop the basil, celery, and garlic and put ingredients into a bowl. Add the oil, salt and pepper and the oregano. Mix ingredients and let them rest for 30 minutes.
Boil the pasta in salted water until al dente, drain and rinse pasta under cold water, drain again. Combine the pasta and herb and oil mixture together, mix well and let everything sit for 10 minutes before serving.