Why It’s Impossible to Cook Italian Food in America and the Frankies Spuntino Kitchen Companion and Cooking Manual

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(photo: street scene in Bagnara Calabra, courtesy of myworldshots.com )

I’m going to make a statement that may upset serious cooks, but here goes: It’s almost impossible to cook foods from other places in the world outside of their place of origin.  I’m not stating an absolute truth because you can get pretty damn close to replicating a pizza from Naples for example; maybe importing a wood burning stove (along with olive wood or some other exotic species to get the right temperature), specialty flour, San Marzano tomatoes, and bottled water from Italy, but at the end of the day it’s just not going to taste the same as, say, a pizza made in Italy. 

There are intangibles when experiencing a given food, including the physical environment, the person preparing the food item, and, of course, the psychological state the eater is in.  For example, if you’re on vacation in August in Bagnara Calabra facing the Stretto di Messina in Southern Italy and you order a pizza and a cold beer at a local eatery, you’re going to consume a pizza made with fresh mountain water, just harvested tomatoes, and first cold pressed olive oil from one of the surrounding villages.  You’ll also be sun-burnt and famished because you’ve spent a few hours on Bagnara’s famous Violet Coast.  In other words, that pizza will most likely be the best you’ve ever tasted. 



(photo: courtesy of Artisan Books)

My point above is not to discourage you from cooking Italian food in the US, but rather to make a subtle point that all Italian food made in the US is “Italian-American” food (this, to get fancy with a philosophical term, is an a priori truth <i.e., a truth independent of experience!>).  I cook Italian-American food, my mother cooks Italian-American food, and Mario Batali, for example, cooks Italian-American food. 



(photo: courtesy of Artisan Books)

Frank Falcinelli and Frank Castronovo cook classic Italian-American food (by way of their families) and they are both extremely proud of the cuisine they serve each and every night at their restaurant.   And, although, I have not eaten at their Carol Gardens, Brooklyn restaurant Frankies Spuntino, they rightly situate the “American” in the “Italian-American” food category (that is to say, their recipes and cooking style focus on the classics of Italian American cuisine, rather than to try and bring “authentic” Italian fare to it’s customers which, to my point above, is impossible in the US!)

Falcinelli and Castronovo recently published their first cookbook entitled, “The Frankies Spuntino Kitchen Companion and Cooking Manual” and the book hits on a few terrific themes including bringing the classic dishes prepared in their Brooklyn restaurant into your home kitchen. 

The book, which is beautifully produced and leather-bound, has terrific illustrations and includes sections on cooking equipment and the Italian pantry, as well as a wonderful chapter on the philosophy of “Sunday Sauce.” The same chapter has a brilliant timelines of how to go about constructing a traditional Italian meal on Sunday (this section would make any engineer proud!). 

Other recipes included in the cookbook (really a “cooking manual) are Linguine with Fava Beans, Garlic, Tomato and Bread Crumb, Sardine, Blood Orange, and Puntarelle Salad, Cipollini Onion Vinaigrette, Roasted Eggplant, Braised Pork Shank with Gigante Beans and Rosemary.  Falcinelli and Castronovo have produced an excellent, all around, cookbook and it may be the only Italian-American cookbook you’ll ever need to use in your kitchen!   In fact, why don’t you enter to win a chance to receive your very own copy the The Frankie Spuntino Kitchen Companion!  Here’s what you need to do:

– Only one entry per person please.

– The contest is open until 12 midnight on 9/20 and a single (1) random user will be picked via Random.org (sorry contest only open to folks from the US given shipping logistics).  The winner will be announced immediately on Twitter (so please follow me) and on Scordo.com by 8PM on Friday, 9/21.

– Requirements (both are needed): 1. Become a fan of Scordo.com on Facebook (if you’re a fan already please “share” the page on your Facebook account) and 2. leave a comment on an experience you’ve had where a dish/food item was incredible because of the location / atmosphere. 

– Artisan Books will send out the book to a single contest winner during the week of 9/27.

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13 Comments

  1. Oh, and here’s the official meatball recipe from the book:
    Meatballs
    Makes 6 servings;
    18 to 20 meatballs
    4 slices bread (2 packed cups’ worth) 2 pounds ground beef 3 cloves garlic, minced ¼ cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley ¼ cup grated Pecorino Romano, plus about 1 cup for serving ¼ cup raisins ¼ cup pine nuts 1½ teaspoons fine sea salt 15 turns white pepper 4 large eggs ½ cup dried bread crumbs
    Tomato Sauce (page xx)
    The Spuntino Way
    1. Heat the oven to 325°F. Put the fresh bread in a bowl, cover it with water, and let it soak for a minute or so. Pour off the water and wring out the bread, then crumble and tear it into tiny pieces.
    2. Combine the bread with all the remaining ingredients except the tomato sauce in a medium mixing bowl, adding them in the order they are listed. Add the dried bread crumbs last to adjust for wetness: the mixture should be moist wet, not sloppy wet.
    3. Shape the meat mixture into handball-sized meatballs and space them evenly on a baking sheet. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes. The meatballs will be firm but still juicy and gently yielding when they’re cooked through. (At this point, you can cool the meatballs and hold them in the refrigerator for as long as a couple of days or freeze them for the future.)
    4. Meanwhile, heat the tomato sauce in a sauté pan large enough to accommodate the meatballs comfortably.
    5. Dump the meatballs into the pan of sauce and nudge the heat up ever so slightly. Simmer the meatballs for half an hour or so (this isn’t one of those cases where longer is better) so they can soak up some sauce. Keep them there until it’s time to eat.

  2. (Already following you on Twitter and became a fan on Facebook.)
    My first legit Italian meal, and exposure to Italian culture, involved a weekend long reprieve from college cafeteria food. A friend, who corrected my numerous errors that the stuff at Olive Garden was not real Italian food (quite angrily on a few occasions), decided to educate me on what real Italian food tastes like by inviting me to her family’s home in PA for a weekend visit.
    Since that weekend, I was hooked, and do my best to replicate the dishes from that weekend. The Bolognese sauce with freshly made pasta was probably my favorite, but a Pecorino laden lasagna was a close second.
    Not surprisingly, a decade later, I continue to hit up my friend up for authentic Italian recipes.

  3. Cugino mio! Great article! 🙂
    Without a doubt, the best pizza in the USA can be found in the Northeast US. No competition!
    One of the most memorable pizzas I ever had was in one of my favorite places to visit whenever I’m in Boston – of course, I’m talking about the North End and its treasure trove of awesome Italian restaurants! I can’t remember the name of the place, but it was a rather small, and I was lucky to even find it because it was kind of tucked away off a side street.
    The thing is, I got into town late one evening and it was one of the only places still open. Lucky me! The pizza was pure ambrosia.
    All the best,
    Len
    Len Penzo dot Com

  4. I just found your blog. I will follow you on Twitter. I love anything Italian, in other words, I am Italian at heart. I grew up with Italian girlfriends, and loved their culture and traditions so much, that I still have a place in my heart for anything Italian. My two favorite foods are Olive oil and pasta, with just about anything added as a sauce or topping. I grow my own herbs in pots and so I have plenty of basil and thyme on hand. Pesto! Another favorite! Thanks for sharing all your knowledge of Italy and Italian culture and cuisine. Thank you, Thank you.

  5. Even though import food stores and delis have increased, you often can’t get the same ingredients (or the same QUALITY) as you can in the native country. My cousin (the pastry chef) insists, for example, that there is no ricotta in the USA like Sicily’s for making cannoli.

  6. (Already following you on Twitter and am a fan on Facebook.)
    I have to say that I love Frankie’s Spuntino on Clinton Street. A friend introduced me to it a few years ago and now it’s a must each time I am in the city. I will never forget my first time eating there, the food was fabulous yes, but the wine! As I looked at the wine list, they had my favorite white, from Friuli, a Ribolla Gialla. When I moved from Italy I knew I would miss that wine, which was a staple for me for so many years. I was so pleasantly surprised to see it on their menu and it made an exceptional meal there absolutely perfect, as I sat in the window seat looking onto Clinton St.! I will be in NYC next week and am already looking forward to my meal at Frankie’s. Their new book will have a prominent place on my bookshelf.

  7. Hi Jill,
    Thanks for the comment. I’ve never had a meal at their restaurant, but would love to try it one day! I get excited when wine shops or restaurants have the less well known Italian wines on their lists/shelves. Lately, I’ve been drinking lots of Aglianico.
    Great that you’re eating at their place next week, tell them about the review and giveaway at Scordo.com if you see one of the Franks!
    Best,
    Vince from Scordo.com

  8. Hi Barbie,
    My pleasure on sharing whatever knowledge I have of Italy with you and the rest of the Scordo.com readers!
    I have a pesto recipe here: http://www.scordo.com/2009/08/how-to-make-pesto-basil-genoa-authentic.html
    Best,
    Vince from Scordo.com

  9. I really love American style pizza in the northeast, it’s very good!
    Let me know if you find the name of the place in Boston (North End).
    Best,
    Vince from Scordo.com

  10. The Geometry of Pasta Review and Why Pasta Shapes and Sauces are Interconnected

    (photo: from the Geometry of Pasta, Hildenbrand and Kenedy; Gemelli pasta shape.) What’s So Important About Pairing Pasta Shapes and Sauces?You have to admire any book that documents well over 110 authentic Italian pasta sauces and the hundreds of…

  11. Hi! Thanks for the Italian experience! Do you have e-book recipes? I can’t wait to try them all. I love any Italian food esp. Italian Pizzas, Pizza Paradiso Orlando has (so far) the best pizza place I’ve ever been to. Anyways, thanks a lot for your page!

  12. Whaaaaaaaa???? Sorry, I disagree. I grew up and Southern Mexico and live in Oregon. I can make amazing old Mexico food with locally-sourced, high-quality ingredients. Does it mean it is easy to find the ingredients to make the family-heirloom recipes 4,000 miles away from where they originated? Hell no! But that does not mean it cannot be every bit as good if said ingredients are carefully sourced.

    What you are talking about is the relationship between food and context. 30 years ago, in Southern Mexico, a family of Italians from the Po valley used to watch over my sister and I when my newly-divorced mother had to work. They had just moved to the area, as the engineer father was installing some recently acquired equipment at the local gasworks. With them, I ate the best pizza I will probably eat. Very simple and few ingredients: Roma tomatoes, dough, olive oil and oregano. And to this day, no pizza I eat anywhere tastes as good as that.

    Does that mean that is the best pizza available anywhere. It certainly was not “authentic” by your book. But to my subjective self, it probably cannot be topped, or even equaled. But, of course, someone else WILL disagree with me. That is because food enjoyment is subjective, and context is everything.

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