Felice Anno Nuovo to all of you. I appreciate all of you for continuing to read my column and supporting the Delaware Valley Italian-American Herald. I was thinking about the regular get-togethers that take place throughout the year. When my brother is in the area, we go out and enjoy dinner with him and his wife. Other times my daughter joins us. Put my daughter and my brother together and the wine flows and the conversation and laughter get lively. Other times, we enjoy going out with some of our close friends. Few things do I find more enjoy-able. Our restaurant style of choice will almost always be Italian. Over the years we have come to enjoy several different Italian / Italian-American restaurants depending on where we decide to get together. After all, it is the perfect setting for our kind of food and fun.
As I was thinking about this, it dawned on me that Liz and my dining companions will almost always order the same menu selections. All of us agree that bread is an essential that sets the stage for a good dining experience. Good bread equals good food. Next up is antipasto. You know, the one with the good, cured meats, aged cheese, roasted vegetables, and such. The antipasto puts everyone in the mood for a fun evening. This is usually when the first bottle of wine arrives accompanied by toasts and quips. Our server knows exactly when to get things moving into the first course. The usual selections include a big bowl of mussels in red sauce, some fried calamari, fried mozzarella, maybe a bowl of pasta fagioli or Italian wedding soup (Liz’s favorite). The first course is where I start, as my brother claims, acting “weird.” I like to start my meal with a first course of grilled rather than fried calamari. I may choose the roasted baby octopus instead. Those tentacles tend to have a negative effect on my brother. Most of the restaurants offer a full pasta course followed by a main course. We tend to order a pasta dish as a main course. Or we will include pasta as a side dish accompanying a traditional first course. Except for my daughter, Liz (sometimes) and me, the selection for this course seldom varies. Pasta is always a hit if the selections stay within the bounds of the pasta standards. You know the ones. Ziti, penne, rigatoni, cavatappi, spaghetti, angel hair or linguini. Those of us that order farfalle, orecchiette, or even gnocchi is viewed as making a bold choice. Stuffed or baked pasta is selected occasionally. Ravioli, stuffed shells, lasagna, and baked ziti are the go-to selections. Stuffed manicotti, tortellini, cappelletti, or mezzaluna may be considered a little on the fancy side. Once everyone who is opting for pasta decides the style they prefer, stage two is the sauce or gravy selection. Alfredo or white sauce is acceptable as is the typical blush sauce. In our circle, most of the pasta dishes are ordered with some sort of red sauce or gravy and meat. Again, you will readily recognize the chicken or veal parmesan, meat-balls, sausage, or meat sauce. Once in a while someone in our crew will order salmon or shrimp. Sure, the Italian-American standards are delicious and satisfying. There is nothing wrong with regularly selecting them. But come on now, there is so much more to be tried and enjoyed. Once in a while, spring for a risotto dish. Try the branzino. The service staff will happily filet it for you and it is delicious. If you are a pasta person and really, who isn’t?
Try ordering your pasta aglio e olio for a change. The flavor of freshly roasted garlic with quality EVOO, red pepper flakes, freshly chopped flat leaf parsley and Parmesano Reggiano is nothing short of spectacular. Other selections you would enjoy may be tortellini with ham and peas in a light alfredo style sauce. You won’t go wrong ordering those potato or ricotta gnocchi with asparagus. My wife loves crab ravioli piled high with jumbo lump crab meat in a very light blush sauce. Take her advice and give that dish a try.
Make sure to choose a good Italian restaurant. I’m not talking about the place you get your Friday night pizza. I have been to great pizzerias that do an awesome job. Pizza is the thing they specialize in. For an Italian style dining experience, a full-service Italian restaurant is what you want. Look through the entire menu. It’s not as scary as you think. I get a kick out of my brother’s traditional comments to me. “Why do you always have to order something weird”? I act dumbfounded and respond “weird”? Just because I enjoy roasted octopus, grilled calamari, veal with gorgonzola and porcini crème, marinated beans and cuttlefish, or sometimes gnocchi with asparagus in an asiago, truffle oil, asparagus broth. I am also a big fan of lamb. One of my favorite dishes at another of my favorite restaurants serves grilled lamb chops on a bed of broccoli rabe with shitake and shallot sauce. Spectacular and delicious! How about trying one of my all-time favorite dishes. Risotto di Pesce. This is a beautiful dish made with classic arborio rice risotto done with a light red seafood broth served with shrimp, scallops, jumbo lump crab, mussels, and little neck clams. This is a wonderful dish. Sometimes though, I have a craving for pasta instead of the risotto with seafood. This restaurant does a phenomenal version with mussels, clams, shrimp, scallops, jumbo lump crabmeat, and cherry tomatoes over linguini with a white wine garlic sauce. Both selections run neck and neck for me. I take turns whenever I visit this restaurant. Let me ask you, are these really “weird” dishes? I would describe the examples I included here as interesting and fabulously delicious. If I want a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, I can order it at my regular pizzeria. Or I can make it at home. I really enjoy the experience of trying unique and fascinating dishes that span the regions of Italy from north to south with an American twist unique to each restaurant chef’s experience and whim. Some people may not be as extreme in their food choices as I am. Just be aware that any quality Italian restaurant will have menu selections that allow you to do a little experimentation without missing the standard treats that you regularly enjoy. Don’t ruin your dining experience by ordering a main course that falls outside your comfort zone and may be a bit too “weird” for your taste. I will order an appetizer for my people that is slightly different from the usual for everyone to share. After they have a taste, they order whatever menu selection that will make their experience fun and enjoyable. Everyone gets to experience something different in a way that is painless. Someone may discover something that they would order again. My best advice is this: Try it, you may like it. As we move into 2023 make it a point to try a couple of new dishes. Wouldn’t it be fun to have someone ask you “why do you order this weird food”? I love when my brother looks at me with that puzzled expression of his and asks me that question. All of you, have my best wishes for a happy, healthy, prosperous, and enlightening year.