'We can be absolutely certain only about things we don’t understand.'
- Eric Hoffer, The True Believer


Trattoria: Simple and Robust Fare Inspired by the Small Family Restaurants of Italy

Patricia Wells

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Oct 20, 2016
Category: Food and Wine

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The Obamas gave their final State Dinner this week. The guests of honor: Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and his wife Agnese Landin. The chef: Mario Batali. The menu: warm butternut squash salad, agnolotti with butter and sage, beef braciole with horseradish gremolata, and, for dessert, green apple crostata with thyme caramel. These are probably not feats you should try at home. But a few ingredients, simply cooked — this is not beyond you. Especially with this book as your guide.

I’ve cooked from Bistro Cooking, Patricia Wells’ book of simple French recipes, for several decades now. 

So what stopped me from buying her book of Italian trattoria cooking?

Two words: Marcella Hazan.

I’m addicted to Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. It’s clear. It produces restaurant-quality meals that take only modest effort. And “fancy” is the last thing it is.

I thought I didn’t need another Italian cookbook.

Teenage years later, I surrendered to Trattoria. And I am chastened.

You want simple? This is it. Easy? Forget about it. Organized? Unless you’re dedicated to an exploration of Italian cuisine, this book could be the last time you’ll ever need to think about an Italian menu. [To buy “Trattoria” from Amazon, click here.]

Why? Because the fact is, you really don’t want rich and fancy. You want a trattoria — an uncomplicated, modestly decorated, family-run establishment featuring traditional regional fare. You drink the house wine. You tend to order whatever special is being pushed. And you’re likely to leave satisfied and possibly sated.

Wells begins with a large selection of antipasti, moves on to grilled vegetables and hearty soups. Then she reaches pasta. There are 17 pasta recipes — and that’s just the dried pasta. (I was under the impression that Italians have no affection for fresh pasta; in any event, there are 15 recipes for fresh.).

There are lovely recipes for entrees. But I’m feeling in the mood for a bargain dinner that rips the torpor from my taste buds. That means spices — garlic and red-pepper flakes. And what Wells calls “a young Italian red table wine.”

Serves 6

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
6 plump fresh garlic cloves, skinned and minced
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
sea salt
28-ounce can peeled Italian plum tomatoes or a 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes in puree
1 pound tubular pasta
1 cup flat leaf parsley, snipped with scissors

In a large skillet, combine oil, garlic, crushed red pepper flakes and a pinch of salt. Stir to coat with oil. Cook over moderate heat. Remove from heat when garlic turns gold, but not brown.

If you’re using whole canned tomatoes, chop them before adding to skillet. If using pureed tomatoes, just pour into skillet. Stir, then simmer until sauce begins to thicken, about 15 minutes. Adjust seasoning.

In a large pot, boil 6 quarts of water. Add three tablespoons of salt and the pasta, cook until tender but firm. Drain.

Add the drained pasta to the skillet. Toss, cover, cook over low heat for 1-2 minutes to allow the pasta to absorb the sauce.  Add the snipped parsley, serve in soup bowls.

“Traditionally, cheese is not served with this dish,” Wells notes. Gotcha.

Start the water and the sauce at the same time, dinner is on the table in 30 minutes, Wells advises. A very well-spent 30 minutes, say I.

Short takes

My New Favorite Song: “Your Wife Is Cheating On Us”

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When two friends whose opinions you respect praise a movie, book or service, it’s actionable. That’s how I found myself in Joan Pancoe’s East Village apartment for a Soul Reading. Joan has been a karmic astrologer, psychic therapist and spiritual teacher since 1976, and has written several books. (The most recent is “Cosmic Sugar, The Amorous Adventures of a Modern Mystic,” published with a pen name for good reason; it’s explicit in the extreme. I mean, it made me blush. To buy the Kindle edition, click here.) Joan’s seen everyone from believers in past lives to skeptics. I’m somewhere in the middle. So I only felt moderately silly showing up at her Lower East Side lair with my list of Big Questions and Important Names. Then Joan went into trance and rolled out the kind of Spiritual Truths that are generally applicable… and Specific Insights that make you wonder if she’d hacked your email. Was I glad I saw her? Yes. Will you? I’m no seer. More information here.

The Dead, 1904: A play, a dinner, an experience

“Immersive theater” places the audience in the middle of a play — the actors move around you, just a few feet away, as if you share their reality. I’m not a fan. Or wasn’t until I saw a mesmerizing preview of “The Dead, 1904,” an adaptation of the James Joyce short story by Paul Muldoon and Jean Hanff Korelitz, starring Kate Burton. Soon the evening — it takes place in a Victorian mansion in New York and includes dinner at a party that’s at the heart of the play — can be experienced by the public. Well, a very small slice of the public: 40 “guests” a night, from November 19 through January 8. Cheap seats? 35 pairs of tickets will be made available for $19.04 through a lottery system, but most will pay $300 a ticket. For more information, click here.To buy tickets, click here.