Pasta and More
We had pasta once or twice a month. Both my grandmothers usually stuck with (delicious) pasta asciutta, but my mother Gelsie Bertolotti Mazzer was American, so she also served up spaghetti and meatballs and so on. However, being from the north, our staples were polenta and risotto, rather than pasta. Gnocchi and lasagne were for special occasions.
I had the best of two worlds. My mother’s side of the family made Milanese-style risotto, and my father’s side favored a slightly soupier and darker Venetian style. For the Milanese version, I remember several times being sent to the grocery store to buy a tiny red capsule of saffron.
Here are some family recipes.
Today the “purists” will claim that the very definition of risotto means that the rice must first be sautéed. Well, my relatives all came from the heart of the risotto-eating region of Italy. And some of their recipes call for “frying” the rice, and some do not.
I will not repeat this for each recipe, but the broth (or water if you prefer) to be added to the rice in the cooking process should already be hot, simmering on a back burner.
Also, of course the amounts of ingredients will vary depending on the desired servings. In general, figure 1 ½ cups rice for two people. That should take about 4 small (14 1/2 oz.) cans of chicken broth, or one large can, or the equivalent in water, etc. (To tell the truth, I recommend only chicken broth or maybe good vegetable broth.) From this you can calculate the amounts needed for four or six people, and so on.
Keep adding the broth to the rice a little at a time. My mother left a note saying, “Add broth 11 times in 18 minutes.” That seems a bit complicated, but you get the idea. This is one dish that the cook should keep tasting as you go along so you can tell when the rice is just how you like it.
Ferno-style (Lombard) Risotto
Ingredients (for two):
Small amount of salt pork
Small amount of butter
Small onion, chopped up fine
1 ½ cup rice (everyone now says “arborio”, but experiment with other varieties)
4 small cans of chicken broth (or the equivalent in homemade broth)
¼ glass of white wine
Pinch of saffron
Grated cheese to taste
Sauté the chopped onion in the salt pork and butter. Add the rice and saffron and sauté that a bit more. Then add the wine. Start adding the broth a little at a time, as noted above, stirring constantly. When the liquid in the pot seems almost consumed, add more broth. Cooking will be from 20-30 minutes, depending on how hot your stove gets and how soft you like the rice. Add some grated cheese about 5 minutes before the dish is done.
The finished risotto can be a little soupy or a little dry, depending on how you like it. But this Milanese version usually is served a bit on the dry side.
Dried mushrooms and/or very finely chopped up chicken giblets can be added (as in the other versions below). If so, add them while sautéing, for about 1 minute, before sautéing the rice. However, adding these ingredients will affect the golden color of the rice from the saffron.
As noted above, the quantities of ingredients will depend on the desired servings. Use the quantities from the sample above here as well, for two servings.
Chicken giblets, cut into small pieces
Dried mushrooms (optional)
1 onion, diced
3 tbsp. finely-chopped parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
Sauté the onion in the butter until golden brown. Add the giblets (and mushrooms if using them) and sauté for a few more minutes. Then add some broth and cook (simmer) the giblets for about 1 ½ hours. A few minutes before the end, add the parsley.
When done, remove from the pot and set aside. Sauté the rice (adding more butter if needed) for a few minutes. Re-add the cooked giblets. Then start the process of adding the hot broth to the rice, a little at a time, and stirring constantly, until the rice is done as desired.
Serve with grated cheese if desired.
Nona Caterina Bellese’s Treviso-Style Risotto
1 onion, diced
3 tbsp. finely-chopped parsley
½ glass white or red wine
Dissolve a small pat of butter in the pot. Sauté the onion and the parsley until the onion is transparent. Brown the chicken thighs. Then add the wine and enough broth to cover the chicken. Cook for about ¾ hour, then remove the chicken and liquid to a covered dish and keep that warm. Add the rice and cook by adding hot broth a little at a time until it is almost all absorbed each time. Five minutes before the rice is done add some grated cheese and then the chicken, to re-heat it. Remove chicken skins before serving.
Southern Italians called the northerners “mangiapolenta”. I plead guilty as charged.
The ribbing comes from all directions. My wife Wendy Tiefenbacher’s relatives from the village of Tiefenbach in Austria (very near Cadore) told us that they, too, make polenta – – and feed it to the cows.
Both sides of my family (and many of our neighbors) had the tradition of making polenta the old-fashioned way, in a big iron or copper pot over a wood fire, stirring it with a strong stick (bastone), the handle end round and the stirring end triangular. (Ours was made by my father.) The kids took turns helping to stir, but most of the work was done by our grandmothers, who were the judges of when the polenta was done – – for one thing, the polenta had to start to come off the sides of the pot when stirred, but there were other signs, indiscernible to me. On special occasions, the experts (all the old folks) gathered around the fire and exchanged opinions about when the polenta was ready.
Today there is not much occasion or time for a wood fire. If you buy instant polenta, follow the directions. If you buy cornmeal, our family always uses the coarse variety (Goya coarse cornmeal was recommended by the polenta expert Ida Aspesi). And we always use yellow cornmeal, although I suppose that white might be possible. We have even used coarse cornmeal purchased right from the mill at Mount Vernon. The folks there told us that George Washington used to enjoy his hoecakes made with that meal. I’ll bet he would have liked some nice polenta with rabbit stew once in a while, too.
Sometimes nowadays I cheat. Instead of just cornmeal, water and salt, while the polenta is being cooked I stir in a little bit of pepper, milk, grated cheese, etc. I suppose that if too much is added, the result will be some sort of breakfast gruel rather than true polenta, but I am afraid that if I just make it with plain cornmeal I do not have the experience to make it as delicious as I remember it made by the old pros.
If you make polenta the old-fashioned way, once the polenta is poured out of the pot there will be a crust of polenta stuck to the inside of the pot. Don’t take the pot to the sink yet – – those chips of crust are delicious treats.
Cooked polenta can be poured into a bowl, or just left in the pot, with individual servings scooped out with a spoon or even an ice cream scoop. But our family makes it a bit less watery. After it sets a bit, it can be poured out onto a flat board (use the table, in a pinch). The polenta is then cut by sliding a string under it and lopping off slices of the desired thickness by pulling up the ends of the string. I am told that dental floss works fine for the slicing (unused, please – this is not the time to re-cycle). Or, after the pot has been inverted and the polenta has been transferred to the board let the polenta cool a bit and then just slice it with a knife.
Here are some basic cooking tips for polenta:
My mother’s proportions for various servings are as follows.
For 2 servings: 7 cups of water, 2 cups of cornmeal, 1 ¾ tbs. salt
For 4 servings: 11 cups of water, 3 cups of cornmeal, 2 ¼ tbs. salt
For 6 servings: 14 ½ cups of water, 4 cups of cornmeal, 2 ¾ tbs. salt
For a very large polenta: 21 cups of water, 6 cups of cornmeal, 3 ¼ tbs. salt
Bring the water to a boil and add the salt. Slowly pour the cornmeal into the water, stirring constantly. The polenta will be done when a crust is formed on the sides of the pot and the rest of the cornmeal separates from the sides when stirred. Depending on the heat source, this should take about ¾ hr. to 1 hour. (That is why the instant variety is popular.)
Tip: If the polenta is becoming too thick before it is fully cooked, add a little more boiling water or milk, keep stirring and hope for the best.
Freshly-cooked polenta is served with stew, meat, sausages, chicken and so on. Some recipes follow. But when there is leftover polenta, cold slices can be put in the oven with slices of gorgonzola or other favored cheese on top, until they are warmed and the cheese starts to melt a bit.
Chicken & Sausage Stew (for polenta, etc.)
Chicken thighs or other parts
1 medium or large chopped onion
Parsley, chopped fine (I like a lot of it)
A few tbs. of tomato paste, or a few canned tomatoes (or the equivalent fresh ones)
½ cup red or white wine
Salt & pepper to taste
Brown the sausage in a heavy pot over low or medium heat. Keep turning the sausage or it will stick to the pot and break into pieces. When the sausage is browned all over, remove it and set it aside in a bowl. Then brown the chicken in the fat from the sausage. Return the sausage to the pot and add the chopped onion. Cook until the onion is lemon color. Add the parsley.
Cover with enough water to cover the stew. Add more water if needed. Add salt and pepper as desired. Then dissolve the tomato paste (or add the tomatoes) into the stew. Use more if desired, although in our family we just did this for a bit of color, not for a tomato-y sauce. Last, add the wine.
Cook with a cover until the meat is almost done. Remove the cover and let the stew simmer until it thickens. Check with a fork to see when the chicken and sausages are done (no red color). Cooking should take 1 to 1 ½ hours.
Tocio (sauce from the Veneto region)
When sitting down to a polenta dinner, my great uncle John Bellese always said in his Trevisan (Venetian) dialect, “Tocio, mette in bocio”. (He also always called mortadella “mortacavallo”, and was scolded by my grandmother for it.)
Note that this is a brown sauce. There are no tomatoes in it.
2 lbs. beef and/or veal cubes (can add or substitute chicken parts)
1 large onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
3 carrots, chopped
2-3 tbs. parsley, chopped fine
3 tbs. olive oil
3 tbs. butter
2-3 fresh sage leaves, or 1 tb. dried sage
½ cup white wine
Salt & pepper to taste
Enough water (or chicken broth, if desired) to cover the meat
Sauté the onion, celery and carrots in the oil and butter a few minutes until the onion is golden brown. Add the meat and brown the cubes (and chicken parts, if used). Then add the parsley. Pour in enough water (or chicken broth) to cover the meat. Add the sage, salt and pepper, as desired. Bring to a boil and then simmer until the meat is done, probably in about 1 ½ to 2 hours. Add the wine about 10-15 minutes before the stew is done.
If the tocio seems too thin, in the last half hour thicken it with some flour. (First, stir the flour into a small amount of cold water before adding it to the stew.)
Of course, if you insist, you can always add some tomato paste or tomatoes to this stew, as well as other herbs and spices as desired.
The best lasagna in our family was made by my aunt, Tosca Bertolotti Disoteo (and, as I vaguely recall from childhood, by my great aunt Maria Bertolotti). I do not have Aunt Tosca’s recipe or secrets, but my mother must have exchanged tips with her sister over the years. No one in the family (immediate family at least) ever made lasagna with béchamel.
2 tbs. olive oil or butter for sautéing
1-2 lbs. ground beef
1 minced onion
1 clove minced garlic
1 tsp. minced parsley
1/2 can tomato paste
½ can water or wine
1 small can whole tomatoes
Salt and pepper to taste
Note: This sauce also is good with pasta. Add a bit of fresh mint for variety.
Sauté the onion, brown the meat, add the other ingredients and simmer for 1 ½ to 2 hours
½ lb. mozzarella cheese, sliced thin or shredded
½ lb swiss cheese, sliced thin
1 lb. ricotta
4 oz. grated parmesan cheese
3 egg yolks
Beat the egg yolks and 2-3 oz. of the parmesan cheese into the ricotta with an eggbeater. Set the swiss cheese and mozzarella aside until assembly (unless they are already shredded; if so, you might as well stir them into the filling) Stir in salt and pepper to taste.
1 lb. lasagne
5 quarts of water
Put the noodles in boiling water and boil them for 6 minutes, stirring constantly to prevent them from sticking together. Drain, and pour cold water over them immediately, and lay them out to dry on towels.
Assembly and Baking:
Preheat oven to 375 degrees
Spread a small amount of oil, melted butter or spray on the bottom and sides of the baking dish (a dish long enough for the lasagne, if possible). Then spread a thin layer of sauce (very little) on the bottom of the dish. Then add alternate layers of lasagne, sauce and the ricotta mixture. Continue layering until all ingredients are used, ending with sauce and the remaining grated cheese on top.
Bake in 350-degree oven for 30-4- minutes, or until the mozzarella is melted.
Cover the dish with foil and bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes. Remove foil and bake an additional 5-10 minutes.
After removing it from the oven, always allow the lasagna to sit for 15 minutes before serving. Cut into squares and serve.
The lasagna may be assembled the day before and refrigerated. On the day when it goes into the oven allow about 15 minutes baking time more than the directions above.
Or, the lasagna can be put together and frozen without baking. Take it from the freezer and leave it in the refrigerator for 2 days before baking.
Or (I love it this way) bake the lasagna for 20 minutes at 350 degrees the day before serving. On the day it will be served, bake it for about another ½ hour.
Or, You can bake the lasagna for 30 minutes, allow it to cool and then freeze it. Then, if there is no time to thaw it in the refrigerator as mentioned above, remove it from the freezer, place it in a 350-degree oven, cover it and bake for 1 hour. Then remove the cover and continue baking until it is hot and bubbling, about another hour.
Both sides of my family make gnocchi. In fact a few years ago, the younger members of the Bertolotti family, along with cousin Vera Masutti and my wife Wendy and I, had a gnocchi fest, each preparing their own version, under the guidance of the queen of the Italian kitchen, Eugenia (Jeanne) Masutti Bertolotti. Mine was the worst. It was my first attempt, and it was based on a recipe I found for sweet potato gnocchi, so it was not seriously in the competition. Still, it was quite edible. There was some great gnocchi that day, but I still remember my Grandma Angelina Mazzer’s, that melted in the mouth, with a delicious sauce. I don’t know if she ever set foot in Bologna, but it was similar to a bolognese sauce. Wendy and I “inherited” her gnocchi board, and I hope it will be passed on to the next generation.
Angelina Bellese Mazzer’s Gnocchi
Actually, that title is insulting to her. Making and then cooking gnocchi is all in the technique, and the strict mixing of ingredients (although, like most grandmothers, she did not bother with measuring cups or the like). Making gnocchi like hers will take practice, and luck.
Ingredients (for 4 servings):
3 lbs. Idaho potatoes (usually about 6 medium potatoes)
2-3 tsp. salt
1 beaten egg yolk
Flour (about 1 cup)
You will have to experiment, and may have to use more flour, even doubling it if necessary. In any case, you need enough flour to hold the dumplings together.
Place the potatoes in boiling water with 1 to 1 ½ teaspoons salt. Boil until just tender, about 15 minutes. Peel immediately (ouch!) and mash or put them through a ricer. In a large bowl mix together the potatoes, flour, egg yolks and remaining salt into a dough ball. You can use your hands for this.
Next, you will need a clean wooden gnocchi board, or the equivalent, or a table. In any case, the surface should be lightly floured. Transfer the dough to the surface and knead it lightly. Then roll the dough into ropes, about ½-inch thick or so. Cut the “rope” into pieces, no more than 1 inch long. Roll each piece down the back of a fork, to make indentations to hold the sauce better. Set each piece on the floured board, but make sure that they do not touch each other.
Place the gnocchi a few at a time into a big pot of boiling water. Cook them until they rise to the top, and then a minute or two longer. Remove them with a slotted spoon, making sure that they are drained well. Transfer to a warm platter.
Serve with sauce and grated cheese.
We usually serve this with a meat sauce. Here is a typical one from my Mom’s recipes.
Gelsie Bertolotti Mazzer’s Meat Sauce for Gnocchi
6-8 tbs. olive oil (or butter)
1 medium or large diced onion
1-2 cloves finely diced garlic
½ cup finely chopped parsley
1 finely diced carrot
A few chopped up basil leaves, or a little dried basil
1 lb. chopped beef
½ can tomato paste (more, if you like it)
1 medium can of Italian-style peeled tomatoes (more, if you like a tomato-y sauce)
¼ cup white or red wine
Salt and pepper to taste (2-4 tsp. salt, usually, but I prefer no salt at all)
Heat one-half of the olive oil in a Le Creuset or other suitable saucepot. Sauté the onion and carrot until the onion is translucent. Then add the garlic and basil, and continue sautéing another minute or so. Add the wine and then the peeled tomatoes, with their liquid, and simmer for 30 minutes.
A few minutes before those 30 minutes are done, sauté the chopped beef with the remaining olive oil, adding the parsley and the salt and pepper. When the meat is cooked through, add it to the sauce. Then add the tomato paste, and simmer the sauce for another 15 minutes.
Here is another sauce good with gnocchi
Gorgonzola Sauce for Gnocchi
½ lb. butter
1 cup heavy cream
½ lb. crumbled gorgonzola cheese (or Danish blue cheese)
2/3 cup grated parmesan cheese
Pepper to taste
Sizzle the butter in a saucepot. Add the heavy cream and bring it to a boil. Add the gorgonzola and simmer for 3-4 minutes. Add the pepper as desired. When done, stir in the parmesan cheese. Pour over hot gnocchi.
Once the gnocchi are cut and rolled on a fork they can be refrigerated or frozen instead of boiling them right away.
Some people prefer just melted butter and grated cheese over the gnocchi rather than sauce.
Spaghetti and Macaroni
My family used pasta straight from the box, or fresh from Maria’s store in Botany Village, or homemade. But in any case the usual preparation method of my grandparents’ generation was “pastasciutta” (pronounced more like “pasta suta” by the relatives from the Venetian region). “Asciutta” means dry, but my understanding was that they were referring not to dry pasta from a box, as opposed to fresh, but rather to pasta with just a little sauce. The way my grandparents, great aunts and uncles and others prepared pasta, when it was cooked it was mixed into the sauce, instead of pouring the sauce over it. More importantly, they used just enough sauce to coat the pasta.
The following sauces seem good for that purpose.
Charles Bertolotti’s Spaghetti Sauce
Small piece of salt pork, minced very fine
Small piece of butter
½ tbs. olive oil
½ onion chopped fine
¾ can tomato paste
1-2 cups water
Parsley, as desired, chopped fine
If you want the sauce less tomato-y, use less of the paste and add water as desired.
Sauté the onion in the oil, butter and salt pork, then add the other ingredients. Cook for 1 ½ hours.
Here is a variation:
Sauté ½ onion (chopped fine) in oil or butter. Add 1 can tomato paste and 5 cups water. Cook.
Of course we also made “regular” Italian-American style pasta.
Red Clam Sauce
1/3 cup olive oil
1 clove garlic, chopped fine
½ green pepper, chopped
¼ cup minced parsley
3 ½ cups canned Italian tomatoes
1 can tomato paste
2 cans minced clams
½ cup wine (optional)
½ tsp. dried oregano
Salt and pepper to taste
Sauté the garlic in hot oil until brown; remove. Drain clams and save the liquid. Add the peppers, tomatoes, tomato paste, seasonings, wine (if using) and clam broth to the oil. Simmer over low heat for 30 minutes. Then add the clams and parsley (and the sautéed garlic, if desired) and cook a little longer.
The tomato paste may be omitted.
White Clam Sauce
¼ cup olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 onion, finely chopped
1 large can (No. 2 ½) minced clams
2 tbs. minced parsley
¼ cup white wine (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
Brown the parsley, onion and garlic in hot oil until cooked. Season, and add the clams, with their water. Let simmer for 2 minutes. (Do not overcook or the clams will become too hard.)
Meatballs and Spaghetti
Ingredients (for 8 meatballs, with sauce):
1 lb. ground chuck
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
¼ cup finely minced parsley
2 tsp. salt
Pepper to taste (1/4 tsp. as a recommendation)
¼ cup dried bread crumbs
¼ cup milk (or a bit less)
1 beaten egg
¼ cup flour
¼ cup olive oil
½ cup chopped onion
1 can tomato soup (plus ¼ can water)
1 8-oz. can of tomatoes (plus 1 can water)
Combine the meat, garlic, parsley, one-half of the salt, pepper, breadcrumbs, milk, egg and one-half of the onions. Mix thoroughly and shape into 8 meatballs. Roll the balls in the flour.
Brown the meatballs in hot oil in a frying and then remove them.
In a large pot, put in the tomato soup, tomatoes, water and the remaining onions and salt, and pepper to taste. Then add the meatballs. Simmer without a cover until the meatballs are cooked, about 2 hours.
For 20 or more meatballs, use 3 lbs. of chopped meat and increase the above ingredients proportionately.
Tip: Ground veal or ground pork can be substituted for some or all of the beef.