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Wine book uncorks party at Lidia's

Thursday, June 27, 2002

By Woodene Merriman, Post-Gazette Senior Editor

Lidia Bastianich had very little to do with the Vino Italiano dinner at Lidia's, or so she says. Her son, Joe Bastianich, and his college buddy, David Lynch, working with the staff at Lidia's Pittsburgh, chose the menu and the wines to go with each course.

Lidia Bastianich, second from left, introduces her son, Joe Bastianich, to Carole Corley, far right, of San Francisco, and her cousin Marlene Hall of Akron, Ohio, before the start of the party to introduce Joe's cookbook at Lidia's in the Strip. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Like a good mother, though, Lidia came to the dinner, along with 65 other guests. She dished out the pasta course herself and disappeared into the kitchen for quite a while before the braised boar was served. Is it possible that she, too, thought the boar was too dry and lacked flavor and was trying to rescue it?

But a good mother doesn't criticize in public. Lidia wasn't even noticeably perturbed when the wine-drinking guests got loud. "Isn't it great!" she replied with a smile as I commented on all the noise. Of course, maybe she didn't hear me. With clatter rising from the restaurant below, and the guests at the wine dinner served on the loft trying to talk to each other across the tables (an impossible task), it's likely she didn't hear me.

The book we all came to hear about, however, is getting great reviews, as well it should. In "Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy," Joe Bastianich and Lynch have written not only the definitive guide to today's Italian wines, but one that is an interesting read, too. It explores the art of making wine and of drinking it. With this book, you can throw out all the outdated Italian wine books on your shelf. "Vino Italiano" has everything you want to know about Italian wines.

Chapters about each region open with a magazine-like story. An interest in wine isn't necessary to enjoy the prose, to read about the popularity of horse meat in Veneto or the "fry guys" of Liguria.

"We didn't want the book to be a bland accounting of the facts," Lynch said. And they succeeded.

The 528-page, $35 volume, published by Clarkson Potter, has every possible fact about Italian wines you could want to find, too, and, at the close of each chapter, recipes by mama Lidia and chef Mario Batali.

The authors are well-qualified for the task. Joe Bastianich, 33, grew up in the family's Italian restaurants and now owns a wine business and an Italian vineyard and is co-owner, with Batali, of acclaimed restaurants Babbo, Esca and Lupa in New York City; and Becca and Felidia in New York City, as well as Lidia's Kansas City and Lidia's Pittsburgh, in partnership with his mother.

Lynch, 34, despite his Irish last name, is a third-generation Italian on his mother's side and is wine director at Babbo. He was a senior editor at Wine & Spirits magazine, where he won a James Beard journalism award last year. He also went to Italy for a year, steeping himself in the culture, in preparation for this book.

Lidia, of course, is the James Beard "Chef of the Year," author of "Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen" (it won its category in the International Association of Culinary Professionals cookbook contest); a television chef, and the co-owner of Lidia's Pittsburgh and other restaurants.

Mario Batali, who did not come to Pittsburgh for the dinner, is author of "The Babbo Cookbook" and co-owner of Babbo.

Joe and Lidia Bastianich enjoy a quiet moment together at the party. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

For last Thursday's $75 Vino Italiano dinner, the authors chose to start with fresh, fruit-flavored Peach Apricot Bellinis, served with prosciutto and Parmesan. The appetizer, Frico Friulano, a crisp cheese tart made with Montasio cheese, arborio rice and potatoes, was served with Scarbolo Tocai Friulano.

The frico recipe is one that Lidia contributed to the book, and the wine, like the others that followed, is on the wine list at Lidia's Pittsburgh.

The hit of the evening was spaghetti carbonara, made with pieces of onion in the traditional sauce and served with Catone Frascati. The disappointment was the sliced, braised wild boar, served on a bed of creamy white polenta, along with glasses of Il Poggione Rosso di Montalcino.

Dessert was Lemon Panna Cotta and poached cherries -- not from the book -- with Mionetto Prosecco.

Lidia spoke briefly at the start of dinner, confessing that she "infected my children with the love of food and wine."

Joe was launched in a promising finance career before he decided trading corporate bonds wasn't as interesting as food and wine. She recalled, too, the days at the beginning and end of semesters at Boston College, when Lynch would show up at their house with Joe, "leaving or picking up mattresses or something," and stay a few days.

Joe Bastianich and Lynch started commenting on the courses and wines during the meal, but gave up after the first try. Instead, along with Lidia, they moved around the tables after dinner, autographed books and talked with their guests, like the good Italian hosts they are.


Spaghetti Carbonara

Mario Batali contributed this recipe for the Lazio chapter of the book. The cold, crisp Catone Frascati was a fine contrast to the cheesy, chewy noodles. Our servings, incidentally, did not have an egg yolk on top.

1 pound spaghetti
2 tablespoons salt
1 pound guanciale, or pancetta, or good-quality slab bacon, cut into 1-inch matchsticks
1 large red onion, cut into 1/2-inch dice
4 jumbo eggs, whites and yolks, separated with the yolks placed into individual small bowls
1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese, plus 1/4 cup for garnish
2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper

Place 6 quarts of water to boil in a large pot with 2 tablespoons salt.

Place the guanciale and the onion into a cold 12- to 14-inch saute pan over medium heat. Cook until the guanciale and the onion are very soft and most of the fat has been rendered from the meat, about 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, drain all but 4 tablespoons of the fat and reserve.

Cook the spaghetti about 1 minute less than the package instructions and drain, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water. Toss the spaghetti into the pan with the guanciale mixture and the reserved pasta cooking water.

Set over medium heat and cook until the pasta is dressed like a salad, about 1 minute, then remove the pan from the heat. In a small bowl, beat the egg whites together with the 1/2 cup pecorino and the black pepper, and pour into the pan with the pasta.

Toss or stir until well combined, about 30 seconds.

Divide among 4 plates and place one egg yolk on the top of each serving (don't worry, the heat of the pasta will lightly cook the egg; if you're worried about raw eggs, either omit this step or blend the yolk into the hot pasta so that it cooks more thoroughly). Sprinkle with the remaining cheese and serve immediately. Serves 4.

Cotoletta Alla Valdostana

One of the recipes Lidia contributed to the book is this veal dish, representative of Valle d'Aosta. Wine recommendation: Les Cretes Valle d'Aosta Fumin or a Barbera d'Alba from Piedmont.

2 pounds veal or pork cutlets, pounded to about 1/4-inch thickness and cut into 4-by-2-inch medallions
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
4 large eggs, beaten
6 cups bread crumbs
4 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 pound prosciutto, thinly sliced
1/4 pound fontina cheese, thinly sliced

Preheat the broiler.

After pounding the cutlets, bread them by dusting first with flour, then dipping in the beaten eggs followed by the bread crumbs.

In a medium non-stick skillet, heat the butter and olive oil over a medium-high flame until the foam subsides. Add the cutlets in one layer and saute in batches until golden brown on both sides, approximately 3 minutes per side. Add more butter and oil if necessary.

Top each cutlet with a slice or two of proscuitto followed by a slice or two of fontina. Place the cutlets in a baking tray and broil for 1 to 2 minutes, or until the fontina melts. Be careful not to scorch the cheese by placing the rack too close to the flame. Sauteed bitter greens such as broccoli rabe or escarole make a great side dish. Serves 6.

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