Saturday, June 21, 2014

Chopped, Italian Style

Our first night here, Fabio announced that he had offered my services as a judge in a local cooking competition and all he needed was my assent to confirm my reservation for Wednesday night at 8:30 at a well regarded local restaurant.  Sandy was naturally invited as well and would have free rein for her photography, as was Fernando.  I find the idea of an American telling an Italian of any stripe, much less an Italian chef, how to cook, pretty ludicrous, as I suspect you do, but who could pass off an offer like that?  So at 8pm on Wednesday night Fabio drove us from the villa to the Centro of Agropoli for the big event.  We arrived under threatening skies, and Sandy wondered whether she should bring an umbrella to which I responded in my typical flippant way that it wouldn’t rain.  Big mistake to flout the weather gods that way.
But first we ducked into the beautiful new Agropoli Commune, or city hall, where Fabio has his office and out from an office ran Katiruscea!  Hugs and kisses and laughter and much banter from our beautiful, funny, affectionate friend who, sadly, was on duty (Katiuscea is also a muncipal police officer) and so couldn’t come with us.  We strolled up to the main piazza and scooted down a side street to Ristorante da Ciccio, an elegant looking place where I was delighted to see my friend Dottore Luigi Crispini, a local academic who wrote a wonderful book on the Mediterranean diet, first studied here, and popularized in the West by American physiologist Ancel Keys, who lived here for many years.  I've happily bumped into Luigi several times over the years in our role as foodies.  Unlike me, Luigi definitely had the chops to judge this competition.  We schmoozed for a while (de rigeur in any such Italian gathering), met the lovely organizer of the event, Signora Anna Noviello, who directs a local consortium called Informagiovane di Agropoli, as well as the emcees, Gianni Petrizzo and his wife Raffaella Giaccio.  These two operate a local cable channel and were as good looking and charming as you might expect from two such Italian media figures. 
Eventually we got down to the business at hand, and the judges were seated at a large central table and other invited guests seated around the periphery.  Signora Noviella began a brief video to introduce the event....and the heavens opened.  I mean, it poured the rain, buckets, sheets, tons!  I’ve never seen rain like that in Italy and rarely in North Carolina except during a hurricane.  Forgive the crude expression, but this one went way past frog-strangler status to an actual turd-floater!  And all the while, Signora Noviella and our dauntless emcees soldiered on!
Next came a comedy skit by two talented local wits.  It was difficult to hear their routine, the rain on the roof was so thunderous.  Unfortunately we were in the part of the restaurant which was really a sort of pavillion.  You see them in many Italian restaurants, basically large tents to extend the seating and take advantage of the lovely weather in summer.  But not tonight.  First I felt one drip on my head, then another, and before long there were large puddles in several places on the floor and guests were frantically backpeddling to find higher ground.  And still our emcees battled on!  The comedic banter was so rapid that I could not have followed the Italian had I been able to hear it, but the comic timing was spot on and the locals seemed to enjoy it immensely.  And then we got down to the serious business of judging some food!
Actually I was relieved to hear that these were not professional chefs at all, but young Agropolitans who were beginning their training as Chefs a Domicilio, personal chefs.  You know, the kind that rich yuppies hire to come in and cook for them.  One of the goals of Informagiovane di Agropoli is to promote employment among young people in this area where unemployment among kids 19-25 is a staggering 47%.  Noble work indeed.  These youngsters (they seemed to range from about 17 to 24 or so) had spent several months under the tutelage of local chef Antonio Cedrola, learning basic cookery and developing recipes, before they went off to more advanced training.  Presumably they will eventually find work here catering to groups of tourists who rent apartments by the week in this popular resort area.
We ‘experts’ were introduced—local doctors, businessmen and women, Luigi, Sr. Alfonso Rotolo, who operates a local vineyard which produces wonderful wines which I have had the pleasure of sampling, and immediately to my right a beautiful young woman named Federica Voza.  Federica was probably the most qualified of all of us.  She was born in Paestum and grew up in the tourism industry; her family owns an agriturismo, a sort of Italian bed-and-breakfast on a working farm.  The Vozas also own a family farm where they grow grapes for another excellent winery, Polito.  And like the young competitors here, Federica found opportunity stifled by the Italian system but in her case fled to London as do so many bright, bilingual young Italians.  And like so many of them, she finally had had enough of the miserable continental weather (and I suspect of British stuffiness, though she was much too genteel to say so) and came back to mother Italy, settling in Rome where she promotes Italian luxury products, including foods and wines, to foreign importers.  Most important for Dave was that her English was impeccable and she was assigned translation duties for the idiot American.
Each student brought out and served one dish and then was briefly interviewed about the dish and the idea behind it.  These were obviously the dishes of talented novices, all quite good though lacking in a few technical areas.  Judges graded on presentation and taste.  Our antipasti were cute litlle skewered ciliego, cherry-sized mozzarella balls encircled by a wedge of sun-dried tomato and a basil leaf, a riff on the famous Caprese; another classic, melone con prosciutto, thin wedges of cantaloupe draped with the wonderful Italian cured ham; my personal favorite, squash flowers stuffed with the local goat-milk ricotta, but in this case a ricotta affumicata, smoked cheese.  The salty funk of of cheese perfectly balanced the sweetness of the flowers.
Primi, the traditional Italian pasta/starch dishes, were a vegetable puree covered with black Thai rice, very pretty but also very bland with a slightly bitter taste (which is not necessarily a bad thing in Italian cuisine); spaghetti draped with roasted slivers of eggplant, topped with chopped roasted tomatoes and served with a classic pesto on the side; and hand-made fusilli served with a zucchini puree.  Secondi were another local classic deconstructed, this time little fillets of uncured alici, the anchovies for which these waters are famous, stuffed with more local ricotta; and a Neapolitan specialty, pizza dough rolled around slices of sopresatta and mozzarella and baked, then slced into wedges.  The one dessert was a cute little bon bon composed of ricotta cheese, chopped local almonds and dried fichi bianci, the white figs for which the region is also rightly famous.  These last served with slices of local oranges.  We are in citrus heaven here.
With these delights we were served two famous local wines, a white Fiano, easily my favorite white grape in the world, an undiscovered treasure in most of the world which I am convinced has enormous export potential, and a red Piedirosso.  In an earlier blog I made some catty remark, I think, about Piedirosso being a ‘pedestrian’ grape.  Mea culpa!  Mea maxima culpa!  In my defense the only samples I had tried were decidedly, well..pedestrian.  But this guy was incredible:  huge nose, huge aromas of berries, coffee, pipe tobacco, huge tannic structure—God, how I miss tannins in modern wines—huge everything.  I noticed the bottle made its way around the table to Signore Rotolo, the winemaker, where it stayed.  I finally had to threaten him with a table knife to get it to come back my way.
Happily the judging was a simple 1-5 scale and none of the snarky comments of the television shows were required. Nor were they indicated.  All the food was good, and often better than good, the presentations were imaginative if not inspired—in short, these young folks have the potential to go places with cookery and I hope they do.  The winner, perhaps unsurprisingly, was the dessert, presented by Severio, who was as unaffected but attractive as his entry.  His victory prize was a chef’s hat with stripes of the tricolore.  Gotta score one of those babies before I leave.  The rain subsided, the crowd was congenial, the hosts delightful and the kids were irresistibly charming to a one.  As usual with Italian dining, the company was the most delicious dish of all.  The highlight of the evening for me was being allowed to present their diplomas to some of our young chefs.  But, oh, what a faux pas!  I didn’t realize the kissie-kissie thing was part of the protocols and so all they got from the Americano was a handshake and hearty congratulations.  I bet those Italian kids were just crushed.

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