In life, the only certainty is change. We change physically, locations change, and world views change. Tastes too! Tracing back the ancestry of many Piedmont North Carolinians, any genealogical researcher knows that Quakers and Mennonites migrated to the Old North State more than 200 years ago. If we follow that group back to their beginnings in America, we find ourselves on the shores of the Delaware River with Quakers straddling both sides. The first major city in America was Philadelphia, a carefully laid out tract of land William Penn bequeathed to the Society of Friends. In Philadelphia, every major architectural wonder bears the name of Franklin or Penn. A few decades ago, no building was allowed higher than the tip of Willy Penn’s hat on top of the prominent statue, the apex of the magnificent Rittenhouse –the Court House.
Time marches on. Although there are still Quaker Meeting Houses and the Amish and Mennonites still sell their wares and baked goods at Reading Market Terminal, Philadelphia today is an infusion of many cultures. Strolling down the streets, one spots Indian saris, turbans, Caribbean shirts, yarmulkes, straw hats, bandanas, African scarves, and European berets. Cultures don’t collide in Philly; they abide. Maybe, the old Quaker philosophy of tolerance of differences and peaceful solutions to conflict have contributed to this wealth of diversity, where a centerpiece in one park is a block statue sporting the letters L-O-V-E!
A large population of Philly is Italian. Climb the steps to the Philadelphia Art Museum and gaze down at the iconic 20th century likeness of Rocky Balboa- the Italian Stallion of the cinema. Italian eateries are ubiquitous, but I discovered a secret place tucked in the back of the Reading Terminal Market on 12th and Arch (down the street from the Old Arch Street Meeting House.) The place is called La Cucina. The cook’s a delightful Italian professor at Temple University, Anna Florio. As she explains the dishes she’s concocting, she uses Italian expressions; you get a mini-language lesson while stirring the pot.
The relish she made for the “bruschetta” was composed of chick peas, olive oil, and garlic. The correct pronunciation of “bruschetta” is a hard “K” sound not a soft “s”. She gave other linguistic tips too. Although she loves “The Sopranos,” she says their Jersey Italian wasn’t authentic. In Italy, one never leaves off the last syllable of words.
We created a “putanesca” sauce which translated means a “harlot’s” sauce –hot and spicy. “Never use canned tomatoes with Italian spices, only whole tomatoes, preferably fresh.” Also, plum tomatoes from Italy are great to add. She has fresh ingredients 100 steps away in the market but canned whole tomatoes work, as well.
She sautés anchovies in olive oil and promises we won’t overly notice them in the sauté. She removes their spines; they become infused in the oil. The cheese is Pequerino Romana (sheep’s milk cheese). It’s salty, tangy. “Get long red peppers that are shaped like chili peppers. Flake them. Seed is where the kick is,” says our chef.
She collects volunteers to tear off the arugula for the salad; she uses red onions. Fennel is like anise but different; it’s a breath freshener. She uses two kinds of oranges for her salad: blood oranges from Italy or California and Kava oranges which have a tangerine taste.
Anna reminds us that the cut, toasted bread for bruschetta should never be stored in plastic, only in a paper bag to keep it crunchy. With regional cooking, everyone in the area tells you authoritatively that it is the only way to do it! That is the way her Italian grandma is. Anna has found with Italian cooking, the key is not to over-sauce things and to use small portions. “Serve many courses; keep them fresh.” Italian cooking is not complex like French haute cuisine. Italian cooking is straightforward and inexpensive. About olive oils, she responded that extra virgin was best because it was the first pressing and therefore the purest. With every additional pressing more stuff falls into the batch besides the oil. She said never to mix the salad dressing into the salad. Pour it over the dish only when ready to serve. With garlic, never let it see the sun. If it does, it will sprout! Put the whole clove in your sauce but take it out when sauce is done. Cook on high heat but remember high heat needs commitment; there is no resurrection from burning. The different names of pasta were explained. She told us “linguini” meant ‘tongues;” “orchietta” meant “little ears;” “penne” meant “quill pens;” “vermicelli” meant “little worms;” and “spaghetti” meant nothing at all! If you use fresh pasta, done by hand, it requires only a third of the time to cook. Never soak pasta. Always put in during a rapid boil. Start counting the minutes from the second boil because you want the pasta to be “al dente.” No oil in pot. Put pasta in first and then salt. She prefers sea salt. She advised not to rinse pasta ever. She also said to save water you cooked pasta in, and you might use if you need to stretch your sauce. Break the penne open and see a little white, and that is perfect. Her main admonition. “Pasta waits for no one.” In Italy, everyone is seated and ready to be served before mama takes the pasta off the stove. It’ll get gumpy if it sits. When asked about salad dressings, Anna replied it’s hard to screw up salad dressing. She likes to make one of white wine vinegar, freshly squeezed orange juice, real parmesan cheese, and olive oil. She always puts a few salad ingredients on top of the salad for eye appeal rather than mix them all in.
In Italy, eating is like a religious moment. For a main meal there are several courses: aperitif, antipasto, primo (pasta dish), segundo (fish, chicken, meat), salad and side, fruit and cheese. They don’t eat dessert afterward. That happens only in Italian-American restaurants, or ones catering to American tourists. In Italy there’s always a table cloth, and the main meal is served at lunchtime after which there is a rest period. They eat slowly, savor the food, and enjoy the company. Sitting down to eat is a serious ritual.
Then, Anna broached the subject of cannoli. She uses ricotta cheese, chocolate chips, and cinnamon sugar. Cannoli is a Sicilian dessert that has become very popular here. She uses a plastic bag with a cut hole as a squeezer for the filling. Making the shells is the time consuming part!
When asked about the recipes and tips, Anna referred us to her website: [email protected], so I do you.
As the world shrinks, we have expanded our palettes for cuisines from different areas. Perhaps, on your next family vacation stop while the kiddies tour the Liberty Bell, Mama can tour Reading Market and take a cooking class with Anna. Then, upon returning home, she can take a little knowledge of the old country back and prepare a dish and tell the youngins’ that if they clean their plates, they will grow up to look just like Rocky Balboa! And, that’s no baloney!