My Family Christmas Menu Suggestions

Passing It On--Cooking with My Godson
Passing It On–Cooking with My Godson

Some say that the most important meal this season is the Christmas Eve fish dinner. I’m doing the Neapolitan-inspired Feast of Seven Fishes, La Festa dei Sette Pesci.

But you gotta eat after everyone is done opening all their presents Christmas day, right? When I’m back east with family for Christmas, we cook up a fantastic four-course dinner.

3 generations will cook together and our Italian-American dinner will include some dishes that my family has made since they first immigrated to America over a hundred years ago.

We gather around the table at about 2 in the afternoon. The leisurely meal will last until early evening.

Create your own Christmas feast. We’re still working on our final menu but here are some of the dishes that are on our list.

Antipasto (before the meal)

The antipasto is a preview of the meal to come. It’s the icebreaker as your guests settle in at the table. It starts the conversation and tantalizes your taste buds to let you know of the culinary delights to come.

It's easy to make a lovely antipasti platter!
It’s easy to make a lovely antipasti platter!

 

A platter with a selection of Italian salumi (cured meats) and cheeses is a must. Watch me put together a beautiful antipasti platter in this short video.

Neapolitan Christmas Salad with pickled vegetables, cauliflower florets and olives
Neapolitan Christmas Salad with pickled vegetables, cauliflower florets and olives

I may pair the platter with a traditional Neapolitan Christmas salad, insalata di rinforza.

 

 

If we don’t go the platter-salad route I know my family will want some artichokes to start the our Christmas meal.

Easy Crispy Baby Artichokes
Easy Crispy Baby Artichokes

 

These crispy baby artichokes are always a favorite.

Or make one Roman-style stuffed artichoke for each guest.

 

 

 

Primo  Piatto (First Course)

A fancy pasta is our usual choice. We’ll probably make a lasagna. Here are 2 to choose from.

Lasagna al forno con balsamella. Layers of homemade pasta, Bolognese meat sauce, grated parmigiano and fresh mozzarella, and bechamel.
Lasagna al forno con balsamella. Layers of homemade pasta, Bolognese meat sauce, grated parmigiano and fresh mozzarella, and bechamel.

 

The lasagna al forno is a bit more complicated but you can assemble it the day before and bake it Christmas day. It’s incredible and well worth the effort.

 

 

A ricotta & sausage lasagna you can eat in about an hour
A ricotta & sausage lasagna you can eat in about an hour

 

 

This lasagna is a quick version that you can get in the oven in less than 30 minutes.

 

 

 

Spinach and Ricotta Cannelloni
Baked crespelle (crepes) stuffed with spinach & ricotta in a light tomato sauce.

 

And I know there will be some votes for one of my Mom’s spinach & ricotta cannelloni in a simple tomato sauce.

 

 

 

Chicken and Escarole Soup with Veal Meatballs
Chicken and Escarole Soup with Veal Meatballs

 

 

For a lighter first course try my delicious “Italian Wedding Soup” with chicken, escarole & tiny veal meatballs. It’s a real crowd pleaser.

 

 

 

Secondo Piatto (Main Course)

Porchetta
Porhcetta–Herb Filled Pork Roast

My choice is my porchetta roast with onions caramelized with balsamic vinegar and rosemary roasted potatoes on the side.

This was the episode that started the “Porchetta War” with a bunch of Italians. If you have time, check out my video on how I beat the Italians at their own game.

If you want to combine these 2 versions of porchetta just ask you butcher for a skin-on pork belly and wrap that around the loin roast before you tie it up and roast it in the oven.

Roasted boneless chicken breast stuffed with spinach & prosciutto
Roasted boneless chicken breast stuffed with spinach & prosciutto

 

 

Or if we don’t do pork, my family hasn’t had my turkey breast stuffed with spinach and prosciutto with a quick pan gravy. Serve it with my garlic mashed potatoes for an easy second course.

 

 

 

 

Dolci (Dessert)

And to end the meal, maybe just some fruit and roasted chestnuts.

Or try these dolci (desserts) that you can make the day before for a bigger end to you meal.

Tiramisu, the Italian "pick-me-up" with mascarpone cream and ladyfingers soaked in espresso & Marsala with chocolate all over
Tiramisu, the Italian “pick-me-up” with mascarpone cream and ladyfingers soaked in espresso & Marsala with chocolate all over

 

Tiramisu is really not that hard to make. After you make the mascarpone filling and the espresso-rum dip for the ladyfingers it’s a snap to assemble.

 

 

 

Easy to make Panettone Bread Pudding
Easy to make Panettone Bread Pudding

 

This time of the year most Italian and Italian-American households have panettone in the house. This sweet bread studded with raisins and candied citrus makes a fantastic panettone bread pudding. It’s ready in no time and even better if you make it the day before.

 

 

Liquore di Fragole (Strawberry Liquore)
Liquore di Fragole (Strawberry Liqueur)

 

A Finishing Touch

Some espresso and maybe one of my homemade liqueurs and you can call it a wrap. Make my liquore di fragole (strawberry liqueur) with its beautiful Christmas hue or limoncello a few days in advance and you’re good to go.

A little Christmas gift for you at the end of the limoncello video, a suggestion for an easy sweet end to your meal

Buon Natale. Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. Buon Appetito!

Cannoli Siciliani: Crispy Tubes Filled with Sweet Creamy Ricotta

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Homemade cannoli are easy to make and even easier to eat.
Homemade cannoli are easy to make and even easier to eat.

Often at the end of a special meal growing up in Jersey Italian pastries would cap off the day’s celebration.

I’d visit Ferrara’s Pastry on Bloomfield Avenue in Newark and buy a dozen and a half of my family’s favorites. Sfogliatelle, baba, Cannoli, Neapoleans, eclairs. After Ferrara’s closed Calandra’s Bakery near the Water Tower and Dicky Dee’s fried hot dog joint further down Bloomfield Avenue became my go to place.

Here in San Francisco’s North Beach my favorite cannoli (little tubes) is Santo’s at Cavalli Cafe on Stockton. He fills them when you order one and drizzles the ends with his fresh orange syrup. He has regular size and minis. I always get the regular.

But I like my homemade cannoli too. They’re fun to make and really not that difficult. You can make the shells ahead and fill them just before serving.

My shells are crispy with blisters all over so be careful, they’ll shatter as you bite into the sweet, creamy ricotta filling studded with candied orange and chocolate chips.

If you don’t want to make your own shells you can buy the shells. I got a box of Ferrara’s shells at North Beach’s Molinari Deli on Columbus. Whip up your own ricotta filling and fill the shells just before serving so they stay don’t get soggy.

Zeppole di San Giuseppe is a Neapolitan pastry I love too. Check out my zeppole video episode and make some for yourself.

Buon appetito!

5.0 from 1 reviews
Cannoli
 
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Author:
Recipe type: Dessert
Cuisine: Italian
Serves: 6
Ingredients
Shells
  • 4 cups sifted flour
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • ½ teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • canola or your favorite vegetable oil for frying
Filling
  • 4 cups ricotta
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1½ cups powdered sugar
  • ¼ cup mini semi-sweet chocolate chips or chopped chocolate
  • ¼ cup finely chopped candied orange peel (or lemon peel or candied citron)
Instructions
Shells
  1. Mix the flour, sugar and sea salt in a bowl. Cut in the butter.
  2. Add the yolks. Stir in the wine a little at a time until a dough forms. (Use more wine or water if the dough is too dry.)
  3. Knead the dough briefly on a well-floured board.
  4. Roll out the dough to ⅛ inch thickness, or run it through a pasta machine.
  5. Cut the dough in 4-inch circles. Wrap the circles around cannoli forms. (Buy the forms on Amazon and many retail stores.)
  6. Wet the overlapping edge and pinch the ends together. Flare out the ends.
  7. Heat the oil in a pot to 350 degrees. Use a candy thermometer to make sure the oil stay at this temperature. Fry the shells in the oil until lightly brown all over.
  8. Drain the shells on paper towel.
Filling
  1. With a wire whisk blend the ricotta with the powdered sugar until very smooth.
  2. Add the vanilla, candied fruit and chocolate and mix well into the ricotta and chill.
Assembly
  1. Fill the cannoli shells with the filling just before serving so the shells stay crispy. Piping the filling with a pastry bag works well or use a spoon to fill the cannoli from both ends.
  2. Dust with powdered sugar.

 

Food, Family & Friends

Making My Mom's Lasagna with My Godson
Passing It On–Making My Mom’s Lasagna with My Godson

How often do you get to put something inside someone’s body?

No this ain’t a sex post but it’s close.

I just returned from 3 weeks in Italy when I sat down with my friends at Hungry Village. Cameras rolling I riffed on what draws me back to Italy each year and what fuels my passion for sharing my food with family and friends in my home and with you on my blog.

I hope you enjoy a short video of my time living in a Roman neighborhood and my Italian-American lifestyle in San Francisco’s North Beach.

The folks at Hungry Village shoot and produce my video episodes. Check out these talented Hungry Village friends on Facebook and on the Hungry Village website.

Keep on cooking. Buon appetito!

 

Veal and Spring Peas from Naples

A Neapolitan classic, veal with spring peas
A Neapolitan classic, veal with spring peas

We trained to Naples from Rome and settled in to our apartment in the Spanish Quarter high above Via Chiaia and Via Toledo, Naples major shopping streets.

We have a half floor of an old palazzo and our landlady Filomene lives right next door. She gave us a tour of the apartment and the well-appointed kitchen. I have to light the stove with one of those sparking tools.

Filomene recommended an osteria around the corner for our first midday meal, an informal family run place. We were hungry and we went to eat before we even unpacked.

The owner welcomed us as he opened the door with his baby in his arms. We felt like we were eating in their dining room. The food was superb, a warm welcome to Napoli.

I had fiori di zucca as my appetizer, zucchini flowers stuffed with mozzarella and anchovy, dipped in a light batter and fried. Next spaghetti a ragu, a flavorful dark red tomato sauce. Beef braciola, a beef roll stuffed with garlic, pecorino and parsley ended my meal.

I was out today to shop in the outdoor markets in the streets around our apartment. I couldn’t get vitello e piselli out of my mind, so that’s today’s recipe.

Tender cubes of veal with sweet spring peas in a garlic and oregano infused tomato sauce. This is one of my favorite comfort foods that my Mom made often.

Veal and peas is quick and easy if you use a good cut of veal. It can be on your table in about 30 minutes.

Buon appetito!

Veal and Spring Peas from Naples
 
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A classic veal and spring peas dish in an oregano and garlic infused tomato sauce from Naples.
Author:
Recipe type: Entree
Cuisine: Italian
Serves: 4-6
Ingredients
  • 1 pound veal loin, cubed
  • 1 pound peas in the pod, shelled
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 2 cups tomato passato (sauce from Italy) or San Marzano tomatoes crushed well by hand
Instructions
  1. Put a large saute pan over medium-high heat.
  2. Add the olive oil.
  3. When the oil is hot and starts to ripple add the veal and cook until browned all over.
  4. Add the garlic, oregano and peas and mix well.
  5. Cook until the garlic is translucent and the peas start to turn bright green.
  6. Add the tomato and stir well.
  7. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the veal and peas are tender, about 12 minutes.
  8. Serve immediately.

 

Spinach Pies–My Bridge to Italy

Spinach Pies from Naples via Providence RI
Spinach Pies from Naples via Providence RI

Making spinach pies today is a culinary bridge from the States to my upcoming temporary home in Naples.

The filling is inspired by the  “Wimpy Skippy,” a crowd-pleaser from Caserta Pizzeria on Providence’s Federal Hill, an Italian-American bastion.

I’ll find variations of spinach pies, called calzone in Italy, with all kinds of fillings when I’m in Naples. Neapolitans often fry calzone but I’m baking mine instead.

If you don’t want to make your own pizza dough, buy some at the market. Making the filling and the assembly are super easy.

Watch my pizza dough recipe to see how I make one pound of dough that will make 4 big calzone.

The golden tender crust has a nutty flavor. Garlic scents the sauteed spinach filling. Oozing mozzarella tamps down the heat from the pepperoni. A meal in a tidy envelope.

I hope my next post will be one of the 2 episodes we shot recently in North Beach. I’m shooting video in Roma next week with my friend Luca and his crew. We’ll post those episodes too.

Buon appetito!

5.0 from 3 reviews
Spinach Pies
 
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Spinach pies or spinach calzones are encased in pizza dough. These are stuffed with spinach sauteed in extra virgin olive oil with garlic, topped with pepperoni and fresh mozzarella then baked in the oven.
Author:
Recipe type: Appetiser
Cuisine: Italian
Serves: 4
Ingredients
  • Spinach Stuffing
  • 4 cups cooked spinach, chopped
  • ⅓ cup black olives, sliced
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 16 pepperoni slices
  • 8 ounces fresh mozzarella, sliced
Instructions
  1. Set your oven to its highest setting. (Mine goes to 550 degrees.)
  2. Put a skillet over medium-high heat and add the olive oil and garlic.
  3. Heat the oil and cook the garlic until it just starts to pick up some color.
  4. Add the black olives and stir well.
  5. Add the spinach and sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Mix all the ingredients well.
  6. Cook until all the liquid has evaporated.
  7. If your using my pizza dough recipe, cut the dough into 4 pieces.
  8. On a well-floured board roll out the 4 dough pieces into thin rounds, about 10 inches in diameter. Or, form the rounds using your hands to stretch the dough.
  9. Starting in the middle, but ¼ of the spinach stuffing on the dough and spread it towards the rim leaving one inch border without the stuffing.
  10. Top the stuffing with 4 pepperoni slices and cover with sliced mozzarella.
  11. Fold the top half of the dough over the stuffing to form a turnover shape.
  12. Pinch the dough around the edge with your fingers to tightly seal the spinach pie.
  13. Using a pizza peel, slide each spinach pie on a pizza stone and bake until the dough is golden on top, about 8-10 minutes.
  14. (You can bake the pies on a cookie sheet brushed with olive oil if you like.)
  15. Take the spinach pies out of the oven and cool for a minute or two on a wired rack.
  16. Serve the spinach pies whole or cut in half.
  17. Serve immediately or at room temperature.
  18. (You can make the spinach pies ahead an heat them in a 375 degree oven for about 3 minutes.)

 

Meatballs Neapolitan Style

Meatballs from Napoli
Meatballs from Napoli

My trip to Italy is fast approaching. I wanted to do a couple of posts before I leave and the dishes had to be simple.

Meat-eaters love meatballs. These are from Naples and may be a bit different than what you’re used to eating here in the States. My Mom made them this way once in a while.

Usually for meatballs I use a combination of beef, pork and veal ground together but this time I’m only using beef. The addition of raisins and toasted pine nuts adds flavor dimension and texture to the meatballs.

The spicy meatballs are fork-tender. The sweetness of the raisins in tempered by the basil tomato sauce. The soft crunch of the toasted pine nuts is a welcome surprise. Simply delicious.

You can serve the meatballs with a vegetable or salad and with or without tomato sauce. I like them both ways. Don’t get too fancy though, the meatballs should be the star of your light lunch or dinner.

Use the tomato sauce to dress pasta or save it to use another time.

Keep an eye out for my 2 new video episodes that we shot in North Beach before I headed to Italy. I’ll spend 2 days shooting video in Rome. Hopefully, we’ll get a couple of new episodes of my shopping and cooking from my apartment kitchen in the heart of Roma.

Buon appetito!

Meatballs Neapolitan Style
 
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Meatballs from the heart of Naples, flavored with garlic, pecorino, raisins and pine nuts served with or without tomato sauce
Author:
Recipe type: Entree
Cuisine: Italian
Serves: 4-6
Ingredients
  • Meatballs
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 2 cups cubed dried crustless bread
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • ½ cup grated pecorino cheese
  • 2 tablespoons finely minced fresh Italian flat parsley
  • ⅓ cup raisins
  • ⅓ cup toasted pine nuts
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil for frying (or use your favorite frying oil)
  • Tomato Sauce (Optional)
  • 1 28-ounce can imported San Marzano tomatoes, crushed by hand
  • 2 cloves garlic, smashed
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 large sprig of fresh basil
  • sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Instructions
  1. Soak the bread in water.
  2. Add all of the ingredients (except the oil) into a mixing bowl.
  3. Squeeze the bread to get rid of the water then break it up and add it to the bowl.
  4. Blend the mix well with your hands (or a fork). (I squish it in my hands until the mixture is very well blended.)
  5. Take about a ⅓ cup of the mixture in your hands and roll it into a ball.
  6. Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat.
  7. When the oil ripples, add the meatballs.
  8. Brown the meatballs well. You want to develop a dark, firm crust all over, about 10 minutes total.
  9. Serve immediately with your favorite salad or vegetables.
  10. Tomato Sauce (Optional)
  11. Put the olive oil and garlic in a pot over medium-high heat.
  12. When the garlic starts to brown add the tomatoes.
  13. Add the basil.
  14. When the tomato sauce rapidly simmers reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for about 20 minutes.
  15. Add the meatballs and let them warm in the sauce for about 10 minutes.
  16. Serve the meatballs immediately topped with a bit more of the tomato sauce.
  17. Makes about 12 meatballs.
  18. (You can use the tomato sauce for pasta or save it for another use.)

If you want to serve the meatballs with tomato sauce, here’s a simple recipe that will be ready in about 30 minutes.

 

Stracciatella–Italian Egg Drop Soup

This simple but elegant soup is at home in Rome or Naples. Little egg "rags" and spinach in chicken broth.
This simple but elegant soup is at home in Rome or Naples. Little egg “rags” and spinach in chicken broth.

After a slice of savory Pizza Rustica and some arugula salad, the first course for my Easter meal is Stracciatella, Italian egg drop soup.

Stracciatelle means “little rags” in Italian. They’re formed by whisking beaten eggs into hot chicken broth. My Mom made perfect little egg rags in her soup.

This is an elegant but terribly simple soup to make. Just heat up some chicken broth, whip in the beaten eggs to make little rags, tear in baby spinach leaves and eat.

Use your homemade chicken broth or a low-sodium broth you pick up at the market. Stracciatella will be ready in the time it takes to bring the broth to a boil.

I’m looking forward to having Stracciatella either in Roma or Napoli while I’m in Italia soon. It’s a popular dish in both cities.

The mild broth is the perfect bath for the torn tender spinach and the egg rags flavored with parmigiano and black pepper. Stracciatella is a wonderful light and flavorful first course.

Watch me making the bookends for my Easter meal, savory Pizza Rustica and sweet Pastiera Napoletana, traditional Easter deep-dish ricotta pies.

Buona Pasqua! Happy Spring!

Stracciatella--Italian Egg Drop Soup
 
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Author:
Recipe type: Italian
Cuisine: Soup
Serves: 4-6
Ingredients
  • 6 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan
  • Pinch of nutmeg
  • 2 tablespoons chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 cup baby spinach leaves (rip larger ones into smaller pieces)
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Instructions
  1. Bring the broth to a boil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat.
  2. In a bowl whisk together the eggs, cheese, parsley, salt and pepper to taste.
  3. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Stir the broth in a circular motion.
  4. Gradually drizzle the egg mixture into the moving broth, stirring gently with a fork or whisk to form thin strands of egg, about 1 minute.
  5. Stir in the spinach and cook until the spinach starts to darken in color.
  6. Add sea salt and pepper to taste.
  7. Ladle the soup into bowls and serve. (Put out some grated parmigiano and let everyone help themselves.)

 

Christmas Alley, Naples

Nativity Scene on Naples' Christmas Street
Nativity Scene, Naples’ Santa Chiara Church and Monastery

I call it the “Holy Mile”, one of my favorite areas in the old part of Napoli. Baroque churches abound and a beautiful garden loaded with frescoes and majolica ceramic tiles is hidden behind the Santa Chiara Church and Monastery.

Via San Gregorio Armeno, a pedestrian-only street in the heart of this part of Naples, is known locally as Christmas Alley. It houses dozens of workshops that create everything you need for a precepe, everything you need to set up your own nativity scene.

They’ve been making the sculpted, hand-painted terra cotta figures and creche sets there since the reign of Charles II in the 1700s. Dozens of diminutive figures–angels, the Baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the Wise Men, villagers, camels, donkeys, sheep, even Pucinella, the impish commedia dell’arte character loved by Neapolitans, are all in the crowded workshops.

My favorite craftsman on Christmas Alley is maestro Ugo Esposito. I have several of his pieces. He carries on a proud tradition in his studio and showroom. The Maestro loves to talk about his craft and the long tradition of Neapolitan manger scenes and characters, both sacred and profane.

Nativity scenes abound all over Napoli, in churches and other public places, and in homes throughout the city. You could spend a whole day finding all the gorgeous public displays.

If you’re in New York City don’t miss the Neapolitan Baroque Creche surrounding the Christmas Tree at the Metropolitan Museum. It appears every holiday season and includes beautiful figures and creche pieces from the 1800s. I visit every time I’m back east for Christmas.

Got your nativity set up under your Christmas tree? That was my job growing up in Jersey and I still love them.

Happy Holidays! Buon Natale!

Bella Napoli

Vesuvio Overlooking the City and Bay of Naples

Naples as you may have realized by now is one of my favorite cities in all of Italia.

My Italian roots are in Campania and Napoli is the region’s capital. I’ve felt as if I belonged there since I first visited. I love the food, culture and vivacious spirit of the people.

I was with my sister as we strolled the markets in the Spanish Quarter our first day together in Napoli. All of a sudden she looked at me kinda startled. “They all look like us!”, she exclaimed. Maybe an overstatement, but it was a recognition that we had a DNA connection to this chaotic, wonderful city and its people. I think this is why I’ve been so passionate about saving the North Beach Song of Pulcinella mural that reflects the Bella Napoli that I love.

Here’s a Napoli post from Italian Notebook— great pix of the city, the Bay of Naples, the active volcano Vesuvio, all from the cliffs of Vomero high above the city. Take a look at Spaccanapoli, a broad avenue from the Greco era when the city was known as Neapolis. Spaccanapoli literally means “Naples Splitter”.

There’s a cool funicular that runs from the city center and climbs all the way up to Vomero and the St. Elmo Castle.

It’s incredible to me that more than 3 million people live in the shadow of Vesuvio. It has erupted more than 3 dozen times since it buried Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 A.D. Neapolitans are a tough people always living it seems just on this side of disaster.

But they have their patron San Gennaro, martyred in the 4th century, to protect them. His dried blood is kept in a vial and brought to the Duomo on his feast day, September 19. Thousands of people crowd the Duomo with even more outside. They pray, they chant and they wait for the Cardinal to wave a white handkerchief up at the altar, a sign that the dried blood has liquified. I saw the miracle for myself when I was last there.

The tradition holds that if the blood doesn’t liquify great tragedy will strike. That happened twice in the recent past. Vesuvio erupted in 1944 and in 1980 a massive earthquake hit Campania killing 2,000. San Gennaro’s blood didn’t liquify in both those years.