Monday, March 15, 2010

OC Italian Restaurants

For the most part, Orange County is a gastronomical wasteland in terms of authentic Italian restaurants. In my household it is a general rule of thumb to avoid any restaurant that has a name ending in o's (IE Maggiano's, Romano's, Peppino's et al) Also, any restaurant that has anything on the menu resembling fettucine alfredo or spaghetti and meatballs is to be avoided at all cost. These places are as far removed from the essence of Italian cuisine as is humanly possible. Italian food is not about trough-sized portions, garlic ad nauseam, and prefabricated sauces. Authentic Italian cuisine is fresh and uncomplicated. It is about taking the highest quality ingredients and showcasing the unique flavor of each one. Fortunately, it is possible for southern Californians to eat amazing Italian food out. Il Fornaio and Canaletto are by far the best Italian restaurants we have found in the Orange County area. Although they are part of a chain, we have been to many Il Fornaio restaurants and have never been disappointed. The head chef is Maurizio Mazzon, born and raised near Venice, Italy. He is absolutely the real deal, not only does he have the palate of a trained Italian chef, but he remains true to it. All the meals we have eaten at Il Fornaio or Canaletto are as good as any restaurant we have been to in Italy. While Il Fornaio has great regional menus that are served each month, highlighting the cuisine of a specific Italian region, Canaletto also offers special menus spotlighting unique dishes from the Veneto region. There is no need to make a specific menu recommendation, I am convinced that it is impossible to be disappointed in any meal in either of these two restaurants. Both have the menu online, so the best thing to do is check them out, and enjoy a wonderful dining experience. Both restaurants have a relaxed, contemporary feel. Even the music played in the background is current and fresh, no stale pop-opera. If one likes Olive Garden etc. that is a personal preference, but if one truly appreciates Italian food done the way it's intended the choice is clear. Buon Appetito!

Frittelle alla Veneziana

Carnevale (aka Mardi Gras) season is an enormous tourist attraction in Venice. It is a time for festivities which include the amazingly beautiful Venetian masks, but also a whole host of foods that are part of the tradition. Fritoe or frittelle alla Veneziana are similar to a doughnut or fritter. The recipe makes a lot, so it's a great dessert to serve at a large gathering. They are really addicting- you can't each just one.

1 3/4 cups flour
1 cup milk
1/4 cup sugar, plus an additional 1/4 to coat fritelle at the end
2 eggs
1/2 cup golden raisins
1 1/2 tbsp dry active yeast
oil for frying (I prefer canola)

Before beginning to make the frittelle, put the raisins to soak in a small bowl, covering them with rum. Traditionally they would be soaked in grappa, but rum is just fine, and gives them great flavor. The raisins should soak for at least a half hour.

When I make the frittelle batter, I use my stand mixer, but you can certainly make it by hand. In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, milk, eggs, and 1/4 cup of sugar. I first use the paddle attachment, then finish off with the dough hook. The dough should come together nicely, but remains very moist and sticky.

In a separate cup or small bowl, add one and a half packets or roughly 1 1/2 tablespoons of dry active yeast to a 1/4 cup warm water. Let it stand for 5 to 10 minutes.

Once the yeast mixture is ready, add it to the frittelle batter, along with a teaspoon of salt. Drain the raisins from their soaking liquid and add them to the batter as well. Stir the mixture until it becomes homogeneous. Now the batter is just about ready. Cover the mixing bowl with a cloth, and let it rise for a couple of hours at room temperature.

After the dough has rested enough time, heat the oil for frying in a pan or a deep fryer, the oil should be about 375 degrees. Add the dough to the oil in heaping spoonfulls, they should be somewhat of a sphere shape. Frittelle need about 2 minutes to cook, with a turning over midway through. They should take on a nice light brown color. When they appear done, remove the frittelle from the fryer, and immediately roll them in the final 1/4 of sugar, so that they get a nice coating. If you have vanilla sugar, that is a nice touch, but normal white sugar works just fine. Serve frittelle immediately. They are best when warm, but can be eaten room temperature as well. ENJOY!