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Chef says passion keeps Italian food fresh

(ran ST edition)

Mario Batali says the state of the nation with regard to Italian food and cooking is just great. He should know, having sampled it from coast to coast researching his latest Food Network series, Ciao America With Mario Batali.

During a recent interview at Otto, one of his popular Manhattan restaurants, he said passion is the keyword. "The people out there are passionate about their Italian food," he said.

Batali, master chef and genial television-show host, talked with characteristic gusto and authority about Italian cooking, his forte, and its place in American life.

He said he "absolutely" has a definition for Italian-American cooking as it flourishes in exuberant variety in the United States: "It's all those dishes our grandmothers knew how to make and that we've gone back to."

He followed up with a quick historical review: Immigrants who came to the United States in great numbers in the 1920s and 1930s, and again after World War II, stopped cooking their traditional dishes because "when they got here, they wanted to do everything to become good Americans."

Soon, though, they decided they wanted to make those Italian dishes again, but because they couldn't find exactly the original ingredients, they began to use substitutes.

"Instead of mascarpone, they used cream cheese, instead of mozzarella, cottage cheese," Batali said. "The milk tasted different. They couldn't get the kind of olive oil they had been used to, so they adapted. And Italian-American cooking came about really because they couldn't get the ingredients, so they created a hybrid."

He's not into rules. "Pizza is okay with whatever people want to put on it, as long as it tastes good," he said.

People love Italian food because everyone knows at least something about it, Batali said.

"Every American has eaten spaghetti with red sauce, more than probably chow mein, so it is also comfort food," he said.

He thinks it's funny to see Italian sometimes classed as ethnic food. "It's so American now."

Family plays a major role in the heritage of Italian-American cooking that Batali shares in his restaurants and TV shows. Looking back on childhood days in Seattle, he recalls more than one grandma.

"My whole family cooked," he said. "All my aunts and uncles, all my cousins, my mom and dad, and my grandparents on both sides.

"But I would have to say the two single-most influential were my grandma on my dad's side, who made the most incredible Sunday dinners, and my grandpa on my mom's, who cured olives and brought home fresh-hunted moose and elk."

The journeys Batali logged to make the new series took him to more than one Little Italy; back to Seattle to stop by his father's shop, Salumi; to Chicago for pizza; to Rhode Island bakeries for cannoli; to Dallas for sandwiches and St. Louis for risotto.

He dwelled on San Francisco. "The food there is sometimes more Italian than you'd get in, say, Genoa. People made things that were as Italian as anything you'd get in Italy, if not more so!"

On his travels he visited delis, markets, restaurants of all kinds, food stores, farmers markets and artisanal producers of cheeses and olive oils, seeking out unheralded excellence as well as famous names.

"We got a lot of references. We called local food editors. Then we called people up out of the blue and visited," he said. "I didn't have one thing anywhere that I wouldn't have again."

One reason people are getting it so right is that "Italian is hip now," Batali said. People travel a lot. They've tasted the local food in Italy and have seen how it's much simpler than what used to be considered classic Italian, he said.

"Now the ingredients here are better. More imported ingredients are easily available. If they're obsessive, as many Americans are, they'll get the right stuff," he said.

Batali savors his journeys.

"I learned more than I can say," he said. "I went out, I didn't pretend to know everything. You get people to explain things to you, and that way, you learn a lot more."

What people will see of his experiences as the series progresses is representative of the best Italian food across the country. But "these aren't just pretty little things we've picked out of the hat. These are really good to see _ how beautiful the variations are, that's the best part," he said.

"The thing that is so wonderful is that everyone was passionate about it."

Ragu alla Nonna

\ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 recipe Polpette Alla Napoletana (recipe follows)

12 pork spare ribs, cut into 2-inch pieces

6 chicken thighs, skin on and bones intact

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 onion, finely chopped

} cup dry red wine

Two 28-ounce cans peeled plum tomatoes and juice, passed through a food mill

{ pound sweet Italian sausage (about 6 links), still in its casing

Pinch of hot red pepper flakes

Preparation time: 15 minutes. Cooking time: four hours.

In a large pasta pot or Dutch oven, heat the oil until smoking. Season the Polpette Alla Napoletana, short ribs and chicken with salt and pepper to taste, and sear 5 or 6 pieces at a time over medium heat until dark golden brown.

Remove the seared meat to a plate and repeat with the remaining meat chunks.

Add the onion to the pan and saute, scraping the pan with a wooden spoon to loosen brown bits. Cook until the onions are golden brown and very soft, about 10 minutes.

Add the wine, browned meat chunks, tomatoes, sausages and pepper flakes, and bring to a boil.

Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook 2{ to 3 hours, stirring occasionally and skimming off the fat as necessary.

Remove from the heat. Remove meat and sausages from the sauce. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper, and set the sauce aside to use with pasta as a second course.

For the first course, divide the meats, which should still be lightly coated in sauce, evenly among 6 plates (2 short ribs, 1 chicken thigh, 2 meatballs, 1 piece sausage, etc., for each plate).

Serve with escarole and pine nuts.

Makes 8 servings.

Polpette Alla Napoletana

3 cups day-old bread, cut into 1-inch cubes

1\ pounds ground chuck beef

3 eggs, beaten

3 garlic cloves, minced

} cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese

\ cup finely chopped Italian parsley

\ cup pine nuts, baked for 8 minutes in a 400-degree oven

{ teaspoon kosher salt

{ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Preparation time: 20 minutes.

In a shallow bowl, soak the bread cubes in water to cover for a minute or two. Drain the bread cubes and squeeze with your fingers to press out excess moisture.

In a large bowl, combine the bread cubes, beef, eggs, garlic, Pecorino Romano, parsley, toasted pine nuts, salt, and pepper and mix with your hands to incorporate. With wet hands, form 12 to 15 meatballs, each smaller than a tennis ball and larger than a golf ball.

Brown as instructed in the recipe for Ragu alla Nonna.

Source: Mario Batali.

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