Italian is one of the most popular cuisines in the world. But what is the secret ingredient that separates the authentic from the passable? BY MILLY STILINOVIC
I remember my father making pasta sauce on a Sunday. It was my favourite dish by far. The sauce was a recipe he had learnt from the many Mamma Rosa’s that resided in his neighbourhood during his time in Italy.
He never scrimped on simmer time, or on using fresh tomatoes instead of canned. In went the onions and garlic, followed by the tomatoes and water. A little flavour adjustment, along with the addition of tomato concentrate and four hours later a fresh, red sauce would appear on the table. Accompanied by toasted bread, a handful of pasta for each family member and a little olive oil – I couldn’t think of a better Sunday meal.
“With Italian food, the real flavour comes from the heart,” says Stefano Manfredi, an Italiano master chef with a thick Australian accent. We are sitting in a sunlit room in his upmarket Sydney venue – Balla. The room leads to the main dining area, with decor inspired by the Italian Futurist art movement, which was pioneered by poet and artist Giacomo Balla.
Although the light and airy interior is awe-inspiring, it is the rooftop that is cosa di bellezza. A vegetable garden, where Manfredi grows his own vegetables that he uses in his dishes, adorns the entire rooftop. “This assures you are sticking to one of the hallmarks of Italian food,” he says. “Fresh and in-season produce.”
Manfredi is a tireless advocate for butchers’ and farmers’ markets. “You won’t find these relationships in supermarkets,” he says.
“Building a relationship with those that grow, fish and provide the ingredients for your next dish will assist your cooking. They’ll suggest something you’ve never even thought of.”
Buying from the same supplier also assists in getting to know your produce. “Each potato you use will vary due to the soil it was grown in,” he says. “Sticking to one will help you discover what a certain food item should taste like and how you should cook it.”
Before I conclude that at the base of good Italian cuisine is a heart and a fresh one at that, Manfredi stops me short. “How can you understand what authentic Italian food is, unless you know what authentic Italian really is?” he says.
Manfredi is an Italian-born and Australian raised internationally acclaimed chef who has held three-hatted venues in Sydney since the early eighties, the most notable being The Restaurant Manfredi and Bel Mondo.
With four books under his belt and a regular column in The Sydney Morning Herald, his cuisine is as authentic Italian as they come.
“You have to understand there is no such thing as authentic Italian food,” he says. “The country didn’t exist until 1861.”
According to Manfredi, Italy is a nation of individuals. “Before then, the country was separated into city states. The family was the important thing and every family had their own way to make a dish,” he says.
One recipe can change from region to region, town to town. Within the towns each family had their own way of creating a dish. “So there is no singular way of interpreting Italian food, but several variations on the one dish.” There are some rules, however.
“Good Italian food is simple,” he says. “But it takes time to execute.” Manfredi uses his mother’s tortelli di zucca as an example. “The ingredients are simple – pumpkin, mustard fruit, parmesan, seeds from stone fruit that have an amaretto flavour and a little burnt butter,” he says. “But it is a laborious dish.”
He would watch his mother steam the pumpkin and strain the pieces of cooked vegetable with a tea towel to remove all excess water. “One pumpkin yields roughly a handful of filling,” he says. “This shows, if anything, the labour involved in our cooking.”
“Because the food is simplified it leaves you less of a margin for error,” he says. “There’s nothing to hide behind.” Simplified cuisine allows one to add their own touches to the dish, but not deviate from a certain path.
Pizza will always have tomatoes and mozzarella. “If I ever open a pizzeria I will stick a large can of pineapple somewhere,” says Manfredi. “There’ll be a message underneath the can which says we don’t own a can opener.”
Keep it simple, use fresh market food, experiment with levels of spice, but never overcompensate on the simplicity of the dish. “That is the beauty of Italian cuisine,” he says. “Simple, refreshing, time consuming exquisiteness.”
Another rule to have in mind is the thriftiness of the Italians. “We serve a duck ragu at the restaurant,” he says. “The breasts of the duck are used for a beautiful roast. The carcass and legs for the ragu. The rest is rendered down for duck fat. Nothing goes to waste.”
Waste not. Want not. “I have a lot of Italians in the kitchen and they are so finicky about wastage,” he says. ‘Italians are frugal. They don’t scrimp on flavour or the quality of the ingredients but they will not waste anything.”
The final rule to remember is to be as individualistic as the cuisine itself. “Remember every family had their own flavour, just like every Italian has their own opinion on Italian food,” he says. Bon appetito.
RECIPES A LA MILANESE
Agnolotti filled with wild greens
20 cups mixed nettle leaves, borage, cime di rapa already picked from stem, washed and dried
400g fresh ricotta
100g grated parmesan
½ tsp grated nutmeg
Salt and pepper
300g “00” pasta flour if available or substitute plain flour
3 large eggs
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Drop in greens for 30-40 seconds (submerge them well with a spoon) and drain well. Let them cool then squeeze as much water out as possible. Finely chop them with a knife and place in a bowl with ricotta, parmesan and nutmeg. Add 2 pinches of salt and some turns of pepper. Mix well and taste for seasoning; adjust if necessary. Cover bowl and refrigerate. Now make the pasta.
Make a well with the flour and crack in the eggs and oil. Bring everything together in a mass. Add a little more flour if too wet and sticky. Cut the pasta dough into smaller workable pieces so it can be easily passed through your pasta machine. Start at the widest setting and roll through thinner each time till you have the desired results – about 1mm thick.
Cut sheets into 6cm squares. Fill each square with a heaped teaspoon of nettle/ricotta mixture. Moisten the edges of each pasta square and fold an opposite corner to encase the stuffing in a triangle-shaped pillow. Press edges to secure then finally fold opposite corners in to form a little hat. Cook in plenty of salted, rapidly boiling water until the edges are cooked but still ‘al dente’. Drain and serve by tossing with nettle and tomato salsa. Makes about 80 agnolotti.
Pumpkin Sformato and Anise Cream
Makes 12-15 depending on size of mould
300g Queensland Blue pumpkin flesh cut into slices
1ml of amaretto liqueur
1 vanilla bean, split
2 eggs, beaten
250g double cream
1 vanilla bean
1¼ cup caster sugar
12 free-range egg yolks
20g anise seed
Simmer the pumpkin till soft in the milk with sugar and vanilla bean. Add the amaretto and the eggs and whisk well. Put into moulds and cook in a water bath in a preheated 120ºC oven for 50 minutes. Cool and unmould onto serving plates. Serve with anise cream and a slice of liquorice.
Anise Cream: Place the milk, cream, anise seed and 1 cup of sugar in a saucepan and bring to the simmer, then remove from the heat. Meanwhile beat the egg yolks and remaining sugar in a bowl until thick and pale. Pour in the milk mixture and mix to combine. Cook in a double boiler, stirring, until thick. Strain and cool in the fridge.