Step by rustic step

Vetri, his second cookbook.
Vetri, his second cookbook. (LAURENCE KESTERSON / Staff Photographer)

Marc Vetri's new cookbook is more than ingredients and utensils: It's philosophy, travelogue, expert cuisine, basic how-tos.

Posted: November 10, 2011

There were 25,000 copies initially printed, but Marc Vetri's new cookbook, Rustic Italian Food, went into its second printing before the Nov. 1 release date.

Compare that to Il Viaggio Di Vetri, his first book, which sold 25,000 copies after three years.

"I just got a $420 royalty check. . . . my first one, three years later," says the chef, sitting on a broken-in brown leather sofa in his newly renovated home kitchen.

After two years of recipe testing, writing, and waiting, Vetri is ready to show the world his latest collection.

The photos in this new book, many of him cooking with his kids, Maurice, 5, and Catherine, 3 (little Mario, now 20 months, wasn't quite camera-ready), were shot in his kitchen pre-renovation. The room was nice then, but it's a real chef's kitchen now, and reminiscent of the updated, rough-hewn designs of two of his restaurants, Amis and Osteria.

It's more open, with more light, bright green painted cabinets, a smooth wooden countertop, and a huge island made of Carrara marble, perfect for rolling pasta and finagling dough.

The pizza stone has been heating in the new Wolf oven for a while, ready to crisp the round of dough that he's deftly, with one hand, coaxing into the perfect round. He tops it with a few spoonfuls of marinara and a few chunks of fresh mozzarella, before sliding it onto the pizza peel and into the oven. It isn't this pizzaiolo's first day on the job. (Watch video of Vetri making perfect pizzas at philly.com/vetribook.)

With his first book, his publishers fought him on the name. "They said it was in another language, it's not going to sell as much." Which is why this time around, the James Beard award-winning chef, who is about to open his fourth city restaurant, deferred to the experts.

"They wanted a simple name. I was being sarcastic and joked around . . . 'What, like Rustic Italian Food?' Lo and behold, there wasn't another book named that."

It's printed in clear, silver-foil letters along the book's spine, and the hope is that the title will draw bookshelf perusers in. Even if they never heard of Marc Vetri.

Vetri says writing this cookbook was not about money. "Everyone is always asking me, how do you make this? How do you make that?" He'll e-mail customers recipes, but with hesitation. Reducing a recipe for 40 to four servings is never ideal, and his cooking is more about technique than anything else.

He does admit, though, that cookbooks are great marketing tools that "definitely add to your relevance in the industry." This time around, he learned a few things.

"We started looking at Il Viaggio again, and thought this is an awesome book, but if you don't have experience cooking, you need more detailed, user-friendly explanations."

Which is how Rustic Italian Food evolved from an artisanal cookbook to a multifaceted experience: It's part reference (see chapters on meat curing and paragraphs on oils and cheese); part culinary philosophy (his opinion of molecular cooking and absentminded line cooks), part travelogue (like his laugh-out-loud search for the perfect Parisian baguette), part expert cookbook (homemade pastas, breadmaking, spit-roasting a pig), and part novice cookbook (some recipes, like the spinach gnudi, marinara, and salads, are downright Rachael Ray simple).

He culled most of the recipes from his files; he recently started giving his cooks the homeworklike (and useful) task of writing down the recipes they make on the line, to build up an archive. He then chose the dishes that felt right for Rustic Italian Food, tested and tweaked, and knocked out most of the writing while on vacation in Boulder, Colo.

The book took years; the pizza, which is now bubbly perfection, took minutes. And the aroma, as in a Folger's commercial, lured toddler Mario into the kitchen. He's no fool, lunch was being served.

The chef will soon hit the road to promote the new book, including signings and guest cooking gigs at restaurants in L.A., Chicago, Boston, and New York.

On the road, he'll be spreading the rustic gospel, while locals who have eaten at Vetri's restaurants already know that rustic doesn't mean simple.

"There is nothing to hide behind," says Vetri, who was nonchalantly mixing ricotta, spinach, egg, and flour in a bowl to make his next dish, gnudi. "You have to cook perfectly, you have to have perfect technique, always."

Which is why some of the book's most significant tidbits are not in the ingredient lists, but in the chapter introductions and cooking instructions. You might never make lamb mortadella, but reading about the process, in Vetri's approachable, engaging dsescription, is captivating, in the same way people who have never turned on a stove watch Food Network cooking shows for hours.

"I started making sausage 15 years ago, and there has been an evolution in my understanding of it. It's such interesting stuff and it's not in a whole lot of books. They tell you to use this and use that, but they don't tell you why."

Why and how are big themes. He explains why pizza dough should come to room temperature: "It will stretch more easily when it's warm." And he has detailed step-by-step photo instructions on prepping a whole chicken for grilling. It's like a stylish and relevant version of outdated cooking-school tomes.

Vetri reminds readers that the recipes need to work for them - it's OK to use store-bought pasta - and the process will get easier with practice. And, most important, readers learn through his stories (like his missteps on Iron Chef) that messing up can be a good thing.

"If you don't push yourself and make mistakes, you never learn anything."

Case in point: With the gnudi dough mixed, he dropped one in boiling water to test it out. "Needs a little more flour," he said before making the adjustment. Now, it's perfect.

What he doesn't have patience for is stupidity. Vetri tells a story in his book about one of his line cooks who made a subpar corn flan, because the cook didn't protest a delivery of tasteless ears of corn.

He had an even better example of why teaching is one of the most important things he does these days.

A few weeks ago, he showed a cook at his namesake restaurant how to make a pear tart. The cellphone photo was mouthwatering: A fan of sunset-hued pear slices sat atop a flaky pastry tower. The next photo was what he discovered the same cook was making, one week later. It was a flat, yellow hockey puck.

Which is why he wanted his readers, like his cooks, to understand the fundamentals.

A lot of the dishes that made Osteria, Amis, and Vetri famous - the chicken liver rigatoni, the eggplant lasagnette, the margherita pizza, and the meatballs from his dad Sal - are in the book. But he's not worried about giving away trade secrets.

He points to the picture of the pear tart. "I gave my cook the recipe, and showed him how to make it, and this is what he did," Vetri says, laughing. "Am I worried? No."


Romana Pizza Dough

Makes 6 or 7 rounds, 12 inches in diameter

6 cups high-protein flour, such as King Arthur Sir Galahad or Unbleached All-Purpose

2 tablespoons sugar

11/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons cold water

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

23/4 teaspoons packed fresh cake yeast, or 1 teaspoon instant yeast

21/2 teaspoons fine sea salt

 

   1. Put the flour, sugar, water, and oil in the bowl of a stand mixer. Crumble in the yeast. Using the dough hook, mix on low speed until everything is moist, about 4 minutes, scraping the bowl as needed with a rubber spatula. Increase the mixer speed to medium and mix until the dough clings to the dough hook, about 4 minutes more. Add the salt and mix until the dough is very soft and stretchy, 3 more minutes. Cut the dough into 6 or 7 equal pieces and roll into balls (about the size of a softball) on an unfloured board. Scatter on a little flour, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight.

   2. To roll out each ball of dough, remove the dough from the refrigerator and let stand at room temperature for 1 hour. It will stretch more easily when it's warm. Flatten the ball on a floured work surface, then hold the disk in your hands in the air and circle your fingers around the edge, pinching gently around the edge to make a border. It's easier to start stretching pizza dough in the air instead of on a work surface, because gravity will pull down the dough, stretching it from where it's held in your fingers. Once it's stretched to about 8 inches in diameter, place the dough on the floured work surface and pat it out with your fingertips, from the center toward the edge, to fully stretch the round of dough. Gently push your palms into the center of the dough to gently stretch it away toward the edges. Pat and stretch to a round about 12 inches in diameter and 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick. Top and bake as you like.

- From Rustic Italian Food (Ten Speed Press, 2011)

Per serving: 461 calories, 13.9 grams protein, 79.2 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, 7.7 grams fat, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 664 milligrams sodium, 3.6 grams dietary fiber.


Margherita Pizza

Makes 1-2 servings

For pizza sauce:

(Makes about 21/2 cups, enough for about 4 pizzas)

 1 16-ounce can peeled tomatoes, preferably San Marzano

3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1/2 bunch basil

 For pizza:

 1 round Romana pizza dough

About 2/3 cup pizza sauce

2 slices fresh mozzarella, each about 1/2-inch thick

4 or 5 small fresh basil leaves

 

   1. Puree all sauce ingredients together with an immersion or upright blender. Taste and adjust the seasoning.

   2. Remove all but the bottom rack in your oven and put a baking stone on the rack. Preheat oven to 500 degrees for at least 30 minutes. If you have convection, turn it on to help brown and blister the top of the pizza.

   3. Place the dough round on a well-floured, rimless baking sheet. Ladle the sauce into the center of the dough round, then spread from the center to the edges by moving the ladle in widening concentric circles. Break each slice of mozzarella into 2 pieces and scatter over the sauce.

   4. Slide the pizza off the baking sheet onto the hot stone and bake until cheese melts and the crust is golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board and immediately scatter on basil leaves. Cut into slices and serve.

- From Rustic Italian Food (Ten Speed Press, 2011)

Per serving: 504.5 calories, 13.8 grams protein, 16.8 grams carbohydrates, 5.3 grams sugar, 30.6 grams fat, 22.5 milligrams cholesterol, 513 milligrams sodium, 2.5 grams dietary fiber.


Spinach and Ricotta Gnudi

Makes 6 servings

10 ounces spinach leaves (no stems), stemmed and rinsed

4 cups ricotta impastata or drained whole-milk ricotta

1 egg, lightly beaten

1 1/3 cups tipo 00 or all-purpose flour, plus more for tossing gnudi

Grating of nutmeg

Salt and freshly ground pepper

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

 

   1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the spinach leaves and blanch for 1 minute. Remove, let cool, squeeze dry, and finely chop. Measure out 7 ounces of spinach (about 3/4 cup packed) and put it in a mixing bowl. Mix in ricotta, egg, the 11/3 cups flour, and nutmeg. Season with salt and pepper and mix thoroughly but gently.

   2. Put 1 to 2 cups more flour in a pie pan or shallow bowl. Put the gnudi mixture in a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2-inch plain tip or a ziplock bag with a 1/2-inch hole snipped from a corner. Pipe 1/2-inch-diameter balls of the dough into the flour a few at a time. Gently roll into dumplings in the flour and transfer to a baking sheet coated generously with flour.

   3. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Drop in the gnudi, quickly return to a boil, and cook until the gnudi float, about 2 minutes, then cook 20 seconds longer. Each dumpling should feel soft, delicate, and slightly springy when pressed with a fingertip, and have a creamy center when bitten. Drain the pasta.

   4. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a medium saute pan over medium-low heat until hazelnut brown, 6 to 8 minutes, stirring now and then. Divide the drained pasta among warm pasta bowls. Drizzle with the brown butter and garnish with the Parmesan.

- From Rustic Italian Food (Ten Speed Press, 2011)

Per serving: 509 calories, 22.9 grams protein, 31 grams carbohydrates, 8.3 grams sugar, 32.6 grams fat, 119 milligrams cholesterol, 460 milligrams sodium, 1.8 grams dietary fiber.


Contact staff writer Ashley Primis at 215-854-2244, aprimis@phillynews.com, or @ashleyprimis on Twitter.

 

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