Cooking and eating Italian style.

Spezzatino di Maiale (Pork Stew) From "Culinaria Italia"
Spezzatino di Maiale (Pork Stew) From "Culinaria Italia"

The well-worn knives, the simple wine, the family table

Posted: August 03, 2012

I have two knives my father, Joseph Arsenio Gambardello, gave me when I was starting out on my own in the late 1970s. They are Regency Cutlery High Carbon knives made in Colombia. He had his own set and I often used them when I served as his sous chef on my visits home from college. Since he used them, he felt I should also have a pair.

I do not know where he discovered them, but I have an idea. He was friendly with the owners of a Chinese restaurant, now long gone, and he picked up a few tricks from them that most Italian Americans did not use in their kitchens at that time. One was a cleaver, perfect for chopping and crushing garlic; the other was a wok, good for sauteing. After my dad got the wok, we never had Italian-style pepper and eggs or sausages when the peppers had not been cooked in olive oil and garlic in the Chinese contraption. I assume the high-carbon knives ended up in our house via that Chinese restaurant. But of that I am not sure. My father was a bartender and he worked in many restaurants where chefs not only liked him, but valued his opinion. Perhaps one of them directed him to the high-carbon knives.

My knives are not pretty. They have peasant, wooden handles and they are not stainless steel. They were gray when I received them and can appear almost black if I have not polished them with oil for a while. They can rust if you don't dry them properly. (A problem easily fixed with another application of oil.) I have received other knives over the years - Hoffritz, Henckels, and Chicago Cutlery - but it is the Regency knives with which I am most comfortable. When I sharpen them on an oilstone, I can see the edge of the blade more clearly, and I know it will cut well and will hold.

This is not to say these knives are good for delicate jobs, like cutting a tomato. I use them for slicing meat and for anything that needs to be chopped. This year we had a party to celebrate my daughter Annelise's graduation and we served a roast pig from South Philadelphia's incomparable Esposito's. I brought out my high-carbon knives for the feast, using them to cut through both the crispy skin and the succulent meat.

Among the wines I served with the meal - and I assure you none of them was fancy - was a Bolla Valpolicella and that got my sister Rachel and her husband Dennis reminiscing about meals at my parents' house where my dad would pour the same wine, and then interrogate whatever young man dared to court his daughter.

That is the way it is in my family. A set of knives, a bottle of wine connects us to our past. We are, like the knives, of peasant stock. Spaghetti and meatballs or spaghetti and crabs were feasts in our houses. Of course we also have developed more refined tastes over the years, for expensive wines, and sweetbreads, foie gras and truffles. Italians are, for the most part, foodies.

We do not arrive there by nature. It is a grandparent or parent forced to make do far from the motherland with new ingredients and tools who points us in this direction. Which tomatoes to use for your gravy, for example, might be handed down from your grandmother. But then again you will not find a recipe for spaghetti and crabs in any Italian cookbook. It's ours alone here in Philadelphia and other parts of the East Coast where the blue-claw crab can be found and is enjoyed.

I use one of my high-carbon knives to cleave my crabs before I clean and saute them for my gravy. They are strong, sturdy, and sharp. Tonight I will use them to cut up pork for a recipe from my paternal province, Basilicata.

The knives have a few good years in them yet, and I hope that when I am gone Annelise will get one, my son Andreas the other.


Spaghetti and Crabs Gambardello Style

Makes 4 servings

1 dozen blue-claw crabs

2/3 cup olive oil, divided use

4 large cloves garlic

4 tablespoons fresh, chopped parsley, divided use

Salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper to taste

2 28-ounce cans of crushed tomatoes

1/2 tablespoon dried basil (or 1 tablespoon fresh) or more to taste

1 pound spaghetti

1. Kill and clean the crabs, removing the back shell and innards. Rinse well.

2. Saute the crabs in two batches in 1/3 cup of olive oil with 2 chopped gloves of garlic. Sprinkle one tablespoon of parsley onto each batch. Add salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with ground red pepper (optional).

3. Remove the crabs when the claws turn red and place them in the already simmering basic marinara sauce.

4. To prepare the sauce, saute two crushed garlic cloves in 1/3 cup of olive oil until almost brown. Just before pouring in the tomatoes, add two tablespoons of parsley. Basil and red pepper are optional. After adding the tomatoes, pour 1/2 can of water into one of the cans. Pour back and forth between the two cans to dissolve any remaining tomato and add to the sauce. Simmer uncovered.

5. After adding the crabs to the sauce, simmer for at least an hour.

6. Cook the spaghetti according to the instructions on the box.

7. Remove the crabs from the sauce before mixing the pasta and sauce.

8. Serve with good Italian bread, green salad, and plenty of paper towels.

Per serving: 825 calories, 33 grams protein, 115 grams carbohydrates, 12 grams sugar, 28 grams fat, 49 milligrams cholesterol, 719 milligrams sodium, 11 grams dietary fiber.


Spezzatino di Maiale (Pork Stew)

Makes 4 servings

11/4 pounds lean pork

1 sprig of rosemary

5 cloves of garlic

2 to 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper

1 peperoncino

11/2 cups ripe tomatoes, seeded and chopped (Canned diced tomatoes can be used in a pinch)

1. Cut the meat into pieces and saute in the olive oil with the rosemary and garlic until brown. Season with salt and pepper and add the peperoncino and tomatoes.

2. Braise for 1 hour, adding a little hot water if needed.

- From Culinaria Italy, edited by Claudia Piras (H.F. Ullmann, 2004)

Per serving: 375 calories, 41 grams protein, 4 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 21 grams fat, 112 milligrams cholesterol, 94 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.


Contact Joseph Gambardello at 215-854-2153 or jgambardello@phillynews.com.

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