II Viaggio Di Vetri: A Culinary Journey

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Ten Speed Press

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Philadelphia enjoys one of the country's most dynamic food scenes, and Marc Vetri is its top culinary talent. Mario Batali called Vetri Ristorante "possibly the best Italian restaurant on the East Coast." Vetri's refined rustic-Italian cuisine is on brilliant display in IL VIAGGIO DI VETRI. The recipes showcase the chef's soulful renditions of Italian classics, and accompanying notes by sommelier Jeff Benjamin offer lively lessons on the classic and lesser-known wines of the region. Throughout, Vetri shares tales of his cooking apprenticeship in northern Italy and shows how to bring the lessons he learned there into the home kitchen.


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II Viaggio Di Vetri: A Culinary Journey
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By Jesse Philbin

Il Viaggio di Vetri is truly the cookbook for everybody.  Professional chefs will find inspiration in the creative combinations of ingredients and flavors Chef Vetri introduces in recipes that (in general) are accessible enough for most home cooks.  Armchair foodies can enjoy the extensive and supremely well-informed wine notes, beautiful photography, and lovingly-written biographies of Marc Vetri's colleagues and mentors in Bergamo.  And finally, while the above groups will no doubt love this book, culinary school students might be the consumers who gain the most from Vetri's stories and recipes.  Persistence, hard work, and passion are used so commonly as a formula for success that it's become a cliché, but Vetri's memoir brings these concepts to life while his recipes showcase the balance between originality and respect for tradition that makes a great chef.

Marc Vetri dedicates his book (which means "Vetri's Journey,") to the city of Bergamo, where he received his training.  Because he learned to cook primarily in Lombardi, Vetri's recipes—and his widely renowned Philadelphia restaurants, Osteria and Vetri—reflect northern Italian cuisine almost exclusively.  However, Vetri's recipes are much more eclectic than any Italian cookbook, northern or southern, I have ever read. 

His appetizers alone display great diversity of ingredients, flavors, preparation methods, and seasonal variety, ranging from a light, simple and spare artichoke salad to the rich and time-consuming fried beignets with mortadella mousse.  While all of these recipes are promising, his homemade bresaola with melon and arugula is gold for fans of that shaved cured meat deliciousness; all you need is beef, salt, spices, a cool but humid basement, and a little patience.  Besides the fine art of making bresaola, I learned a lot from this chapter.  For example, who knew that peaches and porcini mushrooms are a classic northern Italian pairing—and, as it turns out, a match made in heaven?  A friend and I attempted this "so crazy it just might work" concoction for a dinner party, and work it did.  The earthy porcinis and sweet fruit played off each other nicely, but best of all was the texture—a voluptuous and flavorful stew punctuated with chunks of savory mushrooms and tart-sweet late summer peaches.  The recipe, like others in the book I tried, was a bit too oily for American tastes, but this is easily remedied by reducing the amount of olive oil by a tablespoon or two.  Another dish I found to be delicious was the cucumber salad with preserved lemon and mint.  Thrown together in fifteen minutes on a muggy summer day, this salad was utterly refreshing and the flavors played off of each other nicely, although when I make it again next summer I'll probably use a little more salt (or not rinse the preserved lemon) and about half the olive oil that was called for in the recipe. 

This being a northern Italian cookbook, the pasta and risotto chapter is the most expansive and, I think, most original one in the book.  Not only are the sauces creative, the pastas are original and the two are tastefully paired.  Every Italian cookbook will have a recipe for pasta, ravioli, lasagna, gnocchi, risotto, and various sauces and vegetables to serve with each, but what about cocoa fettuccine with squab ragu, or eggplant ravioli with goat cheese and tomato fondue?  I love potato gnocchi, but a change of pace is always fun; I tried the spinach gnocchi for a new, delicious and probably healthier change of pace (although the brown butter and ricotta it's served with probably detracts from the healthfulness).  Spinach, blanched and smoothed in a food processor then combined with bread crumbs, an egg, cheese, and a touch of nutmeg yielded soft, flavorful gnocchi; brown butter and more cheese made this dish a comforting meal for a cool fall day. 

Vetri's desserts are similarly mouthwatering, and the lavender gelato with chocolate shell and extra virgin olive oil is the subject of my favorite photograph in the whole book, out of many other equally gorgeous shots.  I made the chocolate polenta soufflés for a family get-together this fall to rave reviews; my mom describes them as "to die for."  These aren't your basic chocolate soufflé.  They consist of a crust containing polenta, which contributes a pleasant granular quality, and an interior of chocolate ganache, which melts and sinks into the center as the soufflé crust bakes, making for a decadent dessert armed to satisfy the most rabid chocoholic.  While other tempting treats like doughnuts with Italian hot chocolate, apple tarte tatin with candied fennel, and pear almond tart are must-tries, though, the best part of desserts section are the gelato and sorbet recipes, which include variations and thus really serve as mini-chapters on both frozen delicacies.  The variations are creative and tempting as well—brown butter gelato, anyone?—but I appreciate a cookbook that, in addition to providing original and creative recipes, allows the reader/cook to experiment and expand upon the author's ideas. 

To sum up, Il Viaggio di Vetri would be an asset to the coffee table as well as to the kitchen shelf, but for heaven's sake bring it into the kitchen.  It's full of flavorful and eclectic recipes with enough variety to suit all tastes and seasons.  The stunning photography, amusing anecdotes, and knowledgeable, careful wine notes and pairings are the icing on a supremely delicious cake.      

Spinach Gnocchi with Shaved Ricotta Salata and Browned Butter

2 ½ pounds spinach, stems removed
1 large egg
½ c. tipo 00 flour or all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
½ c. plain dry bread crumbs
½ c. grated grana padano cheese
¼ t. freshly grated nutmeg
Kosher salt and freshly grated black pepper
6 T butter
¼ c. grated Parmesan cheese
¼ lb. piece of ricotta salata cheese

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, add the spinach (in batches if necessary), and blanch for 3-4 minutes.  The ribs must be soft enough to puree until smooth or the gnocchi will be stringy.  Transfer the spinach to an ice-water bath until cold, and reserve ½ cup of the blanching liquid.

Remove the spinach from the ice water, squeeze to remove any excess moisture, and place in a food processor.  Process for a full 5 minutes, or until very smooth, adding up to ½ cup of the blanching liquid if necessary to create a smooth mixture.  The consistency of the spinach should be very mushy, like a wet batter.  Transfer the pureed spinach to a medium-mesh sieve set over a bowl, cover, and refrigerate for 18 hours to drain off excess moisture.

Place the drained spinach in a bowl and, using your hands, mix in the egg, flour, bread crumbs, grana padano, and nutmeg.  Season with salt and pepper.  The mixture should remain wet enough to be squeezed through a pastry bag fitted with a wide tip. 

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Fill a sheet pan or large roasting pan with flour to a depth of about ½ inch.  Spoon the spinach mixture into a pastry bag fitted with a medium plain tip (or use a zippered plastic bag and cut off a lower corner).  Pipe spinach balls about ¾ inch in diameter onto the flour.  Gently roll the balls around in the flour until evenly dusted.  Shake off the excess flour from the balls, drop them into the boiling water (in batches to avoid overcrowding if necessary), and cook for about 2 minutes, or until just tender.  Using a slotted spoon, transfer the gnocchi to a warmed serving plate.

Put the butter in a sauté pan over medium heat and brown it for 2 to 4 minutes, or until it is the color of hazelnuts.  Watch carefully so that it doesn't burn.

Sprinkle the gnocchi with the Parmesan and shave or shred the ricotta salata on top.  Pour on the browned butter.

Makes 6 appetizer servings.

Recipe courtesy "Il Viaggio de Vetri," written by Marc Vetri, published by Ten Speed Press, 2008.


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