Category Archives: History

Delicious Pizza & the Best Broccoli Rabe at Denino’s NYC

Denino’s Pizzeria & Tavern is the Greenwich Village outpost of a popular Staten Island pizzeria.  The Denino family came to New York City from Sicily in 1887. The family opened a tavern in 1937 and started serving pizza in 1951.  I visited their Village location.

I got a pizza with half cheese and half arugula and sausage.

I’m hard to please when it comes to pizza, so when I say a pizza is delicious, it really is!  Denino’s is delicious. For thin crust fans, this crust is crispy with enough chew to it so it’s not too crispy. It has a nice flavor, as does the sauce and cheese. Hard to find a perfect combo of the three, but Denino’s pulls it off.

In addition to pizza, we got a side order of broccoli rabe.  It was chopped, which was a nice touch and made it easier to eat.  It was also cooked and seasoned to perfection. In fact, this is the best broccoli rabe that I have eaten in a restaurant. It was so good, we got two orders!

 

Old Ragu Spaghetti Sauce Ad on Building in Tribeca

I don’t think it’s widely known that Ragu pasta sauce company was started by Italian immigrants. Assunta and Giovanni Cantisano immigrated from Potenza, Italy, to Rochester, NY, and began canning tomatoes for sauce. They started their company in 1937. At one time, the Cantisanos’s factory employed over 300 people. In the 1950s, Ralph Cantisano, the Cantisanos’s son, added the gondola to Ragu’s label. In 1969, they sold the name Ragu to Chesebrough-Pond’s. (Unilever owned Ragu for a long time, but Mizkan Group, a Japanese food manufacturer, bought Ragu and Bertolli in 2014 for $2.5 billion.) After the sale, the Cantisanos made pasta sauce under other names, including Francesco Rinaldi, which they purchased in 1981. An employee’s family bought their company in 2002, renaming it LiDestri Foods, and is a successful sauce maker today.

I read on Forgotten New York that there was an old Ragu spaghetti sauce sign painted on a building in Tribeca on 6th Avenue between White and Walker Streets. So I had to stop by and photograph it myself.

 

Strega, the Italian Liqueur Named After Witches

strega

Benevento is the name of a city and province in the region of Campania in Southern Italy. The city predates the Roman Empire, having been a city called either Malies or Maloenton belonging to the Samnite tribe of ancient Italic peoples. The Roman name for it was Maleventum. “Male” means “bad” in Latin/Italian. (Think of the malocchio, or evil eye.) When the Romans conquered it in 268 B.C., they changed the name of the town to something that would represent their future success there, as was their custom with places that they conquered. So Beneventum, “bene” meaning “good,” was born. The idea of witches being in this area goes back to pre-Roman times. And although the town got a new positive name, the legend of the witches remained and grew stronger through the years.  According to Raven Grimassi, an expert in the field of Italian witchcraft, witches from all of Italy would congregate under one particular walnut tree in Benevento for their festivals. In 662 A.D., Saint Barbato, bishop of Benevento, wanted to convert the local pagans, so he cut down their sacred walnut tree, among other things. But the witches planted one of its seeds, and the tree which grew is standing in Benevento today. Women who were put on trial for witchcraft confessed to worshipping Diana or gathering for festivals under this tree. (According to Grimassi, the walnut was sacred to some Roman gods, including Diana.) The likeliest story is that pagan rituals from the time of the Samnites continued to be carried on here even after the Romans and Christianity dominated.

But this legend of the witches of Benevento gathering around the walnut tree is the inspiration for the logo of the famous Benevento liqueur, Strega. “Strega” means “witch” in Italian. Strega liqueur is a blend of 70 herbs and spices. It gets its yellow color from saffron. Father and son Carmine Vincenzo Alberti and Giuseppe Alberti created it in 1860. In the early 1900s, it became famous for its advertising posters.

Today, one can drink Strega or use it in baking like in the Pane Degli Angeli cake I blogged about before.

Strega

If you are in Benevento, you can visit the museum and store. At the store, you can buy Strega liqueur or chocolates, torrone and cakes made with it as well as other liqueurs like limoncello and Sambuca. You’ll find it refreshing after your search for the infamous walnut tree.

–Dina Di Maio

Annurca Apples of Campania

annurca

My dad inherited his way of cutting an apple from his father, who left his little mountain valley town of Italy for the United States almost a century ago. With a paring knife held a certain way, they both shave off little slices and bits. I’d never seen anyone else eat an apple like this–that is, until I visited my cousins in Italy for the first time. Sitting at the table after our pranzo, my dad’s first cousin took one of the glistening local annurca apples from the plate, picked up a knife, held the apple in that familiar position, and began to carve. In that moment, I realized time and distance could not erase the bond that is family.

Like my grandfather, the annurca apple is a native of this region of Campania between Naples and Benevento. A popular apple throughout Southern Italy, it has an IGP designation, meaning it must be grown in a specific geographical area in order to be called annurca. The apple is an old one, even Pliny the Elder wrote about it, and it appears in frescoes in the ancient city of Herculaneum, destroyed like Pompeii by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D.

Sweet and juicy, the apple is not only delicious but, according to a 2010 article in the Journal of Nutrition, it can protect against cancer.

While we visited, my cousin made the annurca apples into a delightful apple cake.

And while we visited Sant’Agata de’ Goti, the town where Mayor de Blasio’s mother’s family is from, we saw a shop selling annurca gelato.

annurca

–Dina Di Maio

Broccoli Rabe or Broccolini®: Is There a Difference? Yes!

broccoli rabe

I have seen a new bait and switch tactic going on in food circles these days.  When I order broccoli rabe at some restaurants, I’m not getting the familiar leafy vegetable of my upbringing, but a stalky substitute called broccolini.  In some magazines, I’ve seen articles on recipes for broccoli rabe with pictures of broccolini. Is there a difference between broccoli rabe, also known as rapini, and broccolini?  Yes!

Broccoli rabe, or rapini, is in the same family as other well-known vegetables like broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower. It most resembles turnip greens or mustard greens that are popular in the southern United States. In fact, turnips are in the same species as broccoli rabe, Brassica rapa.  Broccoli rabe, like turnip and mustard greens, has a bitter flavor that dissipates when prepared properly.

We know broccoli rabe, or rapini, by its Italian name, as it is most associated with Italian cuisine, particularly southern Italian cuisine, although other cultures prepare it and it now grows all over the world.

broccoli rabe

The most common way to prepare it is simply blanching it, then sauteeing it in olive oil, and serving it dressed with olive oil, garlic and lemon juice. In the southeastern heel of Italy, Puglia, there is a popular pasta dish called orecchiette with broccoli rabe or rapini.

Italian immigrants of 100 years ago had grown broccoli rabe in their gardens, and the Andy Boy company in California is credited with commercially bringing broccoli rabe, or rapini, to the United States.  Their website lists all the attributes of rapini and has a plethora of recipes.   In the first decade of the 1900s, Sicilian immigrant Andrea D’Arrigo came to the United States, learned English, and earned engineering degrees.  His brother, Stefano, joined him and founded Andy Boy produce company.  In 1926, they invented a way to ship produce across the country in refrigerated cars.  The first vegetable shipped across country was broccoli, grown here from seeds they brought over from Italy.

broccolini

Broccolini is a hybrid of broccoli and gai lan, a vegetable popular in Chinese cuisine, also known as Chinese broccoli or Chinese kale.  It was developed by a Japanese seed company, Sakata Seed Inc., that was looking for ways to extend the growing season of broccoli.  After seven years, it was developed and brought to the U.S. market in 1993.  Sakata trademarked the name Asparation because its stalks resembled asparagus.  Mann Packing Co. in California is the grower who trademarked the name broccolini.  (The COO’s wife, Debbi Nucci, came up with the name.) Mann’s website has product information and recipes for broccolini.  Mann’s was founded in 1939 by H.W. “Cy” Mann, a Stanford graduate, and became known for its broccoli.

Both rapini and broccolini end in -ini, which is an Italian suffix meaning “little,” and are often used interchangeably in recipes and restaurants. But they are different. Broccoli rabe is more leafy while broccolini has longer stalks with more broccoli heads. They also differ in taste with broccolini being more mild, and broccoli rabe being more earthy.  They are both nutritionally sound. From a culinary standpoint, they can be used interchangeably in recipes.  But from a traditional standpoint, broccoli rabe is the vegetable eaten for years in Italy and brought to the United States by Italian immigrants.  If a restaurant purports to sell broccoli rabe, it shouldn’t be switching it with broccolini, and vice versa. It comes down to personal preference whether or not one chooses broccolini or rapini, but it should be a choice, not the result of a convenient switcheroo.

–Dina Di Maio

Neapolitan Nzogna e Pepe Taralli

nzogna e pepe taralli

Taralli are a Southern Italian snack. I’ve written about taralli before.  Today, I’m sharing a recipe for the Neapolitan taralli known as nzogna e pepe, which translates to “lard and pepper,” in the Neapolitan language.  These make a crunchy savory biscuit.  Unfortunately, you can’t substitute the lard because that’s where these biscuits get their flavor and texture.  (You could make taralli with olive oil but it would be an entirely different biscuit.)

Nzogna e Pepe Taralli

4 cups flour

10 oz. lard

3 packages (3 tablespoons) active dry yeast

1 teaspoon sugar

2 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons pepper (can add more, to taste)

Dissolve yeast in about 1/4 cup warm water and sugar.  Add about 1/5 of the flour and mix.  Cover with a towel and let rise for about an hour.  Add remaining flour, lard, salt and pepper.  Work into a dough and knead for a few minutes.  Here, you can add more water if the dough is too dry or add flour if it’s too sticky.  Roll out on a floured surface.  Cut into small pieces and roll into ropes of equal size.  Intertwine the ropes to form a pretzel shape, joining them at the ends to form a ring.  Let these rest for a few minutes.  Then, bake in a 350 degree oven for 50 minutes.  If they are larger, they can go in for an hour.  You want them to be somewhat golden brown.

–Dina Di Maio

Sfogliatella, a Neapolitan Pastry

The sfogliatella (sfogliatelle, plural) is a popular Neapolitan pastry eaten for breakfast or dessert that is also prevalent at Italian bakeries in the United States.  There are four varieties of sfogliatelle that exist in Naples–the shell-shaped riccia, which is the classic sfogliatelle, often with a ricotta-based filling;

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the circular frolla, which has a pasta frolla crust and the same filling;

pasta frolla

frolla

the santarosa, which has a custard filling and cherries on top;

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and the lobster tail, a longer version of the sfogliatelle riccia.  The classic shell-shape of the riccia, santarosa and lobster tail is named for its many sheets of dough.  Foglia means “leaf” or “sheet” in Italian.  It is very labor intensive and difficult to make, so one usually buys them in a bakery.  In contrast, frolla is easily made at home.

The traditional sfogliatella riccia was first made in a Medieval convent in Naples.  Pasticceria Pintauro in Napoli’s Quartiere Spagnoli, or Spanish Quarter, a historic area of the city, is about 200 years old, although it has had different owners through the years.  It is known for its sfogliatelle.

As is Antico Forno delle Sfogliatelle Calde Fratelli Attanasio, a bakery not far from the main train station, opened in 1930. It comes hot from the oven–just how it was made in the convents of old.  Attanasio’s is by far the best I’ve ever had.  The thin layers are crisped to perfection for a wonderfully crunchy bite.  According to its history, it is not only supposed to appeal to the taste buds, but the ears as well.

sfogliatelle

sfogliatella

The santarosa is named for the convent where it was first made, Monastero di Santa Rosa, which is now the site of a hotel on the Amalfi coast.

In New York City, sfogliatelle riccie and lobster tails are found at most Italian bakeries.

–Dina Di Maio