Last month I took you on a virtual tour of France’s culinary gems. I also touched on my dilemma when asked about my preferred food ethnicity, how I find myself toggling back and forth between French and Italian. The result will be this month’s flavor of the month feature centering on the delectable delights of Italy.
I am going to do something a little different this time, which will enable me to conquer two article projects in one. Instead of a dissertation on the ingredients of Italian cuisine or a culinary virtual jaunt through Italy, we are going on a virtual pilgrimage to Long Island’s mecca of Italian cooking. Before abandoning this post, those of you who do not reside on Long Island will be inspired as well. There are similar havens to shop for authentic Italian ingredients and prepared foods in most metropolitan areas. Once you finish reading this, I just know that your fingers will be typing ‘Italian markets’ into your search engine directories in a hunger-driven quest.
One of my favorite places to shop for my kitchen inventory is Uncle Giuseppe’s Marketplace. Come on now, every good Italian has to have either an Uncle Tony or an Uncle Giuseppe! When I check my pantry shelves and announce to Brian that we have to go visit Uncle Giuseppe, he jumps at the delicious opportunity. A visit to this market is not just another grocery shopping chore, it is an experience where all of your senses are indulged. The enticing aromas of Italian cooking emanate from every corner, Italian music fills the air, colorful displays of fresh produce and baked creations provide visual stimulation, and the samples for the shopper to taste … oh the samples!
As we stride through the parking lot, moving closer and closer to the doors that beckon, tantalizing aromas waft into the outside air. Like dogs that have picked up on a scent, we excitedly follow our noses, press on and enter. Immediately those fragrances are amplified; the initial experience is instant aromatherapy for anyone who savors good food. A result of wise marketing strategy, the scents are lofting from the departments nearest to the entrance, a pizzeria and essentially a super-super sized Italian deli and pork store combination. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept of the pork store, it is an Italian vendor that sells, well, pork. The offerings come in the form of all the traditional Italian cold cuts, like salami, mortadella, capicola, prosciutto and pancetta. Characteristically, whole salamis and sopresatas seductively dangle from the ceiling. At Uncle Giuseppe’s, sopresata is made right in this department and there are often samples of it available to try. The deli prepares fresh meals daily, from pasta salads to eggplant rollatini; from chicken parmigiana to lasagna; chicken Milanese to fried calamari. Every possible Italian appetizer, first course or entrée can be purchased here. If you are going to opt for takeout some night, do it right. This take out food is top quality. The pizzeria offers several varieties of freshly made pizzas, paninis, calzones, pinwheels and strombolis.
As we move along we come to pasta headquarters. Through a large window you can view fresh pasta being made and packaged for selling. From traditional fettuccine to lobster-filled ravioli, fresh gnocchi and exotic tortellinis, you will be hard pressed to choose solely one or two pastas to add to your shopping basket. Within view of the pasta section is another glass-encased kitchen where fresh mozzarella is being crafted. When selecting a ball of the soft cheese for purchase from the display, you’ll note that it is still warm. That warmth radiates into comfort in your hand as you realize just how fresh it is. Ricotta is made fresh here as well.
On the subject of cheese, we round the corner and arrive at an impressive cheese department that offers a vast array of cheeses from all over the world. If you love blues, they have gorgonzola from Italy, Rockford and bleu d’Auvergne from France and Cabrales from Spain. Imported provolone, aged gouda, asagio, pecorino Romano, Comte, triple cream cheeses, they can all be found here … don’t forget to taste the samples!
The next section displays prepared ingredients for arranging on traditional antipasta platters, including such delicacies as stuffed roasted peppers, marinated mushrooms, prepared artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, caponata, etc. The olive bar has over a dozen different olives to pick from.
The eye-popping produce department boasts colorful displays of gorgeous crimson orbs of tomatoes, boldly hued vibrant peppers, fresh herbs and luscious fruits. The butcher department has all of the traditional meats as well as some hard-to find cuts such as the pork shanks that I required recently for a pork shank and fennel stew. Italian sausages, both sweet and hot varieties, are freshly made on the premises. Prime cuts of beef, ruby toned and nicely marbled, are arranged in perfect rows on display. The seafood market at Uncle Giuseppe’s is an impressive layout that is reminiscent of an open-air seafood market in an Italian harbor. Tubs filled with fresh clams, mussels and shrimp are lined up with trays of perfectly laid out fishes on their crushed ice blankets. The seafood department also offers an extensive selection of prepared fish and seafood dishes ready for you to take home and heat up for a quick weekday dinner.
The bakery department always seems to be the most crowded as shoppers push their way to the front and center to take in the decadent cakes, cannolis, and sinfully attractive pastries. Yes, samples abound here too! This department makes fresh and tasty donuts in several flavor varieties including blueberry and pumpkin; as well as amazing apple fritters. An entire section of the bakery is dedicated to aromatic freshly baked breads and rolls.
The central portion of Uncle Giuseppes is filled in with shelves of nonperishable Italian ingredients, such as olive oils, balsamic vinegars, jars of various anti-pasta ingredients, plenty of dry pastas in a wide variety of shapes and flavors, cans upon cans of tomatoes and tomato paste and other dry ingredients such as polenta, biscotti, grissini and Arborio rice.
Naturally, I have saved the crowning attraction for last: the sweets department. As you make your approach, your eyes, and you nose, will perceive the welcoming fountains of chocolate cascading and flowing. Chocolatier display windows showcase quality chocolates and a gelato bar boasts several flavors of the creamy frozen treat.
This is not a shop to dash into for one or two items; such a feat of limitation is simply not possible. Expect to stock up on all of your Italian cooking needs, perhaps make the plan to purchase one of the prepared entrees and stay for lunch in one of the café tables located at the front of the store. Expecting company? Browse a few sections of Uncle Giuseppe's Marketplace, grab this and that for your shopping basket, and you can go home and put together a perfect platter to pick on like the one pictured above. Oh, and did I mention the samples?
So what is the recipe to accompany this topic? There are so many Italian dishes to pick from, and chances are I will share many of them in the future. I’ve decided to pass along recipes for two basic pasta sauces that are staples in every Italian kitchen. These two sauces can be made in large batches and then frozen for future use, enabling you to throw together a quick meal after a harried day.
The first is for the traditional Italian red sauce, or gravy as it is often referred, typically used for pastas as well as meats. There are as many recipes for this sauce as there are Italian grandmothers. If you don’t happen to have an Italian grandmother, this will at least get you started.
Basic Red Tomato Basil Sauce
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic
½ onion, chopped
1 28 ounce can imported San Marzano plum tomatoes
¼ cup red wine
½ cup fresh basil leaves, sliced
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1 6 ounce can tomato paste
salt and pepper to taste
Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Saute the garlic and onion for about five minutes. Add the tomatoes, wine, chopped basil and Italian seasoning. Stir ingredients, breaking up the tomatoes with the wooden spoon. Once the sauce begins to boil, reduce heat to low. Allow sauce to simmer for about an hour, stirring occasionally. Check for consistency; begin adding the tomato paste, a spoonful at a time, until desired thickness is achieved. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Makes enough sauce for about one pound of pasta.
The next recipe is for pesto, which I adore. You can read all about pesto in one of my past blogs:
Pesto can be used with pasta, tossed with vegetables and spread over fish, chicken or meat.
2 cups (packed) fresh basil leaves
1 cup (packed) parsley leaves
1 cup grated pecorino Romano cheese
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
½ cup pignoli nuts
2 large garlic cloves
½ teaspoon salt
Place all ingredients in a food processor. Process until thoroughly chopped and blended. Makes about 1 ½ cups sauce.