Dinner in Little Italy
Stromboli with Marinara Sauce
While stromboli bears a strong resemblance to calzone, the former is a purely Italian American creation, while the latter is a common and long-standing street food in Southern Italy. They are, however, both basically versions of a hand-held pizza. While people have strong opinions about which is better, as far as we can tell, the biggest difference is the shape - calzones are made from a circle of dough that is folded in half (leading to the half-moon shape of the calzone), while stromboli are made from a rectangle of dough that is rolled with fillings, leading to a loaf, which is then cut into slices for sharing (or not)! Both have cheese, some have meat, some have sauce within, and some have sauce without! Stromboli was invented by Italian immigrant Nazzareno Romano in the Little Italy of South Philadelphia in 1950, and named for the island of Stromboli off the coast of Sicily. The island is home to a constantly-erupting volcano (Mt. Stromboli, obviously), which has earned the nickname “The Lighthouse of the Mediterranean.” Some say that the food was so named because of the tiny volcanoes of cheese and filling that sometimes explode out of the crust while it is baking; others claim that it was a tribute to the movie of the same name that also was released in 1950. Stromboli is not a typical starter for a Sunday dinner, but we figured it would be the perfect delicious snack to get you started! (Contains gluten, dairy, egg).
Antipasto is the first course of an Italian meal, and can include an array of cured meats, cheeses, and marinated or pickled vegetables. Here, we’re putting all that goodness into one bright and flavorful salad. It features fresh tomatoes, house-marinated olives and mozzarella, pickled pepperoncini, pepperoni, Genoa salami, and artichoke hearts. So much goodness in one bowl that it almost hurts! (Contains dairy; no gluten).
Italian Wedding Soup
You’ve probably crossed paths with this soup at some point - it’s a menu staple at most Italian American restaurants, and for good reason - it is light and flavorful, the perfect melding of broth, meat, vegetables, and pasta. This is actually the reason for the name - it has nothing to do with weddings. The soup is originally from medieval Italy, and the Italian name is minestra maritata, or “marriage soup” - a reference to the marriage of flavors and textures, rather than a marriage of human beings. We simmer chicken stock for several hours with parmesan rinds before combining it with vegetables, fresh herbs, baby spinach, house-made meatballs, and adorable acini de pepe pasta (acini de pepe is Italian for peppercorns, and it has nothing to do with the flavor and everything to do with the shape of this pasta). Originally (in medieval Italy), this soup had whole chunks of meat, and heartier wild greens such as chicory, but Italian American cooks made some edits and brought us the soup we know today. (Contains gluten, dairy, egg).
Fresh Mafaldine from Dave Makes Pasta
Dave Kwiatkowski of Dave Makes Pasta is making fresh and delicious pasta right here in Ypsilanti, and he’s been gracious enough to make this beautiful mafaldine for your dinner tonight! Mafaldine is a ribbon-type pasta (like spaghetti or linguine), gussied up with ruffles along the edges. Originally from Naples, they were named to honor Princess Mafalda of Savoy - they’re also sometimes called “reginette”, which means “little queen.” Princess Mafalda spoke openly against Hitler’s Nazi regime (despite her husband’s position within that very regime), and ended up dying of injuries sustained at Buchenwald concentration camp. Fellow Italian inmates at the camp recounted her kindness, generosity and encouragement. A grim story, but to Italians she is a hero, and in 1997 the Italian government put her image on a postal stamp. And of course, there is the pasta! The ruffled edges, together with the texture created by Dave’s use of durum wheat flour and bronze dyes to extrude the pasta, mean that this pasta will grab a lot of delicious sauce! You can find Dave Makes Pasta’s ready-to-cook pasta at Argus Farm Stop and The Produce Station in Ann Arbor. (Contains gluten, egg; vegetarian).
And here we get to the meat (sauce) of the matter… Every Italian American movie that has any scene involving food (and that’s most of them) will have a scene with someone “stirring the sauce.” The character might even explain how to make the sauce, whether or not the movie is actually about food. In The Godfather, as young Michael Corleone transitions into the life of a mob boss, one of his father’s minions pulls him aside to explain how to make “the sauce” in case he ever needs to cook for all his men one day. Every Sunday dinner has “the sauce”, though no two recipes are exactly the same. There is also quite the debate over whether it is called sauce or gravy. The differences in opinion (though no one with strong feelings on this matter would call it an opinion) seem to be mainly regional, but there are other complicating factors - see the article linked in the resources if you want to dive into this debate. A basic marinara sauce (such as the one above for the stromboli) is cooked for a short period of time, where Sunday gravy simmers for hours (hence all the sauce stirring in the movies). Sunday gravy also typically contains a variety of meat - meatballs, sausages, and braciole are the classic combination, and that’s what we’ve included here. Braciole is a thin piece of steak rolled up with a layer of breadcrumbs, herbs, and grated pecorino cheese, and then cooked in the sauce. It all adds up to a richly colored and deeply flavorful sauce (or gravy)! (Contains gluten, egg, dairy, anchovy).
Cannoli have been around for centuries in Italy. They originated on the island of Sicily, and the filling itself was created by Arabic rulers during the time of the Emirate of Sicily, sometime between 827 and 1091 CE. Over time, the dessert has changed very little, though it was originally sweetened with honey, and is now usually sweetened with sugar. A blend of ricotta and mascarpone is lightly dulcified with sugar and vanilla and piped into the crispy pastry shells. The mini chocolate chips and rainbow sprinkles are decidedly modern touches! If you’re feeling ambitious, brew yourself a small cup of black coffee to enjoy with your cannolo - together, they are the perfect combination! (Contains dairy, gluten, eggs, soy; vegetarian).
Available at Arbor Farms
CALX Primitivo Puglia - $18
Forming the “heel” of Italy’s boot, Puglia is surrounded by water on three sides. The dry climate and cool medditeranean winds make for ideal growing conditions and the region produces some excellent wine. Primitivo’s (you may be more familiar with the American name for this grape, Zinfandel) are often fruti forward, and this wine tastes distinctly of cranberries, strawberries and blackberries. Exceptionally light bodied, this wine is very easy drinking and is delicious chilled, perfect for a summer in Southern Italy.
Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Mastroberardino 2019 - $20
Literally translated to “The tears of Christ on Mount Vesuvius,” this DOC region just southeast of Naples is the wine of legend. The origin story is that Christ cried on Mount Vesuvius when Lucifer fell from heaven, his divine tears allowing vines to grow on the scarred earth on the base of the volcano. Nowadays, it’s a region known for preserving indiginous grapes, like this version from Mastroberardino (who is the premier producer in the region) that is made with 100% Piedirosso (meaning “red feet '' since the plant’s roots look like a red dove’s foot). This wine is deep red with soft tannins, with notes of cherries, plums, raspberries and black pepper. It’s acidic backbone makes it a perfect pairing with red-sauces and charcuterie!
Little Italy, USA
Federico Fellini famously said, “Life is a combination of magic and pasta.” The importance of food in Italian and Italian American culture can not be overstated - to many Italian Americans, food is family. Big family dinners, famed family recipes, elaborate gifts of food - these are all time-honored traditions in the many Little Italy communities around the United States. The first Little Italy was in Manhattan, but now there are several Little Italys in New York City alone, and many more around the United States and the world.
Our American familiarity with Italian food is indisputable - partly because it is delicious, partly because Italian immigrants and their cuisine dispersed rapidly throughout the US, and partly because of its visibility in movies and television. Some of the most beloved movies and shows of all time tell stories of Italian Americans, and food features heavily in many of these stories. One of the most famous lines in The Godfather? “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” In HBO’s The Sopranos, the characters are almost always eating food, preparing food, or talking about eating or preparing food. Restaurants have developed menus featuring every meal eaten in GoodFellas. In many of these movies and shows, the food is not merely a prop - it’s practically its own character. There are entire cookbooks based on the Italian American food highlighted in movies and shows, and thus even the least Italian of Americans has been able to learn and experiment in their own home - most often to great success and delight!
Between 1880 and 1924, over 4 million Italians immigrated to the United States - mainly from Southern Italy - looking to escape severe poverty and lack of opportunity. Some came with their families, and some traveled alone, promising to send money back to their families in Italy. Italian immigrants generally took great pride in their Italian heritage, and tended to stay in close contact with their home communities, and abreast of Italian politics and activities around the world. Benito Mussolini cultivated great loyalty in Italians living abroad, and when he ordered the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, Italian Americans rallied to support the effort. But then in 1940, when Italy declared war on France and England, this loyalty was upended and many Italians quickly refocused their support to US efforts. One of the lesser-known aspects of President Roosevelt’s 1942 Executive Order 9066 (which infamously established Japanese internment camps) was the forcible relocation of some and restrictions placed on most Italian Americans. Some were suddenly classified as “enemy aliens” and this led to something of an identity crisis, and a re-defining of what it meant to be Italian American, rather than Italian in America. World War II was a period of great turmoil and sadness for Italian Americans, as many of them had family fighting on both sides of the war. After the war, that identity shifted even further, as returning war veterans often sought higher education, more socializing with non-Italians, and the greater space available in the suburbs. As these previously insular communities opened up, the “Italian-ness” of many Little Italys became somewhat symbolic, though some persist to this day as strongly Italian enclaves. Today, the largest Little Italy in the country is in San Diego!
Little Italys today can be somewhat touristy destinations, but are also often wonderful places to learn about Italian traditions, history, and food. Many of them have storied Italian restaurants and bakeries, and some host festivals to honor patron saints and martyrs. Growing up in Cleveland, I vividly remember going to the Feast of the Assumption every year, held by Holy Rosary Parish in Little Italy for over 120 years. Through these restaurants, bakeries, festivals, churches, and social organizations, Italian Americans share their rich history and traditions with the greater community.
Throughout their history in the US, Italian Americans have clung proudly to their food traditions, and big family meals are often at the center of Italian American life. A Sunday family dinner might comprise platters of antipasto, pasta with sauce/gravy (This is an enduring debate, and we have no authority on the matter! See the resources linked below for some background.), meat, soup, salads, breads, and pastries. Dinner would actually start early in the afternoon, just after Sunday Mass finished up. The meal might take many hours, as Italians have a great tradition of storytelling - this is also a point of great pride in many families as family stories are passed along from generation to generation. We’ve endeavored to create a meal in this tradition for you, using the best and most delicious recipes and ingredients we could find. So, circling back to the Fellini quote at the top… take a second to find some magic in your day, or in the world around you - the long evening light, this lovely weather we’re having, the incredible gardens around Ann Arbor and Ypsi, the song of the cicadas (wonderfully, they are of the genus… Magicicada!) - and enjoy a leisurely meal. Mangia!
Featured Recipe: Stromboli
Adapted from Guy Fieri’s recipe for The Food Network
Makes 4 small or 2 large stromboli
For the Dough:
1 cup warm water
One 1/4-ounce packet dry-active yeast
2 teaspoons sugar
3 cups all-purpose flour, plus bench flour
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil + more for greasing
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs for egg wash
For the filling: Makes enough for 5 stromboli
3 tablespoons salted butter, melted
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
6 ounces thinly sliced pepperoni
6 ounces thinly sliced deli ham
6 oz dry mozzarella, thinly sliced or grated
6 oz provolone, thinly sliced or grated
Warm the water to between 105F & 110F
Add the yeast & sugar to the water, stir to dissolve and set aside to bloom
Once the yeast has bloomed, add the water to a large bowl or the bowl of an electric mixer.
Gradually add the flour to the water, and incorporate with a wooden spoon or dough hook on low speed.
Add the olive oil and salt and continue to mix.
Once the flour is mostly incorporated, continue kneading for 7 to 8 minutes, increasing the speed to medium if using an electric mixer.
When the dough comes together in a solid mass, remove the dough from the mixer and knead 4 to 5 minutes on a lightly-floured surface so the dough is smooth and consistent.
It should stop feeling “tacky” after about 4 mins of kneading. When pressed it should yield slightly then “bounce back”
Place in a large bowl oiled with olive oil and roll it around a bit in the bowl to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to sit until the dough rises and doubles in volume, about 1 hour depending.
The dough needs room to double in volume, divide among multiple bowls if necessary
Once the dough has doubled in size, preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
Divide the dough into equal pieces (4 equal pieces for small stromboli, 2 for large)
Working with one piece at a time, stretch the dough into a rectangle. Arrange the dough rectangle so one of the long sides is closest to you.
Brush the surface with melted butter, then spread some of the minced garlic out evenly over the top.. Leave a 1-inch border on the long side furthest from you.
Sprinkle the dough with the grated Parmesan, then layer with pepperoni slices. Top the pepperoni with a layer of provolone, then with a layer of deli ham followed by a final layer of mozzarella.
Layers should go butter, garlic, cheese, meat, cheese, meat, cheese, close.
Roll the dough away from you, holding the filing in place with your fingers as you close the dough into a log, gently sealing the ends of the roll as you go. Gently press to seal, then place the roll seam-side down on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper
If you are making 2 larger strombolis, it is easier to form them on a piece of parchment paper, and then use the paper to transfer the stromboli to the baking sheet, otherwise the dough log is too long to maneuver. .
With a sharp knife, score the stromboli every 1 inch to allow steam to escape while baking
Repeat the process with other pieces of dough.
Brush the tops of the dough with the egg wash. Bake in the center of the oven until golden brown and puffy, 25 to 30 minutes.
Slice along the steam vents for shareable pieces (or don’t!) and serve with your favorite marinara sauce.
Recipes Inspired By:
A beautiful photo essay about the island of Stromboli, off the coast of Sicily.
An excellent article discussing the PBS documentary The Italian Americans and the complexities of Italian American immigration and stereotyping.
One of Martin Scorsese’s earliest films, the short documentary Italianamerican, in which he interviews his first-generation Italian American parents in the Little Italy, New York apartment where he grew up.
This article describes the turmoil and prejudice facing Italian Americans at the start of World War II.
Sauce or gravy? Read more about the debate here.
More information on Brood X, and the cicada song we hear right now.
A great Chicago-Italian comedian, Sebastian Maniscalco