Monday, April 16, 2012

Easter Pizza

Each year for my entire life (and in reality, much, much longer than that), my mother's family has gathered on Good Friday to prepare Easter Pizza.  This is a ritual rooted in Italian tradition, and there are as many "official" versions of Easter Pizza it as there are Italian dialects.  The general idea is the same:  an egg-y pie type thing baked in celebration of the Easter & Spring seasons, using cured meats, preserved and fresh cheeses; ingredients most Italian families had readily available at that time of year.
Our family's version is a pie, as thick as a jelly roll pan is high, filled with various and sundry proportions of egg, fresh mozzarella, parmesan, ricotta, soppresatta, ham, and black pepper, baked within an upper and lower crust of a classic white italian bread dough.  It is spectacularly unique and delicious, yet elegantly simple and straightforward; nothing else I've ever eaten tastes like this, and we ONLY make this once a year.  Quality of the final product is not confirmed until the following day, as consuming meat on Good Friday is something even my marginally-adherent Catholic family will not do. 
Over the years, we've developed a rhythmn and a set of responsibilities for each person:  my mom is an expert dough-manipulator, my aunts have perfected the art of cutting the meats into exactly the right size, myself and my cousins have rotated the egg-cracking and mozz-cutting.  I've always enjoyed mixing all the ingredients together in their giant shiny silver bowl, by hand, up to my elbows in gooey raw egg.  My aunt Maggie knows exactly how much of the mix to ladel into each pan.  It takes three people to cover, vent and egg wash the top layer, and there's always a warm sense of accomplishment when the first pizza goes in the oven. 
This year's batch of pizzas was far and away the best batch I think I've ever had.  It was also the first year there were no men involved.  Hmmmm, coincidence?  It takes almost the whole day to make all four pizzas and while we wait between bakings, rollings and fillings, we talk and drink and eat.  It's just a wonderful day, one I wait all year for.  I won't be sharing the exact recipe for our Easter Pizza--that's just a secret too special to part with--but the pics below give you a general idea as to what's inside and how you make it.  Buon Appetito!

Eight loaves of dough rising
Mom starts rolling
Expertly rolled and ready for the pan

Zoe, Queen of Mozzarella

The big ol' mess of ingredients
Close-up of the meats, cheese & egg

Zoe joined me this year in getting her hands dirty.  We're getting ready to dive in for mixing!

Action shot of ooey-gooeyness

Sealing the top layer of dough

Finished product--Perfetto!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

City Love

photo credit: Dan McKinney
I had cried the entire car ride to college.  My boyfriend from high school had broken up with me the day before and I was certain my life was over.  I hadn't even wanted to go to college in the first place; I did it to appease my mother.  And now there I was, in a stupid truck, driving in the stupid rain, to a stupid school I didn't even want to be at, without my boyfriend, devastated and scared.  I begrudgingly emptied the truck of its contents, and said goodbye to my mom.  I watched as she pulled away from the curb onto Broad St tenatively, as if she was just kidding and was going to come back and take me home.
Three days later, she hadn't heard from me.  About four and a half minutes after she left me standing there, waving goodbye to her, I had forgotten where I came from.  All I knew was what I had at that moment:  Philadelphia.

...That was ten years ago.  Philly completely disarmed me; I was immediately head over heels and there was no looking back.  I cannot possibly begin to summarize the last ten years of my life in this space.  You would be reading for days.  What I can say is that this city awakened in me a part of my soul I didn't know existed.  I grew up in Philly; came into my own under its lights.  It taught me endless lessons, provided me with infinite possibilities, challenged and comforted me.  There was love and loss, triumph and tragedy.  Struggle and celebration entwined with memories of comfort and pure happiness.
photo credit: Dan McKinney

There will never be anything quite like the way City Hall makes me feel.  I am haunted every time I walk past it, like there are souls and secrets peering down from its spires, laughing at all the little mysteries I've yet to uncover.  Despite its plight and desolation, I learned to find beauty in North Philadelphia.  All the time spent driving its streets showed me that there can, indeed, be something sublime in the crumbling structures.  My heart still drops to the pit of my stomach every time I round the curve on the Schuylkill Expressway and the city reveals herself; night lights burning a gorgeous bluish purple into the horizon.  It is amazing to me how snow can silence a city; the aesthetic and audible noise just simply disappears and suddenly you find yourself alone in the middle of some desert littered with skyscrapers.  The city brings anonymity.  It's refreshing to be able to disappear amidst the chaos, not having to answer to anyone, to be anyone; to just be a part of the ebb and flow of life, to let the undulating crowds guide your steps.  On Sunday evenings, sometimes, I used to put my headphones on and just walk up and down the streets of Society Hill, taking quiet note of the glow coming through windows and the colors of the doors on the row homes.  No one will ever be able to tell me there's a better way to spend a Sunday than walking slowly through the chilly halls of the Art Museum.  I can still get lost to this day.

The one thing Philly as done from the start, was feed me.  I've been eating my way through the city since day one.  And if I really tried I'm sure I could remember every meal I've ever eaten in the City of Brotherly Love. 

I will spare you that diatribe and just stick to the best-est things I've had the pleasure of consuming on my grand journey through the years and streets of the city a part of me will always call "Home".


Cheesteak:  Jim's on South.  Pat's is my favorite of the famous rival cheesesteak stands, but there's something about Jim's and how they force you to stand inside watching them cook so you smell like onions when you leave that just takes the cake.

Burger:  The Philly Bacon Cheeseburger at Triumph Brewery with the Cheddar Ale Fondue.  Burger Slut City:  a convergence of all food sexiness.  Cheese sauce (with beer), truffle aioli, fried egg, pork belly, and MONEY SAUCE?!  Better call your cardiologist, and your priest for that matter.

Pizza:  Osteria takes the artisan pizza category and raises it to an absolutely stratospheric level.  But if we're talking your regular Joe slice o' pie, then I'm heading straight to Lorenzo's on South St.  Many a drunken night have I enjoyed a slice the size of a baby, and waking up the next morning with pizza grease drips on my shirt.  Plus, who doesn't love their pizza with a little verbal sadism?
Eggs Benedict:  Crab Cake Benedict at Bourbon Blue.  Bacon, lusciously smooth Hollandaise, and a crab cake made the right way (with lots of lump and no filler), piled on a crunchy toasted english muffin, with perfectly jiggly poached eggs.  Eggs Benedict has always been my fave brunch food; this took that love to a whole new place.

Tomato Pie:  Slices Pizza.  It's the sauce; they just do it right.  And I find that the crunchy integrity of the dough is somehow not compromised by the moistness of the sauce.  Bravo.

Hoagie:  Italian hoagie at T&F Farmer's Pride.  Their rolls are crusty, the provolone is sharp and they let me add prosciutto to mine without making me feel like I'm committing an act of sacrelige. 

Crab Fries:  Parker Pub.  They don't advertise or brag about their crab fries, but they really could.  Everyone I know agrees:  theirs are the best around.  Thicker cut fries and a heavy hand on the old bay make all the difference.  I have been known to eat an entire basket by myself as my dinner.
Fish:  Fish n' Chips at Dandelion.  The chips are crispy, the fish is flaky, the whole damn thing is just a marvel.

Canoli:  Isgro Pasticceria.  Instead of a wedding cake, I want a giant Isgro's canoli, stuffed with lots of little Isgro's canolis.  And I won't share it with anyone.

Cocktails:  My absolute favorite place to order a drink is El Vez.  Their mexican/cuban themed specialty cocktails are fun--try the Guava Mojito--and who doesn't love throwin' 'em back underneath a shiny, gold, rotating motorcycle?

Steak:  Barclay Prime.  I ordered my filet medium, and it definitely came out rare, but I barely noticed or cared cause this thing was "like buttah".  That beautiful piece of meat left me fully verclempt. 

Salad:  I'll do my penance for this later, I'm sure but...The Signature Salad at Cosi.  Mixed greens, pears, grapes, pistachios, dried cranberries, blue cheese and a sherry-shallot vinaigrette.  Not to mention their chewy flat bread.  I was mildly addicted to this in college and to this day it's the only thing I will order at Cosi.
Atmosphere:  Village Whiskey.  It's clear by now that I'm a Jose Garces girl through and through but there's something about this tiny little whiskey joint and the kind barkeeps who patiently and expertly curate the drinks (not to mention the duck fat french fries) that makes the feel of the space exactly the kind of place I want to sit and sip a dram of Four Roses.

Unparalled Meals/Dining Experiences:  These are the places that are special to me, for one reason or another.  With some it's the food itself, apart from any other aspect of memory; with others it's the holistic experience.  Judge if you will, but theirs are the tables I could dine at over and over again and each time I love it just as much as the first. 
  • Barbuzzo--Cram me into some tiny little two-seater, uncomfortably close to the couple next to me, and bring me caciovallo stuffed meatballs till I'm blue in the face.
  • Osteria--Mark Vetri's a genius.  Enough said.
  • Monk's--I love mussels.  Monk's love mussels and belgian beer.  I fully endorse the convergence of these two things.  It is a beautiful thing.
  • Cuba Libre--Ever since my first time there, almost nine years ago, where there was perfectly grilled skirt steak, lots of laughter, the most perfect mojito ever and salsa dancing, I have loved going back.
  • South Philly Tap Room--Best place, other than your mom's kitchen table, to get a grilled cheese and tomato soup.
  • Dos Segundos--If for no other reason than the absolute best free chips & salsa in the city, the margaritas and pork carnitas tacos certainly make this place worth visiting.
  • El Azteca--Any place that serves me relatively cheap mexican food, and will pour a half a handle of tequila in my one pitcher of strawberry margaritas without so much as a second thought, deserves a special place in my heart, and my stomach.
  • Good Dog--Duck. Confit. Pot. Pie.  Oh, and cute b&w pics of puppies all over the walls.  And a pretty damn legit beer list.  Sit, stay, enjoy.
  • The Farmer's Daughter--Do I really need to talk again about the bone marrow that was so celestially bestowed upon me for my birthday?  Or the beet salad with chocolate in it?  Yeah, didn't think so.  This farmer's daughter is where it's at.
  • Capogiro--Gelato is perfectly acceptable to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  I can say that with some authority because I lived in Rome.  In college, I lived right around the corner from their 13th and Sansom location, and I would treat myself to a bowl--often.  The Goat's Milk & Lavender still goes down as my all-time favorite.
  • DiNic's--This stands as one food I will break my vegetarian ways for.  Their roast pork is the best.  And eating it amidst the bustling Saturday crowds, juice running down your fingers and chin, is my favorite time to go nosh on one.
  • Xochitl--I'd like to personally thank the chefs at Xochitl for bringing fried avocado into my life.  And some of the best ceviche I've had not-near-a-saltwater-fishing-community.
  • Stateside--Stellar, through and through.
  • Blue Route Taco Truck @ Whole Foods Plymouth Meeting--Eating tacos on the rooftop in the sunshine makes me happy.
  • And, the Pièce de Résistance:  AMADA.  Hands down the best dining experience I've ever had.  Perfection. Absolute perfection.  Love love love love love.
I wish I could say that leaving Philly was a tough decision.  Despite ten years of my life forged there, despite the inordinate amount of people I love that are there, despite the fact that I feel fully at home there, it took me all of three-and-a-half seconds to know, down to my bones, that leaving Philly was exactly what I should be doing. 

This is one goodbye I cannot be sad about.

Philly will be preserved for me, in my heart and in my memories as this place of perfection.  Of infinite possibility, of adventure, of opportunity, of what to fill my belly with.  And so as the skyline disappeared in my rearview this past Sunday, as I put the miles between me and the city that nurtured me, as I thought about my collective experiences, as I collated my life, I was left with a warm heart, a happy filmstrip in my brain, and a satisfied smile on my lips.