What a great month so far. Here are some of the highlights. I spent three days in Las Vegas for the International Pizza Expo. What a show! 1,000 exhibitors, 6,000 attendees; that’s a lot of pizza! I was part of the Neapolitan contingent. A remarkable group, it included Fred Mortati and Carlo Orlando of Orlando Foods, the exclusive importers of Antico Molino Caputo flour and Accademia Barilla products, Antimo and Eugenio Caputo of Antico Molino Caputo flour, Peppe Miele of the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana, Sergio Piccu of the Associazione Pizzaiuoli Napoletani, Antonio Starita of Pizzeria Starita in Napoli, Ciro Cacace, Antonio’s pizzaiuolo of 44 years, and Adolfo Marletta of La Spaghetta Pizzeria in Vomero, which is in the hills just above Napoli.
Antonio, Ciro and Adolfo are considered by many to be among the greatest of today’s Neapolitan pizza makers. I have previously written of Antonio having had the honor of presenting a pizza to Pope John Paul at the time of the Jubileo. The three of them were in Las Vegas to demonstrate the Neapolitan style of making dough, extending and topping the pie, and working their magic in the oven. To say they were well received is an understatement. By the time I said my goodbyes to all of them, I was very sad.However, if you believe in the power of the Madonna, you may relate to what happened next, as illustrated by the following tale (and short digression), a story well know in the south of Italy and beyond.
This story has a mythic quality: a merchant from Constantinople was on his way to Venice by sea (circa 1453) with valuable cargo including a panel painting of the Madonna. A powerful storm blew the ship onto the rocky shores of the Adriatic to the Gargano in Puglia, southern Italy. The merchant made several more attempts to set sail for Venice, but each time his ship was blown back onto the rocky shores. It was believed to be a sign of her power, and that she was meant to stay there. The Madonna now sits in the Chiesa Madonna della Libera in Rodi Garganico, my beloved adopted home, an old sea town surrounded by olive and citrus fruit groves. Every summer in Rodi there is a grand festa with a re-enactment of this event.
Back to Las Vegas 2009 and the Neapolitani, who had left the Las Vegas Expo for Napoli with a connecting flight in Chicago. Around 9:30 Friday evening (Friday the 13th) I received a phone call from Antimo Caputo. Their plane for Rome had made an emergency landing back in Chicago due to smoke in the cabin. They needed to stay overnight, and would be stopping by Spacca Napoli! I was so excited, for a moment I forgot about the terror they must have just experienced.
Finally around midnight they arrived, by which time everyone else at Spacca had gone. After reviewing what had happened, we made foccacia and then toured our operation. Their pride in what we have accomplished made me very happy. Sergio made pasta all’amatriciana and we drank a Montepulciano di Abruzzo, one of the new additions to our wine list. Ginny, my wife and partner, and Henry, my principal pizzaiuolo, joined us, and as we shared food, wine and conversation, we thought of the Madonna della Libera, and how symbolic their return was of her story. Antonio Starita demonstrated his mastery for extending the dough, and the other pizzaiuoli discussed the fine points of proper formulas for making dough as the seasons change and temperature and humidity are factored in. All this well after midnight, and in Neapolitan dialect! Our goodbyes were at 2:00 in the morning. It was a surreal experience and I still am in heaven from it.
We just hosted a large event with ChicaGourmets, an exciting and very active culinary organization in Chicago. The event combined art and food culture beginning with a reception in Ginny’s Studio Rose with prosecco, Neapolitan treats, and live music by Victor Sanders. Our dinner featured six pizzas and some of our favorite appetizers. A portion of the proceeds from the event went to benefit the Cook Italy Educational Foundation. To cap off the evening, Chicago Magazine Food Editor Penny Pollack discussed her passionate love for pizza and signed her book EVERYBODY LOVES PIZZA which she co-authored with Jeff Ruby.
I am spending a few days in New York to visit with my daughter Sarah, who will return to the pizzeria for the summer after she graduates from Hampshire College. Of our family, Sarah is the one with the proper Italian pronunciation. We are having dinner at Peasant on Elizabeth Street and she is willing to indulge my wish to hang out with Roberto Caporuscio as he gets ready to open his pizzeria (Keste) and pizza school on Bleeker Street.
On March 29th I will join several outstanding local chefs to forage for ramps (allium tricoccum), also known as wild leeks or onions, and for which Chicago was originally named by the Potowatomi tribe (Checagou). Ramps are the first edible green to come up each spring. Kris and Marty Travis, the stewards of Spence Farm in central Illinois, are donating the ramps we find on their land to RampFest, an annual spring fundraiser for Land Connection, an organization dedicated to conserving farmland, training farmers and supporting local food systems. This year’s event will be at Garfield Park Conservatory and will be emceed by Tallgrass Beef rancher Bill Kurtis. All the chefs will be making special dishes utilizing the collected ramps. Mine will be one of my favorites from the Gargano, a stuffed focaccia with caramelized ramps and anchovies served alongside fresh burrata cheese, another Pugliese specialty. Visit www.thelandconnection.org for tickets and more information. I hope to see you there.