When I was growing up in the 50s and 60s, we really didn’t dine out that much. My family enjoyed such good food at home that the only reason for going to a restaurant was to give my mother and aunt a break from cooking. More often than not, the restaurants we chose were Italian. In fact, two of our favorites are still going strong in Brooklyn: Michael’s on Avenue R and Gargiulo’s in Coney Island. A third favorite, Patsy’s, continues to be popular in Manhattan. All three served then, as they still do, typical Neapolitan dishes that were similar to those we enjoyed at home but, at least in my aunt’s opinion, never quite as good.
In the early 50s, however, southern-Italian restaurants were being challenged by northern-Italian competitors. These new style establishments strove to distinguish themselves and, with some condescension, frowned on the heavy use of garlic, olive oil, peperoncino, and even dried pasta like spaghetti. Butter took the place of olive oil; cream sauces replaced tomato based ones; herbs like rosemary and thyme and spices like saffron and nutmeg lent more nuance than did basil or oregano. Southern dried pasta was replaced either by the fresh egg variety or by risottos, often finished with flair at tableside.
One of the most famous northern-Italian restaurants in New York was Romeo Salta, off of 5th Avenue on West 56th Street. Named after its Italian-born chef-owner, who had risen to prominence in Hollywood during the 30s, the restaurant created a more formal style of dining that many others would follow.
For those readers who would like to know more about the evolution of Italian food and restaurants, I recommend food-writer John Mariani’s book How Italian Food Conquered the World. But for now, I would like to get back to what started me on this subject: Romeo Salta’s cookbook, The Pleasures of Italian Cooking.
It was one of just a few books my aunt had ever purchased. Salta’s slim 239-page book was dwarfed on her small shelf by Ada Boni’s 1,053-page tome, Il Talismano della Felicita, my aunt’s go-to reference, on one side and by the 812-page American Woman’s Cookbook on the other. I remember paging through Salta’s as a kid, attracted by its extremely stylized, color photos of an antipasto platter accompanied by a mile-high pepper grinder, a risotto served in an elaborate chaffing dish, or a rich dessert lit by an ornate candelabra. Recently, out of nostalgia, I purchased a used copy of it and found only one recipe that I could recall my aunt making, chicken cacciatora. Ironically, it’s one of the least northern-style dishes in the book. And perhaps that is why it found its way to my family’s table.
As had my aunt, I also chose to prepare one of Salta’s more southern-style dishes, which he titled Spaghetti Piatto Unico, Spaghetti with Veal Dumplings. From the picture at the top of this post, you can see that this “piatto unico,” or “one-dish meal” is no more than spaghetti with meatballs. Apparently, many of Salta’s well-heeled and celebrity clientele had an occasional hankering for those good old southern-Italian favorites, to which the enterprising restaurateur readily catered.
Interestingly, Salta’s version of this Italian-American standard is much lighter than most. In his northern style, he uses no olive oil. The meatballs are browned in butter, which yields the fat and most of the flavor for the tomato sauce. Salt and pepper are the only seasonings, while prosciutto and Parmigiano add flavor to the veal.
I followed the recipe pretty closely; however, I added a little olive oil to the butter to prevent it from burning; I substituted pancetta for the prosciutto and a 14.5 ounce can of imported chopped tomatoes for the pound of fresh. Finally, I finished cooking the pasta in the sauce rather than pouring it over the pasta. Both the sauce and the meatballs were delicious. I enjoyed the pure tomato flavor of the sauce and the lightness of the meatballs. As my better half said, “it’s a keeper.”
Spaghetti with Veal Dumplings (from The Pleasures of Italian Cooking by Romeo Salta)
1/2 pound ground veal
1/8 pound prosciutto, or cooked ham, finely chopped
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup dry bread crumbs
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons dry vermouth
1 pound tomatoes, chopped
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 pound spaghetti, cooked and drained
1. Mix together the veal, ham, cheese, 1/2 teaspoon salt and the egg. (To keep the dumplings light, don’t over work the mixture.)
2. Shape teaspoons of the mixture into little balls. Roll in the bread crumbs.
3. Melt the butter in a saucepan; brown the balls in it.
4. Add the wine; cook until absorbed, add the tomatoes, pepper and remaining salt.
5. Cook over low heat 30 minutes. Taste for seasoning. (If your sauce is getting too thick, you may want to partially cover the pan.)
6. Pour over the hot spaghetti and serve with grated cheese. (I chose to remove the dumplings from the pan so they wouldn’t break and finish cooking the pasta in the sauce.)
This dish is served as a main course.
Wine Pairing: Morellino di Scansano