Basilicata’s terrain is largely mountainous and hilly, but it is also home to one short coastline on the Tyrrhenian Sea, and a longer one to the southeast on the Gulf of Toranto. The cuisine is simple, but hearty. The coastal areas provide clams, mussels, and scallops, which are especially popular in pasta. Shepherds and farmers dominate the economy. Fresh meat is enjoyed in small portions, but it is overshadowed by the popularity of pork sausages, linked inextricably with the region’s growing of spicy peperoncini. Lamb, too, is favored and frequently added to pasta. Chickpeas, fava beans, lentils, durum wheat, artichokes, broccoli and rapini, potatoes, onions, eggplant, tomatoes, carrots, olives and wine grapes are staple crops and provide the hearty basis for countless dishes made in the simple Basilicata tradition.
|Photo from All About Italy|
Though a modest wine producer in terms of volume, Basilicata boasts one of the finest reds in Italy, Aglianico del Vulture. Produced from grapes grown on the slopes of the extinct Monte Vulture volcano, this robust, complex wine is sometimes referred to as the Barolo of the south. Among white wines, the best known are Asprinio, Malvasia di Basilicata and Moscato.
As guests of the most recent Tuesday Night Tasting, we were seated at a long, rustic chef’s table in the center of the main dining room, between the open kitchen and massive fireplace. I love restaurants with open kitchens, and enjoyed watching Chef-Partner Marco Nocco cooking and plating alongside his sous and line chefs.
Beginning with Zuppe e Antipasti, we were served Zuppa di Ceci, a garbanzo bean soup with escarole, tomatoes, carrots, leeks, potatoes and fresh herbs, and Insalata di Carciofini, a wild arugula salad with sliced baby artichoke, tomato, lemon dressing and shaved Parmesan. Chef Marco graciously plated full servings of several dishes so we could photograph and share them with you. In addition to the soup or salad, the third antipasti offered is Carpaccio di Melanzane, thinly sliced grilled eggplant topped with marinated roasted bell peppers and kalamata olives, served with goat cheese and crispy capers.
|Insalata di Carciofini|
Next, we tasted small servings of the Battuta di Pollo all’Aglio e Limone, pounded and grilled double chicken breast with lemon, olive oil and roasted garlic, and Branzino alla Potentina, wild seabass filet sauteed with tomatoes, Trebbiano wine, basil and garlic. Both are served with roasted Yukon Gold Potatoes and peperonata. The third Secondi selection is Garretto d’Agnello, lamb shank braised with vegetables, herbs and Sangiovese wine, served with spinach and mashed potatoes.
|Chef Marco plating Garretto d’Agnello|
I’m not sure how, but I managed to save room for Dolci, the Torta allo Zabaione, sponge cake soaked in marsala wine and layered with zabaione-mascarpone cream, edged with toasted almonds and topped with chocolate shavings. Very light, not too sweet, and similar to tiramisu, but without the espresso.
|Torta allo Zabaione|
However, if you enjoy a shot of espresso after dinner, follow Chef Marco’s lead and indulge in the Affogato al Caffè, espresso poured over two scoops of vanilla gelato and topped with fresh whipped cream.
The best way to sample the Basilicata Festa Regionale menu is to order the Taste of Basilicata ($29.99), and the Wine Flight ($9.99), for your choice of three courses and half-glass pours of the white and red wines. The featured wines from the region are Bianco Basilicata, Re Manfredi, 2009, and Aglianico del Vulture, Terra di Vulcano, Bisceglia, 2007. Il Fornaio’s regular menu is always offered in addition to the Festa Regionale menu.
A few nights before we went to the Tuesday Night Tasting, I pulled out my copy of The Il Fornaio Pasta Book to see if it had any recipes for the pasta dishes from the Basilicata region, and it did! The Spaghetti alla Lucana in the cookbook is similar to the Spaghetti Maratea on the menu. Chef Marco used clams and mussels in the Maratea version, but you can use clams and/or mussels to suit your taste. Here’s my version, with clams.
Adapted slightly from The Il Fornaio Pasta Book
For the roasted peppers:
2 medium yellow bell peppers
2 medium red bell pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
For the clams:
¼ cup olive oil
3 pounds small, fresh clams, well rinsed
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped fresh Italian parsley
½ cup dry white wine
Freshly ground pepper
For the pasta and sauce:
1/3 cup olive oil
3 garlic cloves, sliced
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or ½ peperoncini, broken into small pieces
2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
½ cup dry white wine
5 teaspoons salt (for pasta water)
1 pound dry spaghetti
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground pepper
Prepare the roasted peppers: Preheat the broiler. Brush the peppers with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Put in an ovenproof skillet and place under the broiler. Cook, turning frequently, until skin is evenly charred on all sides. Let cool. Peel the peppers and discard the seeds, stems, and skin. Cut lengthwise into thin strips.
|You can roast the peppers over a gas burner, on the grill, or under the broiler|
|Charred skin easily peels off|
|Lemon, garlic and Italian parsley|
To prepare the clams: Heat the olive oil in a large high-sided sauté pan over high heat. Add the clams, garlic, and parsley. Squeeze the lemon to release the juice over the clams, and then add the lemon it to the pan. Add the wine and a pinch of pepper. Cover and bring to a boil. Cook until the clams begin to open, 2-3 minutes. Be careful not to overcook. Transfer the clams to a baking sheet to cool. Strain the clam broth into a medium bowl and reserve. Remove the clams from their shells by gently scraping with a small spoon and place in a small bowl. Reserve the empty shells.
|Cooling the clams|
Put the shells in a large stockpot. Add 5 quarts of water and 5 teaspoons of salt. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer 30 minutes.
Remove the clam shells from the water with tongs or a skimmer and discard. Add enough water so you have 5 quarts again. Bring to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook until al dente. Transfer to a colander and drain.
While the pasta is cooking, heat the remaining 1/3 cup olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the garlic, red pepper flakes, and half the parsley. Cook 2-3 minutes. Add the wine and cook until nearly evaporated, about 5 minutes. Add the roasted peppers, the clams, and their reserved broth. Bring to a boil and season with salt. Add the drained pasta. Add the remaining parsley. Toss to mix well, drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil, and season with pepper.