DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
Chef Mario Batali is known for the creative Italian fare he serves at his popular New York restaurants, including Babo, but his latest cookbook, "Molto Italiano," gets back to the basics.
Mr. MARIO BATALI (Chef, Author): This book is more recipes stolen over years of traveling around Italy from grandmothers and families. This is more about Italian home cooking which is where the true celebration of the Italian culture exists.
ELLIOTT: In case you haven't seen Batali on one of his cooking shows on the Food Network, picture a stocky man with red hair pulled back into a ponytail, baggy shorts and vest, and on his feet, bright orange krops(ph), those plastic clogs with big air holes in the strap that goes around your heel.
(Soundbite of street and traffic noise)
Mr. BATALI: Hi, Leah!
ELLIOTT: He's somewhat of a celebrity in the Greenwich Village neighborhood where his restaurants are. Fans stop to stare, some point.
(Soundbite of street and traffic noise)
Mr. BATALI: I go to the shoe fair, I'm nobody. In Little Italy, I'm Elvis.
ELLIOTT: We've asked him to prepare some antipasti, the little savory first courses that serve as the prologue to an Italian meal. But first, he takes us to Fico's(ph), an Italian meat market in the neighborhood.
Mr. BATALI: So this is Fico's. You'll notice the smell. This is what I imagine hell must be for vegans.
(Soundbite of shop noise)
Mr. BATALI: What's up, fellas? Good, good. How hungry are we? What are we going to make? Two or three courses of antipasti? Beautiful. Can I get two of those pinwheel steaks, sir, and one pack of the pork livers with the bay leaves?
Unidentified Man: What else?
Mr. BATALI: And then a half--quarter pound of prosciutto...(foreign language spoken)
ELLIOTT: Now tell me why you wanted to start our journey in the market.
(Soundbite of beating sounds)
Mr. BATALI: Well, because I think that the most important part of Italian cooking is done before you get in the kitchen. And that's in the purchasing of the ingredients. And so we have to go to a place where they ha--I mean, you can smell just by this place. This is an old-style checkered-tile floored butcher shop. The guy in the back is pounding his veal because they need that many today. It's like a kid in a candy store for a guy like me. I mean, you just can't go wrong. It's so perfect and so simple.
Unidentified Man: Here you go. Here you go.
Mr. BATALI: All right, guys. Thank you.
ELLIOTT: We take Batali's `candy' back to the kitchen of his Fifth Avenue restaurant, Otto.
Mr. BATALI: Shell we open the grocery bag?
ELLIOTT: We are ready to cook.
Mr. BATALI: All right. This is all that we bought at Fico. Couple of things like that, the prosciutto, the mozzarella and the tomatoes are going to make a special little antipasto. And then these two other things that I bought are going to make a cooked antipasto.
ELLIOTT: He removes the white butcher paper from the sausage-shaped port livers that are held together by a white web of pork fat and tosses them into a small skillet with olive oil.
Mr. BATALI: Now we've got that. Now I'm the kind of guy that likes their pork and their calves liver kind of pink. I don't--one of the problems with growing up for me with liver was that mom always dredged in nice flour and then cooked it until it screamed and begged for mercy.
ELLIOTT: And it was a little crunchy hard thing.
Mr. BATALI: Well, crunchy would have been good. Just hard.
ELLIOTT: As he cooks, Batali looks around the kitchen for the next ingredient, scooping up some zucchini here, a tomato there, a bit of roasted red pepper.
Mr. BATALI: What I'm going to do right here to make this sauce--I have that oil there. I'm going to take just a little bit of white wine.
(Soundbite of frying sounds)
ELLIOTT: And this is in with the vegetables that are left in the pan.
Mr. BATALI: It's in with the kind of hammered zucchini. I'm going to stir it around like that. Add a little bit of thyme and then...
ELLIOTT: So it sounds to be the beauty of antipasto is being able to do something with the ingredients that you have on hand.
Mr. BATALI: Right. Maybe you need to buy one thing or two things or maybe you don't need to buy anything at all. I mean, if you happened to keep a well-stocked larder and you go out to the green market or you go out to the store, and you come home with a pumpkin, you cut the pumpkin into big cubes. You treat it just like we did this thing. You put 'em in a hot pan. You saute 'em until they get kind of crunchy on the outside. Put a little salt and whatever happens to be in the pantry, boom, you have antipasto.
ELLIOTT: Oh, those livers look very beautiful.
Mr. BATALI: Don't they look great.
ELLIOTT: They're dark...
Mr. BATALI: They're dark and crispy. And now...
ELLIOTT: ...on one side, carmelized.
Mr. BATALI: ...what I'm going to I'm going to flip 'em over. Just pour that right in the center.
(Soundbite of scraping noise)
ELLIOTT: Oh, lovely.
Mr. BATALI: Over the top. Now keep in mind, when we started out here, we had no idea what we were going to make. We're not sure what to call this, but we're pretty sure it's good. So now let's get ourselves some crusty bread and go taste this.
ELLIOTT: Let's do.
(Soundbite of kitchen sounds)
Mr. BATALI: Grab that mozzarella, Debbie, and the sun-dried tomatoes and the prosciutto.
(Soundbite of dishes being moved)
Mr. BATALI: Have a seat, my dear.
ELLIOTT: Let's try this.
Mr. BATALI: Let's try that. So now this, first of all, just try the prosciutto by itself. Now take a little piece of...
ELLIOTT: It's almost creamy.
Mr. BATALI: Isn't it? And sweet. So now take a little piece of the prosciutto and a little piece of the mozzarella and...
Mr. BATALI: ...wrap the mozzarella in the prosciutto. Now there's a lactic component that kicks in. In your third bite, skip the prosciutto altogether. Take one of those sun-dried tomatoes and a little bit of that mozzarella and now we run the gamut from the meat and its austerity, to the cheese which was halfway from the meat to the dirt, and now we're into the dirt--the actual tomato itself. And then going back down that food chain, you realize what magnificence the fruit has. That tomato tastes like something entirely different now. When you taste things in the right order, sometimes they taste so much different than if you taste them out of order. Not that there's a right order, like by rule, but just like in a thoughtful way that makes sense.
ELLIOTT: Have you always been this passionate about food? Even when you were young?
Mr. BATALI: I'm this passionate about rock 'n' roll, I must admit, as well; as well as Cezanne and fast Italian cars. But, yeah, I mean, passion is what adds so much value to life. And if you think about the things that you do, there's so much juice potential for them if you do it.
(Soundbite of dishes being handled)
ELLIOTT: I've wanted to try a recipe before I came to meet you, so I kind of thumbed through and in the antipasto section it's not that complicated. I found some things that were pretty easy, and I made the eggplant Parmesan.
Mr. BATALI: Yeah.
ELLIOTT: It was very simple.
Mr. BATALI: Isn't that great?
ELLIOTT: And it was delicious and my guests thought it was great. And I think the secret was I bought good mozzarella. I didn't buy like the shredded kind.
Mr. BATALI: And that's the whole game. As far away as you can get from the process of mechanisms and machinery, the more likely your food's going to taste good. And that--that is probably the largest thing I can hand to anybody is let your hands touch it. Let them make it. When you cut that eggplant up and you roast it in the oven and you make the tomato sauce and you put it on top, your soul is in that food, and there's something about that that can never be made by a company that has three million employees. Try as they will, they can do whatever they can, but it's--nothing is that good like that.
ELLIOTT: Let's talk about--we went to the market before you prepared these foods because you wanted to have fresh ingredients. But everybody doesn't have the luxury of living in New York City where there's this cool Italian market. So what about someone who lives in, say, a more removed environment?
Mr. BATALI: Arkansas?
ELLIOTT: Yeah, there you go. What...
Mr. BATALI: Well, I would...
ELLIOTT: ...tips would you have for them?
Mr. BATALI: The tips would be to still approach your meal, not from the recipe book in the kitchen, but from the shopping store. You can tell no matter what grocery you're at that of the 50 or 200 or whatever number of items there happens to be in the produce department, some of them got there more recently.
ELLIOTT: In your book you write about the Italian tradition of almost celebrating something when it first comes into season.
Mr. BATALI: It's called the scorpachada(ph) and it means a full-frontal attack. When strawberries first come in you have strawberries every day all day because you know, quite honestly, in Italy even though you can get strawberries in the big cities probably six months a year, when they're local strawberries you get them--and they're three or four weeks. And you have them every day and they never saw a refrigerator. That's where you live.
ELLIOTT: Can you recall a favorite antipasto that you've had and where you had it?
Mr. BATALI: Yes, I can. One of my favorite antipasti I ever had, and I'll never forget it because it was the first time I ever had them. They're called alici marinate and it's marinated fresh anchovies. I was at the sea--I was in the--Malta Coast. On my way to lunch, I walked--I always walked by the kitchens of the restaurants, and I kind of peeked my head in the kitchen if I could see something. Well, there were two little old ladies in there and they were filleting open these little anchovies and taking out the bone and then laying them on a marble counter. Then they wou--I watched them, and they squeezed lemon juice all over them, sprinkle little chili flakes on them and let them sit for about 20 minutes like that. Then covered them with olive oil and put 'em on the table in little plates, like six or seven of them, with a little piece of grilled bread. And it was goose bumps to this day. I will never forget the first time I ever had 'em, and I--we make 'em in all the restaurants at this point. And they are so delightful. The best...
ELLIOTT: And very simple.
Mr. BATALI: ...thing I ever had. And the easiest thing in the world, provided you have a series of grandmothers in the back ready to pull all the little bones out of your fish for you. You know, as long as you got little grandmothers in the back you're in great shape for anything, though.
ELLIOTT: Chef Mario Batali. His new cookbook is "Molto Italiano." It features some of those grandmothers' recipes. We spoke with him at his New York restaurant, Otto. For recipes and photos, go to our Web site, npr.org.
(Soundbite of "Mambo Italiano")
Ms. ROSEMARY CLOONEY: (Singing) A girl went back to Napoli because she missed the scenery, the native dances and the charming songs, but wait a minute, something's wrong. Hey, Mambo, Mambo Italiano. Hey, Mambo, Mambo Italiano. Go, go, go, you mixed up sicialiano. All you calabraise-a do the mambo like a crazy with a Hey, Mambo, don't...
(Soundbite of "Mambo Italiano")
Ms. CLOONEY: (Singing) Hey, Mambo, Mambo Italiano. Hey, Mambo. Mambo Italiano. Go, go, Joe, shake like a Giovanno. Hello kess-a-deetch-a...
ELLIOTT: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.
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