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International Day of Italian Cuisines (IDIC) 2014 at the International Culinary Center

IDIC 2014International Day of Italian Cuisines (IDIC) 2014

Yesterday was the Seventh Edition of the International Day of Italian Cuisines (IDIC) held, as in past years, at the International Culinary Center.  The IDIC is held each year on January 17th, the feast day of St. Anthony the Abbot, the patron saint of butchers, as we were told.  Held since 2008, this event recognizes Italian chefs around the globe who make their native cuisine and works to preserve authentic Italian dishes and culinary traditions.  This year’s dish is Spaghetti al Pomodoro (Spaghetti in Tomato Sauce).  As Rosario Scarpato, honorary president of GVCI (Virtual Group of Italian Chefs), explained, consumers are used to commercially-popular versions of Italian foods, but it is important for them to know the more traditional cuisine.

Chef Cesare Casella introduces the programmeChef Cesare Casella, Dean of Italian Studies at the International Culinary Center, introducing the program

Although this year’s dish might seem very simple, being composed of spaghetti, olive oil, tomatoes, salt, and basil, which was acknowledged at the opening of the day, Chef Cesare Casella reminded us we were there to learn about, “Simple dishes that are Italian food, made in the right way.”  He added, “The way we talk, the way we incorporate the ingredients – need to use the right ingredients from Italy.”  This emphasis on using the highest quality ingredients and putting the components together in just the right way so as to achieve maximum flavors is a cornerstone of Italian cooking, whether in fine dining or la cucina casalinga (home-style cooking).  Even though that might sound very easy, it can be a complicated thing to achieve and to master.  The three chefs who cooked for us yesterday each had his own rendition and method for making Spaghetti al Pomodoro, which resulted in three variations on this “simple” dish, each with different taste profiles.

Olive Oil tasting plateExtra Virgin Olive Oil tasting workshop

Prior to sampling the chefs’ plates, however, we participated in three workshops about some of the ingredients that go into making this dish.  The first one was about olive oil with a discussion by a representative from the Consozio Nazionale degli Olivicoltori (the group that works to represent olive growers and olive oil producers).  With a potential production of 100,000 tons of olive oil per year, this is a vast industry for the country.  This organization works to ensure traceability, food safety, and quality control for Italian olive oils, something that has become of increasing importance as olive oil production has grown globally.  We tried three varieties of Italian extra virgin olive oil from different regions of Italy, each with a distinctive characteristics and flavors, from a grassy and subtle-tasting oil from Calabria to a more pungent (stronger, spicier) one from Abruzzo.

Lou Di Palo talking about Grana PadanoLou Di Palo of Di Palo Selects talking about Grana Padano 

One “permitted” addition to Spaghetti al Pomodoro, we were told, would be to finish it off with a light dusting of Grana Padano cheese.  This nutty-tasting hard cheese from the north of Italy is a staple in many dishes due to its depth of flavor and adaptability.  When less mature, from 9 to 16 months of aging, the cheese has a more creamy profile and is perfect for melting, as with a risotto dish that Lou Di Palo of Di Palo Selects said he’d been served recently.  As the cheese continues to mature, the nuttier flavor becomes more pronounced, and it develops a crumblier texture, perfect for grating on pasta dishes.

Link with The President restaurant in PompeiiLink with President restaurant in Pompeii

Alessandra Rotondi, an Italian wine consultant, walked us through the checkered history of another ingredient that plays a key role in this dish – The Tomato.  She took us on the voyage of this fruit (yes, it was emphasized that a tomato is a fruit) from South America to Spain via Cortez and then back again to the New World.  Along the way, it was used as a decorative ornament, graced the pewter plates of the wealthy (where it gained its reputation as being toxic as it picked up traces of lead leached from the plates), to the gardens of Thomas Jefferson in Virginia, and most recently as a food in dishes created by poorer Italians who then brought the recipes for using in a sauce with pasta to the United States.  We didn’t have any of the hanging tomatoes known as “piennolo” to sample at the event, but we were treated to the sight of them via a video link with President restaurant in Pompeii, home to the Vesuvian soil where these tomatoes grow.

Justin Smilie receiving Best New Italian Chef in NYC awardJustin Smilie of Il Buco Alimentari & VineriaBest Emerging Chef of Italian Cuisine in the USA

Before we could dig into plates of pasta, however, much as our appetites were growing with each of these workshops – and the fact that the folks at President were cooking up their own plates of Spaghetti al Pomodoro as we were watching them from our seats in the school’s auditorium – we had a little while longer to wait while the efforts of those who herald Italian cuisine here in New York were recognized and applauded.  Among those honored were Lou Di Palo for his and his family’s efforts at the promotion of Italian cuisine, culture, and ingredients.  Chef Justin Smilie of Il Buco Alimentari & Vineria was recognized as the Best Emerging Chef of Italian Cuisine in the USA.  A complete list of the awardees is here.

Chefs making pastaChefs making their pasta dishes

Then, finally, finally, it was time to watch the chefs prepare their versions of Spaghetti al Pomodoro. Those who were cooking for us yesterday were three chefs under the age of 35 who represent the new faces of Italian cuisine as recognized by the GVCI: Enrico Bartolini of Devero Ristorante in Milan; Matteo Bergamini of SD26 Restaurant in New York City; and Luca Signoretti of Roberto’s Restaurant in Dubai (left to right in the photo with Alessandra Rotondi as moderator for the tasting).  Here are photos of the final plates that they all created.

Enrico Bartolini - Spaghetti al PomodoroSpaghetti al Pomodoro by Enrico Bartolini

Matteo Bergamini - Spaghetti al PomodoroSpaghetti al Pomodoro by Matteo Bergamini

Luca Signoretti - Spaghetti al PomodoroSpaghetti al Pomodoro by Luca Signoretti

Each chef, interestingly enough, used an olive oil from Sicily in his dish.  From there, they put together their own spin on the combination of garlic, tomatoes, salt, and basil (never with black pepper and oregano, as we were advised) along with durum wheat spaghetti.  Chef Bartolini added chopped garlic and red pepper flakes to the oil, par-cooked the pasta (it was still a bit rigid when it came out of the water), and then finished cooking it in the oil, which gave it a sheen and slightly spicy kick, along with some of the reserved tomato juice before adding tomato pulp.  Then, he added the tomatoes to the pasta.  Chef Bergamini infused his oil with cloves of garlic and then added the tomatoes before incorporating the pasta.  Chef Signoretti crushed his tomatoes before making the sauce and then after adding the pasta, grated Grana Padano on top of the dish while it was still in the pan to allow the cheese to melt into the sauce and to absorb some of the liquid so that it coated each strand of the pasta.  My favorite was the one by Chef Bergamini as every bite seemed to have a silken, tangy coating of the sauce on the spaghetti.  The herbacious notes of the basil (torn, not chopped, we were instructed) balanced out the acidity of the tomatoes and creaminess of the cheese.  I could have happily gone back for several more plates of this dish.

Rosario Scarpato introduces seminarsRosario Scarpato thanks everyone for attending IDIC 2014

After we’d cleaned off our plates, it was time to wrap up IDIC for 2014.  Rosario Scarpato, the event organizer, thanked everyone for coming to honor the achievements of the chefs and the others who help to promote Italian cuisine.  He also announced that the program would change slightly for 2015.  Instead of featuring Italian foods that are already well-known outside of Italy to work towards preserving their authenticity, the next year’s event would aim to recognize a dish that is less eaten outside of the country to promote some of the hidden culinary treasures of la cucina italiana.  I’ll be very interested to see what that will be.

Buon appetito!

Announcing scholarship in Marcella Hazan's nameAnnouncing the scholarship in Marcella Hazan’s name

Addendum

At yesterday’s event, Dorothy Cann Hamilton, found of the International Culinary Center also announced a scholarship named after culinary instructor and cookbook author Marcella Hazan for someone wishing to enroll in their Italian Culinary Experience this spring.  The deadline for applications is March 7, 2014.