Friday, June 27, 2008

Italian Whole Foods: That's Amore

Here's a paradox: Sometimes you pay more --- and get so much more that you actually save money.

I'll explain.

It started with coffee.

When we were last in Rome, we made daily pilgrimages to Sant' Eustachio, the coffee bar between Pantheon and the Piazza Navona. We never got lost. We just followed that signature coffee aroma. Or the never-ending line of coffee lovers, many of them Americans clutching the rave from The New York Times: “When the need for a real espresso becomes overpowering, buy a ticket to Rome, tell the taxi driver to head straight for the Sant'Eustachio café. The espresso will be perfect.”

Usually I recoil at “perfect”, but Sant'Eustachio coffee is the exception. Since 1938, the proprietors have roasted 100% Arabica beans over wood in back of the coffee bar, and something in that method --- or in the care of the processing --- gives the coffee extraordinary smoothness and comparatively low caffeine. As espresso or cappuccino, the taste is of such purity and quality that one visit a day quickly turns into two.

Recently, on a morning when the home brew faltered, I typed “Sant'Eustachio” into Goggle --- and was stunned to discover it was on sale at Eight ounces for $20, which is an eye-opener all by itself. Still, for special occasions, I could justify it. And it was so much cheaper than a flight to Rome...

Then I saw this was no Amazon Prime “free shipping” deal. This coffee actually came from a supplier named Gustiamo, and to get my eight ounces of coffee would cost me another $15 in transport. Extravagance is a recessive gene; I passed.

Some of the small producers that Gustiamo continually searches for who manufacture their products in the traditional way…”come una volta." Their standards are the highest: perfectly balanced extra-virgin olive oils, bronze die-extruded pasta, short grain rice for risotto, jams and marmalades made in small batches with tons of fruit. You can either buy them on or travel to Italy. Even then, the search won’t be easy.
Curiosity got the best of me. I googled Gustiamo--- and found myself in a world of the most authentic Italian food I have ever seen. Cherry tomatoes from volcanic soil. Whole plum tomatoes that sounded luscious beyond any I've ever tasted. Pasta made from ancient mills. Olive oils and vinegars so fine they seemed too good to use. And something called Colatura, totally unknown to me.

Curiosity drew me to the Bronx, and the small warehouse that is Gustiamo world headquarters. There Martina and Beatrice, the persuasive owners, preached the gospel of Italian artisanal foods --- and converted me.

Let me now try to convince you that a $12.50 can of tomatoes and $28 for 3.38 ounces of Colatura might make sense for you.

Two principles apply here:
-- When inflation is driving food prices to the moon, it's shrewd to make simpler meals with fewer ingredients.
-- The better the ingredients, the less you need to do to make a great meal.

Except for the inflation, these are ancient truths. The rich have always known them --- while the would-be gourmet chef slaves over fancy dishes, the cooks of the rich tend to serve dinners of astonishing simplicity. And high-end chefs of smart restaurants follow the same plan: great ingredients, simply presented. For just one: Mario Batali, who created Babbo and many other hotspots, stocks his kitchens with products from Gustiamo.

Let's look at a few of the ingredients that might make your friends and family sit down to what looks like a ho-hum entree --- tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, pasta --- and suddenly declare you the next Multo Mario.

Olive Oil
Batali has compared a great olive oil to diamonds. That's probably mystifying to those who feel they're splurging when they spend $12 for a large bottle of extra-virgin oil --- is there something better than extra-virgin? Yes, there is, and throwing a dart at the oils that Gustiamo offers and buying any one will make you suddenly snarky about the oil you now use. Are Gustiamo's oils too pricey? I go to the two-for-one special --- oil that's nearing its sell-by date. Because olive oil isn't like milk; it really doesn't turn bad. (And, yes, I still buy $12 olive oil for “ordinary” use.)

Sant' Eustachio Coffee
Many choices here. Beans. Ground. Ground for espresso. Decaf. Moka. We're fanatics for freshness --- we grind our own. And how do we justify the $20 cost for eight ounces? Let's see, that's about four whole-milk grande lattes at Starbucks. In this context, Sant' Eustachio's beans are almost a bargain.


Piennolo Vine Tomatoes
$19 for 1.1 pound? No way. I tell you: way. Small as cherries, packed in glass, they have an explosive quality --- looking at them, you imagine small, happy bursts of pleasure as you pop them into your mouth. Well, restrain yourself. A little garlic, a splash of olive oil and these organic tomatoes --- and there's your sauce.

Il Miracolo di San Gennaro
The “miracle” of San Gennaro? Well, the label certainly charms: “Entire tomatoes do not peel to you, in tomato juice.” But does charm mean you should spend $12.50 for a 28-ounce can of whole plum tomatoes? If what you're serving showcases the tomatoes, just possibly. These are grown in volcanic soil, hand-picked, gently cooked without peeling. The taste? Like a wet kiss all over the inside of your mouth --- full-bodied, yet tender. Call it the taste of the home you never had but may have dreamed of.

This is a salted anchovy sauce, highly concentrated. The best --- and this certainly seems to be --- comes from Cetara, a village near Capri. Fishermen gut and behead fresh-caught anchovies, sprinkle sea salt on them, then layer them in wooden barrels. Over the next 45 days, a small hole in the bottom of the barrels allows the liquid to drip out. Another six months, and the fish and salt liquify. Strong? Fishy? Smelly? All of the above. That's why 3+ ounces is a considerable supply --- Colatura is an accent, you only use two or three tablespoons, at most.

At $6.50 a box, pasta's a relative bargain here. But why not buy what's on the shelves at the supermarket? Because even if it's imported, it's not likely to have passed through bronze dies. Why does that matter? “It gives the pasta a rough texture that allows the sauce to cling to it. Commercial pasta is manufactured with teflon dies. The result is a slippery surface.”

There's more. Poke around. Take your time. Because, with these prices and that $15 shipping charge, you're probably not going to be ordering often --- you might as well stock up.

Cautionary note: Looking for truffle oil? Don't bother --- Gustiamo won't sell it. As Martina writes, “Truffle olive oil is produced by adding a chemical essence which smells and taste like truffle, usually to cover the taste of a mediocre olive oil.”

Finally, Martina and Beatrice are Italian; they cook for their families, they don't lack for opinions. Like:

Making pasta is easy, but we'll offer our two cents worth of advice: cook pasta in lots of water, bring the water to a rolling boil, then add salt and pasta at the same time. Never overcook pasta (follow direction on your pasta package). Never over-drain pasta, it should be moist to properly combine with sauce. Never over-sauce --- you are not serving soup. Cooked pasta needs to be served immediately....

And one more:

We don't chop the garlic, but sauté whole cloves. Then we remove them before adding the tomatoes --- it's the authentic Italian touch of the mothers.

At these prices, you deserve a freebie. Well, here you go --- the master recipe for a pasta sauce that looks like any other, but will have your guests frowning, thinking, then smiling.

Pasta with Piennolo Tomatoes and Colatura

Serves 4

1 box (500gr/1.1lbs) fusilli
5 tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 cloves of garlic, peeled
1 jar Piennolo Tomatoes
3 tablespoons Colatura
Sea Salt
2-3 leaves fresh basil

Cook the pasta al dente by boiling it in abundant salted water, about 10 minutes, tasting every few minutes to make sure pasta still has a firm bite.

Heat 4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in a wide skillet over low to medium heat.

Add garlic cloves and sauté until golden, then remove.

Add the Piennolo tomatoes and cook over low to medium heat for 3-5 minutes.
Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Combine tomatoes with drained pasta and add approximately 2-3 tablespoons of Colatura.

Mix well to blend flavors and coat the pasta with the sauce.
Finish with chopped fresh basil.

At the end, my wife and I toss in some bite-sized pieces of shrimp, gently sautéed in olive oil and a clove of garlic. But don't feel compelled. The basics are, in this case, more than good enough.

--- Jesse Kornbluth, for

To visit the Gustiamo web site, click here.

To order olive oil from Gustiamo, click here.

To order coffee from Gustiamo, click here.

To order "Miracle of San Gennaro" tomatoes from Gustiamo, click here.

To order Piennolo Vine tomatoes from Gustiamo, click here.

To order Colatura from Gustiamo, click here.

To order pasta from Gustiamo, click here.

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