© 2023 WYPR
WYPR 88.1 FM Baltimore WYPF 88.1 FM Frederick WYPO 106.9 FM Ocean City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Italy I: Three Great Appetizers

I was in Piedmont, Italy last month on a tour featuring food and wine. As you might expect, it was nothing less than inspirational. At one restaurant in Turin we had an opening course of three fabulous appetizers: Caponata, Vitello tonnato, and Crespille ricotta e basilico. And, not only are these wonderful starters, they're easy to make.

Let's start with the first:  caponata. This close relative of the French dish ratatouille comes to us from Sicily, and although it is quite similar there are a few important differences. Both can feature eggplant, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, zucchini, garlic and spices, but caponata takes it a few savory steps further. You will add in crunchy pine nuts, salty olives, pungent anchovies, tangy vinegar and briny capers to the mix. You will certainly find a lot of fresh basil and parsley in the mix, plus some tangy vinegar. And don't be surprised if you bite into a raisin or two.

Like ratatouille, you will cook the eggplant separately.  All the other ingredients are then cooked in a red wine and tomato paste sauce. The trick is to cook only until the veggies are slightly tender. You next return the eggplant to the pot, adjust the seasoning with a pinch of sugar and a splash of vinegar, then let the whole thing simmer for a few minutes. You will then set aside to cool to room temperature. Serve with bread or bruscetta.

So the two main differences between caponata  and ratatouille are the cooking times and the extra ingredients. The caponata gets its charm from the slightly undercooked vegetables that retain their crunchiness. Ratatouille's components are usually stewed to a very soft texture. And of course the vinegar, capers, olives, pine nuts and raisins offer a more complex range of flavors.  

Ideally, you would serve your caponata with thin slices of bread or bruscetta.

Northern Italians eat a lot of veal, and it doesn't seem to be the luxury meat that it is here in the States. One signature presentation is vitello tonnato, offered in just about every restaurant you walk into.  The name means veal with a tuna sauce, which might sound pretty unlikely, but actually works.

If you can find and afford a veal tenderloin, you can use that, but otherwise go with the easier to find thinly sliced veal cutlet. The key to the dish is a made from scratch mayonnaise that features chopped hardboiled eggs, capers, lemon and of course shredded tuna. You can start with an ordinary recipe for home made mayo, and then add in the other ingredients.

Lightly sauté you thin slices of veal cutlets, and then cool them down in the fridge.  Whip up your tuna mayonnaise, and serve the two slightly chilled for a refreshing first course.

Our final starter is a crepe-inspired dish called crispelle ricotta e basilico.

This is such an easy dish, you might want to try it tonight. First whip up some simple savory crepes, between 10 and 12 inches across. Put them aside and work on the simple filling.  You start with a cup of room temperature ricotta cheese. Add some finely chopped basil, a bit of sautéed minced shallots, and some finely grated parmesan cheese. Stir it all together and set aside.

Next you will create a cup or so of simple béchamel sauce:  butter, flour, cream, parmesan cheese and a sprinkling of nutmeg.  This is one of the basic sauces that is quite easy to master.

The next step is the assembly.  Lay your crepe out flat, and spread on a thin layer of the ricotta mixture.  Fold each crepe twice, making a little quarter circle shape.  Place four of the crepes into a round pie tin, and pour the béchamel sauce over them.  Top it off with a little more grated cheese and put it into a 350° oven and bake until the tops just start to brown.

As for a wine recommendation, I would serve all three of these starters with a cold glass of the Italian white wine called Arneis.  A beautiful match.


4 small Italian eggplants

1 tbs kosher salt

1 1/2 cups EVOO

1 chopped medium onion

4 medium celery stalks, cut thin crosswise

1 red bell pepper, seeded, coarsely chopped

1 tbs minced garlic

1/3 cup green olives, pitted and coarsely chopped

1 3/4 oz capers, well rinsed

1 cup red wine

1 tbs tomato paste

1 tbs finely minced parsley

1 tbs fresh thyme leaves

1/4 cup golden raisins

2 tbs sugar, to taste

1/3 cup white wine vinegar

1 can (14-15 oz.) whole tomatoes, drained and chopped

1.  Peel eggplants, then cut into 1" cubes.

2.  heat 1/2 cup olive oil in a heavy skillet over moderate heat.  Keep it from smoking.  Add onion, stir and cook until pale golden. Add celery and peppers and cook until tender.  Add olives, capers, herbs, raisins and sugar into the mix, stir well and cook for an additional 2 minutes.  Stir red wine and tomato paste, vinegar and tomatoes.

4.  Simmer, covered, over low heat for 20 minutes.  Adjust for sweetness/acid balance.  Transfer to bowl and keep warm.

5.  Rinse eggplant, then squeeze dry in paper towels.  Heat the remaining cup of oil in the cleaned skillet and fry the eggplant in two batches.  Turn the cubes with tongs and cook on all sides until golden brown.  Drain on paper towels. 

6.  Spread the cooked eggplant on the bottom of a large serving bowl.  Pour the sauce on top, and let it stand (covered with a kitchen towel) for 8 hours at room temperature.  Stir well before serving.

Chef Jerry Pellegrino offers a Sicilian take on caponata:  try adding 2 tablespoons of cocoa powder to the mixture for additional flavor.



For the veal

3 thin veal cutlets

canola oil for sautéeing

Kosher salt, pepper

For the sauce

1/4 cup white wine vinegar

1 tbs grated lemon zest

4 egg yolks

1 5 oz. can of oil-packed tuna, drained

1/3 cup capers, plus more for garnish

8 canned anchovy fllets, drained

1 cup olive oil

1.  Pour enough canola oil to cover a medium skillet and heat over medium high heat. 

2.  Season veal cutlets with salt and pepper on both sides.  Add to skillet and

sautée, turning several times until they develop some golden brown color.

3.  Remove cutlets from heat, place on a plate and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

4.  To make the sauce, place all ingredients except the olive oil in a food processor.  Purée until smooth.  With the motor running, slowly drizzle in the oilve oil until the sauce is emulsified.

5.  Cut the veal cutlets into smaller pieces, about 3 per cutlet.  Arrange on a serving

platter and pour the tuna sauce over the veal.  Garnish with a slice of lemon, and additional capers


For the crepes

1 cup flour

3 eggs

1 1/2 cups milk

pinch of salt

pinch of black pepper

3 tbs melted unsalted butter

aditional butter for sautéeing the crepes

1.  Whisk together the flour, eggs, 1/2 cup of milk, salt and pepper in a large bowl.

When you have a smooth batter, slowly add the remaining milk, stirring constantly.

Cover the bowl and chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.

2.  When you are ready to make the crepes, slowly whisk the melted butter into the batter.  The thickness should be like heavy cream. If you need to, thin it with additional milk.

3.  Heat a skillet or crepe pan over medium heat. Melt a pat of butter in the pan.

4.  Pour enough batter into the pan to thinly cover the bottom.  Cook for about 15 seconds, or until the edge begins to brown.  Using a spatula, flip the crepe over and cook until all of the batter is done.  Take the crepe out of the pan, and stack in a warm place.

For the filling

1 cup of ricotta cheese, softened at room temperature

one whole egg

15-20 fresh leaves of basil, chopped finely

1 tbs sautéed finely minced shallots

3 tbs grated parmesan cheese

salt and pepper

1.  Whip together all of the ingredients, until the filling is easy to spread and the basil is uniformly distributed. Set aside.

For the béchamel sauce

2 tbs butter

2 tbs flour, sifted

1 1/4 cups warm milk

salt and pepper

1/2 tsp nutmeg

additional grated parmesan cheese for cooking

1.  Melt the butter in a skillet over low heat.

2.  Sprinkle the flour into the melted butter, and whisk until it is completely absorbed. 

3.  Keep whisking over low heat until the sauce just starts to darken.

4.  Add the warm milk a little at a time, and whisk the sauce to incorporate it.

The sauce will get very thick at first. Keep adding milk until the sauce flows easily and has the consistency of thick cream.

5.  Add the seasonings and stir well. Remove from heat, and allow to cool to room temperature.

Assembly (You will need one crepe per serving.)

1.  Place a crepe on a flat surface.  Spread the filling over the crepe, but not too thickly.

2.  Fold the crepe twice, to make a quarter circle.  Repeat with the other crepes.

3.  Take four crepes and lay them in a 9 inch pie tin so that they form a complete circle. Pour the béchamel sauce over the four crepes, again, not too thickly. Sprinkle the grated cheese over the béchamel sauce.  Place the pin tin in a 400° oven and bake until the béchamel sauce just starts to brown.  Remove from oven and serve the crepes individually. Garnish with a leaf of basil.

-Al Spoler 

Al Spoler, well known to WYPR listeners as the wine-loving co-host of "Cellar Notes" has had a long-standing parallel interest in cooking as well. Al has said, the moment he started getting serious about Sunday night dinners was the same moment he started getting serious about wine. Over the years, he has benefited greatly from being a member of the Cork and Fork Society of Baltimore, a gentlemen's dining club that serves black tie meals cooked by the members themselves who are some of Baltimore's most accomplished amateur cooks.
Executive Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Corks restaurant is fascinated by food and wine, and the way they work in harmony on the palate. His understanding of the two goes all the way to the molecular level, drawing on his advanced education in molecular biology. His cuisine is simple and surprising, pairing unexpected ingredients together to work with Corks' extensive wine offerings.