Where I grew up in North Jersey, Morris County to be exact, there was such an abundance of Italian restaurants you could practically walk two blocks in any direction and find at least one. That may be a bit of an exaggeration—but not much! The problem was, so many Italian menus were identical. Chicken or Veal Parmigiana, Piccata, Marsala or Françese. Saltimbocca and Shrimp Scampi. Pasta served with Marinara, Bolognese, Alfredo or Clam Sauce plus Lasagna, Baked Ziti and Eggplant Parmesan. And, for dessert: Tortoni, Spumoni, and Tartufo. Sound familiar? Therefore rarely, if ever, did we seek out Italian food when we were on vacation, except of course in Italy!
It wasn’t so long ago that there weren’t many Italian restaurants in Cape May, just Cucina Rosa and Godmother’s. Unfortunately, both are gone now and sadly missed by many people. Happily, they have been replaced by more than half a dozen family-run Italian eateries where you can find the usual fare and so much more.
Homemade gnocchi, for example, is not something you see on every Italian menu. So, instead of spaghetti and meatballs, try the gnocchi at Viggiano’s. Of course, when I’m there I can never pass up their Mushroom Cannelloni. It is absolutely delicious. But make sure you leave room for dessert. Their version of Zuccotto, which they call Zucchetto cake, is simply to die for. Chocolate mousse and hazelnut cream on a base of vanilla sponge cake topped with two sauces. I am not much of a dessert eater, but it is worth every calorie.
You can also find gnocchi at Sapore. In fact, they prepare it three different ways: Pomodoro, Bolognese, or Gorgonzola. It is also one of only two places on the island where you will find Francese, both chicken and veal. On a recent visit I thoroughly enjoyed the Bronzino special. Served over cappellini, it was fresh and cooked to perfection. Rack of Lamb and Grilled Langostinos are two other standout dishes at Sapore.
If you like Rack of Lamb, you can also head over to A Ca Mia where you can begin with a Grilled Portobello Mushroom served with polenta and goat cheese or Clams Oreganata. And, if you like ravioli but can’t make up your mind between cheese, mushrooms, or seafood you can have all three by ordering the sampler.
Panico’s is known for big portions and has an extensive Italian menu with Mediterranean overtones. I love the Battered Jersey Tomato appetizer. It’s layered with crab and blue cheese, and baked. I doubt you will find it on any menu in Italy, but who cares? It’s yummy. For something more authentic, try the Pork Shank Osso Bucco over pappardelle.
Their sister restaurant, Secondo, is just over the causeway in Lower Township—same idea, but different menu. If you like artichokes, their version is served whole with a chive and Reggiano crust then baked with goat cheese. Although not always on the menu, the halibut is divine. Secondo also offers three different types of oysters and is the only Italian restaurant around with a liquor license.
Last fall, pumpkin gnocchi was a special treat at Tisha’s. Although I wouldn’t consider Tisha’s a truly Italian restaurant, they offer many superb dishes like Short Rib Bolognese, Pork Milanese, and Sambuca Scallops.
If you are looking for something really different, visit Iccara, where seafood reigns supreme. Begin with grilled octopus or Italian seafood salad. Then move on to lobster sautéed with shallots and mushrooms in a tomato cream sauce over squid ink fettuccine or Cioppino that’s been simmered with tomatoes and fennel.
It is interesting to note you will find mussels on every one of these menus, but unlike north Jersey, most of our pizzerias don’t serve them. Lucky Bones is famous for them and Harry’s offers three preparations. Another surprising discovery is the Italian food at the Lobster House including mouth-watering Flounder Francaise. And, if you are in the mood for Mexican food, but your dinner companion wants Italian, it’s not a problem at 5 de Mayo. Talk about surprises!
Pasta may be the dish of choice in Italy, but rice is the most important—at least in northern Italy. For centuries the Po River valley has proven to be the perfect location in which to grow short- and medium-grained rice (the types of rice that are perfect for risotto) making Italy the number one producer of rice in Europe.
In ancient times, rice was an expensive import reserved mostly for medicinal purposes. Things changed in the 14th century during the occupation of Sicily by the Arabs. They found the Mediterranean climate conducive to growing short grain rice, and cultivation soon spread to Naples and then finally northward to Piedmont. The rice was generally served boiled or used as a thickening agent. Somewhere between 1779 and 1829, the Italians began to sauté rice in butter and simmer it in broth—the beginning of what we know as risotto. The last step came in 1839, when a missionary smuggled 43 varieties of rice in his suitcase as he was returning from the Philippines. Dozens of hybrids were developed from those samples resulting in the Arborio and Carnaroli varieties we still enjoy today.
Here In Cape May, there are at least three excellent restaurants that include risotto on their menus. Iccara has a special preparation each day. They also offer arancini filled with ground sirloin, mozzarella, and peas as an appetizer. Sapore prepares it three different ways: Primavera, Pescatore, and Scampi style. Tisha’s menu includes two risotto appetizers, one with seared scallops, mushrooms, and spinach, and one with mushrooms and asiago cheese. Their seafood risotto entrée is a delicious combination of shrimp, scallops, clams, mushrooms, pine nuts, and baby spinach laced with an exceptional sherry cream sauce. They, too, offer arancini as an appetizer.
Preparing perfect risotto at home is both simple and elusive. You only need five ordinary ingredients and about 30 minutes. The secret lies in the technique. Risotto requires a gentle touch, a little finesse, and your undivided attention. Carla Lalli Music of BonAppetit.com puts it this way, “Risotto is like a clingy baby. You can’t put it down, you can’t walk away from it, and you can’t ignore it. Its needs are simple, it just wants all of you. And if you give it all your patient attention, it will turn into a puddle of love.”
Since there aren’t many required, make sure you use the best quality of each you can find—butter, onion, Arborio rice, broth (usually chicken, but vegetable works, too), and grated cheese—Parmesan, Romano, or Asiago). Some recipes call for the addition of a little white wine before the broth is added. It will enhance the flavor of the finished product slightly, but it is not absolutely necessary.
Five Easy Steps
1. Start by sautéing the onion in butter until it is translucent.
2. Add the raw rice and “toast” it for three to five minutes.
3. Add the broth one ladleful at a time. Do not add more until the first one has been absorbed. Stir the rice after each addition and occasionally to prevent it from sticking to the pan.
4. After all the broth has been added and the rice is cooked al dente (meaning it will retain a bit of crunch – but not too much), remove it from the heat and let it rest for a couple minutes.
5. Gently fold in the cheese and any other flavorings your recipe calls for.
Secrets to Success
There are more tips on how to make risotto than there are ingredients! The whole idea is to end up with a creamy delectable concoction, not a mushy mess. The creaminess comes from a starch (amylopectin) that is present on the outside of short grain rice. As you stir and the grains bump up against each other that starch is released into the broth creating a creamy texture without the addition of any cream. Toasting the rice causes it to absorb the liquid more slowly and ensures each grain will be evenly cooked.
6. Don’t rinse the rice—you will wash off the essential starch that is on each grain. By the way, Carnaroli rice, if you can find it, will give you a creamier texture and it is harder to overcook. Also, don’t try to make risotto with long grain rice like Carolina or Jasmine. It won’t work because long grain varieties don’t have enough amylopectin.
7. Don’t over toast the rice. You don’t want to brown it. Butter is the traditional fat used in risotto, but many chefs prefer to use oil for the toasting process especially if they are preparing a seafood variation.
8. The broth must be warm. Cold stock will lower the temperature in your pan each time you add it, delaying the cooking process. The addition of stock should take no more than 20 minutes.
Use a heavy bottomed pot to help prevent the rice from sticking. Also, don’t use a pan because the rice will be spread out in too thin a layer.
9. Cook over medium heat, not too high—again, sticking is the enemy—but don’t cook it too slowly either.
10. Stir the rice often but not constantly. You don’t want to beat it to death. And don’t walk away. It will stick the minute you turn your back.
11. Cook any other ingredients such as vegetables or shrimp separately and add them at the end when you add the cheese. This is also when you should add fresh herbs, so they retain their brightness and maximum flavor.
12. Risotto is best if served immediately. Like scrambled eggs, it does not hold well. If you must make it ahead, cook it only 75% of the way. Spread it out onto a sheet pan to cool it as fast as possible and store in the refrigerator in an airtight container until you are ready to serve it. Finish the cooking in the same manner as you would have if serving immediately, adding one ladleful of broth at a time.
Although fully cooked risotto can be stored in the fridge for up to five days (three if you have added other ingredients), it won’t be quite as good as the first time when it is reheated. Use it as a side dish rather than the main event or, better yet, make something else out of it like arancini. Freezing, although perfectly safe, is not desirable because it damages the texture of the rice.
Like pasta, risotto is extremely versatile and is a perfect backdrop to showcase spring vegetables like baby peas and asparagus. Try adding some pancetta or leftover Easter ham. Traditional preparations include mushrooms, saffron, sausage, and seafood. In the fall, incorporate pumpkin or butternut squash. And for something really different, try substituting red wine for some of the broth. The possibilities are endless. ■