The list of foods that we are afraid to make from scratch is long: gravy, risotto, bread, polenta, gnocchi… Something about the transformation that occurs during the cooking process intimidates us. We worry that the gravy won’t thicken, that the risotto won’t be tender, the bread will be flat, the polenta gritty, and the gnocchi will stick to the bottom of the pot in one large blob. However, if you have a good recipe from a reliable source and if you follow it to a T, you will achieve consistently positive results.

So when Glenn and I decided to make gnocchi for the first time, I consulted the usual suspects for a recipe: Mark Bittman, Joy of Cooking, and Gourmet. The proportions and technique were pretty consistent across the board, but one recipe stood out. This recipe from Gourmet recommended baking the potatoes rather than boiling them to control the moisture content. That sounded pretty logical to me and the recipe came with an instructional video, so I was sold.

Believe it or not, it was easy and fun to make the gnocchi. After baking the potatoes, it only took about 15 minutes to mix, roll, and cut the dough. I was still worried when it came time to boil the dumplings, but I didn’t let my stress interfere with my techniques and the gnocchi came out of the water tender and whole.

Glenn and I served our gnocchi in a beef ragu scented with cinnamon and coriander. It made for a great winter meal, but I can’t wait to try the gnocchi in a lighter sauce come spring.

Follow this recipe for The Best Gnocchi from Gourmet. The name says it all.

Beef Ragu Scented with Cinnamon and Coriander
Serves 4
1 14oz.-can diced tomatoes
2 oz. pancetta, chopped
½ an onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 celery stalk, diced
1 bay leaf
½ cinnamon stick
¼ tsp. ground corriander
¼ tsp. ground cloves
½ lb. ground beef
¼ cup red wine
1 Tb. tomato paste

Melt 2 Tbs. butter and 2 Tbs. olive oil in a large pan. Saute the pancetta until golden. Add the onion, carrot, celery, bay leaf, cinnamon stick, and cloves. Saute until vegetables are tender. Add the beef and saute until just cooked. Stir in the wine and bring to a simmer. Add the tomato paste and tomatoes with juices. Simmer 1½ hours.


Gemelli with Cheese and Quick Arrabbiata Sauce

When I have four cooking magazines on my desk with at least twenty dogeared pages, it seems silly to open the recipe box and make a dish for a second or third time. The dishes I make on a regular basis lend themselves to improvisation: pizza, stir fry, soup. This Arrabbiata Sauce is one exception to the rule. The reason I make it over and over is because it tastes good, I have most of the ingredients in my cabinet, and, as the name suggests, it’s quick. Oh yeah, and it tastes one hundred percent better than the stuff in a jar (even the top shelf stuff).

The first time I made this recipe, I lived in a studio apartment behind the L tracks in Chicago. Glenn was making the long, wintry trek from school to my apartment and I was determined to have a hot meal waiting for him when he arrived. I didn’t realize that it would take me half the time to make this pasta as it would for him to travel from Ukrainian Village to Edgewater. I also didn’t realize that you could cover and simmer pasta sauce almost indefinitely. So we didn’t sit down to the hot meal that I planned, but it was tasty enough to try again. And again. And again.

I was a little worried that the dish would have lost its charm after so many years and so many fancier recipes. Not at all. And, as you can see, this dish was served piping hot. It fogged up my lens so much that I couldn’t resist taking a picture of the ghost waiting for his dinner.

Bianca’s (Greensboro NC)

There is a distinct possibility that I don’t actually like Italian restaurants. I’ve been to a lot of places in Greensboro that people think are fantastic — including Riva’s Trattoria — that I think are mediocre. Maybe I just don’t want to pay for pasta served with simple sauces. But when I think about Cascone’s in Kansas City and Via Carducci in Chicago, I know that can’t be true. I loved the authenticity of the food at those places — I could recognize my croutons as yesterday’s dinner rolls. That, combined with attentive service, really made me feel like I was sitting in an Italian grandmother’s kitchen.

I had high hopes for Bianca’s — it was voted Best Kept Secret, Best for First Dates, and Best Italian in the Go Triad Readers Choice Awards and it came highly recommended by foodie friends. I see the appeal, but it did not live up to the hype.

Here’s what people like about Bianca’s: it’s conveniently located near UNCG, the small dining room makes it seem intimate, the cafeteria chairs keep it from being too fancy, and you get a lot of food for a little bit of money. Every entree includes an appetizer, salad, garlic bread, a side of pasta, and dessert. That would be great, if the food were great. Some might call it comfort food — garlic bread that’s been buttered and pan fried, meat that’s been buried in a heap of red sauce and mozzarella, a heaping bowl of linguine that’s stirred into the same red sauce as everything else. I call it amateur. The mediocre food and the sub-par service make it hard for me to believe that any Italian person has ever set foot in that restaurant, much less in the kitchen.

Bianca’s Italian Eatery is located near UNCG in Greensboro on Spring Garden and Chapman. The small restaurant has limited seating and reservations are recommended, if not required. Entrees range from $10 to $16 and come with an appetizer, salad, bread, and dessert. For a more positive review of Bianca’s, read Possum Casserole.

Sausage Ragu

DSC02672As far as I can tell, everyone has had an early and unseasonably cold fall. At least that seems to be the Facebook consensus from friends in Michigan, Missouri, New York, Oregon, and Texas. We’ve had a bit of a sunny break here in North Carolina, but last week it was cold and rainy. That’s why, when I saw this on Bittman’s blog, I had to make it. Immediately.

Glenn and I had a good, old fashioned, Midwestern style, Italian dinner. Meaty ragu, garlic bread, salad, red wine. And when I say ragu, I don’t mean the brand. I mean an equally easy, but much tastier, red sauce with meat. I was a little skeptical of a milk-based pasta sauce, but it was perfectly rich and creamy. We’re not winning any gold medals for nutrition here, but it was an elegant way to load up on carbs. Now I’m ready to hibernate.

Giacomo’s Italian Market (Greensboro NC)



Until last weekend, Giacomo’s was a mystery to us  — a deli our friends talked about, but we couldn’t find. It’s at the corner of Battleground and New Garden, they told us. Well, not exactly. You actually have to turn onto New Garden and Giacomo’s is on the right in the strip next to the gas station. You can’t see it from the road.

Getting there is half the battle. The other half is deciding what to order. Glenn had the Italian Stallion (top) and I had the Sausage and Peppers (bottom). I love that picture of Glenn’s sandwich because it looks like the check-out-this-fish-I-just-caught picture, which is kind of what holding these sandwiches felt like.

Giacomo’s Italian Market is located on New Garden Road near the Brassfield Shopping Center. It is an Italian market that sells subs, heroes, cheese, meats, sausages, homemade sauces, and more. Sandwiches are about $7 each and meat ranges from $6 to $15 per pound. They have limited seating for eating in.