How to Survive Without an Italian Deli

We spent the Christmas holidays in Chicago, where I frequently got to cook for our extended family. A few meals centered around recipes I've already shared with you in this newsletter: Leek and Sausage Soup and White Chili were both big hits.

What was most exciting for me was having access to the numerous Italian delis that can be found in near any Chicago suburb, let alone the mecca of Italian food shopping - Harlem Avenue near Elmwood Park.

When I lived in Oak Park and was getting deeper into cooking, I would frequent the delis and small grocery stores nearby in a predominantly Italian American area in far west Chicago. I'd be one of the only English speakers there, and frankly was a little intimidated by the Italian speaking grandmas and housewives I was rubbing shoulders with. There I learned the subtleties of different grades of prosciutto, sweet gorgonzola, home made ricotta, a small army of cured sausages, as well as fresh store-made sausages. Dried goods were imported from Italy, most importantly San Marzano tomatoes and semolina pastas. Today you can find good pasta in any supermarket, and usually some San Marzano tomatoes, but in the 1980's that was certainly not the case.

Caputo's was one of the larger markets, and I see now they've expanded to multiple locations around Chicago. My favorite was a hole in the wall on North Avenue, where I befriended the owner and his wife. Sadly, their little store, along with most of the smaller delis, was lost to changing times about 10 years ago.

There are so many Italians and avid cooks in Chicago that you're never more than one suburb away from a reasonably stocked Italian deli. At Amici's Italian Deli in Westmont I found a small selection of fresh produce, very well priced, and a large selection of pastas, tomatoes, olive oils and the deli counter. Highlights in the deli were three variations of fresh sausage, top grade prosciutto and imported gorgonzola. They had imported brands of dried pasta (called...... in Italian) with shapes you never find in a regular supermarket.

So while I got to benefit from these great products while in Chicago, how does one survive without an Italian deli if you live in, say, Houston? As best I can tell, there are literally no Italian groceries here, and the few places that call themselves delis are really sandwich shops that sell a few dry goods. Far from a deli if you ask me. There are surprisingly few good online resources for these products, and shipping and refrigeration costs make that option quite expensive.

So my approach in our Italo-ethnic-averse metroplex is to find the best available products and stock up. It takes time, trial and error to seek out the best brands, and stocking up can't be done for fresh ingredients like soft cheeses. If you live far from the real thing, I hope to save you some trouble by sharing the best of the widely distributed brands.
  • San Marzano Tomatoes are a little hard to find in a regular grocery, but always available at high end markets like Whole Foods and Central Market. When I get a good price, I buy in pretty large quantities. They also travel well, so I stock up in Chicago or order online. La Valle  brand is good, and so is Cento, which is widely distributed. The brand called San Marzano are actualy NOT authentic San Marzano tomatoes - it's just the brand name. But they are not bad, and a little less expensive than the real thing. I try to avoid Delallo brand.
  • Find an Italian Sausage that you can rely on. This is hard to do, but once I find a decent sausage, it becomes my go-to product. The Syracuse brand is nationally distributed and is OK but not great. Specialty foods shops may carry a good brand, with a price tag to match. An upstate New York producer is available frozen at Spec's in Houston, so that's my source. Frozen is horrible to consider compared to fresh, but at least the flavors are what I've come to expect.
  • Use only semolina pastas. Barilla brand is reliable, inexpensive and ready available. DeCecco is widely available, at double the price of Barilla, with little discernible difference. Test a high end dried pasta once in a while - the ones that cost $5 a pound or so. They tend to be worth the price, but not worth the investement for everyday dining.
  • Reasonable quality dried sausages find their way into some groceries, and most grocers carry good brands, like Columbus. As you experiment you'll find brands that are too soft, fatty or lack flavor. Trial and error is important in this category.
  • Find a good Parmesan. It should have a slightly chalky mouth texture, and a strong nutty flavor. Most store brands and the national brands like Belgioso are bland. Primo Taglio from the Safeway chain is surprisingly good. Here's where a trip to a specialty shop or a high end grocer is worth the trip and the premium price tag.
So what should we do with these great ingredients? Let's make the simplest thing that every home cooks makes - but make a really, really good version. Tomato Sauce. The recipe I share is from Mario Batali, and in many of his dishes in Molto Italiano this sauce is used as a base. Slow roasted short ribs, Chicken Cacciatora, and many other dishes call for it. It's very easy to make, and is so good it can stand alone as a simple sauce for pasta. The beauty of this recipe is that it's fast, it can be stored for a week in the fridge, and can be stored for a month or two in the freezer. It seems that most tomato sauces have a "secret ingredient" or special technique (simmer for 4 hours). The secrets in this dish are
  • Grated carrot strips used to sweeten the tomatoes
  • Fresh thyme (which you can buy or easily grow)
  • Good quality tomatoes - San Marzano of course.
In upcoming issues of this newsletter I'll share details on the ethnic markets I go to in Houston (where I'm the only English speaker) and a discussion of the "secrets of success" for recipes.

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