The sensibility of Zach Pollack and Steve Samson's Pico-Robertson restaurant Sotto is clearly laid out on their menu. Take the appetizer of chickpea panelle, a traditional Sicilian street food, which has been available at the Southern Italian restaurant since it was opened in 2011.
"They're basically chickpea fritters. They're really easy to make, but they're also really easy to screw up. It's one of those things that you have to have patience with. It might not come out as well as you would like the first time, but you'll get it if you keep trying," Samson says.
It's a deceptively simple dish that rewards the use of quality ingredients as much as it rewards good technique. The latter, as Samson explains, is less specific to region, whereas the differences in the cuisines lie more in the former.
"We have a strong fidelity to, if not the specific traditions of Southern Italy, the ingredients, style of cooking and sense of restraint. We try not to overcomplicate, overdress or oversaturate any dish with an enormous amount of different flavors," Pollack says.
"We decided that we wanted to be really true to the regionality. When you're in Italy, the food is so different. It's almost easier to find ingredients specific to Southern Italy -- for instance -- here in the United States than it is to find it in parts of Northern Italy," Samson adds. "It hasn't been that difficult, but there have been times that, for instance, I might want to put out a great ragu. That's my Bolognese side coming out. Overall, we've done pretty well with sticking to the Southern Italian tradition with ingredients and sensibility."
Pollack draws up the types of fat used in cooking as one instance where regionality is evident in various cuisines in the country. "In the far north, you have the Alpine cows, and so there is a lot of butter use. There's a lot of pigs in Lombardy, so there's a lot of cooking with lard. Even as north as Tuscany, you have a lot of cooking with a lot of olive oil, but they also use butter in a lot of things. Then you go south to Rome, and that's where olive oil becomes the reigning champion of fat."
As much as the ingredients are indicative of an individual region's culinary identity, the regions are paradoxically tied together by their collective emphasis on the quality, which in many cases is determined by seasonality and proximity.
"People cook with ingredients close at hand. You have certain ingredients that are more specific in the south than the north -- just because they grow better. Italians tend to eat what grows well around them," Samson says.
Aside for the occasional salad or garnish, Italians tend to approach vegetables in similar fashion.
"There is rarely a crunchy cooked vegetable. There's such a stigma against mushy vegetables, but I think it's a really different expression of the vegetable," Pollack says. "If you cook cauliflower over a period of time, then mix in onions and aromatics, you get this cauliflower porridge that is totally wonderful and delicious. It's more starchy like a potato than it is a bright vegetable."
At Sotto, vegetables are cooked with attention to maximizing their natural flavors. "We love getting a little caramelization on vegetables, which kicks off the flavor of the vegetable. We'll throw broccoli in a screaming hot pan with some olive oil and weight it down so it's pressed against the hot surface. The flavor is incredible," Pollack says.
"With pretty much all the cruciferous vegetables, we cook it to the point where it's almost burnt. All those sugars come out," says Samson, listing Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage in the group.
Both men emphasize the importance of keeping good olive oil close at hand. "Olive oil is one of the most important -- if not the most important -- things. I wouldn't recommend getting a superexpensive olive oil to cook with, but I would always have a really high-end olive oil to finish dishes with," Samson says. "We like to use certain types of oils. We're using three or four oils right now. It's just based on the flavor components of the oils themselves."
The way to tell a good olive oil from a bad one rests in its harvest date, according to Pollack. "One, it shows that they're taking it seriously enough and produced on a small enough scale to record the harvest date. And two, you want the harvest date to be the most recent season, which is generally November."
Young olive oil is key -- preferably a year within its harvest date. "If it's a year and a half old, you shouldn't really be buying it."
"It's a lot like wine. The terroir is very important to the olive oil. Generally, in the south, you get olive oils in Sicily that taste like artichokes and tomatoes," Samson adds.
"It's one of those cases where what grows together goes together. A lot of oils in the south will have that vegetal component that goes well vegetables," Pollack says.
Turn the page for the recipe...
From: Zach Pollack and Steve Samson
Yields: 100 strips
500 grams finely ground chickpea flour (available at Italian specialty markets)
1.75 liters of water
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
20 grams salt
Grated caciocavallo cheese (or similar grating cheese)
Salt and pepper to taste
Vegetable oil, for frying
1. Sift chickpea flour into a bowl, then add salt. Slowly whisk in the water to avoid forming lumps. Whisk together until homogenous. Pour the mixture into a sauce pot.
2. Whisk over medium-high heat until mixture begins to thicken.
3. Lower the heat to medium low, add the parsley, and continue whisking constantly until the batter starts to pull from the side of the pot and holds together on the whisk without dripping. The cooking process should take about 10 minutes.
4. Pour the cooked batter onto a flat working surface. Using an offset spatula, spread thinly and evenly to approximately 1/8-inch thickness. Allow to cool at least 15 minutes.
5. Cut into rectangular strips, approximately 1 inch x 3 inches.
6. Fry strips at 375 degrees until crisp and puffy. This should take approximately 3 to 4 minutes. Work in batches, being careful not to overcrowd the pan.
7. Drain fried panelle onto a paper towel-lined sheet pan. Season with salt, freshly cracked black pepper and squeeze of lemon.
8. Plate panelle and grate caciocavallo on top. Serve immediately.
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