Gianni was an old Italian man and Gianni's was his business. The restaurant had maybe 10 or 12 tables, all serviced by an unchanging roster of family members and longtime employees. Photos of Gianni's Italian hometown adorned the walls, along with enlarged family photos of his daughter's wedding -- complete with the orange digital date-stamp in the lower right corner. The windows were hung with lace treatments of the sort you would expect at your Italian grandmother's house, if you were lucky enough to have an Italian grandmother. Gianni grew herbs and vegetables in the backyard, and he didn't always have pesto. (Basil's not always in season in Northeast Ohio, after all.) Sister, by virtue of having spent many years in Italy, is fluent in Italian, and Gianni used to stop by our table to converse with her. I think he appreciated a young person's learning of the language. The food was homemade, through and through, simple as can be. It was totally delicious and more than able to bring a smile to your face with its unpretentious, honest goodness. When it was time for the bill, it was presented on a little plastic souvenir tray of the Vatican.
Gianni's was our restaurant of choice for special occasions. I don't think a Valentine's Day passed when we didn't darken Gianni's doorstep. We've celebrated birthdays there. Anniversaries. In retrospect, I wish we had gone there more often for no reason at all, for it was not expensive and therefore didn't have to be "saved" for occasions as some pricier establishments are. But as it is my fond memories of the food and atmosphere at Gianni's are undoubtedly enhanced by the nostalgia of the great events celebrated there.
Near the front door of the restaurant, next to the cash register, there was a small shelf of Italian cookbooks. They looked out of print and well-used. I presume they belonged to Gianni or some member of his family, though I can't imagine his cooking originating from their pages (his cooking was the product of innate skill and tradition and nothing else). I used to love browsing these titles as we waited for our table. One evening a burgundy spine with the words "The complete book of FLORENTINE COOKING" printed backwards on it called out to me. Translated into English, this book by Florentine food expert/cookbook author Paolo Petroni was full of dishes I'd never make -- "trippa e zampa" (casseroled tripe and calf's foot), "cervello alla fiorentina" (brains Florentine style), "seppie ripiene" (stuffed cuttlefish) -- but was written with a humble Italian voice and a realistic lack of precise ingredient measurement that appealed greatly to me. It was old fashioned. If my Italian great-grandfather used cookbooks, this is the sort of cookbook he might use. And in between the recipes for stewed mutton and roast eel were nestled delicious-looking methods for cooking artichokes and fava beans and black olives and "Lenten biscuits" and other Italian staples. I had to get my hands on a copy of this book that didn't belong to Gianni.
Enter Alibris, my tried and true source for out-of-print and obscure books. I once bought a book on two-up through Alibris, as well as books about the history of Parramatta and Australian beer. I mean, who sells books on the history of Parramatta? I knew they would have The Complete Book of Florentine Cooking. And they did. And now I have it.
Tonight I made a batch of Paolo Petroni's walnut sauce ("salsa di noci"). I like to think of this sauce as a sort of pesto-in-reverse, with the nut emerging front and center, pushing the herbs into a supporting role. The sauce is extremely tasty and marvelously quick to make. Paolo says that it's excellent with roast meat and poultry, so, following the esteemed Florentine's lead, I served it tonight over some chicken breasts that I roasted with thinly sliced onions and potatoes. I imagine it would also be quite pleasing thinned out with a little pasta water and tossed with spaghetti and a little sharp aged cheese. I'm also thinking it would serve admirably as a ravioli filling but, really, the possibilities are endless.
Though I never ate walnut sauce at Gianni's wonderful establishment, I think of him tonight as I dine upon a dish inspired by his helpful little cookbook shelf. Wherever you are, Gianni, thank you for years of comforting yet magnificent eating. You served your public well.
ROAST CHICKEN WITH WALNUT SAUCE
Walnut sauce recipe adapted from The Complete Book of Florentine Cooking, by Paolo Petroni
"Sauce" is somewhat of a misnomer, as this concoction is really more of a paste. Maybe something was lost in translation, or perhaps the fact that this cookbook includes few measurements accounts for my sauce being thicker than Paolo's. No matter; it is delicious.
For the chicken:
Olive oil, for drizzling
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1 baking potato, peeled and sliced
Kosher salt, to taste
Freshly-cracked black pepper, to taste
4 chicken breasts
2 T. fresh rosemary, finely chopped
For the sauce:
1 lb. shelled walnuts
1/2 c. fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 T. capers
3/4 c. olive oil
1/4 t. kosher salt
1/4 t. freshly-cracked black pepper
1 T. white vinegar
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Drizzle olive oil in the bottom of a baking dish. Arrange the onions and potatoes in the dish, then drizzle with olive oil and toss with the salt and pepper.
Place the chicken breasts on top of the vegetables, drizzle with a little more olive oil and season with salt, pepper and rosemary. Roast for about 35 minutes, until the internal temperature of the chicken reaches 161 degrees Fahrenheit and the vegetables are slightly browned.
While the chicken is roasting, make the walnut sauce. In a food processor, combine the walnuts, parsley and capers. Pulse until finely ground. Add the olive oil in a gradual stream; the mixture will resemble a paste. Add the salt, pepper and vinegar and pulse to combine. Set aside.
Serve the chicken spread with a few tablespoons of the walnut sauce.
Makes 4 servings of chicken, and lots of walnut sauce. Keep the sauce in the refrigerator or freeze to await additional yummy culinary applications.