Dinner with Anthony
Published 12:00 am, Sunday, January 8, 2017
It was my good fortune recently to spend such a night with LoFrisco, a retired 83-year-old attorney who has written and published “The LoFrisco Family Cookbook.” It is equal parts memoir and family-style Italian cookbook, spiced with a dash of Sicilian humor.
LoFrisco greeted me with a glass of wine, a fine Brunello de Montalcino, that he says, “will get better as the night goes on.” He goes back to rolling dough that would eventually become our dessert, cream puffs, and tells me about his very first cooking lesson.
“It’s a very specific memory. I was 6 years old and spending the night at my aunt’s house. She was like a grandmother to me. Very warm and giving. The next morning, she asked me what I wanted. And I said, ‘Spaghetti.’ So she gets out the frying pan, the spaghetti leftovers and she teaches me how to fry spaghetti. It’s a dish I love to this day.”
His culinary education continued in his family’s kitchen in Dyker Heights, a Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood in the shadows of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, where he watched his mother cook great family meals every day.
Sunday Sauce (Meat Sauce)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic
3/4 pound ground sirloin beef
6 (28-ounce) cans San Marzano whole peeled tomatoes
3/4 cup freshly grated parmigiano cheese (plus more for serving)
2 (6-ounce) cans plain tomato paste ( or 2 (2.8-ounce) tubes Amore Italian Sun-Dried Tomato Paste)
1/2 teaspoon black olive paste, optional
2 cups water, if needed
In a food processor, chop canned tomatoes until smooth. I prefer my sauce chunk-free.
Heat the olive oil in a 10-quart stainless steel sauce pot over medium heat. While the oil comes up to temperature, smash the garlic with the flat side of a knife and remove the skin. Add the garlic to the pot and cook until light brown. Remove large pieces of garlic and discard.
Add the chopped beef to the sauce pot to brown, breaking up any chunks larger than a pea. A potato masher will make this job easy.
Add the blended tomatoes, parmigiano cheese and tomato paste to the sauce pot. Cook uncovered over moderate heat for two hours, stirring frequently. Do not allow sauce to scorch. Check for burning by scraping the bottom of the saucepan, lower heat and scrape from the bottom of the pot while cooking, if possible. If sauce becomes too scorched, transfer it to a clean saucepan to continue cooking and be sure to stir the sauce.
Add water, a 1/2 cup at a time, if sauce gets too thick. If it approaches the consistency of chili, it is definitely too thick.
Add optional black olive paste a few minutes before serving.
Sauce can be made the day before, but must be refrigerated in a tightly sealed container. Do not cook or store in aluminum pots or containers.
1 batch Sunday Sauce (see recipe above)
2 pounds ground beef
1 1/4 cups plain breadcrumbs
3 large eggs
4 cups freshly grated parmigiano cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley leaves, optional
1-1 1/2 cups water
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, if frying meatballs
In a large bowl, combine ground beef, breadcrumbs, eggs, salt, pepper, parsley, if using, and parmigiano cheese. Mix thoroughly by hand.
Add water by 1/4 cup until meat mixture has a very soft consistency, but will hold a spherical shape. A cup will usually do, but sometimes a little more is needed. Using your hands, form meatballs about twice the size of a golf ball. You may want to rub a little olive oil on the palms of your hands before working with the meat to prevent meatballs from sticking.
Once the meatballs have been shaped, you can either put the raw meatballs directly in the boiling Sunday Sauce or pan fry them as noted below. I prefer to cook them completely in the Sunday Sauce.
If you choose to fry the meatballs before adding them to the sauce, cover the bottom of a large skillet with 1/4 inch of olive oil and place over moderate heat. Cook meatballs in batches to avoid overcrowding the skillet. Fry meatballs until the bottom is browned, about 2-3 minutes. Carefully turn the meatballs and fry another 2-3 minutes. The meatballs will be raw in the center.
Place the fried or raw meatballs in the Sunday Sauce. Cook at least 30 minutes in the sauce at the low boil stage. Stir the sauce just before adding the meatballs, then do not stir again for about 5 minutes while the meatballs begin to cook. Stir carefully after that point to avoid breaking up the meatballs. Serve as a main course or over pasta, topped with more parmigiano cheese.
— Recipes from “The LoFrisco Family Cookbook: How Josie Brought Sicily to Brooklyn,” by Anthony F. LoFrisco
“My mother (Josie) came to this country from Sicily when she was just 6 years old. By the time she was 9, she was the live-in cook for a very successful Italian family in Albany (N.Y.). They were connoisseurs, so she learned to cook very well,” he says.
LoFrisco starts another story when his sous chef Christine politely suggests he had better start cooking if we were going to get through the feast he had planned. And that’s when I saw the printed list that was our sampling menu: Ricotta Cones, Caponatina, Pizza Rustica, Seafood Salad with bread, Meatballs and Sunday Sauce with Ricotta, Chicken Cacciatore, Cacio e Pepe, Cream Puffs and Cuchidada. LoFrisco returned to his labors, talking as he cooked. I continued with the wine and anticipated the meal to come.
“I wrote this book for my kids and family. They were after me for years to write down grandma’s recipes. But I was too busy with my law firm. But now I have more time, so I decided to do it,” the new author says. “All the recipes are simple. That was really the whole point. Good cooking is really all about the ingredients. The rest is easy.”
I then heard about St. Eleanor, LoFrisco’s affectionate name for his late wife, who devised a clever way to suss out the secrets of her mother-in-law’s recipes. “My mother never measured anything. So my wife would invite her over to cook. Eleanor would measure out all the ingredients and place them in separate bowls. My mother would grab what she needed. Then, after my mother was finished, Eleanor would measure the amount left in each bowl. That’s how she figured out the exact amount of everything my mother used,” LoFrisco says.
Eleanor achieved sainthood, according to LoFrisco, for “putting up with all my wild ideas.” LoFrisco had discovered an obscure French cookbook while browsing through the New York Public Library’s rare book collection, a frequent haunt during his high school days. The “fancy ingredients and different foods fascinated me,” he says. He eventually decided French cooking was too fussy, but not before he and Eleanor threw a Henry VIII feast. It seems the British royal who ruled the Empire for the first half of the 16th century, and his French counterpart, Francis I, competed to see which court could produce the most lavish meals.
“I cooked all this wonderful food. And we set up a big table. All of our friends dressed in period costume. And I insisted that there be no utensils, just like in Henry VIII’s day. Eleanor thought I was nuts, but she put up with it. That’s why she’s St. Eleanor,” LoFrisco says with a hearty laugh. And, as if on cue, Christine laid down several dishes in front of us, and we had a LoFrisco version of the Tudor feasts.
As we sampled the Pizza Rustica, Chicken Cacciatore, and other tasty Italian cuisine, LoFrisco kept repeating his mantra about keeping things simple. He cited the cream puffs as a perfect example.
Traditional crème puffs are filled with crème patissiere, which is a wonderful filling that requires precisely mixing sugar, flour, egg yolks, eggs, vanilla and milk. “It was a lot of work. One night I ran out of time, so I just made some whipped cream and My-T-Fine vanilla pudding. It was delicious. I never used crème patissiere again.”
LoFrisco’s book runs close to 300 pages, is beautifully designed and illustrated, and is printed on heavy paper stock. It is the kind of cookbook to be used while cooking; the pages look like spilled red sauce or a misplaced dollop of caponatina would wipe right off with no damage done. Like the recipes, the book is designed to last.
I would love to describe all the wonderful flavors I ate at chez Anthony, but LoFrisco does it so beautifully in his book that I will just refer you to his website, lofriscocookbook.com. The book’s subtitle is “How Josie Brought Sicily to Brooklyn,” and it’s how her son is sharing it with the rest of us.
Bob Horton is a columnist for the Greenwich Time and a regular contributor to Sunday Arts & Style.