Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Italian Cooking Classes with Ornella

The Viterale Estate in the Catskill Mountains, home of Giuseppe & Ornella Viterale of Ornella Trattoria

I awaken in a panic at 8:27 a.m.  I've apparently slept through all three alarms, and I'm supposed to be at Ornella Trattoria in just three minutes.  I haven't had to be anywhere this early since my last day of teaching in the South Bronx two years ago, but I now have a mere hundred eighty seconds to Febreze myself, throw on some clothes, and travel seven avenues and ten blocks.  I showered sort of late in the afternoon yesterday, I justify, so that saves some time.

Despite simply taking what I call a whore bath (wiping away surface funk with some soap and a damp hand towel), it's now 8:35, and as I franticly swish some citrus Listerine while Speed Sticking my underarms, I hear the cast of Glee singing the intro to "Don't Stop Believin'" from my bedroom.  Nope, Lea Michele and Matthew Morrison didn't have a slumber party at my apartment last night (though if you two are reading this, we have LOADS of board games--oh yeah, bring Jane Lynch, too, because I bet she'd be a hoot at Balderdash--plus, I make a killer country biscuits and gravy in the morning), it's just the default ring tone on my Motorola Droid.

"Good morning, Giuseppe!"  I try to muster up as much sunshine as possible so it will sound like I've already had three cups of coffee following my morning jog and a thorough skimming of the NY Times.  "I've hit a bit of traffic, but I'm almost there."  So I fib a little.

"Alright, Bradley, see you in a moment then," he replies in good faith and his thick Italian accent.  And I nearly zip my neck up into my hoodie, toss on a ball cap, and sling my camera over my shoulder as I run out the door.  Luckily, there's a gypsy cab coming down the street, and somehow I am miraculously in front of Ornella Trattoria by 8:45 a.m.

I leap from the town car accidentally tossing entirely too much money at the driver in my frazzled haste, and run across the street while waving at Giuseppe, nearly getting flattened by a honking bread truck in the process.  He graciously smiles as if to say "no worries," and we climb into his enormous black Ford Expedition (he has four children) to head off to the Catskill Mountains.

Giuseppe, who is immaculately groomed and probably actually has been awake all morning and enjoyed a demitasse or two of espresso, accepts my citrus Listerine-scented gasping-out-of-breath apology with a gentle, "fuhgeddaboudit..." followed by, "where's Travis?"

* * * * *

Rewind to a few weeks ago when I first met Giuseppe Viterale, owner of Ornella Trattoria, which is named after his wife and partner.  I had received an e-mail from Ran Craycraft, the founder of the website, Why Leave Astoria? in which he raved that he had just dined at Ornella and had been blown away, and wondered if I'd be willing to check it out myself to write a review for the Astoria website.

Partially because I have learned that two people can taste a broader sample of the menu than just one, and partially because Travis and I had been trying to set up a dinner date for quite some time, I figured this would be the perfect opportunity to get to know him better in a unique setting unfamiliar to both of us; not to mention that now I wouldn't have to be quite as embarrassed if I wanted to order two desserts instead of just one...

It turned out to be a simply magical evening for both Travis and I, as Giuseppe greeted us at the door (a constant presence, he welcomes each and every customer), and then guided us through one of the most unique and delicious dining experiences either of us have enjoyed, while regaling us of the tales behind each of his recipes (click here to read the original post about that meal).

The imbustata, an exquisitely delicious pasta "envelope" stuffed with roasted veal, chicken, wild mushrooms, fresh spinach, mozzarella, and mascarpone cheese

Born to a father who ran a mill in Italy, Giuseppe experiments with many unique flours in his homemade pastas, like this hearty dish of pizzoccheri, buckwheat tagliatelle ribbons with sauteed cabbage, potatoes, and fontina cheese tossed in garlic oil.

Lighter-than-air pillows of homemade potato and ricotta gnocchi with a gorgonzola cheese sauce

* * * * *

A few weeks after that initial visit, I received an e-mail from Giuseppe, asking me to call at my earliest convenience.  Hoping that perhaps he was just still pleased with my review and perhaps wanted me to return and try something new (last week, he'd invited me to savor the braised short ribs and gnocchi special), I promptly returned the call.

Our conversation revealed an offer exponentially more exciting than an invitation to fulfill my apparently insatiable craving for his addictive pasta concoctions.  It turns out that he and his wife have a family home in the Catskill Mountains, where Ornella has been contemplating offering classic Italian cooking lessons.  Because of the newness of the Trattoria (only open a few months now), they'd been unable to enjoy the home since before Christmas.  He wondered if I wanted to come along to check out the estate during his first day off this year, enjoy some lunch, and catch a glimpse into where he and his family enjoy many of their rich traditions, as well as their retreat from the hustle and bustle of New York City.

Ornella Trattoria sources its ingredients from local purveyors, and even bakes its own bread loaves on the premises.  But every almost every restaurant prescribes to the farm-to-table trend of organic, sustainable protein and produce.  "You cannot cook delicious food if you are not truly in touch with nature," Giuseppe tells me.  He is offering to actually show me the land and the farms that inspire his home cooking, as well as some of the recipes at the trattoria.

Homemade ricotta salata with fresh arugula from the local market

How many restaurants legitimately live up to their catchy slogans or philosophies?  I've come hungry to IHOP, but have I ever really left happy?  Don't tell anyone, but I occasionally enjoy the Olive Garden, even though when I'm there I certainly don't feel like family (the last time we visited, it was a near wrestling match with the hostess just to get an extra chair at the table for a straggling latecomer).  I think the Chili's slogan is the best: "Chili's Grill & Bar... like no place else..." except for the hundreds of other Chili's and Applebee's around the country.  What about "Run for the border?"  The border of Indiana and Illinois?  There's absolutely nothing authentically Mexican about Taco Bell, whatsoever.  And at least in Manhattan, I have yet to meet a single McDonald's cashier who sincerely loves to see me smile.

As far as my dining experiences go, Ornella's is a dramatically rare exception.  To back up his farm-to-table philosophy, Giuseppe is offering to flip it around and take me from the table to the farm.  

So of course I say, Yes. Absolutely, 100%, I'm in...

* * * * *

Fast forward to my tardy, sleep-puffed face now grinning in Giuseppe's family bus.  Just the night before, Travis was heckling me that surely I would not be able to wake up in time for my Italian field trip. When Giuseppe inquires of Travis's whereabouts, I eagerly give directions to his apartment, as I anxiously dial his wake-up call.  He already sent me a text message earlier to enjoy the day, so he can't pretend to be sound asleep.

"Hey, it's me... do you have any plans you absolutely cannot get out of today?  No?  Cool... Giuseppe wants you to come along, so get your sleepy rump downstairs...  No, you can't have a half an hour... we're already parked out front... HURRY!!!"

Though I'm excited to share this adventure with someone else, I'm secretly overcome with a wave of schadenfreude that Travis will have to crawl out of bed in a rush to join us.  That'll teach him to make fun of my inability to rise at the crack of dawn.

Thanks to minimal traffic, the drive is only about an hour and a half from Astoria, and Giuseppe even takes us down a series of side roads, because, he explains, the wider highways ruin the panorama of the hills spreading out before us.  We roll the windows down and over the rush of fresh air catch up since our last conversation, while a French tenor croons Italian arias through the speakers.  I already feel years away from my last shift at work.

After a winding road to the top of one of the mountains, I instantly grin as we finally pull into the Viterale's driveway.  In his restaurant in Astoria, there are signs painted on the walls naming piazzas after each of his children.  This is no gimmick to tug at the heartstrings of patrons, but merely an extension of the setting in his family home.

There is a main house, two guest homes, and a large, colorful shed painted by the Viterale kids (Travis and I get a false giddy rush when Giuseppe asks if we want to race the go-karts, only to find we can't get them started after the cold winter).  Each building has a number, as well as a hand-painted sign designating that each cottage is named after a different family member.  Even the trails leading into the woods are adorned with name plaques.

As we enter the main home, Giuseppe reminds us that it's been months since his last visit.  He passes me the phone while he searches for the correct key, and Ornella nervously asks me if there are any signs of tampering.  I attempt to calm her nerves.  These past few months at the trattoria have been consuming, and she's worried their summer home has been compromised (throughout the year they reside in Brooklyn, next door to Ornella's mother).

Much to everyone's relief, it seems that everything is just as it should be.  With the exception of a small Christmas tree, a few stockings and other remnants of the holidays, the house is in perfect condition.  While Giuseppe turns on the water and runs the faucets in each sink, Travis and I help ourselves to a tour of this beautiful retreat in the woods.  Many of the paintings are by Giuseppe himself (he was trained to be an architect), and he even handcrafted much of the wood furniture, including gorgeous Narnia-worthy wardrobes in each of the bedrooms, as well as the wooden fireplace mantles.

The view of the Catskills from the top floor window

Travis and I relax on the porch while Giuseppe continues to open the windows, and we both sigh.  This place is definitely special, and I can't imagine how many family memories the Viterale's must have shared here throughout the years.

While we wait for the cool mountain air to freshen the Christmasy pine scent throughout the house, Giuseppe offers to take us on a tour of some of more than 20 acres of woods surrounding the home.  In our haste, both Travis and I have ridiculously thrown on flip-flops, but what's a few twigs between the toes?  I don't know the next time I'll find myself in such a luscious green sanctuary, so we head with exposed piggies down Ornella Trail, and I simply couldn't be happier.

When Giuseppe checks back on us to make sure we haven't horribly stubbed our toes, he asks if we think this a place people would be willing to visit for cooking lessons with his wife?  I try to stifle a laugh at the absurdity of the question.  Willing to visit?  I'm practically ready to move here.

We've worked up quite an appetite, so after stomping through sticks in sandals, we walk back to the main house to get ready for lunch.  As we pass a tree house Giuseppe built for the kids, he jokes that it now serves as a hunting post.  When I beg him to pose in the lofted hut for a photo op, he just laughs at me, and suggests that I climb up instead.  Needless to say, I'm no woodland nymph (especially after blogging so much about rich foods lately), and we all share a good laugh at the frightening mental image.  Giuseppe gets my sense of humor, and knows how to make just about anyone feel right at home.

After chopping some wood, Giuseppe fires up the Brazilian grill he has installed himself, named in honor of Pino, one of his children.  It only took a couple of days, and if he finds some precious free time this summer, he intends to build his own outdoor brick oven to make pizzas.  I'm already drooling, and the lunch menu for today hasn't even been revealed yet.

After a quick trip to the market, Giuseppe cuts up a few fresh tomatoes, and lets them soak in garlic cloves, olive oil, and herbs.  I'm washing my hands in the other room, when I hear Travis holler a somewhat desperate, "buh-RAAAAAAAAD-LEEEEEEY!!!"  When I rush back into the kitchen, Travis's arms are raised in resignation and inquiry.  "I think Giuseppe needs a lighter..." This will be the third time Travis has made me randomly hand our Italian host a lighter when he was, in fact, asking something else.  Equally perplexed, Giuseppe looks to me and repeats the sentence he has now spoken four times to Travis.

I reply, "yes, I do... no problem" and motion for Travis to come with me, and Giuseppe tosses me his keys.  As we hop in the Expedition, I'm still baffled as to how "Do you have a driver's license?  I forgot to pick up paper towels..." could have been mistaken for, "can I borrow a lighter?"  Maybe it's because I listen with my stomach, but I understand each and every word Giuseppe speaks.

Travis laughs as I attempt to maneuver this massive vehicle down the gravel driveway.  Do you need to have a bus driver's license to operate one of these things?  If you happened to see Travis's comments on Facebook that day, he loves to stretch the truth at my expense.  His life did not flash before his eyes.  I am a superb driver, thank you very much, even if it did take me three attempts returning to turn into the driveway without taking out the mailbox and a maple tree.

When we return, Giuseppe is putting the final touches on lunch. Although Travis yet again asks for a lighter, I translate that we have been asked to get some wine glasses and set the table.  Onto the Santa Clause tablecloth, we place the glasses, the now fragrantly enticing tomato salad, along with a loaf of fresh bread.

While we ravenously devour some of the most delicious ribs I have tasted, the three of us laugh around the family the table, like three friends who've known each other much longer than we really have.  There's a magic here, and I don't want this lunch to end.  

Giuseppe pours us a glass of what seems like a deep burgundy molasses.  In actuality, it's a homemade vino cotto, or cooked wine syrup.  In the winter, he and the kids grab bowls of freshly fallen snow, and drizzle it with this sweet grape elixir.  We don't have any snow or ice cream, but it doesn't matter, because it makes a delicious sweet ending all by itself.

Giuseppe suddenly gets a concerned furrow in his brow.  Because he's been grilling, he hasn't turned on the gas yet in the house.  So how on earth are we going to have espresso?  From my experience of serving tables for many years, let me assure you that Italians get frustrated without this expected cap at the end of the meal.  No matter how you apologize, a broken espresso machine can reduce your tip dramatically.

Excitedly, Giuseppe rises from the table, and smiles as he asks to borrow a lighter--for real this time--and I can see Travis's head spinning.  Even though it's now raining outside, gosh darnit, we're gonna have some java, even if we have to grill it.

I'm embarrassed to answer honestly when Giuseppe asks how I like my coffee.  A venti iced caramel macchiato with extra caramel doesn't seem like an appropriate response.  When I tell him, he smiles, and says, "fuhgeddaboudit..." as he proceeds to wow me again with yet another culinary trick.

Using the very first drops of espresso that percolate, Giuseppe mixes the coffee with a pile of sugar, and vigorously stirs it while the rest of the pot brews.  When he's finished, he reveals a giant, mocha marshmallow that he cuts into three pieces and places in the demitasse mugs.  This he uses as both the cream and sweetener, and Travis and I stab each other with spoons fighting over who gets to lick the extra out of the cup.  Note: I have tried to recreate this marshmallow three times at home now, to tragic results.  Conclusion?  Giuseppe is literally a culinary Harry Potter.

Because Giuseppe has told me several stories of hog roasts and the fresh meats he has prepared upstate, I ask where he gets the live game for his legendary feasts.  The livestock auction and farm are an hour away in the wrong direction, and the day is already getting late.  But he wants to show me one of his friend's farms, and at least where he gets eggs.  After washing the dishes and locking up the house, we hop in the monster truck for one last adventure in the Catskills.

I'm a little sad to be leaving the Viterale Estate, but as we pull away, all I can do is smile.  This wonderful man has invited me into his home, with the hopes that his wife will soon be offering cooking lessons here, and maybe even overnight weekend cooking retreats where they lodge the students in the guest houses.  If I'm lucky, this will only be the first of many visits.

After a very short ride up the road, we pull into the farm of his friend, John.  Giuseppe points out that every true Italian home in the area will have a shrine to the Virgin Mary somewhere near the entryway.  The farmhand explains that Farmer John is away, but agrees to unlock the gate so that we can take a quick tour.  Like a roller coaster attendant at an amusement park, he hops on the side of the Expedition and holds on to the luggage rack, as we drive up the hill with him dangling from the side.

I feel somewhat guilty as we meet the entire cast of Charlotte's Web.  They all seem to stare at me with a panicked awareness that I just ate Wilbur for lunch.

Maybe I'm paranoid, but even the gobblers puff their feathers as if I'm here to make a turkey burger for a late afternoon snack.

Travis gasps as Giuseppe leans down next to the chicken coop and taps a hole in the top of an egg.  He explains that these are the best eggs he's had, and shoots one like it's tequila.  "It tastes better with a little salt," he laughs.

Travis takes a liking to the donkey, and I can't help but snicker a little that he's drawn to the ass of the farm.  Even though I'm generally terrified by any animal with teeth fantastically larger than mine, I have to admit that this little guy is adorable.  Giuseppe confirms that he loves his donkey back home in Italy, which he uses "not for fun, Bradley... for transportation."

It's been quite a field trip, and as we head back the car, I sort of have to pinch myself.  Who gets to do what I do?  I absolutely love my life.  Enjoy a phenomenal dinner at a new restaurant in my neighborhood, put a few sentences about it on my website, and here I am having a spectacular day in the Catskill mountains with a new friendship I hope to nurture for a long time.

As we cross the George Washington Bridge heading back to the city, I'm already sending text messages asking my friends if they want to meet for lunch at Ornella's the next day.  After seeing where Giuseppe cooks with his family, where he grows his own grapes, and buys eggs for his family, I can see that he's right.  Actually being in nature does make the food taste even better.  Still full on grilled ribs and wine, my mouth is already watering at the thought of the specialty chestnut pasta with spinach, shrimp, and garlic oil I'm going to try tomorrow.

* * * * *
Ornella Trattoria is located near the N/W train at the corner of 23rd Ave and 31st St in Astoria.  If you haven't been yet, you're definitely missing out on an incredible meal and experience.  Be sure to ask about the cooking classes which are likely to start in June.

Ornella Trattoria Italiana on Urbanspoon

1 comment:

Amod said...

Thanks for sharing great posting with amazing images. i read your blog and found lot's of information about Italian cooking, if any body want to know more information about Italian cooking classes, Italy cooking, etc.. then please visit: Italy cooking tour

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