Monthly Archives: June 2017

IN THE PINK

SECRETS OF PI — from A (antipasto) to Z (Zisola)

Sarah Leah Chase

Thursday, May 18th, marked to date the warmest day of the 2017 year on island and although still very much spring, there was a summery aura that made rosé wine aficionados (like me) feel as if it were okay to sip rosé at almost any hour of the day. Luckily, kindred oenophilic connoisseurs were behind the stove when I arrived at the Nantucket Culinary Center at four in the afternoon to attend a Wine-Festival-related seminar hosted by Evan Marley of Pi Pizzeria and Cory Bunnewith, a representative for wine importer Palm Bay International. As soon as I was seated at one of two long communal family tables, beckoning with tulip budvases and sumptuous oblong antipasto platters, my wine glass was filled with a pretty pale pink pour of Planeta Sicilian Rosé. Need you wonder if I was happy to be bACK on ACK?

In the Pink, Secrets of Pi Pizzeria, Nantucket, by Sarah Chase
Corey Bunnewith and Evan Marley

 

In the Pink, Secrets of Pi Pizzeria, Nantucket, by Sarah Chase
Antipasto

 

In the Pink, Secrets of Pi Pizzeria, Nantucket, by Sarah Chase

 

As we sipped and nibbled on briny green olives, marinated artichoke hearts, and fennel-laced salumi, Cory welcomed all by declaring: “All weekends should begin on Thursday.” No one in the room disagreed. Years ago, while engaged in cookbook research in Tuscany, I had learned that the practice of seasoning Tuscan sausages with fennel had started as a way to disguise the taste of bad Chianti, since fennel’s unique flavor was believed to have the power to transform companion flavors from insipid to sublime. While I have long been amused by this lore, I found that at this particular moment, Planeta’s fresh and fruity rosé, a 50/50 blend of Nero d’Avola and Syrah, splendidly complimented every single fennel and non-fennel morsel chef Greg Margolis, owner of Nantucket Culinary Center and the Corner Café, had so beautifully selected and arranged for our opening antipasti course. I especially swooned over the brilliant way in which Greg’s garnishing slices of salty and citrusy preserved lemons paired with a wine intentionally crafted “to represent all the feelings of a Sicilian summer.”

As equally compelling as the antipasti sprawl on our dining tables was the silent and fancy slicing and plating of tomatoes being diligently executed by Evan on the luminescent Brazilian quartz island that anchors the demo kitchen at the Culinary Center. Once it became Evan’s turn to take center stage, he explained that he had very strong feelings about the proper way to make the oh-so-popular and oh-so-often-bastardized Caprese salad, because he had gotten engaged to his wife Maria while vacationing on the island of Capri. The only glitch in this afternoon’s presentation was that he was not able to use local tomatoes, which would have been in May hot house ones from Bartlett’s Farm, because too much rain over recent weeks had slowed their ripening. Plan B was to use Kumato tomatoes purchased at the Stop & Shop, which Evan assured (and immediately convinced me) were the best-tasting off-season tomatoes one can employ.

In the Pink, Secrets of Pi Pizzeria, Nantucket, by Sarah Chase
Insalata Caprese

 

In the Pink, Secrets of Pi Pizzeria, Nantucket, by Sarah Chase
Insalata Caprese

 

The Italian insalata Caprese is in essence a very simple salad whose red, white, and green colors are meant to mirror those of the Italian flag by combining tomatoes with mozzarella cheese, basil, and olive oil. Evan’s rendition, however, ranks as absolutely the best Caprese I have ever devoured because of the attention he gives to every single component of the salad. Rather than mozzarella, Evans chooses to use the most adorable and delectable 2-ounce balls of rich and creamy Burrata cheese, handcrafted on-island by Elisabetta Hitchcock and marketed under the brand name of Gioia. In fact, Elisabetta was on hand to enlighten us on the history of Burrata — a relative newcomer in the world of Italian cheese since it has only been being made for about sixty years compared to mozzarella’s hundreds of years. As for the basil component, Evan does not merely strew slivered basil leaves over his salads. Instead he makes a very verdant, silky, and sublime blender pesto whose superiority rests on Evan’s firm belief that only young basil should be used when making pesto. In fact, Evan has island farmer Ray Owens cultivate basil on a plot specifically for Pi Pizzeria in order to ensure a steady supply of young basil for his restaurant’s copious basil needs. To finish the Caprese, Evan transfers the pesto to a squeeze bottle in order to squirt it artistically and generously over and around each tomato flower whose center is bursting with that lush nugget of freshly made Burrata. Truly extraordinary, especially when paired with the well-chilled and minerally pale yellow MadraRossa Fiano, a relatively unknown Sicilian white wine, Cory had selected as an accompaniment.

 

In the Pink, Secrets of Pi Pizzeria, Nantucket, by Sarah Chase

 
For most islanders, pizza is probably the first thing that comes to mind with the mention of Pi, so it was natural for Evan to segue from serving salads worthy of a standing ovation to sharing secrets of pizza making at Pi, even if he had to make do with using pizza stones in the Culinary Center’s electric-powered ovens and not his restaurant’s 900-degree wood-burning masterpiece. Not surprisingly, Evan harbors very strong opinions about what makes a proper pizza. He prefers small pizzas to large pizzas, taking his cues from pizza practices in Naples, where pizza is eaten whole with a knife and fork and never ever sliced. When it comes to tomato sauce, it should be made with San Marzano tomatoes, which are grown in the foothills around Mount Vesuvius in soil made fertile from volcanic ash deposits — a point cleverly echoed in our printed seminar menus boasting “volcanic combinations” as well as by the rich red wines — also grown in volcanic soils — chosen by Cory as pairings with the pizzas served to the group throughout the rest of the afternoon.

 

In the Pink, Secrets of Pi Pizzeria, Nantucket, by Sarah Chase
Tomato Sauce

 

Despite the innumerable ways in which pizzas are topped in the United States, beginning with the proper dough base is of the utmost importance to the philosophy of pizza making at Pi. Evan keeps it simple using only yeast, water, Italian “00” flour, salt, and just a touch of honey to feed the yeast, although the latter is never added in Italy. The dough is then mixed for 9 minutes and next subjected to a slow day-long rise in the refrigerator — a technique known in the professional pizza trade as a “retarded rise.” Should the patience necessary to making this type of dough strike those of us desiring to make pizza at home as a deterrent, fear not because Evan is happy to sell island DIYers ready-to-knead pizza dough rounds from the little specialty shop adjoining his restaurant. However, once you witness the absolute grace and expertise with which Evan kneads his dough, I wager that intimidation over making your own pizzas at home is likely to set in. Indeed, watching Evan masterfully transform a ball of pizza dough into a perfect round is an exquisite art form unto itself.

In the Pink, Secrets of Pi Pizzeria, Nantucket, by Sarah Chase
Kneading dough

 

Throughout the many years I have been a patron of Pi, I have almost always ordered the restaurant’s Great Italian pizza, with an occasional Margherita thrown in during summer visits. It never occurred to me to order the Rustica — a combination that Evan invented and heralds as Pi’s signature pizza. Suffice it to say, I am now a passionate convert! There is no red sauce in a Rustica, but rather a sauce made by melding chopped garlic, a few chile flakes, salt, and olive oil together for approximately 15 minutes in a cooler section of the wood-burning oven. At the same time, also in a cooler area of the oven, pancetta cut into lardons is rendered to crispy irresistibleness. The only brand of domestic pancetta Evan uses is sourced from Molinari in San Francisco, an old-school Italian delicatessen. Likewise the Stracchino cheese used exclusively in the Rustica pizza is of similar distinctive provenance and storied to boot. Stracchino is a cow’s milk cheese native to the Lombardy area of Italy and its name derives from the fact that the cows are tired or stressed when they produce the milk that goes into the making the acclaimed melting cheese. The reason the cows are tired is because they get sent away into the mountains to graze at the time of year when Italian tax collectors make their rounds and determine a farmer’s taxes based on how many heads of cattle are visible on the farm. The mountain grazing not only slyly lowers the tax rate but also produces a cheese with a wonderfully unique grassy flavor that is more complex than regular mozzarella. Stracchino from Italy can be prohibitively costly to import and Evan fortunately has found a supplier in the Midwest to meet his exacting standards.

In the Pink, Secrets of Pi Pizzeria, Nantucket, by Sarah Chase

 

In the Pink, Secrets of Pi Pizzeria, Nantucket, by Sarah Chase

 

Once the Rustica pizza emerges incredibly aromatically from the oven, with crust crisped, Stracchino bubbling, and pancetta crackling, it is topped with a mound of baby arugula lightly dressed with fruity olive oil. While Evan went on to make “molti pizzas” as promised on the menu, it was the Rustica that remained the most swoon-worthy for me as well as everyone else in attendance. Meanwhile, Cory busied himself filling our glasses with compatibly “volcanic” Sicilian red wines, a slightly chilled Planeta Etna Rosso and a voluptuous, show-stopping Zisola Nero d’Avola. Cory elaborated that the Nero d’Avola grapes that make up 100% of Zisola are grown as far south as you can go in Sicily in a microclimate cooled by sea breezes in the heat of the summer and then warmed by the same breezes in the depths of winter. I was quick to notice that Zisola is produced by the Mazzei family, Tuscan winemakers whose charming hamlet of Fonterutoli outside of Siena had served as a base for my husband’s and my Italian honeymoon twenty years ago. No wonder, Zisola for me personally was love at first and last Rustica-pizza-sated sip.

 

In the Pink, Secrets of Pi Pizzeria, Nantucket, by Sarah Chase

 

Sarah Leah Chase is a cookbook author, freelance food writer, and culinary consultant. She frequently teaches cooking classes at the Nantucket Culinary Center. Her latest cookbook, “New England Open House,” was published this past June. She invites fellow food lovers to follow her on Facebook and Instagram

 

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