In last month’s issue of Pizza Today, I took a look at how I go about my work as a restaurant critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. I examined what I look for –– from the time I walk though the door until I leave –– when I am evaluating and rating a restaurant (star rating one to four). Now, at the suggestion of Pizza Today’s editors, I am shining the critic’s spotlight on the food.
Last month, I talked about what I look for as it relates to food quality, preparation and presentation. As important as all of that is, there is a lot more to deal with. For example, let’s say that I ordered linguine with clam sauce, and the menu stated that the clams were “littlenecks.” Once the dish arrives, the clams are not littlenecks at all; rather, they are the much larger cherrystones, which, though meatier, do not have as much flavor as the littlenecks (a.k.a. vongole). My point here is that menu accuracy in describing a dish (or, similarly, a server knowing how a certain dish is put together) is very important.
Let’s say that someone is allergic to nuts. Understanding that a classic pesto sauce includes pine nuts (pignoli) is not an issue that can be overlooked.
Hamburgers (even turkey burgers) are a hot menu item. The meat, relative to quality and taste, is important. Also, was the burger cooked properly –– temperature, that is? Just as important, too, is the bun. Does the bun hold up? If the bun falls apart halfway through, then I figure the restaurant is compromising quality by buying a cheaper bun.
Good bread, rolls and buns are very critical when it comes to a putting out a good sandwich or panini. This is not the time to compromise, so I look for quality when it comes to bread used for sandwiches. And that goes for table bread, too.
On the subject of temperature, if I order a steak medium rare (my usual choice), I would expect it to be medium rare (or real close) — not medium or rare (though, if it is too rare, I can always ask that it be cooked a bit more).
When I visit a pizzeria and see a Margherita listed on the menu, it better be made with fi or-di-latte. If standard shredded mozz is used, that’s a major disappointment.
I am also aware of an underbaked pizza relative to the color of the crust (a pale, anemic looking crust) and the absence of color (speckled brown) on the cheese. Conversely, a pizza that has been overbaked (the crust gets tough and the cheese is dark and is burned here and there) is also noticeable. Any of these no-nos get points deducted in my review.
Most Botched Dishes
Over the years of evaluating various dishes, here are a few that are most often botched. Most of the time is has to do with someone not paying attention to the process and the basics of good cookery.
Fried or grilled calamari and dishes that include squid. Squid is either cooked for a very short time (fried calamari is in the fryer for two minutes or less) or a very long time (calamari in red sauce) to render it tender.
Pasta that is rinsed after it has been drained removes the all-important starch that helps the sauce adhere to the pasta. If I see a pool of tomato water in the bottom of a pasta bowl, I know the pasta was rinsed, and that is not a good thing.
While on the subject of pasta cookery, perfectly al dente is the mark to shoot for, but I would rather that the pasta be undercooked than overcooked.
If lasagne is made with watery ricotta cheese, it will fall apart layer by layer until it is a nasty mess. Even a long baking isn’t enough to pull excessive water out of ricotta cheese. Solution: put the ricotta in a strainer or sieve over a bowl for an hour to drain off excessive water.
When it comes to using garlic, garlic that is over the hill can be easily detected. I can tell when it is starting to root (that’s the green part in the center of the garlic clove). Solution: The green part should be removed or the garlic will have a bitter taste.
Also, garlic that is burned (instead of gently toasted brown) when used to start a marinara sauce (or any red sauce) will impart a bitter taste to the sauce.
A salad of any kind that gets swamped with salad dressing is not a good salad. I would rather that the dressing be served on the side.
The Parmigiana family –– chicken, eggplant, veal –– are convicted of culinary crimes more often than any other family of food. Eggplant is the one that has the longest rap sheet. Old eggplant (the softer the eggplant, the older it is) or eggplant with a lot of seeds can be very bitter and will carry excess moisture. Salting and pressing the eggplant slices will help to get rid of excess moisture and bitterness. So to get eggplant parmigiana off to a good start, slice the eggplant –– rounds or cutlet. Salt each piece, then put a weight on the stack and let the moisture drain into a bowl underneath. Now you need to rinse the salt off each slice. That’s the prep.
Next, grill the eggplant slices or put the slices on a sheet pan and roast in the oven.
If you want a Parmigiana –– eggplant or chicken –– that is breaded, you still need to get rid of the moisture and bitterness. Now proceed as follows: run the slices of eggplant through fl our (shake off the excess), then through beaten egg, then herbed breadcrumbs, pressing the breadcrumbs into the eggplant (you can now refrigerate the slices, if necessary, for several hours). Working in small batches, fry the eggplant slices until they are golden brown. Now you are ready to finish off the dish by using a marinara sauce, shredded mozzarella, grated Romano cheese and slices of eggplant. Stack and layer each of those ingredients the same as if you were making lasagne. Bake at 375 F. Let the Parmigiana rest for up to an hour before cutting into portions.
Follow the same process for chicken Parm, but first pound a boneless, skinless chicken breast until it is an even thickness. Pat the breast with paper towels. Now dredge the breast in fl our, then in the egg, then breadcrumbs. Fry or sauté until the chicken is cooked through (that’s the prep). To order, lay slices of mozzarella over the chicken and broil or oven-bake until the cheese melts; then layer on some warm marinara sauce. Sprinkle the sauce with grated Romano or Parmesan. Serve at once.
What botches Parmigiana more than anything else is using old breadcrumbs or breadcrumbs that are too coarse (finer crumbs are better) and making the breadcrumb layer too thick, which means that you can’t find the chicken or the eggplant under that “wall” of breadcrumbs, so go easy on the breadcrumbs.
Note: check internal temperature of eggplant parmigiana and lasagne with an instant read thermometer. 160-165 F is what you are looking for. Also use a thermometer to check the internal temp of chicken (about 160 F is about right).
Soggy cannoli shells. If a cannoli shell has been filled (with ricotta) and left sitting around, the shell gets soft and loses its crackly crispiness. I can always tell when a cannoli has been filled ahead of time, because the shell is mushy soft instead of crispy.
Pat Bruno is Pizza Today’s resident chef and a regular contributor. He is the former owner and operator of a prominent Italian cooking school in Chicago and is a food critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.