By Peg Moore
When Gian Carlo Menotti, founder of Spoleto Festival dei Due Monde, was looking for an American city with charm similar to Spoleto, Italy, it was perfectly logical for him to choose Charleston. After all, our historic district reflects several centuries of respect for the timeless traditions of Italian Palladian architecture.
Charleston’s love of classic good taste and distaste of novelty-for-the-sake-of-novelty includes food as well as architecture. Waverly Root explains in “The Best of Italian Cooking,” that Italian food reflects the Renaissance taste for “basic simple unpretentious ingredients with sauces whose ingenuity and piquancy turn them into a series of tingling experiences.”
The excellence of ingredients matters in Italian cooking. As it does in the locavorism that is so important in Charleston. Chefs everywhere are seeking out such artisanal products as the heirloom grains at Anson Mills. Charleston’s Clammer Dave regularly sells to celebrity New York chefs Mario Batali, Andrew Carmellini and Mario Carbone (his newest restaurant, Carbone, is the current hotspot).
New Yorkers and the French may opt for every “nouveau” trend, such as the foamy molecular gastronomy bit.
Charlestonians and the Italians tend to be faithful to tradition. Italians have stayed with what they do best — comfort food. Spoleto is a perfect time to treat yourself to those comforts.
One Lowcountry signature dish — Hoppin’ John — is believed to have come via Venetian canal builders who were the first to grow rice here. Glenn Roberts, founder of Anson Mills, who sells his heirloom grains to four thousand chefs around the world, explains that the Gullah dish “reezy peezy” was inspired by the Venetian classic risi e bisi (rice and peas) “It is the original Hoppin John.”
Pastas are traditional comfort food
“You must try the pasta carbonara at Pane e Vino,” said my neighbor Jay Williams. I did and am addicted to it, too. It is also a favorite of singer Nancy Steadman. This classic Roman dish, essentially pasta with bacon, eggs and cheese, crops up on several Charleston menus.
The origins of carbonara are unclear. Lidia Bastianich has written that the dish originally comes from the Appenine hills of Central Italy near Rome, where it was a favorite of shepherds. There are delicious versions at Monza and Mercato, too.
Pasta puttanesca, or “whore’s spaghetti,” is another comfort favorite, as the name suggests. Photographer David Edwards always orders the putanesca at Lana. Kim, owner of Cortile del Re, reports that Mayor Riley often orders her penne ariabiata.
Comfort at Mercato
Another Roman trattoria classic, which dates to the 18th century, is not so easy to find in Charleston — bucatini all’Amatriciana, which Mario Batali considers “one of the most celebrated in Italian cuisine and a favorite here at Babbo (in New York).”
When Jacque Larson was chef at Mercato, he transported me back to Rome with this pasta and assured me he would make it even when it was not on the menu — Jacques trained under Batali and passed along his knowledge to the kitchen staff. Current chef Ben Ellsworth was a line cook in 2006, used to make this dish every day for Jacques’ lunch.
Mercato tries to fill special requests, even when ingredients are not in the kitchen. “There was a woman who wanted linguine and clams the other night,” says Chef Ellsworth. “We got some clams from Hank’s.”
Other comforts at Mercato include yummy bruschetta, Anson Mills polenta and panna cotta. Phil Parillo of East Coast Paperhanging is of Italian descent and eats there often. “I usually order the veal parmesan — it goes well with a glass of brunello di montalcino. I enjoy the way the wine complements the veal.”
Romance and Spoleto antipasto at Fulton Five
Fulton Five has the intimacy of an Italian trattoria. “The daily fish is always spectacular,” reports Jay Williams. “It is one of my favorite restaurants, charming and the food quality is high. The Bolognese is rich and flavorful. The veal chop is excellent.”
Do not miss the popular Spoleto antipasto — a delicious combination of prosciutto, mozzarella, wrapped in romaine, grilled and served with a balsamic dressing.
Be transported to Italy at Muse
The beautiful ambience of Muse will surely transport you to Italy as will the flavors of the kitchen. Yummy classics — bruschetta, tagliatelle Bolognese, a cacciucco of local seafood. If you have a craving for bucatini all’ Amatriciana, just ask. The new chef Pierce Bowers, who went to Johnson and Wales, once worked at Mercato, also tries to respond to special cravings.
Comfort in non-Italian restaurants
It is easy to find Italian comforts in non-Italian restaurants. As John Mariani pointed out in his book, “How Italian Food Conquered the World,” dishes such as salumi, panna cotta, pastas are everywhere. Oak, for instance, serves clams Casino, linguini Bolognese and a shrimp and clam linguine. Don’t overlook the pizzas at Saffron (owner Ali Rahnamoon once had a restaurant that focused just on pizza). Amen Street serves an appetizing version of linquine and clams with a dozen of Clammer Dave’s clams in the shell. A comforting way to end any meal is with a gelato at Paolo’s.
If you are rushing about between Spoleto events, you may need to have a meal delivered. There is delicious pizza at D’Allesandro’s. Caviar and Bananas is a great source for having delicious food delivered and also for grabbing a quick meal between cultural events. The new chef Scott Roule is turning out a spectacular eight-layer eggplant parmesan. Bon appétit!
Caviar and Bananas — 51 George St. 577-7757.
D’Allesandro’s — 229 St. Philip St. 853-6337.
Fulton Five — 5 Fulton St. 853-5555.
Mercato — 102 Market St. 722-6393.
Monza — 451 King St. 720-8787.
Muse — 82 Society St. 577-1102.
Oak — 27 Broad St. 722-4220.
Pane e Vino — 17 Warren St. 853-5955.
Paolo’s Gelato — 41 John St. 577-0099.
Saffron — 333 East Bay St. 722-5588.