A little Italy

The Prawn Cocktail; The trattorias of Sixties Soho changed the way we eat; Maybe Calamari is more synonymous with Greek holidays than the trat-era, but you most certainly would have seen it on Mario and Franco's menu
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In London with a beautiful hungry girl one must show her to Mario at The Terrazza. We sat in the ground floor front under the plastic grapes and Mario brought us Campari-sodas and told Jean how much he hated me. To do this he practically had to gnaw her ear off. Jean liked it - Len Deighton, `The Ipcress File', 1962

With the new look in the Sixties came a cleaning up of the old-style Italian menu. Breadsticks became a status symbol on restaurant tables. People took them home, for there is nothing more satisfying than ripping open the flimsy Cellophane packet, shaking out a stick (rather like a soft pack of Lucky Strike), and then ploughing its rough end into cool butter.

Antipasti - hitherto a sad display of wilted squid rings, curling salami, congealed potato salad and crusty bean and tuna mix - became something to get excited about. Italian specialities were revitalised: Fegato alla Veneziana (calves' liver in the Venetian style, thinly slivered with onions), Saltimbocca alla Romana (thin slices of veal, sage and prosciutto fried in butter and finished with wine), and Scaloppini alla Marsala or Limone, were, for once, freshly made with care and became really quite good. Dolci were taken seriously, too: Zabaglione was light, frothy and oozed Marsala, and a decent fresh fruit salad (Macedonia di Frutta!) was something worth having.

But, by the end of the Seventies, people were talking about the Trat Trap. Many of London's established family-run Italian restaurants had missed the point. They, too, had their giant-pepper-grinder-wielding, occasionally singing, always smooth-talking Lothario waiters and they hung on to the hanging Chianti bottles and the ladderback chairs.

Their menus, too, lost their way. Veal, usually offered cooked in a dozen different ways, came to be hit and miss. Heavy sauces, often based on a floury, badly cooked bechamel, and mixed with tired mushrooms or plastic ham, could be claggy in the extreme. Pasta was always overcooked and never home-made and stale rolls sat untouched on side plates from midday to midnight.

There was borrowing from the continental repertoire, with dishes such as Pollo alla Sorpresa (chicken Kiev), Veal Cordon Bleu, Crespelle di Frutta di Mare (seafood pancake) and factory made desserts - always a bloody cheesecake - decorated with what looked like shaving cream, loaded on to the ever-present trolley. And, of course, Black Forest Gateau.

Cheese, if you were lucky, was either freezing cold or a sweaty Dolcelatte, Gorgonzola Torta, perhaps Provolone, or Taleggio. Certainly never a hunk of Parmigiano Reggiano. We assumed that came ready grated, and was only used for sprinkling - on almost everything.

By the mid-Eighties, the trattoria had had its day, but, now, it is the pleasure of passionate home-grown cooks such as Rowley Leigh, Alastair Little, Rose Gray and Ruthie Rogers to cook great Italian dishes, rustic and simple. The reason they are breathing new life into Italian food is because they are cooking it properly, and with care. That is the basic difference between then and now.

In Sixties Soho, where trattoria cooking was born, there was already a thriving Italian community supporting continental grocers, bakers and butchers. Some of this produce, of course, found its way into the restaurant kitchens and on to the menus. But not enough of it. Furthermore, we, the customers, lapped up whatever was put in front of us, as long as it was served by a flirty waiter who looked like Marcello Mastroianni.

Perhaps there is a strong element of nostalgia going on here. What would pin-striped, drunk-too-much-Valpolicella man have made of olive oil-soaked foccacia or ciabatta circa 1970? Are there still those who prefer the buttered breadstick to the oily tear of a "new" breed of bread?

Fashion in food is relatively new and seems to be creating a class of quasi-sophisticated Euro-eaters who will brainlessly bin bruschetta for yet another new bread. Why should a dish of green tagliatelle in a cream sauce be any less attractive than a warm bean salad with balsamic vinegar and a slick of extra virgin? In our greedy search for new ingredients and novel interpretations we are in danger of throwing out the bechamel with the borlottis.

Calamari fritti, serves 4 as a first course

Maybe Calamari is more synonymous with Greek holidays than the trat-era, but you most certainly would have seen it on Mario and Franco's menu.

Deep-fried squid is clad in either breadcrumbs or batter. Both are equally enjoyable, as long as the fat you use to fry in is clean, hot and fresh, and the squid is super-fresh, neatly sliced into rings and properly floured, egged and breadcrumbed/battered.

The frying time is about 2 minutes. Squid is one of those funny cephalopods, where very quick cooking in small pieces or long slow braising, perhaps as stuffed whole tubes, is the right thing to do. Anything in between is a disaster. You might as well eat a bicycle inner tube.

For the batter:

200g plain flour

50g potato flour (fecule de pommes de terre)

275 ml light beer

1 egg yolk

25 ml sunflower oil

225 ml milk

salt and pepper

500g squid, cleaned, sliced into thin rings, with tentacles - cut in half if large

salt

flour

a handful of parsley sprigs, washed and well dried

cayenne pepper

1 lemon, cut into quarters

First make the batter by putting all the ingredients in the blender and blending until smooth. Pass it through a sieve and leave it for 1 hour before using. Incidentally, when using this batter to fry fish, always flour the fish before coating it with the batter.

Season the squid with salt and roll it in flour. Heat a deep-fryer until the temperature reaches 375F/190C (for those without a deep-fryer or thermometer, this is when a scrap of bread turns golden after a couple of seconds). Dip a few squid rings - about 5-6 at a time - in the batter and fry for 2-3 minutes in the oil. Drain, shake off any excess oil, place on kitchen paper and keep it warm in a low oven, uncovered and still on the paper. Do the rest in similar batches, finishing with the tentacles, which will take a little longer. Drop the sprigs of parsley into the oil for a few seconds - be careful of the sputtering - then drain, sprinkle with salt, and tip on to kitchen paper.

To serve, pile the squid on a big serving dish, dust it with cayenne and arrange the lemon quarters around it. Fling over the crisp little clusters of parsley and eat without delay.

Fegato alla veneziana, serves 4

One of the best examples of this dish is cooked at Bibendum in London. Although SH has an interest (well, why not?), the restaurant is proud to have based it upon the one served at Harry's Bar in Venice, where dishes are not only regional and rigorously authentic, but also easy to replicate - if only because they are simple, their ingredients stand out as first rate and they are beautifully cooked.

In this instance, the onions are carefully stewed, the thinly sliced liver cut into small squares the size of postage stamps, and the two combined together in a frenzy of last-minute frying. Vinegar and parsley bring the flavours together, and there you have it. There was most definitely a brown stew of liver and onions around during the Sixties and Seventies, but heaven knows what it was meant to be.

3 mild Spanish onions, peeled and very thinly sliced

3 tbsp light olive oil (pure, not virgin)

salt and pepper

40g butter

8 exceptionally thin slices of calves' liver, cut into small squares

1 tbsp chopped parsley

2 tbsp red wine vinegar

Fry the onions in the oil until they are completely cooked through and soft. They may take on a little colour during this time but it doesn't matter; the most important thing is that they cook slowly - which can take up to 30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

In a roomy and not-too-thick frying pan, heat the butter until foaming. Season the calves' liver with salt and pepper, and briefly toss it in the butter for about 20 seconds. Drain in a colander. Put the cooked onions into the liver pan and similarly toss briefly until they are golden brown, and in parts slightly scorched. Return the liver to the pan with the parsley, and finally stir in the vinegar. Serve without delay and not without mashed potatoes.

Note: The final cooking of this dish - that is, after the initial cooking of the onions - should not take more than about 1 minute.

Saltimbocca, serves 4

Saltimbocca - literally "jump into the mouth" - is the ideal supper for four, and takes no time at all to prepare. Use very large, very thin escalopes of veal, because you are going to fold them over, enclosing the essential thin slice of prosciutto and sage leaves within.

pepper

8 veal escalopes, beaten very thin between greaseproof paper

16 sage leaves

8 paper-thin slices prosciutto

75g butter

flour for coating

salt

1 small glass dry white wine

a generous splash of Marsala

4 lemon wedges

Grind pepper over one side of the veal escalopes. Place one sage leaf on each escalope and cover with a slice of prosciutto so that it fits as neatly as possible to the shape of the escalope. Fold it in half, put back in the greaseproof paper and lightly beat to sandwich it together. Melt the butter in a large frying pan until it is about to turn nut-brown. Quickly dip the saltimboccas in the flour and fry briefly on either side until golden brown; about 2 minutes a side - do this in two batches if necessary to avoid overcrowding - and keep them warm in a low oven.

While the fat is still hot, throw in the remaining sage leaves and let them sizzle for a few moments until they are crisp. Lift out on to absorbent paper, sprinkle with salt and put them on top of the veal in the oven. Tip out most of the fat and pour in the wine and Marsala. Allow to bubble and reduce until it forms a light, syrupy gravy. Spoon this over the veal, and serve immediately with the lemon wedges.

Zucchini fritters, serves 2

Soggy and greasy are epithets synonymous with fried zucchini. But how rare it is to find a wonderful rustling mass of them: crisp and salty, dry yet sweet and moist within and wonderfully savoury.

At Harry Cipriani in New York City (related to Harry's Bar in Venice), they put a plate of them on the table when you (finally) sit down - surely one of the best appetisers there is. Here, tiny zucchini are sliced into discs the thickness and size of a penny piece, piled up on a paper napkin in a tremulous tower. Eat them quickly, accompanied by a very dry Martini, the likes of which cannot be bettered when mixed by a Harry's bartender.

2 tsp salt

4 medium-sized zucchini (courgettes), thinly sliced on the diagonal

1 egg white, loosely beaten to sloppy froth

flour

peanut or sunflower oil for frying

freshly ground pepper

Sprinkle the salt over the zucchini and put them into a colander to drain for 30 minutes. Rinse briefly and dry thoroughly in a tea-towel.

Heat a deep-fryer to 375F/190C (for those without a deep-fryer or thermometer, this is when a scrap of bread turns golden after a couple of seconds). Stir the zucchini with the egg white, drain in the same colander for a moment, roll through the flour and shake off the excess. Drop the zucchini into the hot oil a few at a time. Drain on kitchen paper and keep warm while you do the rest. Grind over the pepper and serve immediately.

Oranges in caramel, serves 4

A trolley terror if ever there was one. This could be anything from an insipid collection of badly trimmed slices (pith included, of course) languishing in a sickly sweet syrup or, even worse, crunchy sliced oranges with sugar, where the crystals have not yet had a chance to dissolve.

Although the dish is a simple one, and we believe more Spanish in origin than Italian, Oranges in Caramel is a most refreshing end to a meal. If you take the trouble to peel the fruit carefully and make a proper caramel, the result is a revelation. And a good slosh of Cointreau or Grand Marnier would not go amiss either.

8 medium-sized sweet oranges, if possible seedless

225g caster sugar

150ml cold water and 150ml very hot water

8 cocktail sticks

Peel the rind, without the pith, from four of the oranges and cut it into thin julienne strips. Blanch it in a small pan of boiling water, then tip it into a colander, rinse with cold water, drain and set aside.

Peel all the oranges to the flesh, working over a plate to catch the juice. Slice the oranges round their circumference and reassemble with two cocktail sticks through the centre to keep them in position. Place the oranges in a serving bowl with the juice from the plate.

Put the sugar and cold water in a medium-sized saucepan over a low flame and bring slowly to a simmer, shaking the pan as the sugar dissolves. Raise the heat and boil rapidly, swirling the liquid occasionally to dissolve any crystals that form, until the syrup turns a rich amber colour - watch carefully at this stage. Remove the pan from the heat, cover your hand with a tea-towel and stand well back. There will be a lot of spluttering as, very quickly, you pour in the hot water carefully. Once the spluttering has subsided, stir the caramel with a wooden spoon until it is thoroughly blended. If it turns lumpy, return the pan to the heat. Add the orange zest to the syrup, cook for a few more minutes, then pour the caramel over the oranges. Place in the fridge to chill

`The Prawn Cocktail Years' by Simon Hopkinson & Lindsey Bareham is published on 24 October. To reserve a pre-publication copy at the special price of pounds 15 p&p free, call 0181- 324 5700

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