My favorite Italian chefs are my favorites because they prepare classic recipes that reflect the true spirit of Italian cooking. No gimmicks or including ingredients just because they are trendy. Italian cuisine is characterized by a simplicity that relies on the quality of the ingredients rather than on elaborate preparation. As immigrants from different regions of Italy settled in different regions of the United States, they brought with them the recipes that were identified with their regional origins in Italy and infused them with the characteristics and ingredients of their new home locale in America.

Much of the Italian food that we choose to eat isn’t always conducive to a healthy eating diet, partly due to the adaptations made to traditional recipes in the U.S., such as loading our pizzas with extra cheese and adding cream to carbonara sauce – a sacrilege in many parts of Italy. But cooked correctly, Italian cuisine is actually one of the healthiest diets you can eat. Like most Mediterranean cuisines, traditional Italian food uses simple, natural ingredients and aims to enhance these flavors naturally, without overdosing on salt, fat and sugar. I have learned to modify recipes I like from some of my favorite Italian American chefs to make use of healthier ingredients and better cooking procedures. So in this post I am sharing some of my favorite recipes from these chefs with my version on how to make the recipes with a more healthful approach.

Biba Caggiano

Born in Bologna, her first exposure to professional cooking was through her mother, who owned and operated a trattoria in Bologna. Biba grew up cooking the food of her native Emilia-Romagna region. In 1960 she moved to New York, the hometown of her husband, Vincent. In 1969 the family moved to Sacramento and in 1986 she opened the Biba Restaurant, which went on to become very successful.

Cookbooks:

  • Trattoria Cooking
  • Biba’s Taste of Italy
  • From Biba’s Italian kitchen
  • Italy al dente
  • Biba’s Italy
  • Northern Italian Cooking
  • Spaghetti Sauces

Bow Ties with Prosciutto Sauce

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

  • 1 cup fresh peas
  • Salt
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup finely minced yellow onion
  • 1/4 cup finely minced carrots
  • 1/4 cup finely minced celery
  • 1/4 pound prosciutto, in 1 thick slice, minced
  • 1/3 cup dry white wine
  • 2 cups tomato puree (preferably canned Italian plum tomatoes, with their juice, put through a food mill to puree them and remove their seeds)
  • 1/3 cup whole milk
  • 1 tablespoon coarse salt
  • 1 pound imported dried bow ties, garganelli, or tagliatelle
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Directions

Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil. Add a pinch of salt and the peas. Cook, uncovered, until tender, 5 to 10 minutes, depending on their size. Drain and set aside.

To make the sauce, heat the oil and 2 tablespoons butter together in a large skillet over medium heat. As soon as the butter begins to foam, add the onion, carrots, and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden and soft, 8 to 10 minutes.

Add the prosciutto and stir for a minute or 2, then raise the heat to high and add the wine. Stir until almost all the wine has evaporated. Add the tomato sauce and season lightly with salt. As soon as the sauce comes to a boil, reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, until the sauce has a medium-thick consistency, about 15 minutes. Stir the milk and peas into the sauce and simmer for 2 to 5 minutes longer. Turn off the heat. (Makes approximately 2 1/2 cups.)

Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add the coarse salt and pasta and cook until the pasta is tender but still a bit firm to the bite.

Scoop out and reserve about 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water. Drain the pasta and place in the skillet with the sauce. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon butter and a handful of the Parmigiano. Stir quickly over medium heat until the pasta and sauce are well combined. Add a bit of the reserved cooking water if the pasta seems dry. Taste, adjust the seasoning, and serve with the remaining Parmigiano.

My Version: Pasta with Prosciutto Sauce

In my version I have reduced the fat and added whole grains for a healthier pasta dish, while keeping the flavor of the original.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup thawed frozen peas
  • Salt
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/4 cup finely minced yellow onion
  • 1/4 cup finely minced carrots
  • 1/4 cup finely minced celery
  • 1/4 pound prosciutto, in 1 thick slice, minced
  • 1/3 cup dry white wine
  • 26 oz container Pomi strained tomatoes
  • 1/3 cup low fat milk
  • 1 pound imported dried whole wheat pasta
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Directions

To make the sauce:

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat and add the onion, carrots and celery. Cook, stirring occasionally, until golden and soft, 8 to 10 minutes.

Add the prosciutto and stir for a minute or two, then raise the heat to high and add the wine. Stir until almost all the wine has evaporated. Add the tomatoes and season lightly with salt. As soon as the sauce comes to a boil, reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, until the sauce has a medium-thick consistency, about 15 minutes. Stir the milk and peas into the sauce and simmer for 2 to 5 minutes longer. Turn off the heat. (Makes approximately 2 1/2 cups.)

Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add salt and pasta and cook until the pasta is tender but still a bit firm to the bite.

Scoop out and reserve about 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water. Drain the pasta and place in the skillet with the sauce. Add 1/4 cup of the Parmigiano. Stir quickly over medium heat until the pasta and sauce are well combined. Add a bit of the reserved cooking water, if the pasta seems dry. Serve with the remaining Parmigiano.

Michael Chiarello

Micharl was born in Red Bluff, California to an Italian-American family. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 1982 and Florida International University in 1984, he opened The Grand Bay Hotel and Toby’s Bar and Grill in Florida. He was honored as 1985’s, Chef of the Year, by Food & Wine Magazine. In the late 1980s, Chiarello moved back to California, making his home in Napa Valley, where he opened the Tra Vigne restaurant, creating a menu influenced by the cuisine of his family’s native Calabria. Chiarello currently owns a winery – Chiarello Family Vineyards, Bottega Ristorante in Napa Valley and Coqueta in San Francisco.

Cookbooks:

  • Michael Chiarello’s Live Fire: 125 Recipes for Cooking Outdoors” (May 1, 2013)
  • Michael Chiarello’s Bottega (2010)
  • At Home with Michael Chiarello (2005)
  • Michael Chiarello’s Casual Cooking (2002)
  • Napa Stories (2001)
  • Tra Vigne Cookbook (1999)
  • Flavored Oils and Flavored Vinegars (1995; revised edition 2006)

Red Wine Poached Pears with Mascarpone Filling

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

  • 6 firm Bartlett pears
  • 1 bottle dry red wine
  • 1 vanilla bean, whole
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 2 (8 ounce) containers mascarpone cheese, softened
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • Pinch cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup powdered sugar
  • 2 tablespoons butter

Directions

Peel pears and leave stem intact. In a large saucepan, bring wine and an equal amount of cold water to a simmer. Split vanilla bean lengthwise and add to wine and water mixture. Add cinnamon sticks, bay leaves and sugar, to taste. Add pears to liquid and simmer for about 20 minutes or until tender. Cool pears in wine mixture to room temperature. You can refrigerate them in the poaching liquid until you’re ready to fill them.

Remove stems from pears and set stems aside. Core pears with an apple corer, leaving pear whole.

Whisk together mascarpone cheese, heavy cream, pinch cinnamon and powdered sugar until smooth. Transfer to a pastry bag, or if you do not have one, use wax paper tightly wrapped into a cone with the corner snipped off. Pipe filling into cored pears and finish by putting the stems gently into the mascarpone filling on top of the pears.

Bring sauce up to a simmer and reduce by half. Add butter to reduced sauce and stir until combined. Spoon generously over pears. Cool to room temperature before serving.

My Version: Red Wine Poached Pears

This is an impressive dessert, especially for entertaining, but the original recipe has too much sugar for my taste. I have reduced the amount of sugar and dairy fat in my version and simplified  the procedures a bit.

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

  • 6 firm Bartlett pears
  • 1 bottle dry red wine
  • 1 vanilla bean, whole
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 cup granulated sugar or sugar alternative, such as Truvia for baking
  • 1 (8 ounce) container low fat cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 1 cup low fat Greek yogurt
  • 1/4 -1/2 cup fat free half & half or evaporated milk
  • Pinch cinnamon
  • 1/4 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 tablespoon butter

Directions

Peel the pears. In a large saucepan, bring wine and an equal amount of cold water to a simmer. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise and add to the wine and water mixture. Add the cinnamon sticks, bay leaves and sugar. Add pears to the liquid and simmer for about 20 minutes or until tender.

Cool pears in the wine mixture to room temperature. You can refrigerate them in the poaching liquid until you’re ready to fill them.

Remove pears from the cooking liquid and reserve the liquid. Cut pears in half and core.

Whisk together the cream cheese, yogurt, 1/4 cup half & half, a pinch of cinnamon and powdered sugar until smooth. Add more half & half if the mixture seems too thick.

Fill each side of the cored pears with the cream cheese mixture and arrange on a platter with a rim.

Bring sauce up to a simmer and reduce by half. Add butter to reduced sauce and stir until combined. Spoon generously over pears. Cool to room temperature before serving.

Serve 2 pear halves per person.

Lidia Matticchio Bastianich

Born in 1947, in Pula now in Croatia, but at one time, a city in Italy and then a city in Yugoslavia. In 1956 the Matticchio family escaped to Trieste, Italy, joining other families who had asked for political asylum. Two years later, the 12-year-old Bastianich and her family moved to North Bergen, New Jersey and later to Queens, New York. She married in 1966 and the couple opened their first restaurant, Buonavia, in the Forest Hills section of Queens. The success of Buonavia led to the opening of a second restaurant, Villa Secondo. It was here that Lidia gained the attention of local food critics by giving live cooking demonstrations, a prelude to her future career as a TV chef. In 1998, PBS offered Lidia her own TV series which became Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen. Since then she has hosted four additional public television series.

Cookbooks:

  • La Cucina di Lidia
  • Lidia’s Family Table
  • Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen
  • Lidia’s Italian Table
  • Lidia’s Italy
  • Lidia’s Italy in America
  • Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy
  • Lidia’s Italy in America
  • Lidia’s Favorites
  • Lidia’s Commonsense Italian Cooking

Osso Buco

Serves: 6

Ingredients

  • 4 fresh bay leaves, or 6 dried bay leaves
  • 1 large sprig fresh rosemary
  • 3 cups chicken broth, or more as needed
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 6 2-to-3-inch thick veal shanks, cut in half, tied around the circumference
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 large onion, cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 2 stalks celery, cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 6 whole cloves
  • 2 small oranges, 1 peeled with a vegetable peeler, 1 zest grated
  • 2 medium carrots, cut into 1-inch chunks

Directions

Tie the bay leaves and rosemary together with string. Pour the chicken broth into a small pot and keep warm over low heat.

Heat the olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Season the osso buco with the salt. When the oil is hot, add the osso buco and brown on all sides, about 6 to 7 minutes in all. Remove browned osso buco to a plate.

Add the onion, carrots, and celery to the Dutch oven. Cook until the onion begins to soften and all of the vegetables are caramelized, about 5 minutes. Push aside the vegetables to clear a dry spot in the pan, and add the tomato paste. Let it toast for a minute or two, then stir it into the vegetables. Add the wine and the herb package. Bring to a boil, and cook until the wine is reduced by half, about 3 minutes. Drop in the cloves and the orange peel (reserve the zest from the other orange for later). Return the osso buco to the pot in one layer, and pour the chicken stock over the top until it is almost, but not quite, covering the osso buco. Adjust heat so the liquid is simmering, cover, and cook until the osso buco is tender, about 1 ½ hours.

Once the meat is tender, uncover, and remove the vegetable chunks to a platter. Put the osso buco on top of the vegetables. Discard the bay-leaf/rosemary package. Bring the liquid in the Dutch oven to a boil, and cook down until saucy, about 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the strings from the osso buco. Pour the sauce through a strainer directly over the osso buco on the platter, pressing on any remaining vegetable solids with a wooden spoon. Sprinkle the orange zest over the top, and serve.

My Version: Pork or Turkey Osso Buco

I like Lydia’s sauce and procedures but I do not cook with veal – the traditional meat for this classic dish. I have had success with using either pork shanks or turkey thighs in serving this entree to my guests.

Serves: 6

Ingredients

  • 6 dried bay leaves
  • 1 large sprig fresh rosemary
  • 3 cups low sodium chicken broth or more as needed
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 6 organic pork shanks or turkey thighs, tied around the circumference with kitchen twine
  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 large onion, cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 2 stalks celery, cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 2 medium carrots, cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste (from the tube)
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 6 whole cloves
  • 2 small oranges, 1 peeled with a vegetable peeler, 1 zest grated

Directions

Tie the bay leaves and rosemary together with string.

Pour the chicken broth into a small pot and keep warm over low heat.

Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Season the pork shanks or turkey thighs with salt. When the oil is hot, add half the pork or turkey pieces and brown the meat on all sides, about 6 to 7 minutes in all. Remove to a plate. Repeat browning with the remaining meat. If the pan needs more oil to brown the remaining pieces of meat then add the remaining olive oil. I often don’t need it.

Add the onion, carrots and celery to the Dutch oven. Cook until the onion begins to soften about 5 minutes. Push aside the vegetables to clear a dry spot in the pan and add the tomato paste. Cook for a minute or two, then stir it into the vegetables. Add the wine and the herbs. Bring to a boil and cook until the wine is reduced by half, about 3 minutes.

Drop in the cloves and the orange peel (reserve the zest from the other orange for later). Return the meat to the pot in one layer and pour the chicken stock over the top until it is almost, but not quite, covering the meat. Adjust heat so the liquid is simmering (do not let the liquid boil when the meat is in the pot or the meat will get tough), cover and cook until the meat is tender, about 2-2 1/2 hours.

Once the meat is tender, uncover, and remove the meat and vegetables to a bowl. Discard the herbs and bring the liquid in the Dutch oven to a boil and cook for 5 minutes.

Remove the strings from the meat. Pour the sauce through a fine strainer directly over the bowl with the meat and vegetables pressing on any remaining solids with a wooden spoon. Sprinkle the orange zest over the top and serve. This dish is traditionally served with risotto.

Micol Negrin

micol300

Milan born, Micol Negrin graduated from Canada’s premier culinary academy and moved to New York City, where she became the Editor and chief writer for The Magazine of La Cucina Italiana. For six years, Micol wrote and edited full-time, but in her heart, she knew she wanted to be cooking for people who wanted to experience a true taste of Italian cooking. So, in January 2005, she opened a cooking school in Midtown Manhattan.

Cookbooks:

  • Rustico: Regional Italian Country Cooking
  • The Italian Grill

Fried Mozzarella in a “Carriage”

Serves 8

Ingredients

  • 8 slices white bread, crusts removed
  • 1 pound fresh Mozzarella, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 4 cups extra-virgin olive oil

Directions

Place 4 slices of bread on the counter. Top with the Mozzarella, being careful not to allow the Mozzarella to protrude beyond the edges of the bread (trim as needed). Cover with the 4 remaining slices of bread, making 4 sandwiches in all.

Spread the flour on a plate. Dip the four edges of each “sandwich” in the flour.

Pour 1/2 cup of water into a bowl. Dip the four edges of each sandwich in the water, being careful to moisten only the edges and not the inside of the sandwiches. The purpose of dipping the flour-dipped sandwiches in the water is to form a sort of glue that will prevent the Mozzarella to leak out once it is melted in the hot oil.

Arrange the four sandwiches on a platter in a single layer.

In a small bowl, beat the eggs with the salt. Pour over the sandwiches and set aside for 10 minutes. Delicately flip the sandwiches over and set aside for another 10 minutes. The purpose is to allow the bread to soak in the egg as much as possible.

Heat the olive oil in a deep pot until it registers 350°. Deep-fry 1 or 2 sandwiches at a time until golden on both sides, turning once, about 3 minutes per batch. Remove with a slotted spoon to a platter lined with paper towels and blot dry. Cut each of the sandwiches in half and serve hot.

My Version: Mozzarella in Carrozza

Deep frying adds many calories, so my version is first browned on the top of the stove and then baked in a hot oven.

4 Servings

Ingredients

  • 8 1/2 -inch-thick slices whole grain Italian bread, crusts removed
  • 8 oz. fresh mozzarella, cut into 8 thin slices
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup nonfat milk
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • Pinch of cayenne pepper
  • 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 1/2 cups marinara sauce

Directions

Preheat oven to 450°F.

Divide the mozzarella slices among 4 slices of bread. Top with the remaining bread to form sandwiches.

Whisk egg and milk in a small shallow dish. Combine flour and cayenne in another small shallow dish.

Dip each sandwich into the egg mixture and turn to coat on all sides including the edges, letting the excess drip off. Dredge lightly in flour and dip again in the egg mixture.

Brush a heavy ovenproof skillet, preferably cast-iron, with oil. Heat over medium-high heat. Add the sandwiches and cook until the underside is golden, about 1 minute.

Turn the sandwiches over and transfer the pan to the oven. Bake until golden and heated through, 8 to 10 minutes. Serve immediately with heated marinara sauce.

Marcella Hazan

(1924 –2013) Marcella’s cookbooks are credited with introducing the public in the United States and Britain to the techniques of traditional Italian cooking. She was widely considered by chefs and fellow food writers to be one of the foremost authorities on Italian cuisine. Hazan was born in the village of Cesenatico in Emilia-Romagna. In 1955 she married Victor Hazan, a New Yorker, and the couple moved to New York City. Hazan began giving cooking lessons in her apartment and later opened her own cooking school, The School of Classic Italian Cooking, in 1969. In the early 1970s, Craig Claiborne, who was then the food editor of The New York Times, asked her to contribute recipes to the paper. She published her first book, The Classic Italian Cook Book (1973).

Her other cookbooks include:

  • More Classic Italian Cooking (1978)
  • Marcella’s Italian Kitchen (1986)
  • Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (1992)
  • Marcella Cucina (1997)
  • Marcella Says: Italian Cooking Wisdom from the Legendary Teacher’s Master Classes With 120 of Her Irresistible New Recipes (2004)
  • Amarcord: Marcella Remembers (Gotham Books, 2008)

Eggplant Parmesan

Serves 6

What You’ll Need:

  • Large colander
  • Large skillet
  • Oven-to-table baking dish, approximately 11 x 7 inches, or the equivalent

Ingredients

  • 3 pounds eggplant
  • Salt
  • Vegetable oil
  • Flour for dredging
  • 2 cups canned imported Italian plum tomatoes, well drained and chopped coarse
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 3/4 pound mozzarella, preferably buffalo mozzarella (mozzarella di bufala)
  • 8 to 10 leaves of fresh basil
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • Butter for greasing baking dish

Directions

Cut off the spiky top and peel the eggplant. If you are using the young, thin Italian variety, sometimes called “baby eggplant,” you can omit peeling.

Cut eggplant lengthwise into slices about 3/8-inch thick.

Stand one layer of slices upright against the inside of a colander and sprinkle with salt. Stand another layer of slices against the first and sprinkle with salt. Repeat until you have salted all the eggplant slices.

Set the colander in a dish or pan to collect the drippings and let the eggplant “steep” for 30 minutes or more. Before proceeding, pat each slice thoroughly with a paper towel.

Pour enough oil into a large skillet to reach a depth of 1½ inches. Heat over high until the oil is hot. When you have wiped the eggplant, test the oil by dipping the end of one of the slices into it. If the oil sizzles, it’s ready.

Dredge the eggplant slices in flour, coating both sides. Coat only as many slices as will fit in the skillet at one time, without overlapping. Cook to a golden brown color on one side, then turn to brown the other side. Do not turn them more than once. When both sides are done, use a slotted spoon or spatula to transfer eggplant slices to a cooling rack or a platter lined with paper towels to drain.

Repeat the procedure until all the eggplant is done.

Put the tomatoes and olive oil in another skillet. Add salt to taste and cook, stirring, over medium-high heat until the tomato mixture is reduced by half.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Cut the mozzarella into the thinnest possible slices.

Wash the basil and tear each leaf into pieces.

Grease the bottom and sides of a baking dish with butter. Line the bottom of the dish with a single layer of fried eggplant slices. Spread some of the cooked tomatoes over the eggplant. Cover with a layer of mozzarella slices, sprinkle liberally with grated Parmesan and distribute a few pieces of basil of the cheese. Repeat the procedure, ending with a layer of fried eggplant. Sprinkle with grated Parmesan and place the dish in the upper third of the preheated oven. Bake for 35 minutes.

My Version: Making Healthy Eggplant Parmesan

This eggplant is not firied, so I have reduced much of the fat found in traditional Eggplant Parmesan. My family has come to prefer this version over the traditional.

First Stage

I usually prepare 4-1 pound eggplants at once and freeze them in one pound packages for future use.

For each one pound of eggplant, you will need:

  • 1 pound eggplant, peeled
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup egg substitute (such as Egg Beaters)
  • 1 cup Italian seasoned bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 400°F. Coat two large baking sheets with nonstick olive oil cooking spray.

Cut peeled eggplants crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick slices (no thicker). You want them to be thin.

Place the egg substitute in one shallow dish and the breadcrumbs in another.

Dip the eggplant slices into the egg substitute, then coat with the breadcrumbs. Arrange the eggplant slices in a single layer on the prepared baking sheets. Bake for 15 minutes, turn the eggplant slices over and bake until crisp and golden, about 10-15 minutes longer.

If you are not going to assemble the eggplant dish at this time, wrap each batch of eggplant in aluminum foil with foil sheets between the layers and place the packages in a ziplock freezer bag. Store in the freezer until you need it. Defrost a package overnight in the refrigerator, when you want to make the casserole.

Second Stage

Spray an 8 inch or 9 inch or 8-by-11 1/2-inch baking dish with olive oil cooking spray.

Preheat the oven to 375 °F.

Spread 1/2 cup of the sauce in the bottom of the prepared baking dish. Arrange half of the eggplant slices over the sauce, overlapping slightly. Spoon 1 cup of the remaining sauce over the eggplant and sprinkle with half of the package of cheese. Add a layer of the remaining eggplant slices and top with the remaining sauce and cheese. Cover the dish with foil and bake until the sauce bubbles and the cheese is melted, about 25 to 30 minutes.

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