26 October 2011

AUNTIE PASTA: A Toast to Toast

SARONNO, Italy - For many years, toast or tost, was a real luxury for many Italian families. I’m not talking toasted puffy white bread here, I’m talking Italian toast, a crispy, delicious, melt in your mouth ham and cheese treat that is slow grilled on a special sandwich grilling machine. What made it a luxury was not the ham and cheese or even the bread, it was the cost of the grilling machine.  
Italian Toast kinda looks like this but more smooshed down
If you have traveled in Italy you know that Italians are fond of grilling all kinds of sandwiches, even those with lettuce in them. It takes a little getting used to, but then what doesn’t. And if you tell them you don’t want your sandwich grilled, they look at you like you just ordered a leg of lamb - raw.

Back in the 80’s and 90’s, Italian toast kind of went out of fashion and sandwiches with mushy fillings made with mayonnaise and disgusting things floating in oil were in vogue. But I’m happy to say that toast is making a comeback. For breakfast or for lunch or even a midnight snack, the humble toast, the classic bread, ham and cheese kind of toast, has regained its rightful place in the Italian Culinary Hall of Fame. 
Ham, Important Ingredient No. 1
You won’t find toast on any restaurant menu, where you will find them is in most Italian bars. One of the best toasts I’ve ever had was at the gelateria/bar directly across from the Sforza Castle in Milan. I was surprised at just how good it was as the gelateria/bar is very popular with tourists and any place popular with tourists is usually best avoided. But you know, every once in a while those wily Italians surprise me. 
Then there's the cheese - Fontina
Toast is the perfect snack when you are stuck in a train station with not enough time to actually go somewhere and eat. It’s the perfect solution to calm your growling stomach. It’s fairly quick, it’s easy to eat and inexpensive.

Just ask any Italian chef worth his Michelin stars and he’ll tell you that while it seems to be an easy thing to make, if you use the wrong raw materials, the toast, as they say in the good old U.S.A. is toast. 
 Chef Massimo Camia
To understand how a good toast sandwich can excite the palate all you have to do is listen to Chef Massimo Camia, top chef the Barolo Ristorante in Turin. “For me, toast is a unique pleasure, a treat to eat when I take a few minutes to relax in a corner of the kitchen after having worked like a mad man cranking out dishes made with truffles, foie gras and the like. Just give me a very simple toast sandwich made with San Giovanni ham, fontina cheese and that crispy, crispy bread that only comes from a nice, slow cooking on the grill.

Actually the truth is chefs rarely eat what they cook. I know when I worked as a cook at the Hotel Syracuse, or even at the trendy Scratch Daniel’s, when I got home all I wanted was a cup of tea and  toast – in this case plain old American toast made with mushy white bread. There was something about being surrounded for eight hours by all that gourmet food, all that tasting and stirring and flipping and poking and smelling that just makes you want to crawl into a corner and much on a piece of dry toast.
An Italian panino grill
So if you ever wondered why so many famous of the famous chefs you see on TV are skinny, now you know. Who can eat after being surrounded by lobster and steak all day. It really is a turn off. So because I know that this is true, I’ve decided to cook more and see if I can’t lose a few pounds. Who knows, I just might be on to something here.

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1 comment:

  1. You work at the Hotel Syracuse? In New York? I live in Syracuse and dream about living in Europe. I've been reading your blog for months. It must be kismet. Thanks for the inspiration.