Thursday, June 28, 2007

Ristorante Italiana - Vittoria Ristorante Italiano

Driving down any major road in the valley, you can find a wide range of food options, from Mexican to Iranian, Indian to Italian, Cajun to French, Thai to Pho. Because we live in a vast melting pot of cultures and cuisines, you would think it shouldn't be too difficult to be transported to the country of your choice for your evening meal. However, it's not easy to find a really good Italian restaurant, unless, of course, you're actually in Italy, but how often do any of us get across the Atlantic for a good meal? I realize I have unusually discriminating taste when it comes to Italian cuisine, which is probably why the majority of my friends suggest anything but Italian when we go out for dinner. In my defense, I am quite happy to laud any restaurant that can pull off an authentic, or at least decent, Italian meal.

My aunt recently raved about the gnocchi (pronounced nyo-kee) served at Vittoria Ristorante Italiano, located in charming downtown Los Gatos. Despite the fact that my aunt, who grew up on some of the best Italian food outside of Italy, has very good taste, I was doubtful. Do you know how hard it is to get good gnocchi? It’s challenging enough making them perfectly light at home, let alone finding them edible out. And it really shouldn’t be so difficult—it’s essentially just potato and flour. Most of my limited gnocchi-served-at-restaurants experience goes something like this: when you take a bite, instead of the pasta melting in your mouth, it’s too chewy or worse, too tough! Later, as you leave the restaurant, you can still feel the gnocchi, as they sit in your stomach like little rocks, and you vow to never eat gnocchi anywhere but home again!

Although this had been my typical encounter with gnocchi, when I found myself at Vittoria for an aunt-niece catch-up dinner, I couldn’t resist ordering the little potato dumplings. Rather than arriving on an over-sized plate with two more servings than I could ever fathom putting away on my own, the gnocchi came in a delicious little bowl—the size that I’ve been known to put a “serving” of ice cream in after a long day. My fork gingerly picked up a little pasta, as I braced myself for tough or mushy…Oh, was I pleasantly surprised! The gnocchi melted in my mouth—actually melted! It was light, but still ever so slightly al dente. The traditional ragu sauce tasted a lot like my Nonna’s pasta sauce. So much so, that for a brief moment, I thought someone must have stolen her recipe, or maybe she was secretly selling them the jars of sauce we thought she made for us. But then I tasted the sauce’s little extra kick and realized that my Nonna is not, in fact, Vittoria’s sauce supplier. With little thought to anything other than my happy taste buds, I devoured the remaining contents of the bowl.

Not a fan of gnocchi? Here are some other dishes on their menu that are just as delightful:

Insalata Autunnale- A fresh salad with arugula, spelt (which is a natural grain with a slight nutty flavor), poached pears and Asiago cheese. It’s not your average restaurant salad, but it’s very fresh with an edgy taste.

Margherita Pizza- Who doesn’t love thin-crust pizza with fresh mozzarella, basil and tomatoes?

Piadina Romagnola- A classic twist on the panini, this flat bread holds prosciutto, fresh mozzarella and arugula.

A few other tidbits:
The restaurant front is completely unassuming, and it would be easy to pass by its door on more than one occasion without even realizing it’s there.
The actual space in Vittoria is long and narrow, and it can get kind of noisy, since the space is small and the ceiling high.
Most of the servers have thick Italian accents and are extremely courteous and attentive (I personally like knowing that when my water glass nears empty, it will be refilled before I suddenly find myself desiring a drink with nothing but ice cubes to quench me).
If you go on a Friday or Saturday night, you're going to want to make reservations.
This is a good date-night restaurant. You can’t beat the location (walk through downtown after dessert) or the food (seriously, one of the best Italian restaurants I’ve been to in the area).

Vittoria Ristorante Italiano

27 N. Santa Cruz Ave.

Los Gatos, CA


Saturday, June 23, 2007


Tomatoes are supposedly the most common home-garden vegetable grown in the U.S. My family was no exception to growing our own tomatoes. My Nonno would boast about how big his tomatoes would grow—often the size of a softball or a mini soccer ball—showing us kids his most recent conquest from his tomato vines. It wasn’t long before my uncle also threw his hat in the ring, planting tomatoes and encouraging them to grow larger than his father-in-law's. No matter what my family tried, ours never reached such diameters, but they sure tasted just as good as any tomato twice its size. * Note: If you’ve never had a homegrown tomato, go out and buy some organic tomato plants and plant them during the middle to late spring season so you can catch its fresh produce during the summer. Seriously, one of the best and simplest things you could do.

I understand many people don’t like raw tomatoes (I used to be one of them). Maybe it’s the texture—the tough, semi-rubbery and starchy skin combined with the squishy, seedy inside. Or maybe it’s the tastelessness of mass-produced hothouse tomatoes. Or perhaps it’s a fear of eating anything that can be termed “healthy.” Whatever the reason for a dislike of the uncooked tomato, I doubt there are many who can resist the perfect union of ragu sauce and a steaming plate of macaroni.

A plate of homemade pasta with ragu is reminiscent of Sunday lunch at Nonna’s house, sitting around the table with cousins. It’s family and home cooked into a plate of homemade ravioli, with a sprinkle of Parmesan adorning the top. It’s comforting and utterly delicious! This should go without saying that the ragu is not out of a bottle purchased at your local supermarket with a Prego sticker plastered across the front. This is traditional homemade Italian pasta sauce, with maybe a few slight adjustments made throughout the years to cut out some of the large quantities of butter previously used. Cutting out a stick of butter or not, it’s still fresh and homemade and would beat Prego any day of the week in a ragu sauce throw-down. It takes hours simmering on the stovetop, melding all the flavors together. But it’s one of the most delicious things to come out of Italy, and out of my Nonna’s kitchen—just ask anyone in our family.

Personally, I’m more ragu than marinara when it comes to accompanying pasta. However, I realize that not everyone likes meat or simply has a preference for “plain” tomato sauce, which is an excellent reason to master the art of the marinara sauce, which usually consists primarily of onion and bay leaves for flavoring and crushed tomatoes.

Good tomato varieties:

Heirloom (an open-pollinated, non-hybrid tomato, which means that they are not genetically modified)

Beefsteak (good for sandwiches)

Brandywine (good flavor)

Roma (good for making sauces and canning, although San Marzano tomatoes are supposed to be the BEST for making sauces)

Tomato Resources:

Tomatoes paired with Mozzarella

Companion planting with Tomatoes

Good Ole ‘Merican T‘Maters

Heirloom Tomatoes

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Bouquets of Basil

Most little girls begin planning their wedding from the moment they are able to comprehend the final scene of Cinderella. My sister, for example, was one such girl. By the time she was two years old, she had picked out her “off-the-shoulders” dress, most importantly the guy, and had even gone so far as to ask my mother if it was too soon to send out invitations, after, of course, she had already invited our first grade teacher.

I, on the other hand, hardly gave weddings a second thought. I was far too busy trying to live up to my tomboy image. When I was forced to think about matrimony, I told my mother 1) I wanted to go barefoot (I avoided shoes at all costs during the summer), and 2) I wanted to carry a bouquet of basil. Even at an elementary-school age, I had a mature appreciation and love for basil.

For years, my mother would begin growing basil in small pots in our windowsills before transplanting them outside in the vegetable garden. I loved the fragrant smell of the basil that engulfed the kitchen. Even with other smells competing for attention, like baking bread or stuffed shells, the basil was the first smell I would notice upon entering the kitchen. If we didn't have basil growing in the kitchen, there would often be a glass or vase with basil hastily set inside with a low level of water to keep it fresh until my mother used it for dinner or to freeze for later use.

My love for basil continued into college as I took my mother's lessons with me. I loved going to the farmers' market or even the nearby organic produce store to pick out the perfect bouquet of basil. The fresh basil walked with me through the various rows, seeing what else could be purchased as a treat. So as not to let any of the basil go to waste, I would divide the bunch, putting one-quarter aside for immediate use and the rest to be frozen. The aroma of the basil being cut up and mixed with a little olive oil would lure my roommates from their studious seclusion, as they recognized that smell usually meant a steaming plate of homemade pasta was soon to follow. Some would laugh, thinking I was crazy, as they watched me put the basil-olive oil mixture into an ice cube tray, cover it, and put it in the freezer for the next time I craved a plate of spaghetti al pesto. But all of them were ready with forks, by the time the pasta was al dente, the Parmesan cheese was grated, and the sauce was ready to be poured on top of the spaghetti.

I know a lot of people like to add pine nuts on top or even chopped into the pesto sauce, but really, can't the basil hold its own in the sauce with only the accompaniment of a little freshly grated Parmigiano (if you even choose that!)? Also, adding a little bit of freshly chopped basil to minestrone provides just enough kick to the soup that you'll go back for seconds!

Adding basil is one of my favorite things to do to an Italian dish. Below, you will find two of my standby recipes. And one day, maybe I will be one of the few, if not the only woman to use basil for her wedding bouquet.


Serving size: 4
Time: 10 minute preparation

4 fresh, organically grown tomatoes (these taste so much better than tomatoes grown in a hothouse)
2 balls fresh mozzarella
several fresh basil leaves
2 Tablespoons olive oil
pinch of salt and pepper

Cut the tomatoes into slices about a quarter of an inch thick and arrange on a plate. Slice the fresh mozzarella and place on top of the tomato slices. Separate basil leaves from stem and place one basil leaf atop the mozzarella. Flavor with a pinch of salt and pepper, before drizzling olive oil on top of the caprese. Serve and enjoy!

Pesto Sauce

Serving Size: 4-6
Time: 10-15 minutes cooking time

1/4 cup butter
1 Tablespoon flour
1/2 cup whipping cream
1/8 teaspoon salt
pinch of pepper
1/4 teaspoon garlic salt
1 cube basil

Melt butter over low heat, stir in flour. Add cream, stirring constantly. When incorporated, add salt, pepper, and garlic salt, then basil. Pour over pasta immediately. Serve and enjoy!