Getting fresh and saucy


March 19, 2003|By Tony Gambino | Tony Gambino,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

I remember, as a child, sitting on our kitchen counter top and watching Grandma Gambino create her homemade breads, sauces, pastas and homemade pizzas. The aroma would linger in our home. Her marinara sauce was heaven. Italian heaven.

She would always start with the freshest, most ripe tomatoes. I can still see her squeezing the tomato seeds out by hand. She would add to the tomatoes a little fresh basil, onion, olive oil, oregano, garlic and her secret - a little fresh pureed carrot juice for sweetness.

She would stir and stir, cooking the sauce at low temperature slowly so that all the ingredients would combine for an absolutely delicious experience.

I always knew that I wanted to create dishes as well as she and my dad, Antonino, did. My dad owned Ricardo's in Irvington when I was a kid, and I remember many days watching him create his homemade pasta and subs for customers. It was true Sicilian-style home cooking, and I yearned to learn more.

Over the years, I gained my knowledge and experience by surrounding myself with those whom I could emulate. In 1991, my dad wanted to move on to new, bigger endeavors, adding his own distinctive Italian touch to the restaurant industry, so he opened Ciao Bella in Baltimore's Little Italy.

Ciao Bella restaurant is a combination of Southern and Northern Italian cuisine. Dad never forgot my grandmother's secret to making delicious sauces - slow cooking, over low heat, using the freshest ingredients.

I worked with my dad from opening day, in every capacity of the restaurant, taking time to learn all the aspects of running a fine restaurant. My dad passed away in 1999, and I took over at that time.

I enjoy creating the dishes that have been passed down from generation to generation. I also enjoy improvising by creating new and exciting cuisine, as well.

When I was vacationing in the Caribbean, I sampled an absolutely delicious lobster-and-shrimp dish, which was garnished with fresh fruit and some pureed fruit in the sauce, giving it an absolutely delicious tropical taste. I could taste coconut, banana and just enough sweetness to make the sauce truly stand out.

I returned home and began to experiment in my kitchen. I wanted to re-create parts of that dish, adding my own Italian touch. What I created is now one of our signature dishes. We call it Lobster Peaches and Cream, and it is exceptional. I use fresh pureed peaches, homemade whipped cream and lobster broth, which I simmer and serve over lobster tail and fresh pasta.

My favorite veal dish is Veal Chesapeake. I use jumbo lump crab meat, imported provolone and a lemon-sherry sauce on top of fresh veal - delicious!

I have discovered that some of the most simple ways of putting together a dish are sometimes also the best. In other words, fresh ingredients, used simply, can create some of the most phenomenal-tasting recipes.

One way to incorporate this at home is through a simple pomodoro sauce that can be used on pasta, baked chicken or fish. Start with 3 fresh, ripe tomatoes, chopped; 3 tablespoons fresh basil, diced; 5 tablespoons of white onion, diced; a clove of fresh garlic, chopped; 3 ounces of white wine and 2 ounces of virgin olive oil. Saute, add salt and pepper to taste and finish with some grated fresh Romano cheese.

If you have trouble finding fresh, ripe tomatoes in the winter, try a specialty grocer, which usually has higher-end produce, or look in an Italian grocery such as Pastore's or DiPasquale's.

An easy sauce we use on lobster and shrimp is made by sauteing the lobster tail meat or shrimp in a little virgin olive oil until braised, then adding 1 teaspoon each of shallots and chopped garlic, a half cup chardonnay and a half stick lightly salted butter. Reduce and add pinch of diced Italian parsley and a squeeze of a lemon. Simmer 12 minutes and serve with a vegetable and pasta al dente.

Sometimes at the restaurant, customers request dishes that are not on our menu. I want to create an atmosphere for my customers filled with fabulous food, inviting ambience and a welcoming environment. If the customers tell me what they like, I can create a sauce to suit their taste.

For instance, I had a customer one Saturday night who wanted lobster in a red sauce with some kick. I created lobster in a fra diavolo sauce for her.

I combined a small amount of lobster broth and cracked red pepper, brought it to a boil and added it to the marinara sauce and reduced it to blend the flavors. The customer said it was the best she had ever had.

That's what it is all about - creating delicious dishes that would make my dad and even Grandma Gambino proud.

Here are some examples of dishes with tasty sauces created by combining simple, fresh ingredients.

Tony Gambino is the chef/owner of Ciao Bella Restaurant.

Red Snapper Saltimbocca

Makes 4 servings

1/2 cup olive oil

1/2 small onion, diced

4 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 zucchini, diced

1/2 yellow squash, diced

2 plum tomatoes, diced

salt and pepper to taste

1 bunch of fresh sage

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