Deck your table with an open-air Italian banquet courtesy of this street food newcomer.
Read the following question and then select one answer from the list.
Q. To what might an Italian be referring if he used the term ‘al fresco’?
A. The American city that overlooks Alcatraz
B. A famous gangster once imprisoned there
C. Michaelangelo’s handiwork on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel
D. None of the above.
Easy enough now that it’s in common usage. But it might have been a different matter only a few years ago. For this, any erring Brits can be partly forgiven. After all, they inhabit a country not normally thought of as ideal for open-air dining.
But when the sun shines, there’s no better way to enjoy your garden than to quite literally eat out, in the fresh air in the style of the Italian family. So at the first sight of the clouds breaking it’s all hands to the garden furniture, which only needs a quick dust-off after eight months in the garage, before you’re all set to go.
Now all that remains is to deck the table with an appropriate open-air Italian banquet. To help you do exactly that, there can be few better-placed than Gian Bohan.
The amiable Mr Bohan certainly knows a thing or two about Italian cookery, about which he has written a sell-out book as well as being the recipient of numerous awards and veteran of media appearances. But it’s as the joint founder of legendary Sheffield restaurant Nonnas that he’ll be best known.
Four decades after Nonnas shook the dining-out scene with a concept and a cuisine that combined authenticity with pure style, he is no longer involved with the restaurant, but can call on many years of experience in all matters Italian food.
His latest venture may look modest from the outside, but watch this space. There is talk of a 32-seat restaurant on the site. Ambitious enough perhaps, but he has already stumbled on a source of truly astonishing and unexpected success in the shape of a Sicilian tradition that we apparently can’t get enough of. Of that, more later.
But for now here’s a clue. It has been selling like... you might say, hot cakes.
He now finds himself hands-on again working alongside his small team, Italian to a man/woman, in the Northtown Deli on Abbeydale Road, Sheffield. His aim is to recreate the kind of street food that might be found in the backstreets of Naples.
So it was that, along with business partner Pasquale Pollio, a research trip beckoned. The duo soon discovered the wealth and variety of the city’s street food.
”People obviously think of pizza when they think about street food, but there is so much more. The great thing about Naples is that there is a kind of raw energy about the place. Those who haven’t been there are full of trepidation about whether they are going to be mugged at every street corner. It’s true, It can look very urban and scary, but the people are absolutely lovely. And it is the home of street food.
“At every turn walking around the town, the street food is there, whether it be pizza slice, Paracini – a kind of tart unique to Naples, or so many other things. It’s all super tasty and super good value. We tried a place famous for its deep-fried pizza. They only do two types of pizza and the queue outside stretches out of the door and around the block. Next door is a little hole in the wall from where wine is sold, usually the locally-produced stuff, which you can get for a couple of euros a glass. You stand in the street sipping your wine while waiting for your food to arrive. It’s something you have to experience and it is something we wanted to bring back to Abbeydale Road.
“Northtown might look a little rough and ready, but the food is another matter. And it’s that energy, the thrill of finding superb food in a hidden gem, that we seek to create.”
Gian and Pasquale serendipitously set up their takeaway/deli around the time that Covid-19 struck, so they were ideally placed to deal with the increased demand for takeaways which sprang up under the restrictions.
Queues are now commonplace around the hatch through which Northtown products are handed to eager clients. The range spans fresh pasta dishes to desserts and several varieties of bread baked on the premises, plus what informed sources say is the best pizza in Sheffield.
But what nobody saw coming was the really big success story that we mentioned earlier.
The humble cannoli is a sweet Sicilian combination of a fresh pasta pastry wrapped around a sweet filling such as cherries in sweet ricotta cream, chocolate sauce or pistachios and cream. Because the pastry is deep-fried, it delivers a scrumptious crunchy bite as you work your way down to the creamy centre.
They’re not particularly well-known in the UK. Not yet anyway. The media, which is slowly cottoning on to the cannoli, could until recently only muster one memorable mention, and that was a short scene in The Godfather. It’s the bit where the hitman casually reminds his associate not to forget the cannoli after the deadly work is done.
Gian says he has never known a ‘new’ product show such a meteoric surge in popularity. He started out a few months ago selling 20 a week. Now sales have risen to 1,000 a week.
We’re clearly entering the golden age of the cannoli. Just remember, you read it here first.
Burrata E Caponata
Buy your Burrata as fresh as possible from your favourite Italian Deli.
For the Caponata:
2 Red peppers
Small jar of Tomato passata
A handful of sultanas
4 tbsp Red wine vinegar
2 tbsp Brown sugar
A sprig of Mint
2 cloves of garlic
Glug of olive oil
Chop the aubergine into cubes and fry with olive oil and chopped garlic until brown and softened. Roast peppers whole in oven till charred and blackened. Allow to cool, peel, deseed and chop into slivers. Add to pan of softened aubergine. Stir in passata, and pour in half a cup of water. Add two tablespoons of brown sugar and the sultanas. Cook over moderate heat for 20 mins, stirring occasionally.
Pour in red wine vinegar and a sprinkle of chilli flakes. Season with salt and pepper. Cook for another 5 mins. Allow to cool. Check seasoning, finish with chopped mint. Serve slightly warm.
For the burrata:
Allow to get to room temperature. Split open, add a dash of good olive oil, sprinkle with rock salt and add pistachio crumbs if desired.
Northtown lamb meatballs
300g lamb mince
1 preserved lemon
20 sultanas soaked in warm water overnight in balsamic vinegar
10 mint leaves
50g ground almonds
Put lamb mince in large mixing bowl. Chop the preserved lemon, mint and soaked sultanas and mix in well with the meat.
Add ground almonds, chilli and seasoning to your liking. Give it a good mix with your hands. Then shape your meatballs, golf ball size (Approx 35g each) and transfer to a floured tray. Refrigerate for an hour. Fry in shallow vegetable oil (the oil need to be hot enough to get a slight crisp on the outside but don’t cook too quickly as this could leave them raw in the centre). This should take approx. 5-7 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon into a baking dish. Smother with passata, top with tallegio cheese. Pop under the grill until the cheese has melted and the sauce is bubbling.
Insalata di riso
Allow 50g long grain rice person and cook with salt and stock cube. It should still have a little bite, so be careful not to overcook. Cool under running water. Add to large bowl. Chop and mix together pickled onions, gherkins, chopped olives, red peppers and artichokes.
Top with sprinkling of thyme and oregano, salt and pepper, juice and zest of one lemon. Add the olive oil and a spoon of sun-dried tomato pesto, and plant-based mayo. Stir together. Taste and adjust accordingly. Feel free to add your own choice of vegetables.
The beauty of these is that you can fill them with anything you have in the fridge… well almost!
Dust surface with semolina and roll out a puff pastry sheet. Cut into 6 squares. Fill each square with a few slices of mozzarella topped with various options. For example, roasted squash and sage, Red peppers and basil leaves, stoned olives with a few capers and anchovies.
Make sure you do not overfill. Then for each square, fold opposite corners into the centre and press down. Fold the remaining corners in and press down again. Pinch the joined edges to create a seal. Place on semolina-dusted oven tray. Bake in a warm oven for 5-8 mins or until the pastry is cooked and golden brown on top. These can be made prior and then reheated or enjoyed cold as part of your picnic.
Those tasting bruschetta for the first time cannot believe what is basically bread and tomatoes could taste so good. Best use your old, past its sell-by date bread (eg ciabatta or focaccia). But above all, do not under any circumstances compromise on the quality of the tomatoes you use. Beware the supermarket salad variety. They are generally devoid of taste. Go for the smaller, on the vine ones, preferably grown in Italy. Nothing else will give the same taste sensation
Slice the bread and put in a hot oven or grill until golden brown. Finely chop the tomatoes and garlic and place in a bowl along with the basil, a generous glug of olive oil and a couple of turns of rock salt. Spoon onto the toasted/baked bread. Add a little chopped rosemary if desired. Finish bruschetta with shaved pecorino or parmesan and serve. Simple as that.
Alternatively, try different toppings such as pecorino and shaved black truffle, gorgonzola spread onto bread with some walnut halves and perhaps crispy sage leaves or smoked salmon with mascarpone.
Bruschetta never fail to please. Enjoy with a good red wine such as Montepulciano, not forgetting the sun and fresh air and you could be back in the old country.