I was recently asked for recommendations for a great Italian restaurant in New York City. Since I hardly ever choose Italian when I eat out, I didn’t know what to say. It’s not that I don’t like Italian food, actually I love it. (And cook it frequently!) It’s just that when I go out, I usually pick a cuisine that I wouldn’t normally cook, like Indian, Japanese or Thai. Also, I’ve done quite a bit of traveling in Italy and have had some really fantastic meal during my travels and I find trying to repeat the experience back home is usually ends in disappointment. In fact, I don’t even remember the last time I went to an Italian restaurant in New York City. Actually, the only place where I’ve had consistently great Italian food in New York is Rustico Cooking. But Rustico is not a restaurant, but a hands-on cooking school that specializes in Italian food.
Rustico Cooking was launched by Micol Negrin, a Milan-born and Canadian-trained chef, in 2004. Micol, is not only a skilled chef, but an accomplished writer and well-respected authority on Italian cuisine. Along with her husband Dino De Angelis, who handles the administrative end of the business, they run a top notch cooking school on 39th Street in the shadow of the Empire State Building. The course calendar at Rustico reads like a travel brochure: A taste of Sicily, Lunch in Milan, Dinner in Piedmont, Springtime in Tuscany and The Flavors of the Italian Riviera. In addition, they also have wine tasting dinners, pasta-making classes and Pizza Workshops. I’ve done many of the regional classes (and The Best Pasta Sauces, a class that was the inspiration for her book), so I thought it was time I did their pizza workshop, where you learn how to make your own dough, the effect of different types of flours on the dough, shaping the pizza and deciding what toppings to use.
In America, we are obsessed about the toppings. But real Italian pizza is all about the dough. Great dough makes a great pizza. And while the ingredients are important, what really makes great pizza dough is the preparation. Technique is everything. Just the right mix of flour and water, otherwise the dough is too dry or too wet. And no mercy must be shown when kneading the dough. When working the dough, you must be fast and furious, otherwise the dough sticks everywhere. Kneading is best done by hand, using the heel of your hand.
The dough will be easier to work with if you let it “rest” in the refrigerator overnight. Since class time was limited, we used dough that was made the night before. (The dough that we made we took home to use at our leisure.) While kneading was brutal, shaping the pizza is a gentle art. Carefully, gradually, spread out the dough into a circle using the fingers of your hands, occasionally flipping the dough over, adding a touch of flour if necessary. And if the dough starts fighting back (ie, when you start to spread it out into a circle, it annoyingly shrinks back), walk away for ten minutes or so, and then resume your shaping. Now that your dough is an evenly thick circle, it’s time to consider the toppings. The rule of thumb is less is always more. So, avoid the temptation of building a mountain of toppings. Some olive oil spread on the dough, a little tomato sauce, some chunks of cheese and a few assorted other ingredients. That’s all you need.
The final step is baking your pizza. While a pizza stone is a plus, the important thing is that the oven must be hot. Really hot. Pre-heat to 550 degrees, or as high as your oven will go and turn it on a good 45-60 minutes prior to cooking. And regardless of how the pizza is cooked, placing it on parchment paper will make your life easier when placing and removing the pizza from the oven. In the class, we all made our own pizzas. Being an unconventional sort, I skipped the tomato sauce and did a butternut squash and ricotta/goat cheese pizza, with some cinnamon sprinkled on top to give it a savory taste. Other pizzas included a meat-lovers pizza, a cheese & mushroom pizza and of course the classic Margherita (tomato sauce, mozzarella, oregano and basil)
The idea behind Rustico is for people to experience a true taste of Italy while learning the techniques of Italian cooking. So, while Rustico may not exactly answer the question “What is the best Italian restaurant in New York City?”, it does answer the question “Where can you get a great Italian meal in New York?”