This year for my birthday my sister bought me a really great present. She signed me up for a cooking class at our local Central Market with the chef from Nonna Tata. Nonna Tata is an authentic Italian restaurant in the Fort Worth area. I am very sad to say that I have never eaten there. The small restaurant seats about twenty people and is open for a limited amount of hours. The food is so amazing that people line up an hour before it opens just to get a seat. But, if you ask anyone in Fort Worth if they’ve eaten there, there is a good chance they’ll say yes.
Donatella Trotti is the owner and chef. She was born and raised in Italy and still visits her family there multiple times a year. She was a delight to have as a teacher. Her pink stripe of hair was only a hint at the bright personality she would share with us throughout the class. During her class she shared with us some insightful Italian cooking tips and some great stories from her time growing up in Italy. For instance, when she was a girl she made ricotta gnocchi but when she cooked the pasta it completely dissolved. After further evaluation she discovered that she had made her pasta with powdered sugar instead of flour!
When I walked into class I was surprised to see how packed it was. There were about 80 people present. I quickly snabbed a seat in the middle of the room. At each seat was a wine glass, a full place setting, and a booklet containing all the recipes that would be prepared during class. In the front of the class was a high-tech kitchen with large mirrors over the top so we could see things being prepared. Donatella began by introducing herself and reviewing the night’s menu with us. She warned us that she doesn’t typically write down her recipes. When she prepared the menu for this class (and for her restaurant) she called her mother at home in Italy to see how she prepared it. It’s good to know that “asking Mama” transcends all cultures and borders.
The first thing she prepared was Spiedini di Mozzarella Affumicata e Prosciutto. This was a very simple recipe. She simply took a cube of low moisture mozzarella cheese, wrapped it in prosciutto, dipped it in egg and then rolled it in breadcrumbs. The prosciutto was held in place with a toothpick. On a cookie sheet she drizzled it with a little olive oil and baked it at 400 till crisp and the cheese was melty.
One of the great tips that she gives is to not use the Italian breadcrumbs that you find in stores because it is hard to control the flavor and salt. She believes in making her own breadcrumbs so that you can have the desired texture for each recipe.
When I recreated this recipe at home it whipped up really fast. The prosciutto gives it a nice salty flavor. If prosciutto is too salty for you or you can’t find it in your area you can try making this recipe with an extra thin slice of smoked ham. This would be a great recipe for a quick appetizer. The creaminess of the cheese is delicious against the crunch of the crumbs and the saltiness of the prosciutto. She also gave a great tip about olive oil. She said that when you cook your olive oil it loses its flavor, so you can save your best oil for drizzling over items that won’t be baked for long.
Our next item on the menu was Gnochetti di Recotta e Spinaci. This ricotta and spinach gnocchi was delicious and was just as good when I recreated it at home. The most important tip she gave was to remove as much moisture as possible from the ingredients so that you are using as little flour as possible to hold the ingredients together. To prepare she cooked a pound of chopped spinach and drained out all the moisture. She also drained a pound of ricotta cheese. She combined these items in a large bowl with parmesan, enough flour to hold it together and form balls, and half an egg.
She told us a great story that her family used to debate on the best way to get half an egg. They had tried freezing an egg and cutting in half or trying to cut the raw yolk in half. In the end they decided that it is best to just beat the egg and use half for what you need.
These ingredients were formed into tablespoon sized gnocchi balls and placed on a floured cookie sheet. She recommends freezing your gnocchi if you are not eating it right away. To cook, simply drop your gnocchi into boiling water and let cook until gnocchi floats to the top. She suggested seasoning your boiling water with a little ground nutmeg. I have since found this to be great way to season all my cooking noodles (seasoning the water and not the sauce).
The best part of this recipe is what she topped it off with. She melted a stick of butter in a pan and let slightly brown. Then she dropped in a handful of sage leafs and fried until crispy. Once finished she poured the entire container over the cooked plate of gnocchi. This is amazing! The leaves themselves are crisp and tasty but the butter also has a great sage flavor. I couldn’t buy sage leaves at my local store so when I prepared this at home I fried whole fresh basil leaves. There is nothing better than dipping your gnocchi into brown basil flavored butter. Even the hubby went nuts over this one and it even reheated well the next day at lunch. I’ve since found myself craving this recipe! You can find my version at the top of this post.
Before now I thought all gnocchi was made from potatoes but Donatella informed us that the best gnocchi is made with ricotta and is much easier to make. All the ingredients in this recipe have mild flavors, but combined you get the most amazing taste. This was by far my favorite course of the night.
The next course prepared was Agnello in Fricassea. To make this she browned lamb shanks in a little olive oil. She then added broth, onions, white wine and baked for five hours at about 300 degrees. This is definitely a recipe you make ahead because once this is finished cooking you remove it from the oven and let cool overnight in the fridge. The next day you remove the fat from the top and the lamb. To the remaining liquid you simmer artichokes and potatoes for about an hour. You then temper in a little egg yolk and lemon juice. Add the lamb back in and let cook until warm.
As a kid did you ever eat roast over a slice of bread with brown gravy over it? This is what the consistency of the Agnello in Fricassea reminded me of, without the bread. It had a rich lightly lemony sauce swimming with lamb and potatoes. She served this over chickpeas that were browned in butter and curry powder. This recipe seems to be very time consuming but I think making it in a Crockpot would really make things a lot easier. I haven’t tried it yet but when I do I will try the Crockpot version.
After eating all this rich food dessert came! We got to watch how real biscotti is made. She combined super fine flour, sugar, butter, almond flour, and egg yolk in a food processor. She then spread the mixture over a cookie sheet and sprinkles with powdered sugar until the dough was white and covered. Finally she cut the shape of the cookies with a knife and baked at 350. Biscotti cookies are typically very hard and crunchy, but these were much softer than what you typically find in America. They were mildly sweet and crumbly. She served this with a little honey gelato made with honey, whole milk, heavy cream, and eight egg yolks. It was very creamy and mildly sweet. My aunt makes her own honey (it’s actually very pretty the way she jars it with chunks of honeycomb inside). I think I will try to make this in my new ice cream maker with some of her honey.
This class was a lot of fun. Not only did I learn a lot about cooking classic Italian fare, I also got to eat a huge tasty meal with wine pairings. Central Market does a great job organizing their classes and finding speakers. Donatella Trotti is a great teacher with unique recipes and great stories. I can’t wait to attend her next class and maybe I’ll finally be able to get a table at Nona Tata. Thanks to my sis for a great night!