Fair enough. Despite making dinner from scratch almost every night, I've never had any formal culinary training. And although my dishes don’t usually turn out as bad as that fateful chicken, I can't really claim that I know what I'm doing in the kitchen.
But as luck would have it, my friend Jeff just started producing a cooking show right here in San Francisco. Called Gianni's North Beach, the online program is hosted by Gianni Mola, a neighborhood fixture in North Beach who knows his way blindfolded around every corner market, pizza joint, and delicatessen.
There isn’t a meal served in North Beach that Gianni isn't familiar with, so if anyone could give me some kitchen guidance, I figured it's him.
I met up with Gianni in front of Saints Peter and Paul Church as he prepared to lead a small, hungry crowd on a restaurant tour of North Beach. Since his show took off in October, Gianni has organized regular tours of his favorite restaurants and shops, concluding with a perfect slice of pizza at Caffé BaoNecci.
My plan was to accompany the tour through the neighborhood, gathering inspiration before picking up groceries to make a few Italian dishes of my own.
But Italian cuisine, I quickly realized, means a lot of different things depending on your regional loyalty.
"Over there, you got your Venetian cuisine," Gianni explained as we strolled past Da Flora. He pointed down the street at Volare: "That's Sicilian, and Al Forno's Tuscan." Gianni’s own roots go back to Mirabella Eclano near Naples and in the region of Campania, and for years he owned an Italian restaurant in Rhode Island.
Italians flocked to North Beach over a hundred years ago, Gianni explained, drawn by the Mediterranean climate and plentiful fishing. As we walked along, he'd pause now and then as various passersby hollered a greeting to him in Italian. I felt like I was walking alongside the mayor of a small Italian village.
We passed by Liguria Bakery, which bakes bread in the morning and closes whenever the loaves sell out. It wasn't yet 1 p.m., and they were already done for the day. I peered through the window at the different types of focaccia on the menu. Among them: onion, rosemary and garlic, mushroom, black olive, raisin, and pizza.
"When I first came, they only made five kinds," Gianni said. "They're getting fancy."
As we strolled past Washington Square, he pointed out Rose Pistola, named in tribute to a former restaurateur named Rose who, depending on which story you believe, chased either her
cheating husband or an underperforming cook from the restaurant at gunpoint.
Nearby, I popped into A. Cavalli for a cannoli at Gianni's recommendation. The crispy shells are filled when you order, and the pastry crackled around the creamy ricotta as I took a bite. "It's real ricotta, from sheep," said a woman at the table next to me, noticing my surprise at the dry, earthy taste.
As we walked on, I could smell the lamb chops and rabbit dishes steaming at Il Pollaio – but did I dare attempt to make a dish like that? Where does one even buy rabbit?
At Little City Market, that's where.
We wrapped up our tour outside Gianni's favorite neighborhood butcher shop. It’s located on the edge of North Beach and Chinatown, where Gianni said there used to be a lot more shops like Little City, but in recent years more Chinese businesses have moved in.
"This is the last one," he said, throwing up his hands.
But once inside, he gestured excitedly to the display. "Look at these sausages. Get a couple of those."
Before I knew it, I had a bag full of sausages and two pounds of pork loin. The pork was to be transformed into porchetta, an herbed dish that would be baked until its fat rendered it aromatic and crisp.
I watched as one of the butchers sliced my meat to Gianni's specifications. First he chopped off a huge hunk of loin, then he cut a delicate spiral through the meat – turning it into one long expanse like an unrolled sleeping bag – before handing it over to me.
Next stop: Union Street Produce for cipollini onions, potatoes, and herbs, and Napoli Market for some wine. Laden down with new ingredients, I started to wonder what I'd gotten myself into.
Fortunately, I'd get some hands-on instruction before being turned loose. A few days after I took his tour, Gianni invited me up to his home on Russian Hill for a quick cooking lesson.
It was a steep walk, and as I worked my way up the narrow sidewalk of Macondray Lane, I was glad I wasn't carrying heavier groceries.
Gianni had already started boiling some potatoes to make gnocchi, and they were ready to come out by the time I'd arrived. We squeezed them through a ricer to produce a fluffy pile of starch, then cracked an egg on top and sifted some flour. Gianni showed me how to gently massage the pile into airy dough.
Our next step involved a lot of repetition: rolling each gnocchi by hand off the back of a fork to produce a striated curl of dough. As we worked, Gianni talked about his childhood cooking memories: making zeppole on Saint Joseph's Day and distributing pastries to neighbors.
Finally, it was time to drop the gnocchi into the water, which had reached a rolling boil in a pot that originated with an aunt sometime in the 1930s.
You know gnocchi are done when they rise to the surface of the water, and while we waited, Gianni prepared a sauce. Into a pot of hand-squished tomatoes, he dropped a tiny pinch of oregano. The smell was sharper, fuller than I expected. It was the first time I actually liked the scent of oregano.
The dried leaves had been imported from Italy, Gianni explained. "These days you've got to be price conscious, but if you're buying good ingredients you don't have to use as much of them," he told me.
And then: We were ready to eat. It was bliss. The gnocchi were perfectly light, with folds that caught the sauce and melted on the tongue.
I left full of excitement. My first (assisted) gnocchi were a success. Now, could I reproduce them at home later that night?
Since the porchetta would take the longest to cook, I started by unrolling the slab of pork loin and slathering it in garlic, herbs, and oil. The butcher had helpfully given me a few feet of twine, and I rolled the meat back up into a spiral and tied it tight before popping it into the oven.
And then it was time for the potatoes. Boiling and shredding them was easy, but mixing in the egg and the flour proved surprisingly tough. I knew I shouldn't overwork them, so at first I just gingerly folded the ingredients together.
But before long, the dough became increasingly dense and I found that it took all the strength in my hands to keep working in the flour and egg. The muscles in my palms throbbed.
And I still had to roll each individual gnocchi. I got through listening to two entire On the Media segments and wasn't finished with my task when my husband wandered in. "Don't they have machines that can do this?" he asked.
It was around this point that I remembered my porchetta crisping away in the oven. I quickly took it out and sliced a little corner off, expecting it to be overdone – but instead, it was still a bit raw. The slight delay wasn't a problem since
it would give me some time to finish the last of the gnocchi.
I also set up some onions to simmer in Gianni's recommended agrodolce (sour and sweet) sauce, a mix of balsamic vinegar and sugar. The heated vinegar filled the kitchen with a caustic smell, and I hastily dumped spoonfuls of sugar on top lest it be too agro and not enough dolce.
As the temperature in the room rose, I knew I was in the homestretch. The pork was nearly done, the onions were almost finished, and the gnocchi were ready to sink into boiling water. I plopped them in and hurriedly pulsed some toasted almonds, cherry tomatoes, and basil in a food processor.
My timing was perfect: Everything was done at exactly the same moment. Unfortunately, that also meant that I'd need five sets of arms in order to plate everything.
After a flurry of spooning, slicing, and dolloping, dinner was served: gnocchi in an almond sauce served alongside sliced porchetta and agrodolce onions.
I sat down to eat, too frazzled to take a bite, and looked over at my husband. He'd managed to inhale the entire plate in the time it took me to catch my breath.
"This," he pronounced, "is acceptable."
For fine authentic meats, stop by Little City Market, and for the rest of the meal, check out Union Street Produce. If you're not in the mood to cook, you can't go wrong with restaurants like Da Flora, Volare, and Al Forno, or pick up cannoli at A. Cavalli.