We call ourselves the Vivande alums–a group of friends and former co-workers at a once popular, now defunct San Francisco Italian restaurant–who gather once or (if schedules permit) twice a year to share a meal, some laughs and reconnect…often reminiscing about the good old days at Vivande Porta Via. Vivande was the first of three Italian restaurants where I would work (who knew?) and it was the place where I truly learned to appreciate Italian cuisine and Italian culture. Up until I went to cooking school, my Italian culinary vocabulary was pretty much limited to lasagna, spaghetti and pizza. And even at the culinary academy, where “classic” cooking techniques were decidedly more French, my exposure to Italian cuisine was rudimentary at best–I made gnocchi (never even heard of that before) and risotto once.
Since my job at Vivande was in catering sales (I’d wanted a break from pastry), I had to know what the hell I was selling… and so began my education…one dish at a time. All the employees were allowed to order one meal per shift off the menu, with some exceptions. Of course, it wasn’t until I became Director of Catering that I had access to the full menu (oh yeah, you better believe I took full advantage of that perk). Anyways, one of my first duties was to edit the daily specials and print out the menus, which gave me the chance to study the menu descriptions and decide what I wanted to try for lunch–pasta alla norma was one of my favorites (penne pasta in marinara with gorgeous pieces of sauteed eggplant, ricotta salata, and fresh basil). The bolognese was a revelation…nothing like the meat sauce my mom made out of a “spaghetti seasoning” packet and canned Del Monte’s tomato sauce when I was a kid. There was a depth of flavor I had never tasted before–the heady aroma of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano melting into the warm pasta and sauce was irresistible. My friend and co-worker Maria once had the great idea to save her favorite “bolo” to take to the movies after work. Needless to say, she had a tough time flying under the radar once she cracked open the lid of her takeout tray! I don’t remember what movie Maria went to see, but whatever it was it apparently did not pair well with pasta bolognese since she complained later of indigestion.
One movie that I think does go perfectly with Italian food is Big Night (1996). This gem, co-directed by Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci (who plays Secondo), is practically a love letter to authentic Italian cooking.
Set in the 1950’s Jersey Shores, the movie tells the story of two immigrant brothers from Abruzzo–the older a virtuoso perfectionist chef named Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and the younger an impassioned, ambitious restaurant manager named Secondo–who, despite their splendid food, are struggling to keep their restaurant Paradise afloat. The problem is that their customer base can’t appreciate the authenticity of Primo’s sublime cooking. While Primo believes that “to eat good food is to be close to God” and stubbornly refuses to pander to ignorant palates, Secondo, as a businessman, strives to cater to customer demands. When a customer requests a side of spaghetti, he explains to Primo “sometimes the spaghetti likes to be alone.”
In a last ditch effort to revitalize their business and attract more customers to Paradise, Secondo convinces Primo to go all in on an extravagant dinner in honor of Louis Prima, a famous Italian American jazz singer, whom their “friend” and rival restauranteur Pascal (Ian Holm) has supposedly persuaded to dine at their restaurant. The brothers plunge headlong into preparing a sumptuous, lavish menu for their “big night”–the centerpiece being the timpano, a complicated, multi-layered baked pasta dish.
Even though Prima and his entourage never show up at Paradise (it was all a ruse for Pascal to get back at Secondo for turning down his offer of work and sleeping with his wife), for one grand evening diners feast on truly magnificent food and take part in a joyous celebration, which in the end is what everyone remembers about Big Night. On a side note, you can catch a very young, skinny Latin superstar Marc Anthony as the lone waiter Cristiano.
Coincidentally, the food, the comradery, and lively conversations are what I remember about my time at Vivande. Now that we’re no longer in the thick of the day to day challenges of running a restaurant and catering business, confronting crisis after crisis, putting out fires (literally and figuratively), we can laugh at our mishaps (like the time I forgot to order ice for a 200 person office party) and remember fondly those individuals who provided us with countless hours of amusement–like “Pizza Rustica Lady” who recounted (ad nauseum to anyone who had the misfortune of taking her call) her laborious trek across the city on four buses to come to Vivande for her single slice of pizza rustica, a dish we probably only made once a week and eventually had to discontinue because it didn’t sell. Sadly, there came a day a few years back when not only the pizza rustica but an entire restaurant fell by the wayside…and along with it a treasure trove of culinary delights.
Maybe it was the bitter cold temperature, or the fact that I found myself watching a lot of 90’s movies…or that Trader Joe’s in Westlake ran out of chicken stock (what the hell?!) and my plans to whip up a pot of hearty sausage and kale soup had been thwarted, but I was feeling nostalgic and wanted to recreate (with what I had on hand) my all-time favorite Vivande specialty–the N’figgiulata. I’d sold hundreds of them for catering and never got tired of taking home the leftovers from off-site catered events. What is this miraculous dish you may ask? Well, it is a rich, moist Italian bread that is rolled and stuffed with veal, salami, olives, spinach and cheese…and a host of other ingredients I can’t even remember now (although I used to be able to rattle them off lickety split). I think the version they made at Vivande used a focaccia dough, but for my interpretation I used my handy-dandy pizza dough.
To make my N’figg, I rolled my already proofed pizza dough into a long rectangle, about 18″ x 7″ and 1/4′ thick. I spread a thin layer of homemade pesto (yeah, I usually keep some in the freezer), then sprinkled on a generous layer of shredded mozzarella and asiago cheeses, followed by a layer of cooked crumble chicken Italian sausage and ground turkey (seasoned with oregano, garlic, and chili flakes), a layer of sauteed yellow onions, mushrooms and organic Tuscan kale, a sprinkling of capers and chopped Kalamata olives, and a little more shredded cheese. I then very carefully rolled the layered dough into a big fat log and transferred it onto a parchment-lined sheet pan, brushed it with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled the surface with a little parmesan and sea salt. I covered the N’figg lightly with plastic wrap and set it in a warm spot to proof again for another 30 mins. When it was nice and puffy, I baked the N’figg at 375°F for about 40 mins. until it was golden brown.
- 2/3 batch Pizza Dough
- 3 Tbsp. Pesto
- 6 oz. Shredded Mozarella
- 4 oz. Grated Asiago
- 2 links Chicken Italian Sausage
- 8 oz. Ground Turkey
- 2 Garlic Cloves, finely chopped
- Sea Salt/Black Pepper
- 1/2 tsp. Dried Oregano
- 1/4 tsp. Chili Flakes
- Olive Oil
- 1 Small Yellow Onion, chopped
- 8 Medium Brown Mushrooms, sliced
- 1 Small Bunch Tuscan Kale, stalk & rib removed
- Dry White Wine
- 2 Tbsp. Capers, drained
- 1/2 cup Kalamata Olives, pitted and chopped
- 2 Tbsp. Grated Parmesan
As you can tell from the photos, the N’figgiulata is a beast of a dish–certainly not something you’d make for just one person…unless you’re planning on freezing parts of it to enjoy at a later date (which is what I ended up doing). It is, however, something you might consider for a party…say a reunion for old co-workers…or your own version of a “Big Night.” Can anyone say Superbowl Party? Buon Appetito!