Cooking Ingredients From Russo's Requires More Than Just Boiling Water
I tried to get to a store beyond Manhattan this week, but my planned destination in Bay Ridge was closed for a lengthy vacation. A friend suggested Russo's, to which I responded, "But why? I go there all the time!" I soon realized that maybe that was the best of all reasons to tell you about it.
Russo's has been turning out fresh pasta, mozzarella, and ricotta on East 11th Street, just off First Avenue (next door to Veniero's) , for one hundred years. 7th to 14th Streets on 1st Avenue was once a Little Italy unto itself, but Brunetta's, with its cheap and toothsome daily specials, is gone, as is Vinnie's (formally known as La Focacceria), which began serving traditional Sicilian fare when English doughboys were going over the top in 1914. Upscale and sometimes preposterous pizzerias have moved in to replace them. Mercifully, a note of sanity remains in the form of Russo's.
The store's window is crammed with meat and cheese, and three of its walls are covered with almost nothing but pasta: fresh, dried, frozen, filled, all storemade, all more than good. There is a case full of tiny stuffed peppers, olives, and other antipasti; they also carry crusty Italian bread. There are towers of sauce behind the counter, including a spectacularly unctuous walnut sauce that marries well with their plain cheese ravioli.
Can you see my problem? I'm supposed to provide a recipe here, and I don't think anyone needs me to tell them how to boil water, then put pasta in it. At least I hope not. Thankfully Russo's tender, milky mozzarella provided a solution. No, I'm not making mozzarella sticks, which are way too redolent of the bars of my misspent youth, but mozzarella (often, on menus, "mozza") en carrozza.
After checking with the 3,000 or so Italian cookbooks I happen to have around my apartment, I was forced to conclude that there was nothing even approaching a standard recipe for what is, in its essence, a fancied-up grilled cheese sandwich; there wasn't even a standard name. (In one otherwise unmemorable restaurant I visited in south Florida, it appeared on the menu as "matzoh & carosa.") The recipes I checked featured Italian bread, bastone bread, sandwich bread, marina sauce, cream sauce, no sauce, deep-fried, shallow-fried (in canola oil, in olive oil, in butter and oil). And I have not even begun to address the capers and/or anchovies question.
I decided to go with Pepperidge Farm Sandwich Bread, as I think its texture prevents the cheese from escaping the confines of the carriage (carrozza). Usually I prefer unsalted mozzarella, but the slightly drier and firmer salted variety works better here. As for the sauce, here is where the anchovy and caper problem is addressed. The problem for me is that I like them, but some people that I cook for don't, so I decided to sneak them in, not in the sandwich itself, but in the accompanying sauce, which will not be a marinara, but Russo's briny puttanesca, which is rich with tomatoes, olives, and basil, as well as anchovies and capers, but so subtly that even the haters won't notice.
You can certainly substitute generic mozzarella and even a good jarred marinara, but do stroll over to Russo's sometime, even if it's just to get warm, runny mozzarella to pull apart, stuff in a hunk of torn-off bread, and eat while strolling through a neighborhood that, thankfully, still has a little Italian left in it.