Over a recent and impeccable pre-relocation lunch at San Domenico, owner Tony May said he didn’t like the term "peasant food." May doesn’t deny that some fabulous food creations have come from Italy's agrarian culture—not to mention farm cultures in general, since good cooking is about good product. He just doesn’t like the nation’s cuisine to be pigeonholed. "Peasant products have been forgotten and now rediscovered and now they are fashionable," he said. Yet from Il Buco to Insieme, the humble term is clearly a compliment.
“It’s basically peasant food,” Marco Canora, executive chef of Hearth, Insieme, and the new wine bar Terroir, told me recently as I paired some late night wine samples with baccala montecato bruschetta and cotecchino sausage with Castelluccio lentils & fried egg. Judging by the hoards at Terroir or Peasant, people like peasant food.
And not just in the big city. For those venturing out east this weekend, consider Almoncello in Wainscott, where dinner has been humming even before the warmer weather started teasing out weekenders.
It might have something to do with co-owner Eric Lemonides's hospitality-school emphasis on making everyone feel at home, whether he is squatting at your tableside or sending his guffaws across the room. But, according to co-owner and chef, Jason Weiner, it could also have something to do with, you guessed it, "peasant food."
Although Italian restaurants aren’t exactly in short supply on the East End, Almoncello is perhaps more true to the bucolic descriptor, offering a stripped down menu with a greater selection of small dishes than some of its high-end neighbors. The menu offers a long list of contorni and antipasti, the favorite sections for those who like to dabble, from black pepper spaetzle and sautéed escarole to charred Montauk squid with white beans or house made fennel sausage.
The salad of escarole, mint and pecorino Toscano with pistachio and lemon citronette was fresh and clean. Weiner noted that customers familiar with southern Italian escarole preparations wouldn’t recognize the raw, northern Italian preparation. But anyone can appreciate the “vivid, bitter, and sparkling” green, which rejuvenates the palate and jumpstarts the digestion.
This choice was inspired by Weiner’s own trips to Italy in which he determined that “protein doesn’t seem to be the biggest part of their eating experience. It’s about the pasta and the ragu is more of a condiment enhancing the pasta. It’s about vegetables and about greens for the most part.
“It’s really about produce,” he continued. “That’s where I start with my menus. I start with what’s nearby.” In the summer, that means salad of sylvetta, baby beets, and spicy pecans, a plate of vitello bianco ravioli with squash blossoms, margoram, and pecorino toscano, and shank of lamb with summer bean ragout and basil guazzeto.
Other noteworthy favorites include malfatti spinach and North Fork goat ricotta gnocchi, black sea bass (a very underappreciated local fish) with roasted baby root vegetables and red pepper aceto dolce, and crudo of dayboat scallops with leeks, heirloom radishes, and prosseco gelatina.
There’s a singles scene at the bar and the same relaxed vibe that the owners have cultivated at their French Bistro, Almond, in nearby Bridgehampton. Which means that, regardless of whether you consider this peasant food, no one minds if we roll up our sleeves and use torn off bread to mop up the sauce on our plates.
About the Author: Brian Halweil is the publisher of Edible East End, the magazine that celebrates the harvest of the Hamptons and the North Fork. He is also publisher of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan (launching September 2008). He writes about the things we eat from the old whaling village of Sag Harbor, New York, where he and his wife tend a home garden and orchard and go clamming when the tides allow.
290 Montauk Highway, Wainscott, NY 11937 (map) 631-329-6700
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