Worth the Effort: Homemade Ravioli and More

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I no longer fear ravioli. It’s not that I have ever been intimidated by pasta. I have, however, encountered a few setbacks when making the stuff from scratch.

I first attempted to make my own ravioli about fifteen years ago and my endeavor did not end well. The filling wasn’t quite right, nor was the pasta surrounding it. Most of the ravioli fell apart during the cooking process, leaving me with many flat squares of cooked pasta and many loose bits of wet filling. I had honed my tomato sauce making skills earlier on in life, but even the finest sauce in the world would not have saved that sorry-looking mess. My family was supportive, assuring me that the meal was still edible despite appearances, but oh, the shame of it all!

I can tell you with confidence that my ravioli has improved a great deal since that first attempt and my friend Ann recently gave me an opportunity to prove it. For our first cooking endeavor since last November, we put out a traditional southern Italian spread that would have made my mother smile.

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We began fairly early in the day, preparing our meats and a sizable pot of homemade tomato sauce in which to simmer them. The sauce was made using a two quarts of home-canned purée, a large can of crushed tomatoes, and a few fresh plum tomatoes that Ann had in her well-stocked kitchen. For meats we used mild Italian sausage from Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Markets, plus meatballs that we made from ground beef and pork, and some braciole that we made from a beautiful flank steak.

Ann runs circles around me when it comes to certain culinary skills, one of which is knife work. She keeps her blades razor sharp and knows how to use them. For this reason, I was grateful when she offered to slice the raw flank steak for our braciole. Within a minute or two, she had horizontally sliced that flank steak into two thinner pieces, which I then flattened out using her tenderizing mallet. I seasoned the pieces with salt and pepper before layering garlic, parsley, and grated cheese on one side — using my best approximation of how my mother used to do it. Then we rolled the pieces, tied them up, and browned them with the other meats before adding all of the meat to our sauce, which had already been simmering.

While the meat was still browning, we prepared a basic pasta dough using an imported Italian “tipo 00” flour, some eggs, a bit of olive oil, and enough water to gain the proper consistency. I worked the dough to death before wrapping it in plastic and tossing it in the fridge to rest. Then we made our filling using fresh ricotta and grated Pecorino Romano, Parmigiano Reggiano, and Asiago cheeses, plus an egg, some parsley, and other seasoning. Once that was all blended and creamy, we covered the mixture up and chilled it for an hour or two.

IMG_0324When the noon hour had passed, we broke out the antipasto and poured some wine. We wrapped thin slices of prosciutto around chunks of fresh canteloupe and set that out with some aged provolone and dry hot sausage. There were marinated mushrooms, artichoke hearts, black and green olives, and more. Our break was relatively brief, but much needed. All the while, our meat sauce simmered and our ravioli fixings chilled in preparation for the next step. By this time Ann’s kitchen was smelling quite wonderful.

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Then came the big project. Using an electric pasta machine I had inherited from an aunt of mine, we rolled out the pasta dough into ever-thinner sheets. We then applied the filling between two sheets of pasta, using a tray-type mold to form, press, and cut the square pillows of heavenly goodness. As an added measure of security, we crimped around all the edges with fork tines. We ran out of filling before we ran out of dough, so i switched out the press rollers for cutting rollers on the pasta machine and we made some spaghetti.

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Not one ravioli broke open during the cooking process. Once all the pasta had been cooked, we served it all with the meats, some oven-warmed crusty bread, a lovely tossed salad, and more wine. As is usually the case when I cook Italian, there were ample leftovers. Ann took some, I took some, and I suspect we will both be feeding people for a little while. The last time we cooked a meal similar to this, Ann fed ten to twelve people from her share of the leftovers. I blame my mother, who was my first and probably my best cooking teacher. That woman would have rather died than run out of food when she was feeding people.

By the end of the day, all the food had been divided and packaged up, some for my wife and I and some for Ann and her “kids” (neither her kids nor mine are kids anymore). All the pots, pans, dishes and utensils had been washed and put away, and every food preparation surface had been thoroughly cleaned. The only evidence of the feast we’d prepared and eaten was the wine we were still sipping and smiles on our faces.

I’d say that turned out alright. Wouldn’t you? As always, thanks for hanging with me.

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My Loyalty Earned: What’s so Great About Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Markets

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I want to tell you an interesting story involving a piece of cheese, but first I’m going to tell you about a local grocery/specialty chain called Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Markets. I’m not entirely certain when they began using the “Fresh Markets” moniker, but I can assure you I’ve been a fan since before that time. When I was young, my folks used to refer to them only as “Caputo’s” and to this day, I generally do the same.

What began as a small market in Elmwood Park has since grown to eight stores around Chicagoland. All carry the same things for which Caputo’s has become so well known: an incredible amount of fresh produce, fresh Italian bread and other baked goods, and a deli that not only carries a wide variety of Italian meats and cheeses, but also knows how to slice them, all at phenomenal prices. Me, I have shopped at three of their stores. While I lived in Bensenville, for roughly 14 years, I would visit the Caputo’s in Addison, which was their second location. During that same period, my commute to work occasionally took me past the original location in Elmwood Park, and I did stop there a few times—once just to be able to say that I had been there, and a few times after that to check the price, quality and availability of plum tomatoes by the bushel, for my parents, who made many jars of home-canned tomato sauce every fall.

For those of you who may not know, when I say “Italian specialties,” I refer to a category of foodstuffs that are uniquely Italian and that cannot generally be found in a typical American supermarket. And if you can find it there, odds are you won’t find an employee who understands what it’s for or how to slice it, cook it, or serve it. Examples include castagne (chestnuts, excellent for roasting if you know how, quite a big mess in a small package if you don’t), sopressata (one of many variations of salami), and baccalà (dried and salted cod, a traditional Christmas Eve dish, the smell of which can linger right on through Easter). Some non-Italian types get baccalà mixed up with baklava, a Greek/Turkish pastry made of phyllo dough filled with chopped nuts and drenched in honey. This is a mistake you will make only once, I assure you.

When I moved to Plainfield in 2000, much to my dismay, I discovered that I had moved miles away from the nearest Caputo’s location and just about any other Italian specialty market of consequence. Now this may seem like no big deal to you, but let me tell you, I felt the loss. I grew up in Blue Island, a town that borders Chicago and, at one time, was home to many Italian families. We had our own Italian specialty store, called Calabria Imports, from 1975 on. Before that, it was just a short drive to a place called Italian Cheese on 115th Street in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood. For Italian pastries, there was (and still are) Naples Bakery in Evergreen Park and of course, the Original Ferrara Bakery in what remains of Chicago’s “Little Italy” neighborhood on Taylor Street. My point here is that when I was growing up in south suburban Blue Island, and again as a young(er) man living in far west suburban Bensenville, when I wanted Italian specialties, I didn’t have to go far to find them. But that all went away when I moved to Plainfield, tucked far, far away in southwest exurbia—a mystical land beyond the suburbs, where everybody moved to get away from it all, and then wondered why.

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Until 2006. That’s when Caputo’s Fresh Markets opened their southern Naperville location, on the northwest corner of 111th Street and Illinois Route 59. The place is huge and features everything one has come to expect from Caputo’s—produce, deli, bakery, meats, wine, and more. My nose dances for joy when I walk into this place. Those who know me well know that I love to cook and when I plan on preparing something special for my family and friends, Caputo’s is generally where I begin. It’s not exactly next door to my home, but it’s close enough.

And now for the rest of my story. Ready? Say cheese!

Caciocavallo is a type of stretched-curd cheese produced throughout southern Italy, including the region from which my mother and father came. Similar to provolone, this type of cheese is typically found hanging in pairs of teardrop-shaped balls. The aged version has a unique flavor and a hard, edible rind. I grew up with this stuff and learned to love it. Whenever anybody in my extended family made a trip to the old country, they would return with caciocavallo strategically hidden throughout their luggage. If you have never tasted the genuine article, don’t judge.

Well, lo and behold, the deli department at Caputo’s Fresh Markets has developed an impressive offering of meats and cheeses over the years, including fresh and aged versions of caciocavallo! I’ve tried both, but prefer the aged version, because of my lifelong familiarity with it. Give me a piece of aged caciocavallo, some Italian cured meats, a loaf of crusty Italian bread, and a bottle of good wine, and I will be happy for some time—or at least as long as my treats hold out. So needless to say, every so often during my excursions to Caputo’s, if I wanted a special treat for me and/or my loved ones, I would pick up those very things.

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A week before Christmas, my son and I were at Caputo’s in Naperville, mainly to pick up a few pounds of their mild Italian sausage and some fresh bell peppers. Because the weather has been so mild this season, I wanted to roast some peppers and grill some sausages, outside. But since we were there anyway, we also opted to make a detour through the deli, to pick up some lunch meats and cheese for the coming week. We rarely plan our deli purchases, but rather make them based on whatever is on sale or whatever we have a taste for at the time.

“Hey, Pop, what are we getting?”

“I don’t know, son, what do you have a taste for?”

“Well, if it were up to me, I’d get some salami and a little prosciutto.”

“Okay,” I agreed, “but what about some cheese?”

“Well we have to get some slicing provolone, right?”

He was thinking too small for the occasion.

“Okay, but how about a little caciocavallo? You know, just to nibble on.”

My son’s eyes lit up and he gave a hey-it’s-your-money shrug as he replied, “Sure!”

But we couldn’t find any, neither fresh nor aged. In fact we made three laps around the deli area, just to make sure they hadn’t moved it when they reorganized the packaged goods. Nope, nothing. So we went home with everything we had gone for, plus bread, Genoa salami, hot sopressata, and sliced provolone. And mind you, we ate well. But it bothered me that my favorite Italian cheese might no longer be available from my local source.

By the following day, my curiosity had gotten the best of me, so I wrote an email to a contact I had made some time ago at Caputo’s Fresh Markets corporate headquarters in Carol Stream. I explained my interest and just asked, “Please let me know if this item is only out of stock temporarily or if it has been discontinued.”

The answer I got back, that very same day, was heartwarming:

“You actually picked the right person to ask, I am in charge of all the deli departments in our company!

“The company that we get the cryovaced caciocavallo cheese from has recently cut down their deliveries so that particular product is harder to get hold of, but we definitely still have access to Imported caciocavallo cheese. Do you prefer the aged or fresh? I believe the imported only comes in aged form, but I can look into seeing if there is a fresh version available. Please let me know and I will make sure Naperville has it in stock.

“Thank you for reaching out to me, and Merry Christmas & Happy New Year to you and your family as well! As a family owned and operated company, we truly appreciate your support!”

CaciocavalloSeveral more emails were exchanged, but the long and short of it is that before the day was over, my son had gone back to the same store and returned with a small chunk of imported caciocavallo that tasted better than the (presumably) domestic variety that I had bought before. We have since then tasted the cheese and found it to be quite excellent.

CacioTasteBut product quality aside, what kind of corporate retailer answers an email from a nobody like me the very same day I send it? I’ll tell you. This kind of retailer. Still family-owned and still taking a family pride in all that they do. The kind of company whose General Manager—the gentleman with whom I corresponded—is related to the company’s founder, in this case, Angelo Caputo.

That, my friends and followers, is what’s so great about Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Markets. By all means check them out. You will thank me.

Until next time…