With just two more nights to go before returning to New York for Christmas, I’ve been poring over all of the pizza, pasta, cornetti, gelato, suppli’ and countless other cholesterol-threatening deep-fried delights I’ve enjoyed in the past nine-plus months here in Italy, and I’ve found a surprising common ingredient between some of my favorites: onions.
Now, I have always had a proclivity of sorts towards this bulb-shaped vegetable because Wise Onion Rings –which are way better than Funyuns in my honest opinion–were my snack of choice as a child. When I was allowed to pick out something from the deli after church on Sundays or at the little shop in Tuckahoe when my dad, brother and I would pick up my mom from the train station, I would without fail select one of those little 25-cents, yellow-striped green bags and enjoy the onion rings down to the very last crumb. I remember seeing large bags at the supermarket and asking while my eyes popped out of my head if we could please buy one to bring home. The answer was always no and I’d pout for about five minutes, but then got over it. I’m grateful, though, for learning time and again the important life lesson of not always getting what you want…in the Pathmark potato chip aisle of all places.
I know you might be thinking, “what’s so special about onions?” At first glance, they can seem like a dime a dozen and not worth much fuss. McDonald’s has diced onions on their unfit-for-human-consumption burgers, buffet salad bars usually have a bin full of raw slices, Subway offers them as a sandwich topping and more often than not, chefs at B-,C- and D-list restaurants thoughtlessly throw onions into whatever they’re preparing.
I have had the pleasure of eating some ridiculously delicious dishes that prominently feature onions as one of the plate’s headliners, their sharp, and at times sweet, flavor enhanced by and enhancing the other ingredients. These items have rendered me more appreciative of onions in general. In fact, if I’m making a quick tomato sauce, I will mandolin an entire onion (sometimes two!) to throw in for some added oomph. (It pairs nicely with long pasta, I think!)
Anyhoo, below in no particular order (except for the first one!) are some of my favorite dishes that I’ve eaten in Italy that I believe rightfully spotlight the glory of onions:
La Cipolla Rossa at Al Pont De Ferr, Milan – I have previously waxed poetic about this appetizer and I can’t wait to cut into another one at some point in 2014. Yes, I go to Milan a lot and could reserve at Al Pont de Ferr anytime, but I prefer to space out my La Cipolla Rossa encounters so as not to diminish its specialness.
Rigatoni with Guanciale and Onions, Casa Leimer, Rome – I tasted this preparation for the first time as a late-night-after-dinner dinner at my friend Hande’s on Easter. The pasta was perfectly al dente and the saltiness of the guanciale coupled with the sweetness of the onions made for the perfect marriage. I’ve prepared this dish several times since Easter–Hande said that the secret is good guanciale and every Roman should have good guanciale in their fridge at all times. I’m a garlic freak….I add it to almost anything I cook, and I don’t think this dish needs it and therefore have never once used it. It’s awesome topped with some cheese, too, such as Parmesan or Pecorino Romano. I might add that I don’t add salt while cooking the guanciale and onions because the guanciale is salty enough, but I do generously salt the pasta-cooking water of course.
Semolina durum wheat spaghetti (Cavalieri) with green onions and hot pepper sauce, olive oil and basil from Liguria at Il Luogo di Aimo e Nadia, Milan – This Michelin two-star restaurant is arguably Milan’s best and I had one of the most special meals of my entire life here. The owner, Aimo, added this dish to the menu about 40 years ago and it has held a spot ever since. Nowadays, it can be found as part of “Grand Tour of Italy” tasting , but they will let you order it a la carte if you ask.
Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe with Tropea Onion Cream at LadyBu’, Milan – I’ve grown increasingly more fond of the beloved onions from Tropea, a gorgeous Calabrian beach town. They’re characterized by their sweetness and if you’re interested in reading up on them some more, click here. Chef Riccardo Orfino, a friend of mine, takes this Roman signature to a whole ‘nother level by adding a light Tropean onion cream. I’m not usually super fond of creamy pastas but I was gaga for the combination of the sweet onion, the unmistakable black pepper flavor and of course, the cheese. Plus there’s just the right amount of oil to balance out and even eliminate some of the creaminess.
Pizza with Rabbit Liver topped with Crispy Onions at Pizzarium, Rome – I fell in love with onions all over again at first bite of this bold topping. The crispy onions perfectly cut through the richness of the liver spread, all atop Gabriele Bonci’s luscious and simultaneously crispy & soft dough. Divine.