'It's not just cooking'

June 25, 2003|by ANDREA ROWLAND

Italian chef Sammy Carannante realized a lifelong dream three years ago when he opened Café Italia in Hagerstown with his best friend and brother-in-law, Tony Scotto.

"There's no difference between him and me. Opening a restaurant was our dream," says Carannante, 29. "Having a restaurant, it's not just cooking. It's talking with the people. We love talking with the people."

The pair grew up together off the coast of southern Italy on the Bay of Naples' island of Procida. Carannante says he started washing dishes in a local trattoria when he was 12 and began attending culinary school in the small town of Pozzouli when he was 14. He topped his five years of culinary training with a one-year stint as a military cook. Curiosity drove the Italian chef and his wife, Katia, to the United States in 1996 - two months after Scotto and his wife, Anna, moved to America.


"I was a little bit surprised. It was all different than in Italy," Carannante says. "You guys eat too fast. It's all rushing. In Italy when you go to a restaurant, you spend at least an hour, hour and a half."

"You enjoy the food," says Scotto, 29.

"Yes," agrees Carannante. "It's more about good food than quick food."

The Carannantes and Scottos teamed up in 2000 to open a restaurant where authentic Italian cuisine could take center stage. Sammy and Katia Carannante serve as chefs at the restaurant. Tony and Anna Scotto make pizzas. The hands-on owners make sure the food comes first at their casual Italian eatery, which boasts more than 150 menu items, they say.

They use only fresh ingredients, ordering tomatoes from Florida and California during the sauce staple's local off-season. Carannante orders seafood from Baltimore, he says.

Carannante says he especially enjoys preparing the seafood dishes of his native southern Italy, including such entres as Zuppa DiPesce, Calamari Fra Diavolo and Scungilli Luciana. Tony Scotto tosses pies topped with everything from meatballs and pepperoni to cheesesteak and chicken parmigiana with pink sauce.

With Scotto by his side, Carannante recently sat down with Staff Writer Andrea Rowland to discuss his culinary training and the basics of Italian cooking.

Q: What Italian cooking techniques did you learn in culinary school?

A: They teach you everything - how you gotta cook the pasta, how you gotta make all the sauce, how you gotta cut the meat, how you gotta clean the fish, how you gotta make cakes. You gotta be proficient, able to do a little bit of everything. And then you decide which way you want to go, baking or cooking.

Q: What interested you in cooking rather than baking?

A: I don't like sweet stuff.

Q: How would you describe your menu at Café Italia?

A: It's a mix. We've got some plates from the north of Italy, some plates from the middle of Italy and some plates from the south of Italy. We have original Italian cooking. We don't mix American cuisine with Italian cuisine.

Q: What's your specialty?

A: Everything. I like to cook more seafood, but people love how I make my veal.

Q: What's your favorite dish to prepare?

A: My favorite dish to cook is Zuppa DiPesce. It's a mix of seafood in a white wine sauce.

Q: Do you use a core group of ingredients for Italian cooking?

A: Yes. We use a lot of tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, fresh basil, fresh parsley, and good dry, Italian wine. Everything's fresh.

Q: Is there a rule for which kinds of noodles to use for certain sauces, or can you mix and match?

A: I prefer to sell like ziti or rigatoni with plain sauce instead of spaghetti because the sauce goes inside the pasta so you can enjoy it more.

Q: Can you give a few basic tips for Italian cooking?

A: It's easy. You gotta learn the base, the tomato sauce base. If you want a good tomato sauce, just use onions, tomatoes, salt, a little bit of sugar, fresh basil and olive oil. That's it.

Q: What does the future hold for Café Italia?

A: Growing. We want something a little bit bigger. If we're lucky, we'd like to have an addition so we can open a bar.

The restaurant now offers a wide selection of beer and wine.

Chef Q&A

Sammy Carannante and Tony Scotto

Café Italia, 935 Pennsylvania Ave., is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Café Italia's Rigatoni with Vodka Sauce

  • 1 tablespoon butter

  • Generous handful freshly grated Parmesan cheese

  • 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, divided

  • Dash salt

  • Dash black pepper

  • 2 cups meat sauce (recipe follows)

  • 1 cup tomato sauce

  • 1/2 cup vodka, unflavored

  • 1 quart heavy cream

  • Rigatoni

Meat Sauce:

  • 1 white onion, finely chopped

  • 1 carrot, finely chopped

  • 4 stalks celery, finely chopped

  • 2 ounces vegetable oil

  • 1 pound ground beef

  • 1 cup dry white wine

  • Salt and pepper to taste

Put a large pot of salted water on to boil.

For meat sauce, saut onion, carrot and celery in oil over medium-high heat until golden. Add beef, wine, salt and pepper. Cook until meat is done. Drain well.

Combine butter, cheese, 1 tablespoon parsley, salt and pepper in heavy saucepan. Cook over medium-high heat until butter has melted. Add meat sauce. Cautiously add vodka, which will cause flaming. When flame subsides, add tomato sauce. Stir well. Add cream all at once. Continue cooking and stirring over medium-high heat until sauce is thick and creamy (about 15 minutes).

Cook pasta according to package directions.

Toss cooked pasta into sauce. Garnish with fresh Parmesan cheese and remaining parsley.

Serves 4.

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