The Food Column: An Italian feast on a farm

A farm dinner scheduled one month from today is shaping up to be a veritable Italian feast.

Chef Jeremy Voytish of Lidia’s Pittsburgh will prepare a traditional Italian garden dinner of dishes from Lidia Bastianich’s recipe box. The meal will be held at White Oak Farm in Hampton, where The Italian Garden Project houses its heirloom-seed-propagation garden, preserving traditional Italian vegetables that made their way to America in the hands of post-World War II immigrants.

Some of White Oak Farm’s veggies and other local produce will be featured in the evening’s menu.

White Oak Farm owner Nic DiCio, who is of half Mexican and half Italian heritage, has owned and operated Reyna Foods in the Strip District for nearly 30 years, and he holds a Hatch chile festival on his farm, so he has embraced his Mexican side for years. But now he’s exploring the Italian roots, as well, not only through his partnership with The Italian Garden Project, but also by building a forno – an Italian brick oven – and rebuilding one of his grandfather’s old bocce courts.

Mr. DiCio would have loved to farm his grandfather’s property for a living, but 30 years ago when he was starting out, he found that the restaurant scene in Pittsburgh didn’t support local farms.

“They’d buy whatever was cheapest” no matter where it came from, he said.

But in the last five years, he has seen a seismic shift in thinking among restaurant owners. Now they’re eager to get produce that’s “fresher and as close to the farm as possible,” he said.

So he’s responding by ramping up his efforts at the farm in hopes of “getting people in touch with where their food comes from.” In addition to supplying some local restaurants, he also hopes to hold more produce-driven festivals and dinners on the farm.

Meanwhile, the Italian Garden Project dinner will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. on Saturday, July 26. Details are still in the works, but Mary Menniti, who heads the project, plans to do a short talk or slideshow about the project’s efforts to preserve Italian immigrants’ stories and seeds. She’s arranging for some type of live Italian music for the evening, perhaps in the form of a strolling mandolin player. If the weather is nice, diners will eat at long tables set up in the orchard; if not, they’ll enjoy dinner inside Mr. DiCio’s renovated barn.

This is the first time The Italian Garden Project has collaborated with Lidia’s, but Ms. Menniti says it’s a natural connection because Ms. Bastianich, herself an Italian immigrant, knows the value of heirloom Italian produce, and her recipes show it. Ms. Menniti first met Ms. Bastianich when she organized the baking of traditional Italian cookies for a book signing at Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley. Ms. Bastianich “identifies with The Italian Garden Project and understands what I’m doing,” Ms. Menniti said, and the celebrity suggested thatshe try to work with the local Lidia’s restaurant.

Some of the food for the July 26 dinner will be culled from Italian immigrants’ home gardens in the Pittsburgh area, Ms. Menniti said, noting the gardeners enrolled in The Italian Garden Project are “always so generous to contribute” their produce. She even has trucked coolers full of Pittsburgh produce to events she’s hosted in New York City.

Because the meal will be produce-driven, the menu is still under construction and will be based on what’s plentiful in the gardens during the week of the event. But it’s likely to feature heirloom tomatoes, squash, peppers or other Italian favorites, and the dishes will be based on Lidia’s recipes, some from her cookbooks. Chef Voytish said it will be a “five-course dinner with wine and grappa pairings as well as prosecco and passed appetizers for a little reception when the guests first arrive.”

And one dish has already been decided upon; the recipe, Lobster Salad with Fresh Tomatoes, accompanies this column.

Watch for additional details to come, as well as ticket purchase information.


Whiskey Rebellion Festival: Street theater, reenactments, demos, music, food, parade and fireworks. 3:30 to 10 p.m. Thursday, July 10; 5 to 11 p.m. Friday, July 11; and 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, July 12; in downtown Washington, Pa. Free admission. 412-281-1442.

Pittsburgh Beerfest: 250+ craft beers, food trucks, live music. 6 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, July 18 and19, at Stage AE on the North Shore. $40 in advance; $50 day of event; proceeds benefit Animal Rescue Partners.


“Wrapped in Love” Bake Sale: Proceeds help to provide handmade blankets to chemotherapy patients in the Pittsburgh area. 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, July 18, and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, July 19, at Crafton Public Library.

Lobster Salad with Fresh Tomatoes

1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus 6 tablespoons for the lobster pot

2 live lobsters, 1¼ pounds each

4 ripe fresh tomatoes, or 1 pound sweet, ripe cherry tomatoes

3 stalks celery, with a nice amount of leaves

1/3 cup lemon juice, freshly squeezed

2 large hard-cooked eggs, peeled and chopped

1/4 teaspoon peperoncino flakes, or to taste

¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons fresh Italian parsley, chopped

Fill the pot with 6 quarts water, add 6 tablespoons salt, and bring to a rolling boil. When the water is at a rolling boil, drop in the lobsters and start timing: cook them, uncovered, for 10 minutes total, after the water returns to the boiling point (and then keep it boiling). At the end of 10 minutes (or a couple of minutes longer if the lobsters are larger than 1 1/4 pounds), lift the lobsters from the pot, rinse with cold water, drain, and let them cool.

Core the tomatoes, and cut them into wedges, about 1 inch thick; if you have cherry tomatoes, cut them in half. Chop the celery stalks crosswise into 1-inch pieces, and chop the leaves roughly. Toss tomatoes and celery together in a large bowl with 1/2 teaspoon of the salt.

When the lobsters are cool enough to handle, twist and pull off the claws and knuckle segments where the knuckles attach to the front of the body. Lay the clawless lobsters flat on a cutting board, and split them in half lengthwise, from head to tail, with the heavy chef 's knife. Separate the meaty tail piece from the carcass (or body) of the four split halves.

Now cut the lobster into pieces of whatever size you like; put the pieces in a large mixing bowl as you work. Separate the knuckles from the claws, and crack open the shells of both knuckles and hard claw pincers with the thick edge of the knife blade, or kitchen shears, exposing the meat. Chop the knuckles into pieces at the joints.

Cut the tail pieces crosswise into chunks, or leave them whole, which I prefer. Cut the carcass pieces crosswise in two, with the legs still attached (though you can cut the legs off). I like to leave the tomalley and roe in the body pieces, as a special treat while eating the salad. Alternatively, remove tomalley and roe and whisk them into the dressing (or remove them and discard, if not to your liking).

To make the dressing: Whisk together the lemon juice, chopped eggs, peperoncino, and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Pour in the olive oil in a slow stream, whisking steadily to incorporate it into a smooth dressing.

To serve: Add the tomatoes and celery to the bowl of lobster pieces. Pour in the dressing, and tumble everything together until evenly coated. Scatter the parsley on top, tumbling to distribute. Arrange the salad on a large platter, or compose individual servings on salad plates.

--Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali, “Lidia’s Favorite Recipes” (Knopf, 2012)

Rebecca Sodergren: or on Twitter @pgfoodevents.


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