For over a decade, we’ve had the pleasure of dining at Sassi (in Scottsdale, Arizona) alone and with friends and family, celebrating an event or simply the day. The mostly southern Italian-inspired menu with many imported products and housemade pastas tastes sublime in the grand stone villa. They’ve offered a summer cooking class series for several years, but the dates never jived with our visits. Until now.
Chef Christopher Nicosia has developed a following of locals and loyal fans from previous positions held in the valley. Arriving early, we found twenty participants nearly all seated in the bustling, cavernous room by the kitchen and wood oven. The tables were laden with olives, oil and focaccia, plates, utensils, and stemware. Stainless steel tables stretched the length of the room, well-organized with mise en place, a work surface and cooking station with gourmet wares for our instruction.
Chef welcomed old friends and new with easy charm and proceeded to introduce the menu from the Piemonte or Piedmont region, located in the northwest of Italy.
The antipasti (appetizer) Bagna Cauda (translated, “warm bath”), is admittedly “a personal favorite.” His family hails from Sicily. An anchovy sandwich is his daily staple. There was much discussion about anchovies: ”buy in oil, in the can or a jar; they must be pink” as he endlessly stirred garlic in olive oil and butter in an earthenware pot. It’s OK when the saucy bath separates. Served in ramekins alongside fresh vegetables, the combination with red pepper was especially relished. Indeed there were anchovy converts.
Our paired wines for the evening began with Organic Prosecco, Mionetto NV, with “aromas of elderflower, ripe yellow apple”.
Our Primi, “first course;” (our main course) featured Potato Gnocchi with Taleggio Fonduta or potato pasta with cheese sauce. Chef cautioned us regarding the delicate balance of moisture from egg and flour. The crowd was wowed repeatedly by use of bare hands and the ricer for cooked potatoes, by Chef’s technique for rolling and cutting, by the gnocchi board for creating a sauce-grabbing imprint on the pasta, and a slew of tips for our future success in the kitchen. Proper proportions of pasta to water for ideal cooking was stressed. If you like, substitute Fontina for not-so-subtle Taleggio cheese.
Langhe Arneis, Pertinace 2013, tasting of “white flowers, ripe peach and pear, almond,” complemented the delectable pillows.
Ahh, the Dolci, “sweets” (dessert): Amaretti Semifreddo, “partially frozen” crushed almond paste cookies, with Peaches! Chef Nicosia deftly whipped the cream, cooked the eggs and sugar and combined the two mixtures. Homemade amaretti were added for flavor and texture. Topped with juicy roasted peaches and sauce, this semifreddo was splendid.
Lastly, we enjoyed a 2013 Barbera D’Alba from Pio Cesare, reminiscent of plum and blackberries, spicy ripe fruit, vanilla and herbs.
This was more demonstration than hands-on, yet we were encouraged to get a closer look, ask questions and dig in ad lib. Each course, prepared earlier in the day, was a taste treat. Chef Christopher Nicosia is personable, engaging and talented.
Participants were given packets with the evening’s recipes. Bonus! Chef provided us with his amaretti recipe upon request. He suggests that almond paste in a can,not a tube, works best for the cookies. Buon appetito!
RECIPES from Chef Christopher Nicosia:
Bagna Cauda; serves 4
3 oz extra virgin olive oil
6 tablespoons butter
12 cloves (or more) garlic, sliced very thinly
anchovies in oil or packed in salt, cleaned
In a large earthenware pot, or heavy bottomed sauce pan, heat the olive oil and butter over low heat. Add the garlic, and cook stirring often until the garlic is very soft and dissolved into the oil and butter. Add the anchovies and cook until they dissolve. Serve warm in ramekins as a dip for vegetables, or a sauce for pasta.
Potato Gnocchi; serves 6
1 ½ # russet potatoes (10 oz/ 80-count)
1 cup all-purpose flour
salt to taste
In a large pot, cover the potatoes with 4” cold water. Bring to a boil, and simmer until tender (about 45”). Remove potato from pot and allow to cool just enough to handle it with bare hands. Peel the potato and pass it through a food mill or ricer onto a clean work surface.
Add flour and make it into a mound on the work surface. Make a well in the center of the mound of flour and potato. Add eggs and salt to the well and stir into flour and potato mixture. When the egg is mixed in, knead the dough for just a few minutes.
Divide into tennis size balls. Roll into a rope about the diameter of a nickel or dime. Cut 1” pieces from the rope and roll off the back of a fork or gnocchi board to obtain the classic gnocchi shape.
Cook gnocchi in boiling salted water until they float. Remove from pot and toss with your favorite sauce.
Taleggio Fonduta; makes 2 cups
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 ½ cups heavy cream
10 oz Taleggio cheese, medium dice
1 teaspoon white pepper, ground
2 egg yolks
salt to taste
In a 2-quart saucepan, heat the butter over medium high heat. Add cream and pepper. Bring to a boil.
Add taleggio and stir until cheese melts. Remove from heat and stir in egg yolks. Season to taste with salt. Toss with your favorite pasta.
Amaretti Semifreddo with Peaches: makes 2 quarts
Ingredients for the semifreddo:
½ cup sugar
1 ½ cups heavy cream
5 0z amaretti cookies, crushed
Ingredients for the peaches:
4 ripe peaches
4 tablespoons honey
6 sprigs thyme
Instructions for the semifreddo: In the bowl of a stand mixer, whip the cream until soft peaks form. Reserve cold.
In a mixing bowl over a double boiler, whip eggs and sugar by hand until double involume. Remove from heat and set in ice bath, stirring to chill. Once the egg mixture is cold, gently fold in whipping cream in thirds.
Finally, stir in crushed amaretti or other flavoring. Put mixture into plastic-lined container or mold and freeze overnight.
Mixture should be scoopable, but you may freeze in a loaf and cut into slices.
Instructions for the peaches: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a small roasting pan, drizzle whole peaches with honey. Add thyme to pan. Cover and roast for 40” to 1 hour.
Remove peaches from over, uncover and cool completely. Remove pits and chop peaches into chunks, reserving all juices.
To serve: scoop or unmold semifreddo. Place in a bowl or small plate, top with peaches and juices in roasting pan.
Amaretti Cookies: makes about 35 small cookies
8 oz almond paste
1 cup granulated sugar
2 egg whites
powdered sugar for dusting
In the bowl of an electric mixer, break the almond paste up into smaller pieces. Add sugar and mix on low speed until mixture is very fine. Slowly add the egg whites and mix until smooth.
Fill a pastry bag fitted with a ½” plain tip with batter. Pipe small mounds of batter onto a parchment-lined flat sheet pan about 1” apart.
Bake for 15” or until cookies are golden brown. Cool and sprinkle with powdered sugar before serving.
There’s more! Tuscany, is slated for June 29th and Emilia Romagna on July 13 at Sassi: 10455 Pinnacle Peak Parkway, Scottsdale, AZ; sassi.biz; 480-502-9095.