- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 5, 2004

Okay, we know she’s not Italian. But as long as she can remember, growing up on Chicago’s west side, where Italian beef stands hold court, Arlene Mantegna

has behaved with respect.

She has savored the proper Italian beef. She has experimented and created her own secret recipe. She has discussed the issue with experts in the field. She even married an Italian, actor Joe Mantegna, although her respect for Italian food is probably not the only reason.

When the time was right, and at the urging of both family and friends, Mrs. Mantegna opened her own little Italian beef stand, Taste Chicago, not on the west side of the city it was named for but on the west side of Burbank, Calif., where the studios and stars, rather than beef stands, hold court.

As is proper for a respectful woman, she did so on last year on Columbus Day, the day celebrating that famous Italian, Christopher Columbus, who discovered America. At least, we think of it as America, even though it was actually the Americas, because what he and his three ships discovered was a Caribbean island. And maybe it wasn’t actually Columbus who discovered the Americas but a Viking named Eric the Red, or perhaps his son, Leif Ericson, who discovered Newfoundland.

Frankly, whether someone else got here before Columbus is not the important question, nor is the precise location of his arrival. The issue is: What best to eat to celebrate what we now call Columbus Day on the second Monday of October?

Many Chicagoans mark the holiday by watching a good parade and eating Italian beef. Mrs. Mantegna makes outstanding Italian beef, and we can, too.

Although her recipe is a secret, we will share one from an Italian friend of mine from Chicago’s south side. I don’t know if the differences between my friend’s way of making Italian beef and Mrs. Mantegna’s are regional, but it seems that every Chicago Italian family has its own recipe, sort of like chili recipes for Texas families.

All involve roast beef or pot roast simmered long and slow in a garlicky liquid that variously includes water, beef broth or beer, or maybe all three. After cooking, it is sliced and mounded, drizzled with cooking juice, onto Italian bread. Italian beef must be served with roasted peppers or sweet peppers, which are sliced green peppers served raw or sauteed in a little oil.

Of prime importance, Mrs. Mantegna says, is the cut of meat, although she laughs after saying it and admits she has changed cuts many times and continues to change, looking for just the right one. “It’s just a beautiful roast beef. You can use anything. Roast it in the oven, slice it thin, put it in your au jus, and that’s it.”

Well, not entirely. The roast need not be particularly tender because it will be cooked in liquid for a long time. So skip beef tenderloin, which is, as the clever name implies, quite tender. It is also pricey. Go for something, such as a chuck or round roast, that benefits from long cooking, and pick a roast with a little bit of fat to give it flavor, Mrs. Mantegna says.

Then there’s the issue of stove-top cooking versus oven. Mrs. Mantegna prefers oven, but my Italian friend likes stove. Either will work, the experts say.

The braising liquid can be water or beef broth or, as some recommend, beer. Standard Milwaukee or St. Louis beer is traditional, but a slightly sweet dark beer lends interesting tones. Customization is a good thing, and Mrs. Mantegna advises flexibility. For example, flavor is everything, so sampling and adjusting are essential. “If your juice is too watery, you can bump it up with beef broth, if you want,” she says.

Some people add mustard. Several recipes suggest dry, but I think Dijon gives a mellower flavor. Mrs. Mantegna doesn’t add either.

Some cooks add dried oregano. Fresh herbs would probably not be traditional in Chicago, where dried herbs were more common when Italian beef starting selling in stands, about 45 years ago. But pepper is important and liberally applied.

Garlic is not so much a question as a command. Also essential is the proper bread. Even though it may have a nice, crispy crust, French bread is wrong because it doesn’t have the proper center. The inside must be dense enough to absorb all the juice. Mrs. Mantegna suggests something like Gonella bread from Chicago.

Chicagoans and expats worship its virtues, but any wide Italian bread will work if it is firm but not crunchy on the outside and dense enough inside to hold an adequate amount of juice and beef.

Ah, finally, there’s the hallowed cutting of the beef: “I think the thing with Italian beef is that the roast beef is sliced thin,” Mrs. Mantegna says. “Don’t do it by hand. You have to have a slicer. In fact, when my husband and I were young, we went out and bought a slicer. It’s very important to cut it the right way. If you cut it wrong, you’ll get strings. Sliced wrong and it can crumble.”

To go with Italian beef at home, Mrs. Mantegna serves baked sweet potato wedges. At Taste Chicago, she offers baked potato wedges; a marinated Italian salad of artichokes, celery and black olives; and a delicious and light anisetta salad of fennel with fresh dill, lemon and olive oil. We can serve any of those or even a simple coleslaw. Lemon sorbet would be a nice dessert. To drink, try juice, soda or beer. (Something from Milwaukee or St. Louis is best.)

After a year at the helm of the restaurant, Mrs. Mantegna plotted with her high school friend and now restaurant manager, Jo Williams, and, as she puts it, “with my husband’s blessings,” they are planning a proper Columbus Day anniversary celebration for Taste Chicago.

It will be marked by a free trip for two to Chicago, which will be awarded to a diner who registers at the restaurant during a specified period.

“It’s kind of like doing a play with food,” Mrs. Mantegna said about her restaurant. Taste Chicago is at 603 N. Hollywood Way, Burbank, Calif.; 818/563-2800.

Not Arlene’s Italian beef

2 tablespoons olive oil

4 large cloves garlic, mashed

1 2-pound boneless chuck or round roast, most surface fat removed

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 14-ounce can beef broth

2 12-ounce bottles dark beer

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

Italian bread, 20 inches long or more (see note)

1 roasted red bell pepper, sliced

1 green bell pepper, sliced

Heat oil for 1 minute in Dutch oven. Add garlic and saute for 1 minute until fragrance is released. Turn off heat.

Liberally season roast with salt and pepper to taste. Add roast to oil in pan, and sear it over medium-high heat, changing position when each side is nicely browned, for a total of about 8 minutes. Add beef broth and 6 cups water (or enough to cover), and simmer for 2 hours.

Remove roast from liquid. Cool liquid a bit, and spoon off any grease. Add beer, oregano, mustard, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper to pan. Slice roast as thinly as possible and place back in pan. Simmer, covered, for 1 hour. Uncover and simmer until about 1 cup of liquid remains, maybe about 30 minutes, although this will vary.

Remove beef with a slotted spoon, and serve it in split chunks of Italian bread, topped with roasted red and green pepper and drizzled with a little juice. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Note: Bread length will vary depending on width and how much beef is mounded onto each chunk.

Grilled sweet potatoes

2 medium sweet potatoes or yams (see note)

Coarse salt

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon honey

Wash potatoes or yams and cut off ends, but leave skin on. Cut lengthwise in -inch-thick slices.

Fill a Dutch oven with salted water and bring to a boil. Add potatoes or yams, and parboil for 3 minutes. Mix olive oil with honey.

Remove potatoes from water and drizzle one side with most of olive oil and honey. (Reserve a little to spoon over other side.) Sprinkle generously with coarse salt.

Place on medium grill, oil side down, close top of grill, and cook for 2 minutes. Turn 90 degrees, then grill 1 minute to make pretty design. (This step can be skipped; if so, simply grill for 3 minutes on first side before turning over.) Turn over; spoon remaining oil and honey over; sprinkle with salt; and grill, covered, 2 to 3 more minutes, or until potatoes are just starting to brown. Makes 3 or 4 servings, but the recipe can easily be doubled.

Note: Although grilled sweet potatoes are best if parboiled before grilling, in a pinch, the slices can be microwaved until tender (start with 1 minute) before grilling.

Baked sweet potato wedges

2 medium sweet potatoes or yams

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon honey

Coarse salt

Nonstick cooking spray

Wash potatoes or yams and cut off ends, but leave skin on. Slice in half lengthwise, then slice each half into as many wedges as possible, six at the least. Mix olive oil with honey. Toss potatoes or yams with olive oil and honey, and sprinkle generously with coarse salt.

Place on foil-lined baking pan that has been misted with nonstick spray, and bake in preheated 425-degree oven. Bake 10 minutes, then turn over and bake until tender and just starting to crisp, another 12 to 15 minutes.

Makes 3 or 4 servings, but recipe can easily be doubled.

Sesame coleslaw

1 tablespoon sesame seeds

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1/4 cup light soy sauce

1/4 cup rice wine vinegar

1/4 cup sugar

2 tablespoons sesame oil

Salt and pepper

8 cups shredded napa cabbage (about 1 medium)

2 cups snow peas, ends removed

3 scallions, cut in thirds lengthwise and shredded

1/4 cup herb such as mint, basil or green shiso leaves, shredded or whole (see note)

To toast sesame seeds, place in a nonstick frying pan and cook over medium heat, stirring often, until seeds begin to lightly color and smell nutty, 1 to 2 minutes.

Remove from pan immediately and set aside.

To make dressing, whisk together vegetable oil, soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, sugar and sesame oil in small bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

When ready to serve, toss cabbage; snow peas; scallions; and mint, basil or shiso leaves with enough dressing to moisten. Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds.

Leftover dressing will keep for 4 days in the refrigerator. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Note: Shiso is an aromatic herb used in Asian cooking and found in Asian markets, as well as at some farmers markets and supermarkets. Shred large leaves, or leave whole if small.

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