Chef Missy Robbins never intended to specialize in Italian cuisine.
“I just always had an affinity for the ingredients … the cheeses and olive oils … and then as I started getting older and traveling, there’s something about Italy that just resonated with me,” she says.
That’s evident at Lilia, her Italian restaurant in Brooklyn’s hip Williamsburg neighborhood, opened in 2015 to wide-ranging acclaim. (Her second restaurant, MISI, is opening soon on the Williamsburg waterfront.) The restaurants, along with her 2017 cookbook Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner ... Life: Recipes and Adventures from My Home Kitchen, grew out of Robbins’ years of top-notch culinary education. After cooking in kitchens in Emilia-Romagna, Friuli and Tuscany, Robbins eventually became executive chef at Chicago’s Spiaggia (currently a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner), headed by chef Tony Mantuano, then moved to New York to work at A Voce, another respected Italian restaurant (now closed).
For a last hurrah to summer, Robbins suggests a Labor Day menu of buttery grilled clams alongside hot garlic bread—a recipe from her own outdoor summer parties—and slow-roasted tomatoes. Dessert brings a taste of the Amalfi Coast: a simple shaved-ice lemon granita with whipped cream.
Success with the grilled clams recipe requires attention to timing and a very hot preheated grill, which ensures the clams open quickly, and by extension, don’t overcook. The herb butter has been on the Lilia menu for some time; this recipe yields extra, ready to be wrapped and kept in the fridge for a few days to use with other dishes.
As far as wine pairings, Robbins says, “Anything in the summer, rosé is fair game.” Lilia wine director Eliza Christen favors a Mediterranean white with the clams, such as the Punta Crena Pigato Riviera Ligure di Ponente Vigneto Ca da Rena 2016. Pigato, the name used in Liguria for a variety that DNA testing has found to be identical to Vermentino, has a saline quality that Christen says does wonders alongside shellfish.
On the other hand, the slow-roasted tomatoes, which pop with the flavors of coriander and fennel seeds, pair beautifully with an herbal red like the Poggerino Chianti Classico 2015, a 100 percent Sangiovese bottling. “The savory but elegant wine plays up the herbs, as well as the sweetness of the tomatoes,” Christen notes. For roasting the tomatoes, Robbins prefers a convection oven for its even heat. It’s not a process that should be rushed; cook the tomatoes for at least two hours and check them periodically to make sure they don’t dry out completely.
For dessert, the lemon granita epitomizes the “less is more” approach. Sugar, water, lemon juice, lemon zest and a pinch of salt are all you need. Robbins recommends it with whipped cream on top, but home cooks wanting something a bit creamier can add in a bit of vanilla ice cream or gelato. “While nothing compares to the granita made with the ripened, sun-kissed lemons of coastal Italy, this recipe makes a version that’s damn close,” Robbins notes in her cookbook.
Though coastal Italy is among the influences on Robbins’ cooking, she says she has yet to fully explore areas like Calabria, Sardinia and Sicily—but those are on her to-do list. With Italian cooking, “There’s always an opportunity to learn because it’s not really just one cuisine, it’s a regional cuisine. Everywhere you go is different, and everywhere within that region every grandmother cooks differently. There [is] a really strong educational component.” With such delicious food for inspiration, we might be ready for back-to-school season after all.
Below, Wine Spectator shares an additional 10 wines to pair this Labor Day.
Recipes reprinted from Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner ... Life: Recipes and Adventures from My Home Kitchen. Copyright © 2017 by Missy Robbins with Carrie King. Published by Rizzoli Publishing.
For the herb butter:
1. Fill a pot with about 4 quarts of heavily salted water and bring it to a boil. Once boiling, blanch the herbs for 15 to 20 seconds in the water. Transfer the blanched herbs to an ice bath to stop the cooking.
2. Once cold, remove the herbs, squeeze them to get rid of excess water, and place them in a blender, pureeing until smooth. You may have to add a touch of water to get the puree moving.
3. Transfer the herb puree to a large mixing bowl along with the room-temperature butter and garlic and mix well. Season with salt, to taste. The butter should be bright green. Set aside until you are ready to use. Makes more than needed for clam recipe.
For the clams:
1. Place the clams in a large mixing bowl or pot under cold running water until there is no trace of sand.
2. Melt the butter in a saucepan over low heat and add the garlic. Gently cook the garlic until just aromatic with no color, 2 minutes. Add the lemon juice and zest to the pan and remove from the heat. Set aside as you cook the clams.
3. Place the clams on a very hot preheated grill and close the lid. Check the clams every minute or so and as they start to open, remove them one by one and transfer them to a large bowl on the side. Pour half of the melted lemon-garlic butter over them and toss. Reserve the rest of the butter for extra dipping.
4. As the clams cook, place the bread on the grill and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, until the slices are nicely toasted but not too charred. When you’re ready to serve, generously spread the herb butter on the bread and serve alongside the clams. Serves 4 to 6.
1. Preheat the oven to 275º F.
2. Lay the halved tomatoes cut-side up in one layer on a sheet pan or baking dish.
3. Season the tomatoes with salt, olive oil and the spices.
4. Place the tomatoes in the oven and roast for 2 hours. They should shrink slightly, with crinkled edges, but retain some of their juices—not completely dried out, just concentrated. Serves 4 to 6.
1. Make a simple syrup by combining the sugar and 2 1/4 cups water in a small saucepan over low heat. Gently warm until sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat and cool the syrup.
2. Once cool, transfer the syrup to a large mixing bowl along with the remaining 2 1/4 cups water and other remaining ingredients. Stir to combine and transfer the mixture to a shallow baking dish. Place it in the freezer.
3. After 30 minutes, check the mixture. If it has begun to freeze, remove from the freezer and scrape it with a fork to grate it up. Place it back in freezer and repeat until the whole mix is frozen and grated.
4. Serve with whipped cream (above) or vanilla ice cream. Serves 4.
CUSUMANO Etna White Alta Mora 2016
A minerally white, with clean-cut acidity and a tang of salinity layered with subtle notes of crunchy pear, smoke, preserved lemon and chamomile. Lively, lingering finish. Drink now through 2021. 2,000 cases imported.
PEDRES Vermentino di Gallura Thilibas 2016
A bright white that's fresh and open-knit, with a streak of salinity underscoring the star fruit, anise, ripe pear and lemon curd flavors. Light-bodied, with a minerally finish. Drink now through 2021. 1,250 cases imported.
ALBERTO LOI Vermentino di Sardegna Therìa 2015
A dry and aromatic, medium-bodied white, with a broad mix of dried peach, chopped almond, dried mint and fleur de sel underscored by a streak of spicy mineral and layered with crisp acidity. Drink now through 2020. 1,200 cases imported.
CANTINA DI SANTA MARIA LA PALMA Vermentino di Sardegna Aragosta 2017
Snappy acidity and a streak of salinity structure this aromatic, light-bodied white, which offers a pretty mix of peach skin, Meyer lemon peel and pink grapefruit sorbet. Drink now through 2020. 30,000 cases imported.
OTTOSOLDI Gavi 2016
A mix of melon and spice flavors graces this bracing white. A salty, mineral element emerges on the intense finish. Drink now. 1,000 cases imported.
LA BRACCESCA Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2015
Ripe, vibrant cherry and blackberry fruit is accented by iron, leather and wild herbs in this supple, harmonious red. It turns more linear as it evolves, ending in a long, mineral- and spice-tinged aftertaste. Drink now through 2029. 2,450 cases imported.
TENUTA BIBBIANO Chianti Classico 2015
This features deep aromas and flavors of cherry, leather, earth and wild herbs, allied to a firm structure. It's succulent and lingers on the dusty, tobacco-tinged finish. Drink now through 2025. 1,000 cases imported.
BADIA A COLTIBUONO Chianti Classico 2015
An elegant red, this exudes cherry and strawberry fruit, tobacco, spice, wild herbs and mineral flavors, all backed by dense, dusty tannins. Fine length and potential. Better than previously reivewed. Drink now through 2028. 3,000 cases imported.
SAN FELICE Rosso di Montalcino Campogiovanni 2016
Textbook Sangiovese, offering cherry, leather, earth and wild herb flavors fading into light, dusty tannins. Very elegant, with fine length. Drink now. 1,300 cases imported.
CENTOLANI Rosso di Montalcino Pietranera 2016
A mix of cherry, iron, leather and wild herbs, this red is taut and intense. Though not powerful, it's saturated with flavor and stays long and detailed. Drink now through 2023. 1,000 cases imported.
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