What’s Cooking, Neighbor?
As a native of the Puglia region of Italy (the heel of the boot), Silvestro Conte appreciates the little niceties that many men might consider not worth the effort. For example, with old fashioned gusto he hangs laundry to dry in his Burleith garden, surrounded by pots of mature herbs. A purist, he shops for only the freshest and authentic ingredients, a holdover from childhood, when he helped his mother each day making bread, pasta and pizza from scratch.
“My passion is taking care of the little details that make all the difference,” says Conte, a retired medical marketing executive. If the last name is familiar, his wife is Georgetowner “The Latest Dish” columnist Linda Roth Conte, president of public relations and marketing firm Linda Roth Associates. His latest venture is “Your Italia”: a personal, nine-day food and wine tour of his beloved homeland, visiting local chefs, small farms and select wineries.
“It’s a learning, gastronomic journey to the hot spot of Italy now, and my thing is making you feel like a local,” says Conte, an expressive, passionate guy with a broad chest and sizable hands, which punctuate every sentence. “We go to farms, where families have made cheese for hundreds of years, not to factories. We go to olive oil tastings at family mills, where the Mediterranean Diet was born.” All the information can be found at: www.youritalia.com.
At home, the couple invites two to four guests for dinner every other week. On the menu, five courses paired with three different wines. One will surely be a tart white Verdeca from Puglia as “My father went crazy for this grape.” He doesn’t dig discussions of terroir at the dining table or talk of licorice or strawberry flavor notes. Says no-nonsense Conde: “I know what I like and drink wine. Period.”
One of his favored main courses, “which always brings applause,” is a salt-roasted whole striped bass stuffed with herbs and cherry tomatoes. (I hesitate sharing his recipe as it calls for seven pounds of kosher salt and wielding, at the same time, a large knife and a hammer.) Alongside, he serves a classic Italian lemon and herb infused salmorigilio sauce, which is also terrific with grilled or baked branzino, salmon and swordfish.
The secret to the pungent flavor of this dressing is the use of salt-cured capers in place of the more readily available brined variety. (Such capers, dry-packed in salt, are available at Dean & Deluca as well as many Italian and Spanish specialty markets.) “It’s easy to make, with little time required,” he will tell you, adding with a wry remark. “And your guests will love you, more.”
Conte’s two current favorite restaurants are Al Dente in Wesley Heights for the calamarata pasta and Rialto in Georgetown for the fried sardines.
SALMORIGLIO SAUCE SERVES: 4 Ingredients: I/2 cup extra virgin olive oil The minced peel and juice of 1 medium lemon, preferably organic 1/4 bunch parsley leaves, minced 1/2 tablespoon fresh oregano leaves, minced 6 salt-cured capers, thoroughly rinsed and minced 1 clove garlic, crushed and peeled Sea salt, freshly ground pepper
Directions: Pour the olive oil into a small bowl, and while slowly whisking, add the lemon juice, forming an emulsion. Add the minced lemon peel, parsley, oregano and capers along with the crushed garlic clove salt and pepper to taste; mix well. Transfer the sauce to a small sauce pan and simmer on the lowest heat setting for 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from the heat and let the sauce rest at room temperature for at least two hours. Remove the garlic clove before serving. Pass the sauce alongside the fish.
What’s Cooking, Neighbor? visits with wine, food and entertaining professionals, who call the Georgetown area home. Georgetowner dining columnist Walter Nicholls is the food critic for Arlington Magazine, a former staff writer for The Washington Post Food section.