Johanne Killeen and her husband George Germon have a sixth sense for knowing how we want to eat in the '90s -- food that's fresh, flavorful, unpretentious and simple to prepare.
Indeed, these young chefs/restaurateurs have brought us back to the basics with their updated adaptations of country French and rustic Italian food seasoned with Yankee ingenuity and prepared with native New England ingredients.
Until recently, their disciples had to travel to Providence, R.I., to sample the much-heralded fare at their two restaurants -- Lucky's and Al Forno. Local folks come and they wait up to two hours to sample the food at Al Forno, hailed as one of the best regional restaurants in America by John Mariani in Playboy magazine in 1987. Tourists travel from Boston and New York City to experience the cuisine of the chefs who were listed among Food & Wine magazine's 10 best new chefs in America in 1988 and to dine at Lucky's, which the magazine named as one of the best new restaurants. They come to meet the couple, who have been honored twice by the James Beard Foundation -- as Rising Stars of America and as Great Regional Chefs of America.
But now anyone, no matter where they live, can get a taste of the Killeen/Germon style. Everything from their heralded grilled pizzas to their grilled veal tenderloins with croutons and fresh corn is included in their first cookbook, "Cucina Simpatica: Robust Trattoria Cooking" (HarperCollins Publishers, $25), a compilation of the Italian food served at Al Forno. Johanne Killeen says Americans have gone through a tremendous food )) evolution that took us from the fussy, pretentious food of nouvelle cuisine to the down-to-earth style of "cucina simpatica," simple Italian food that you can eat every day without getting bored. The simpatica style relies on good quality olive oil, garlic and Mediterranean herbs mixed together with the freshest and best ingredients they can find locally.
The food has complex flavors, but it's simple to prepare. Anyone with a smidgen of talent can make these dishes. No degree in the culinary arts is required.
"The real skill is in caring about choosing your food and preparing your food," Johanne said in a telephone interview. "It doesn't require elaborate preparation. There really is no substitute for freshness and for quality."
But fresh ingredients need some direction and the cucina simpatica influences were based on their culinary travels through Italy and France, where grilled foods made a lasting impression. One of the things Mr. Germon remembered most was the raised-hearth fireplaces in the trattorias, where a square grill with legs and a handle were placed over a fire made from grapevines, TC twigs and small pieces of wood. He loved the smell of the olive oil dripping into the fire and the food flavored with the hint of smoke.
But Mr. Germon and Ms. Killeen found that some of the best-tasting pizzas came from restaurants in Italy where pizzas were grilled in the kind of oven they didn't have in their restaurants -- a large and expensive wood-burning brick oven.
They wanted to get the same result -- thin and crispy crusts with sparse but flavorful toppings -- by using a professional indoor charcoal grill. And after much experimentation, their most famous dish -- the grilled pizza -- was born.
"The flavors were better on the grill because the pizza was in direct contact with the smoke and the heat," Ms. Killeen said. "In a wood-burning oven, the curl of smoke doesn't often lick the food like it does on a grill."
Anyone can eventually re-create grilled pizza at home, she added, but it does take patience to master the technique that Mr. Germon developed.
*You can use anything from a hibachi to a large charcoal grill -- merely make smaller pizzas on the smaller grills. But forget gas grills. Even gas grills fueled by wood chips won't work because the dough cooks too slowly and becomes tough.
*The secret is in building the right fire. You must use hardwood charcoal, not briquettes. Build your fire on one side of the grill only -- so you have intense heat concentrated on one side and a cool area on the other. The cool area is necessary as a resting place so you can add toppings without the dough burning.
*Be careful when stretching your dough; you do not want small holes to appear. But if holes do appear, don't panic. Just make sure you do not drizzle any oil or filling into them.
*When you are lifting the dough onto the grill, chances are good that it will stretch. Try to work as close to the grill as possible to minimize this problem.
*Set the timer. If the cheese isn't melted and the topping isn't bubbling after eight minutes, either your fire isn't hot enough or you added too much topping. Try again. It takes some practice.
The following is a menu from "Cucina Simpatica" that's perfect for summer entertaining.
SUMMER BARBECUE MENU
Salad Al Forno
Grilled pizza with fresh summer herbs and tomato
Cannoli cream with fresh berries
Salad Al Forno
Serves six to eight.
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
6 cups finely shredded cabbage
3 ounces slab bacon, cut into 1/2 -inch cubes (heaping 1/2 cup)
3 cups mixed bitter greens (radicchio, endive, escarole)
3 cups mixed leafy lettuces
Make a vinaigrette by whisking together the mustard and 1/4 cup vinegar in a mixing bowl. Slowly whisk in the olive oil. Add up to 3/4 teaspoon salt and then fold in the cabbage. Set aside for 1 hour or at room temperature, so the cabbage has a chance to marinate. Or you may prepare the recipe up to this point and refrigerate overnight. Allow the cabbage to return to room temperature before proceeding with the recipe.
Heat the broiler and lay out the bacon on a pie plate. Broil the bacon, turning it once, for about 5 minutes or until it browns.
Remove the bacon from the broiler. Immediately add the remaining vinegar to the plate and stir into the bacon and drippings. Then pour the mixture into the cabbage. Toss to combine.
Line a large platter or individual salad plates with the bitter greens and lettuces. Top with the cabbage mixture and serve immediately.
Grilled pizza with fresh summer herbs
Serves 1 as main course or 4 appetizers.
6 ounces pizza dough, see recipe
1/4 cup virgin olive oil
1 garden tomato, sliced into thin rounds
1/2 teaspoon minced fresh garlic
1/2 cup mixed chopped fresh herbs (oregano, thyme, chives and basil)
1/2 cup loosely packed shredded fontina
2 tablespoons freshly grated Pecorino Romano
Prepare a hot charcoal fire, setting the grill rack 3 to 4 inches above the coals.
On a large, oiled, inverted baking sheet, spread and flatten the pizza dough with your hands into a 10- to 12-inch, free-form circle, 1/8 inch thick. Do not make a lip. You may end up with a rectangle rather than a circle; the shape is unimportant, but do take care to maintain an even thickness.
When the fire is hot (when you hold your hand over the coals for 3 to 4 seconds at a distance of 5 inches), use your fingertips to lift the dough gently by the two corners closest to you and drape it onto the grill. Catch the loose edge on the grill first and guide the remaining dough into place over the fire. Within a minute the dough will puff slightly, the underside will stiffen and grill marks will appear.
Using tongs, immediately flip the crust over, onto the coolest part of the grill. Quickly brush the grilled surface with olive oil. Top with tomatoes and scatter the garlic, herbs and cheeses over the dough. Finally, drizzle the pizza with 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil.
Slide the pizza back toward the hot coals, but not directly over them. Using tongs, rotate the pizza frequently so that different sections receive high heat; check the underside often to see that it is not burning. The pizza is done when the top is bubbly and the cheese is melted, about 6 to 8 minutes.
Makes 24 ounces or 4 pizzas.
1 envelope (2 1/2 teaspoons) active dry yeast
1 cup warm water
2 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt
1/4 cup johnnycake meal or fine ground white cornmeal
3 tablespoons whole wheat flour
1 tablespoon virgin olive oil
2 1/2 to 3 1/2 cups unbleached white flour
Using a large bowl, dissolve the yeast in the warm water with the sugar. After 5 minutes, stir in the salt, johnnycake or corn meal, whole wheat flour and oil. Gradually add the white flour, stirring with a wooden spoon until a stiff dough has formed.
Place the dough on a floured board and knead it for several minutes, adding only enough additional flour to keep the dough from sticking.
When the dough is smooth and shiny, transfer it to a bowl that has been brushed with olive oil. To prevent a skin from forming, brush the top of the dough with additional olive oil, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place, away from drafts, until double in bulk, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
Punch down the dough and knead once more. Let the dough rise again for about 40 minutes. Punch down the dough. If it is sticky, knead in a bit more flour.
Cannoli cream with fresh berries
Serves four to six.
11 ounces ricotta
1/3 cup orange marmalade
2 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped (see note)
1 tablespoon Grand Marnier
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 pints fresh raspberries, strawberries or blueberries
Process the ricotta in a food processor with the plastic blade, scraping down the sides of the bowl from time to time, for about 2 minutes, until the curds disappear and it is perfectly smooth.
Add the marmalade and pulse just to combine; you may want to retain small pieces of pulp.
Transfer to a mixing bowl. Fold in the chocolate, Grand Marnier and vanilla. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or up to 2 days.
Divide the berries among 4 serving bowls or wine goblets. Pour the cannoli cream over the berries and serve.
Note: Those with a more pronounced sweet tooth may prefer using a sweeter chocolate.