It takes only one trip to Italy. When you return you realize quickly that what you thought was Italian food is in fact Italian-American food.
Not that there is anything wrong with that.
It is hearty, bold and delicious but just not strictly Italian.
Meatballs and spaghetti? No way that's Italian. That's an Italian-American creation. Pasta floating in red sauce, almost soup like? Italians won't even think about it.
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To Italians, it is about the pasta, with just a kiss of sauce.
Shrimp, pasta and Parmesan Reggiano. Is that Italian? Never! No Italian would ever pair cheese and seafood.
The Coast has a handful of good Italian-influenced restaurants. I would be hard pressed to be critical of them all, but if you are in Biloxi and want authentic Italian food, and the best of Italian-American food as well, there is one restaurant and one chef you should visit: Chef Paola Bugli and Stalla at the Beau Rivage Casino and Resort.
Bugli, a native of Florence, is a graduate of the Aurelio Saffi Institute of Culinary Arts and has 20 years' experience working in traditional Italian restaurants in Italy.
She has an additional 10 years in Atlanta, including at Pricci's, Veni Vidi Vici, Nino's and Luciano's, plus opening Tavola, the Italian restaurant at The Cloister, Sea Island, Ga. Wow, what a resume!
Now that we have established Bugli's curriculum vitae, her authority in the Italian kitchen should be unquestionable, and the kitchen at Stalla is certainly about as Italian as it can be.
More than Italian
"Stalla is more than Italian, it also has Mediterranean influences, but the Italian influence is mainstay," Bugli said.
Bugli said most Americans don't understand the depth and breadth of Italian food and cooking traditions.
"People ask me about Italian sausage," Bugli said, "but do you have any idea how many types of sausage are made in Italy?"
Italy has many regional cooking variations, and local ingredients that can be found nowhere else. That is where Stalla comes in to its own.
Visit Stalla and let Bugli cook for you, and get ready to go to school.
You will find a solid menu and great specials. Look for Chicken Francese, a chicken dish made with fresh chicken, Cipollini onions, prosciutto, and lemon butter, white wine sauce and spaghetti. It is so simple, and it is so delicious.
You might also find veal cheeks Picatta, with capers, parsley and pasta, and, one of my favorites, a great bowl of mussels in spicy tomato sauce, made with Sambuca and cherry tomatoes and served with grilled bread.
You also will find local ingredients, such as a heritage breed of pork that is raised free range and locally sourced, and vegetables that are trucked weekly from a farm in Louisiana.
Some of the more Mediterranean touches can include a fresh catch of the day.
It will be served with farro, an ancient summer wheat grown in Italy, cooked with leeks and tomatoes. It is similar to risotto, but a bit lighter. You also will also have a choice of at least nine pastas, and all are made in-house.
Everything at Stalla is fresh, but the seafood gets special honors. The scallops and lobsters come from a Maine fisherman (when in season) and are overnighted to the Beau. Bugli said the mussels also are fresh.
Some familiar offerings
But not everything on the menu is going to be foreign to most people's Italian favorites.
Crab cakes, lasagna and shrimp scampi are standards and made with Chef Bugli's special touch.
The pizzas that come out of the huge pizza oven also are remarkable.
The pizza with marinara sauce, fresh Gulf shrimp, San Marzano tomatoes, garlic, mozzarella, and fresh basil is particularly good, as is the mushroom pizza.
It is made with a medley of fresh mushrooms, black truffle oil, arugula, mozzarella and a béchamel sauce.
Now that you have an idea what to expect when you eat at Stalla, you should also know that the ambiance is excellent as well.
It sports open wooden beams, re-purposed from a New England farm house, beautiful glass works, a super-sized olive oil container and a private dining area. The kitchen is open, so you can watch your meal come together and the chefs make their magic.
The Beau also has one of the highest-rated sommeliers in the South, Mark Warren, and he will help you select the wine to go with your meal.
Bugli insists that it is all a team effort that pushes it over the top. Stalla has a dedicated and talented staff, from sous chefs, to line cooks.
STALLA'S CORNISH HEN
4 Cornish game hens
Brine for chicken
1 gallon of water
2/3 cup kosher salt
3 lemons cut in half
5 to 6 stems of fresh rosemary
Bunches of thyme, sage and parsley
4 small pieces pancetta, or unsmoked bacon
Put the water, salt, lemons and rosemary in a pot and bring to a slow boil for about 30 minutes. Put the pot aside and let it cool down to room temperature. Once the brining liquid is cold, immerse the hens (after they have been washed and rinsed properly), making sure they are covered all the way from the liquid. Place the container in the refrigerator and let sit overnight. The next day remove the hens, but do not rinse. Season sparingly inside and out with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Stuff the birds with pancetta, and the herbs. Preheat your oven at 350 to 360 F, place the hens in a baking pan and brush on best quality olive oil. Roast for 35 to 45 minutes, turning several times to ensure even browning. Serve with roasted potatoes and seasonal veggies and make sure you have lots of napkins. It should be eaten with your hands so you can get the best flavor and fun.
This recipe also works well if you have an immersion circulator. Cook at 150 f for 5 hours, making sure to vacuum pack the birds to ensure safety. After removing the birds from the immersion circulator, roast at 450 f just until well-browned.
-- Chef Paola Bugli