The Ultimate Grilled Cheese and Wine Sensation Marking the 70th Anniversary of a Great Italian Story.
by Bill Gotti, M3 Food and Wine Editor
70 years ago marks the release of the Italian novel, “Ladri di biciclette” (“The Bicycles Thieves”) which was filmed the next year and has become a cinematic classic, winning the Academy Award for best foreign film in 1948. Up until Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane” (and now “The Godfather”), “Ladri di biciclette” was considered by many to be the most important film of all time. For those of you who are inspired by this story, I want to share some recipes from the film to pay tribute to this amazing story and to celebrate that although most of us live in more comfortable times and circumstances, sometimes simple pleasures can be the most satisfying.
The film takes place in war-ravaged, post WWII Rome, where a father is struggling to help his family survive. His only means of transportation for the sparse work he is able to find is his bicycle. At one point, although he is able to secure temporary work, his bicycle is stolen and much of the film chronicles his desperate attempt along with his young boy, to find the bicycle so that he can provide for his family once again. At one point he looks at his young son and decides to spend the last of his few coins on a pizza together, as they haven’t eaten in a long time. They enter a bistro and soon realize that the restaurant doesn’t serve pizzas, but much higher end meals with fine wines. Not being discouraged by the snobbish waiter or clientele, the father orders a full liter of the house wine and inexpensive traditional mozzarella sandwiches (mozzarella en carrozza). The scene is bitter sweet, as the two are enjoying a meal together albeit simple as father and son with wine and food and music. But there are also the wealthier customers surrounding them, a reminder to both the father and the young boy as they both look around, that they have nothing. The scene was masterfully directed by Vittorio De Sica as he had the young boy with his simple mozzarella sandwich pull the stringing mozzarella cheese in long slow strands with his mouth to show another more affluent boy who was eating a more substantial meal at another table that his mozzarella was just as good as the other boy’s meal.
If you would like to reproduce the pleasures of the scene in this Italian bistro, let me first point you in the direction of the wine. The almost clear, thin table wine that was readily available at the time in Rome was Frascati. Frascati wine, named for the town near Rome is produced in the Lazio region of Italy where they have been cultivating grapes and making wines since before the 5th century BC. Frascati is a blended wine from the region’s Malvasia Bianca di Candia and Trebbiano Toscano grapes with other smaller percentages of regional grape varieties. The wine is fragrant of white peaches, lemon zest and even some hints of herbs. The late harvest produces a sweeter wine which is rarer. Though the Frascati wines of today are more complex and are considered premium wines from the region, you can still get a great bargain on this wine. For the mozzarella sandwiches, they are actually called mozzarella en carrozza or, mozzarella in a carriage. These are made with slightly stale Italian bread slices and slightly dry mozzarella cheese. The most basic recipe is Neapolitan, where my family is from although as the recipe moved its way into different areas of Italy, the recipes have become enhanced wit the addition of ingredients such as basil, anchovies or sundried tomatoes.
The best basic recipe I have found for mozzarella is not my own. It comes from Frank and his authentic Italian cooking and culture site, http://memoriediangelina.com a tribute to his grandmother Angelina, who like my family, came to New York from the old country and has kept the best of Italian influence and cooking and culture alive.
- Bread, preferably slightly stale, crust removed, cut into evenly shaped sliced (see Notes)
- Mozzarella cheese, sliced
- A bowlful of milk
- A bowlful of flour
- A bowlful of beaten eggs, seasoned with salt and pepper
- Olive or vegetable oil
- Lemon wedges (for garnish)
For the anchovy sauce (optional):
- A tin or jar of anchovy fillets
- A good pour of olive oil
- 1-2 garlic cloves, finely minced
- A few sprigs of parsley, finely chopped
Take the slices of bread, then place a slice of mozzarella cheese between two of the bread slices to make a sandwich. (Make sure that the mozzarella slices are smaller than the bread slices, so that you have a good 1/2in/1 cm margin around the slices, to prevent the cheese from oozing out as it melts during cooking.)
Fill a large skillet with the oil, enough for a semi-deep fry, about 2cm/1 inch deep. While the oil is heating up, set up your ‘assembly line’: Line up the milk, flour and seasoned beaten egg, each in separate bowls, preferably right next to the frying pan. Have a grate at the ready for draining the sandwiches after they’re fried.
Dip each mozzarella sandwich, on both sides, in the milk until nice and moist, then in the flour, then in the beaten eggs seasoned with salt and pepper, making sure the bread is well impregnated with the egg. Then fry each sandwich in the oil over moderately high heat until golden brown on each side—a few at a time so that you don’t crowd the frying pan. As the sandwiches are done, transfer them to the rack while you fry the rest.
When they’re all done, sprinkle the sandwiches with salt and serve immediately.
Mozzarella in carrozza is traditionally served just like this, perhaps with lemon wedges on the side. But I like to gild the lily by serving them with a bit of anchovy sauce: you empty a tin or jar of anchovies with some olive oil in a saucepan over moderate heat. Stir until the anchovies have broken up and are sizzling, then add a tablespoon or so of water. The anchovies will almost instantly form a smooth sauce. Add finely minced garlic (a garlic press works well here) and parsley. Stir once, then remove from the heat. You can spoon this sauce on top or around the sandwiches or, since anchovies can be ‘controversial’, in a sauceboat for those who want it.
Now all you need is the right music for atmosphere. I recommend music of Renato Corosone, which usually features the masterful guitar or mandolin of Raf Montrasio.
Buon appetito ed equitazione felice della bicicletta!