Gaetano Ascione is worried about Mom.
As he stands in the kitchen of his new Coconut Grove restaurant, Spasso, he looks over a crop of would-be food criminals: children. My children, to be exact.
He knows that this Mother’s Day, poor moms all over Miami will lovingly choke down breakfast in bed, pancakes with stray bits of egg shell and Nerf-rubber scrambled eggs.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
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On May 18, Ascione, who has been associated with two Michelin-rated restaurants, lastly his Gioco’s in Chicago, is starting a cooking academy at Spasso, where amateurs can learn everything from knife skills to the secret to perfect homemade pasta. Space can be reserved online for $35 a class, which ends in sharing the meal and wine.
Short of taking Mom out to brunch (Here are five last-minute Mother’s Day brunch ideas), he’s got a pair of surefire recipes — ricotta gnocchi and affogato — that will keep mama’s little helpers entertained in the kitchen while preserving her stomach lining.
“Cooking isn’t boring. It’s exciting!” he says, spreading his arms in that inviting Italian gesture. “We want people to improve their cooking. We want them to ask questions.”
So we brought him some ringers. In the spirit of full disclosure, my daughters — Elise, 12, Amelia, 10, Catalina, 8, — have grown up watching their parents and grandparents work the stove, can make picadillo and vaca frita from scratch, and have their own food blog (threelittleforks.com) reflecting their eating and cooking adventures — simple as they may be.
But to prove a point, when Ascione asks them how to tell whether an egg is raw or hard-boiled, the three share do-you-know glances.
“Um, you could shake it?” Catalina says.
“OK, I haven’t tried that,” Ascione says, “but I like how you’re thinking.”
“What if you crack it?” Elise offers.
“What if it’s not done? How are you going to put it back in the shell?” he says, and she laughs.
He helps them tie on white aprons — “We all wear white, so we are all the same,” he tells them — and leads them behind the marble counters, beneath Spasso’s soft lighting and angular yellow rafters, to the prep kitchen. He takes two eggs from a bowl and places them side by side.
“Which one is cooked?” he asks.
“Spin it,” he says and Elise tries to twirl one. The egg slogs a half turn.
“That one is raw. The yolk inside moves around and doesn’t let it spin,” he says, next turning to Amelia. “Now you.”
The next egg twirls like a top until he stops it.
“Cool ...” they harmonize with eyes wide.
“If you fail, it’s my fault,” he tells them. “My honor is on the line!”
Simple ricotta gnocchi
A cardinal kindergarten rule holds true in Spasso’s kitchen: Making Play-Doh snakes makes learning fun.
Ascione’s ricotta gnocchi dough is made of a simple combination of ricotta, eggs and flour, and that goes a long way toward keeping kids entertained. The girls roll out the dough with their hands (Yes, he had them scrub their hands in the sink first) into inch-thick, alabaster tubes before cutting them into one-inch pillows.
Because of the ricotta’s moisture, be ready to dust the dough as you work and even when you let it rest, as water evaporates, he says. It’s preferable to add flour as you go rather than to overdo it when adding it to the original mixture.
“If you put too much flour, your gnocchi is going to taste like a matzo ball. I know we’re in Passover week, but this is not good for gnocchi,” he joked last week.
Ascione, an Italian Cuisine Master Chef, doesn’t mind if the gnocchi are asymmetrical — “I don’t like it to be the same. I like it to be artistic,” he says — which is a good thing, because the girls’ gnocchi look like caterpillars. A tip, he says, is to keep a small pile of flour on your cutting board and continually dust a fork in it as you roll the gnocchi over the tines to give them that spiral indentation.
The gnocchi are best when cooked within a couple of hours, but they will hold up to freezing and dropping directly into boiling water.
Ascione walks the girls into his kitchen, where water is already at a rolling boil. He drops in the gnocchi, which will cook in 30 to 35 seconds. In a pot at home, the gnocchi will float to the surface when they are done.
Finish with affogato
Patience is a virtue a mug of Italian affogato can teach.
There’s nothing to this Italian dessert. It’s simply vanilla ice cream with a floater of espresso. The secret, however, is waiting.
The girls lean over their mugs of vanilla ice cream as they each pour a double shot of espresso over the top, and they are already looking for their spoons.
“Wait, wait, wait!” Ascione tells them as they begin to lick their lips. “The longer it stays, the better it gets.”
How long can you reasonably ask children not to attack a cup of ice cream? Ascione has the answer: He suggests pouring in the espresso and then leaving it to boil the gnocchi and prepare the parsley-sage butter for the sauce.
While the girls are in the kitchen, the hot espresso renders the ice cream into the most-rich latte your eyes have ever seen. By the time Mom has finished her savory gnocchi, the affogato will be an indulgent finish to her breakfast in bed.
Ascione sits the girls around three plates of gnocchi, one tossed in a sauté pan with the sage butter, the others in a truffle cream and his rustic tomato sauce.
Soon, only the scent and memory of their dishes remain, and the girls can’t stop talking about how simple and fun — after all spasso means entertainment in Italian — it was to make a meal for Mom.
“That’s my purpose, that’s my thing,” he says, “that they have fun.”
If you go
What: From novices to advanced home cooks learn techniques and dine with chef Gaetano Ascione at Spasso’s cooking academy
When: Classes are Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, beginning May 18
Where: Spasso Italian restaurant, 3540 Main Highway, Coconut Grove
More info.: Classes cost $35 each or $90 for a series of three. Tickets can be purchased online at SpassoMiami.com
Affogato Alla Vaniglia E Espresso Caffe
2 large scoops of Tahitian vanilla ice cream
4 ounces of freshly brewed espresso coffee
2 fresh mint leaves for decoration
Scoop the vanilla ice cream in a large tea cup. Pour two ounces of hot espresso over the ice cream and let sit for several minutes until the ice cream has mostly melted. Garnish with mint leaves.
Yield: 2 servings
1 pound fresh ricotta
1 1/2 cup of freshly grated Parmigiano cheese
1 1/2 cup of all-purpose flour
A pinch of salt
Cracked pepper to taste
In an electric mixer with paddle attachment, add all the ingredients and mix for a couple of minutes until a consistent ball is formed. Knead gently for another four minutes until ball is dry to touch. Roll baseball-sized ball of dough into 3/4 of a inch diameter dowels and cut dowels into inch-long pieces. Roll pieces over the tines of a dinner fork, lightly dusted in flour to create spiral look. Drop the gnocchi into salted boiling water and cook until they float, about 1 minute. Add the gnocchi directly to a sauté pan with sage butter sauce (recipe below) over medium-low heat for 2 to 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Serve on a warm plate, adding parmigiano cheese to taste.
Yield: 6 servings
Sage Butter Sauce
2 ounces unsalted butter
5 green leaves of fresh sage
Salt to taste
In a large sauté pan, add the butter and the cut sage and let simmer until the butter is just melted. Add the salt.