I was crossing the Atlantic with my wife and kids earlier this year when I saw an in-flight magazine ad for the Milan Expo that opens May 1 and is already being billed as Italy's largest-ever food and nutrition event. The fair — "Feeding the planet, Energy for Life" is its motto — will last through October and give global industries the opportunity to show off food and sustainable nutrition technology, a hot topic since UN agencies began questioning the quality and availability of food in the coming centuries.
Among the fair's leading faces is Carlo Cracco. Until becoming a reality TV celebrity — he now appears on MasterChef Italia and hosts Hell's Kitchen — Cracco was known mostly as a top chef, food guru and proponent of elegant but simple cooking. He masterminded Milan's acclaimed Cracco Peck Restaurant, now known only as Cracco.
In 2004 Cracco published "The Squaring of the Egg," which used the virtues of the egg (his famous marinated version included) to suggest that modest ingredients prepared simply could deliver amazing results if you knew your ingredients and how to use them. Knowing and loving what you had in hand was the key, which Cracco compared to owning a vintage sports car. "It's just you and the car: you have to 'get' it, feel it, after which you can push it."
So what's does Cracco keep in his cupboards? There's plenty of plain bread and salami. And what does he make for his kids? Lasagna. Not gourmet lasagna, just lasagna.
I was busy conjuring up a plate of Cracco's steaming hot lasagna and its perfect crust when the fasten seat belt sign came on. Turbulence. No more lasagna. But my kids were hungry and the turbulence slowed down meal service. Where were the bread and salami when I needed them?
We were eventually served three fairly typical, film-covered airline plastic containers, a main course and two smaller ones, sides and fruit, along with plastic cutlery, sauce in a packet, and water. I reminded the kids to peel off the wrapping slowly.
Rule no. 1: Never peel anything fast. Double that rule if you have excitable kids and your breaded diced chicken is drenched in tomato sauce. One bite of the chicken was too many for my daughter, same for my son. The food went in and came out. Next, I tried to get my son to eat while wearing headphones and watching cartoons: Again, no luck.
Airline food is heavy on flavoring as if to make you forget the mediocrity. But there's weird science behind that. Some experts insist the white noise on long flights hinders the body's ability to process normal flavors while others say altitude and cabin pressure attracts flyers to sharper flavors they might not go for on earth. With that in mind, I set aside the chicken and mixed up some rice and tomato sauce for my daughter. Two second later she opened up with her mouth Uzi. Now my wife and I were covered in rice.
Rule no. 2: When feeding kids on planes (or trying to), apply napkins first, preferably as many as you can find.
All this made me feel a long, long way from Cracco's lasagna. Which is when Cracco appeared to me in a vision, encouraging me to pull out the Naples-style pizza di scarola or escarole pizza my mother had packed before we boarded. Pizza scarola is double crust pizza usually stuffed with escarole (a mild-flavored leafy green vegetable with a slightly bitter taste), capers, and olives. She also gave us a panino con la frittata, or an omelet sandwich. This is basically Italian brown bag food.
Bliss. My son tore through the frittata like a piranha. My daughter devoured the pizza scarola and licked her fingers for dessert.
Now that is travel food. I felt silly, since I'd mocked my mother for preparing the food. I hadn't wanted to look like a poor Italian kid with his packed lunch. But this was just the kind of food she and her parents took to the beach decades ago when they drove from our Lazio town of Passoscuro in their trusty Fiat 500. Once there, they'd haul out their stash of metal containers and spread out the lunch feast (including lasagna and eggplant parmigiana) on wood picnic tables. Other bathers, taken in by the delicious smells, often joined them. Later, everyone played cards.
The flight food researchers could have spared themselves a lot of time by talking with my mother and Italian grandmothers — and maybe also having a word with Cracco. Once made, panini con la frittata, pizza di scarola, and lasagna can be eaten hot or cold any time over 24 hours.
That makes rule no. 3 the most important of all: Keep it simple.
Pizza di scarola
This is basically a Naples-born rustic pizza or focaccia, and the recipes vary by region. The most common version is stuffed with escarole, endives and pan-cooked with anchovies, capers and olives. Served cold and cut into squares, it's tasty and a nutritious finger food that travels well (if only I'd listened).
Making the dough
— Place the milk and warm water in a measuring cup, allowing the sugar and yeast to dissolve. Mix well and set aside. It is ready when the top turns foamy.
— Place the flour and slices of the soft butter (or 60 grams of olive oil) in a bowl. Add the milk mixture (above) and then add the remaining extra virgin olive oil.
— Knead the dough until the ingredients are blended. Continue kneading until the dough is soft and smooth. Form a ball, place it in a container, cover it with a cloth and let rise (at room temperature) for a couple of hours.
Making the filling
— Place the anchovies, garlic, and a little olive oil in a frying pan over low heat. When the anchovies dissolve, add the escarole, which you may have to tear up by hand. Add salt and pepper and cook over medium heat for about 15 minutes. Set aside to cool and then remove extra liquid.
— When the dough rises, divide it into two equal loaves. Using a rolling pin, flatten one of the two loaves, creating a sheet about half-a-centimeter high. Then brush a 30x40 cm baking sheet with olive oil.
— Roll the dough onto the pan, overlapping the edges. Poke holes in the bottom of the dough with a fork. Add the stuffing, now cold, and divide it evenly. With the remaining mixture, make another sheet and place it over the filling.
— Close and seal the edges, making holes in the surface of the pizza with a fork.
— Cover the pizza with a cloth towel and let it rise for another hour. Cook the pizza in a preheated oven at 180C for 40 minutes. Once cooked, let it cool completely and serve pizza slices.
Then and only then (with permission from your mother), get on the plane.