A dinner invitation from my neighbor, Beppi, is always a special and cherished occasion. I look forward to watching Beppi work in the kitchen, still spry and masterful at the stove at 89 years-old. His cooking is refined and elegant, and in his meals, I can taste the culinary wisdom of the ages (without exaggeration). As the former owner of “San Marco”, a highly acclaimed Italian restaurant in Manhattan, Beppi was well-known as one of the most dapper and charming restaurateurs in New York in his day.
Beppi was practically raised in a restaurant–his mother ran a local restaurant in their home town in Verona, and at the age of 13, Beppi set out for the big city (Venice) to learn his trade from the masters. He worked at the fabled Danieli Hotel as a busboy and soon graduated to waiter, then to captain. During this time, one of the dishes for which the Danieli was famous, was its calves liver alla veneziana. Beppi learned this dish directly from the chefs at the Danieli and is probably one of the few remaining people who can recall it perfectly and execute it exactly as it was made at the Danieli in the 1940s.
I’ve had this dish in Beppi’s kitchen before, so I already knew the treat I was in for. When I arrived, he was in the final stages of preparation of the dish and I was lucky enough to snap a few photos while he was sauteing and serving. Although he’s always amused by people photographing food, he simply ignores my camera and goes about the serious business of cooking and serving. He still prepares his meals as if he’ll be judged by the New York Times restaurant critic–everything served formally and impeccably. Nothing puts a smile on his face more readily than a happy eater at his table (lucky me).
I’ll give you this recipe exactly as he makes it.
Calves Liver alla Veneziana
serves 2 – 3
1 lb calves liver, thinly sliced
2 large onions, thinly sliced
3 tbls olive oil
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
1/2 c red wine
salt and pepper to taste
Begin by trimming and cutting liver–this is perhaps the most crucial step of the recipe, for the liver must be thinly sliced and trimmed of all skin, sinew and connective tissue. The the liver is then cut into small pieces (about 2″ x 1″). Drizzle the liver with red wine vinegar and proceed with the preparation.
In a nonstick skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil and saute the onions on low heat for about 15 minutes. Add red wine and continue cooking very slowly for about a half hour, partially covered, stirring from time to time. By then, the onions should have reduced and become deeply sweet and scented with wine.
When ready to serve, heat 2 tbls olive oil on high heat in a broad skillet until smoking. Quickly slide in the liver (vinegar and all)–it will sputter and make a mess of the surrounding area, but don’t worry–this step goes quickly. Saute on high heat for about a minute, tossing and turning.
Then with a slotted spatula, remove the liver and place it in the skillet with the onions. On low heat, stir the liver into the onions and simmer for about a minute.
That’s it–it’s very quick. If you overcook the liver it will be tough–you want it medium rare. That’s why the size of the pieces of liver is critical–if the pieces are too large, it will take too long to cook them properly and the liver will toughen and dry.
In addition to liver and polenta, Beppi has made a special spring side dish–asparagus gratinate. The asparagus are peeled, boiled, sprinkled with breadcrumbs and grated parmiggiano, then dotted with butter and broiled. This is a wonderful side dish with just about anything!