Ferdinando's - and a breakthrough!
- Nina Wugmeister
Had lunch today at Ferdinando's on Union St. between Hicks - Columbia. I had a rice ball with ricotta and tomato sauce, which was delicious. But the real miracle for me was the pasta con le sarde. I had been waiting to try this, and much to my chagrin, the dish was described as containing "wild fennel." Well, I died a thousand deaths. I am ashamed to admit it, but I just don't like fennel. Or anis. Or ouzo or sambuca or arak or black licorice, etc. I have tried countless times, and I just can't get there. A source of great embarassed for a self-proclaimed foodie like myself. Imagine my horror when this dish, about which I've hearded countless glowing reports, turned out to contain my one and only culinary enemy.
Well, I looked at my friend, and I said "ok, it's time to try again." And so, bravely, I ordered it. And I loved it. The fennel was subtle, and somehow was the perfect complement to the sardine taste. And the texture of the whole thing...the pasta was decidedly not al dente, with a good amount of oil...almost creamy.
I asked the funny waitress, who is quite a character, what is the difference between wild fennel and regular fennel Her response: "don't believe everything you read, honey." Ha!
I'm going back there and I'm going to work my way through the whole menu.
That's major. I remember when that happened to me with cilantro. So glad you liked Ferdinando's.
I LOVE pasta con sarde - it is an extraordinarily perfect flavor combination (and I'm a bit ambivalent about fennel). When my parents went to Sicily a few years ago, they discovered that no one in Palermo (where the dish originates) would make it for them because wild fennel was not in season. Not suprisingly, they could get it all over Sicily outside Palermo, where cooks were willing to desecrate the dish with farmed fennel. Haven't the faintest clue what the difference is, though I suspect your waitress was right that you were eating your every-day tame domesticated fennel!
We, too, just had a spectacular meal at Ferdinando's, especially the eleven-month old chowpup who loved the arancina (the rice ball) and the panelle sandwich and the plain foccacia dipped in the thick vinegary dressing on the caponatina and the garlicky stuffing from the artichoke, and he even liked the fruity house red wine when he licked it off my fingers. On the fennel tip, the difference between wild and farmed fennel is not so much a matter of flavor. For pasta con sarde, you use the feathery dill-like top, not the bulb. Since farmed fennel is grown for the bulb, that's usually all you find in the markets (the bulb with the tops lopped off), and the domesticated plant has been hybridized to produce a bigger and bigger bulb, and fewer greens and seeds--think of the difference between farmed and wild carrots. Where I grew up, in Oregon's Willamette Valley, fennel grows, uh, wild along the sides of farm roads because it escaped from the fields of the immigrant Italian farmers and thrived. Whether that's wild or not is too botanically complex for me, but the tops make great pasta con sarde.
I second your views on the fennel tops. The Park Slope Food Co-op sells the entire plant, and I use tops and a little of the bulb in my beef stew with root vegetables. Like Nina, I too have never been able to enjoy licorice flavor, and I definitely prefer the tops over the rest of the plant.
I liked the sarde too. The baked pasta al forno is nice and heavy with ricotta and ground meat. The real surprise was the linguini with white clam sauce...one of the best in the city imho.