Back in the day when I lived in Hillcrest, one of my favorite restaurants for good Italian cooking was Busalacchi's over on Fifth Ave. That was in the late 80s and 90s. Since then, owner Joe Buscalacchi expanded his Sicilian culinary kingdom to include Cafe Zuccharo, Po Pazzo, Zia's Bistro, Tratoria Fantastica, and Via Lago. He closed the flagship, replacing it fairly recently on Fifth and Pennsylvania with Busalacchi's A Modo Mio.
In other words, the Sicilian-born Busalacchi's a busy guy. Happily, however, he made time for me on a recent afternoon to share with me his favorite ways to cook fish--or, more expansively, seafood--at the Po Pazzo kitchen in Little Italy. And what I learned was that as complex as the flavors turn out to be in the finished dish, the preparation is very homey, very accessible for the home cook. In fact, no formal recipes are required, just a simple explanation, with the ingredients.
We started with striped bass, a couple of them, both about a pound and a half. They'd been cleaned but remained whole, head included.
The first dish was what Busalacchi called cartoccho, or covered fish. You'll need a baking sheet and aluminum foil for this. Make two cuts on each side of the fish to better tell when the fish is fully cooked. Rub the fish with olive oil, salt and pepper, dried Greek oregano, lemon and orange juice, and add lemon slices, roasted onion, and some scallions. Stuff the cavity with a couple of lemon slices. Fold the foil to cover the head and the tail so they won't burn and run it under the broiler for four to five minutes on each side, using the foil to flip the fish. Then reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees, cover the fish with the foil, and bake another 15 minutes until the flesh (check the opening of the cuts) is just white.
From there we went on to a gently poached striped bass Sicilian style with boiled potatoes and an olive oil dressing. Bring a large pot of water with a couple of bay leaves and a pinch of salt to the boil. Peel, cut up, and boil the red potatoes first. Once they're fully cooked, remove them from the water, bring it back to the boil and add the fish, cooking about 10 minutes. While the fish is cooking, pour about a cup of good quality extra virgin olive oil in a bowl to which you'll add two cloves of sliced garlic, minced parsley, dried Greek oregano, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, a few saffron threads, and salt and pepper. Whisk it together.
Remove the fish carefully from the water and set on a platter. Arrange the potatoes around the fish. Zest part of an orange over the fish, then pour the olive oil mixture over both the fish and the potatoes.
That wasn't all. Accompanying these two magnificent fish dishes was a large plate of pastina, a very tiny pasta that absorbs all flavors. To make it Busalacchi got out a large skillet, poured a tablespoon or so of olive oil and then added shallots, which he sautéed until they were translucent. Then he added chopped tomatoes, fish stock, and a cup of the pastina, stirring it all together. He periodically added water if the mixture got too thick or dry. It took about 10 minutes for the pastina to cook to al dente. Then, he grated in some parmigiano reggiano, and added clams, shrimp, and calamari, letting the seafood cook until done. He arranged roasted carrots and peppers around the pasting, along with a mound of fried yam strings, then topped it with the roasted striped bass before finishing it off with a little drizzle of truffle oil.
Both fish dishes were packed with the flavors they were cooked with--aromatic and juicy as well. And, Busalacchi was quick to point out, you can use any small, firm white fish.
Lunch is served!
Po Pazzo is located at 1917 India St. in Little Italy.