They Certainly Know About Italian Food
Cooking programs- especially ones with well-known chefs, keep many of us glued to food, and when it comes to Italian cuisine, one "mamma" that rings out is Lidia Maticchio Bastianich of Lidia’s Table. So why did she appear for a book signing at M&S Italian Food Specialists, a local grocery store in Queens?
Upon entering the store one cannot help but view the long deli counter on the left. As you wait to be served, a television hanging from the ceiling is showing videotapes of Lidia preparing her dishes. Owner Joe Presita came up with this concept so that the customers had something to look at while passing the time on line.
Although Joe has his own kitchen crew and old recipes, some customers wanting to prepare a "Lidia" recipe would request to buy the ingredients. With a deli, meat case, fresh produce, imported Italian groceries, fresh sauces and pastas, it wouldn’t be difficult to create a "from scratch" meal. Not all of us want to cook.
What’s M&S all about? Joseph Prestia, one of 4 brothers, is part of the third generation at this locale. The store opened in 1949 as a small Italian grocery store owned by Vito Ferrara, Joseph’s great uncle. He and his brothers grew up in the store spending their younger years assisting their dad, Mike. Vito, a Sicilian immigrant brought Mike and his brother Sal to the United States, where they eventually took over the store and expanded the space and inventory.
M&S became sort of a hangout... in a good way. In the later days the neighborhood high school kids got part time jobs- and also got lectured to make sure that their homework was completed. Did it make a difference? It appears that when Joseph needs some quick assistance, these are the now adults that are ready to lend a hand.
Can you imagine choosing from more than 100 different cheeses? Not really knowing one Italian cheese from another, I sampled: Pinna Ricotta Salata; Imported Reggiano Parmigian; Drunken Goat; Pecorino Primosale; Manchego Sheeps Milk; Flore Di Sardegna along with a few others. Here’s a quick lesson.
Pepato: A hard grating table cheese will whole black peppercorns. It’s part skim milk and aged for five months. It’s an excellent cheese for a salad.
Fontina: A semi-soft cheese made from part skim milk and aged over 60 days. It develops a fresh, mild, yet slightly sweet and earthly taste. This one is perfect for making sauces. Pour it over pasta or vegetables or use it with a fondue.
Parmesan: A hard table and grating cheese made from part skim milk and aged for over 10 months. (An easy recipe for Fettuccine Alfredo: Bring 1 cup of heavy cream and 2 Tsp. of sweet butter to a boil in a sauté skillet. Reduce the heat and simmer for 30 seconds. Add ½ cup of Parmesan and whisk smooth. Remove from heat. Cook the fettuccine and add to the cream. Add ¼ cup of Parmesan and vigorously toss the noodles.)
Romano: A sharp hard grating cheese made from part skim milk, aged for at least 5 months. Great in pasta, soups and salads.
Gorgonzola: A soft cheese using whole cow’s milk, aged 90 days During the ageing process, small holes in the rind allow air to penetrate, facilitating the growth of mold, which is what gives Gorgonzola it’s earthy flavor. It makes an excellent spread by itself or when combined with Mascarpone and as a salad dressing mixed with mustard and olive oil. I would characterize this one as a soft version of Bleu cheese.
M&S wouldn’t have the title of "Food Specialists" if it were just the cheese. With a busy schedule and not wanting to cook I stocked up the ready-prepared foods, hoping that the quality would be decent, at the least. I bought a number of items to taste with the intention of sharing with friends who might be looking for a new Italian caterer. They never got to taste any of it. Honestly, each time I had a taste of one dish, I wanted more. It was as if I were at a the best Italian restaurant.
So, what did I have, you ask? I’ll begin with the vegetables. Stuffed artichoke, stuffed red pepper (rice, chopped beef, mozzarella), broccoli rabe, escarole and white beans, string beans and almonds and a combo of grilled vegetables.
There are pasta dishes using pasta that they make on the premises, and although there was only one designed to be a cold pasta dish, I have to come clean and admit that the only thing I warmed up was the stuffed pepper. If you taste the food, you’ll understand why. I didn’t even bother to warm up the chicken cordon bleu, or the chicken francaise.
One of their big sellers is the tuna salad. Tuna salad? Okay, that’s what Joe said, so I bought some tuna salad. Something is added to it that gives it such a great flavor and he wouldn’t reveal it to me when I called him back.
Then there were two of their many sauces, of which I chose the ala vodka and a jar of pesto sauce... and then there was that jar of chicken soup. Yes, I heated up the sauces and the chicken soup. Joe told me that the jars are "canned" giving the advantage to leaving them in your fridge for up to 6 months before opening.
Make a ravioli out of it! Lobster, crab, salmon for seafood; vegetables of squash, broccoli rabe, spinach; chicken, beef and combinations with various cheeses. The list of ravioli’s is quite long.
Catering is a large part of their business. In fact, Lidia was so impressed with the store that he asked Joe to have him cater her crew during the taping of one of her series. If there is a dish that you’re interested in having freshly prepared, call M&S at 718-353-0822 and Joe will have it ready for pick up. Manga!
M&S is located at at 34-23 Francis Lewis Blvd. in Bayside.