With the beginning of Lent on February 13, Roman Catholics throughout the world observe the season by forgoing meat. Some say goodbye to red meat altogether while others skip it only on Fridays, but giving something up for Lent is part of a centuries-old tradition. For observant Catholics, vegetarians and lovers of Italian food, many meatless meals may feel more like an indulgence than abstinence.
Salads are an excellent way to start a lunch or dinner at any time of year, and they fit beautifully with Lenten observations or vegetarian dining. The key to a perfect salad is combining the right flavors and textures. The best salads incorporate tangy, rich, crunchy, salty and sweet flavors and textures in the right proportions. Carlino’s fruit salad is a great example; with sweet fruit, crisp mesclun greens, rich and salty Romano cheese and tangy balsamic dressing, it hits all the high points. Without the cheese, the salad goes from vegetarian to vegan.
Pasta is a perfect base for meatless dining. Topped with shrimp or clams, it’s a Lenten classic; with vegetables and a delicate cream sauce, it’s a taste of spring in any season. Meatless marinara sauce rich with garlic, basil and olive oil is all a great plate of pasta needs sometimes. Who says Lenten meals have to be dull? No one who’s ever tried pasta puttanesca, certainly. With its briny capers and pungent anchovies, this luscious dish packs enough flavor to keep anyone from missing meat.
During Lent, consider making vegetables the star of the show instead of a side dish. Eggplant, broccoli rabe and portobello mushrooms get regal treatment from Italian cuisine and deserve their share of the spotlight. Try an eggplant parmigiano sandwich for lunch or an eggplant rollatine bursting with flavorful mozzarella for dinner and discover how versatile the vegetable can be. Carlino’s has a wide variety of sandwiches that are perfect during Lent or at any time of the year.
Pizza, America’s favorite food, is also a great Lenten meal if you choose the right toppings. Skip the sausage and go heavy on the vegetables for a healthy, flavorful pizza. Anchovies and shrimp are also fine for those observing Lent and for pescetarians. All of Carlino’s pizzas are made to order, so let us know if you have special requests for toppings.
Seafood of any sort has long been a staple for Lent. Finding flavorful fish, shrimp and clams may be a challenge in some parts of the country, but New Yorkers don’t have to suffer through their seafood dishes. Clams Posillipo, tender mussels and buttery shrimp scampi are at their best near the coast. Spicy shrimp fra diavolo may have a wicked-sounding name, but the piquant dish is as virtuous as any Lenten meal. Lobster, one of the most luxurious foods you can enjoy, is also welcome on the table for Lent.
The beauty of Italian food is its inclusiveness. No matter what you eat or how you eat it, you’ll find something to please your palate. It’s the perfect solution for large parties because everyone can enjoy something on the menu. With hundreds of years of experience creating phenomenal feasts for Lent, Italian food is excellent for vegetarian and vegan diners as well as observant Catholics. Those who like to indulge in a sausage pizza or spaghetti with meatballs will find all these favorites on the menu, too.
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Some of most famous dishes served at Carlino’s Restaurant on Long Island relies on the rich heritage of cheeses that food lovers have enjoyed for hundreds of years. Italian chefs had to be creative with dairy products in the warm Mediterranean climate, so they developed and perfected the art of cheese-making. From the mildest mozzarella to the sharpest Parmigiano Reggiano, Italy’s cheeses are justly famous worldwide.
Carlino’s Soft Cheeses
Mozzarella is Italy’s most common cheese thanks to its partner, the pizza. Soft and mellow with just a little saltiness, mozzarella originally came from water buffalo, not cows. When cheese-makers stretch the fresh cheese and press the water out of it, it forms strands, giving the cheese its other popular nickname: string cheese. You’ll find it shredded atop pizzas to impart a luscious creaminess or as part of an insalata Caprese with tomatoes and fresh basil. Unlike most cheeses, mozzarella doesn’t have to age; a pizza with fresh, homemade mozzarella is a gourmet delight.
Mascarpone cheese is so soft that it spreads like butter. It’s the mildest of Italian cheeses and has a gentle creaminess that makes it a perfect partner for sweet or savory dishes. Like other cream cheeses, mascarpone takes on the flavors of other ingredients readily, so it’s often the base for dips and fillings where it enhances the character of other ingredients with bolder tastes. Tiramisu wouldn’t be the same without it.
Ricotta, like mascarpone, has a light flavor and texture that makes it a component of sweet and savory dishes. Unlike its counterpart, ricotta cheese is naturally light in calories, too. Cheese-makers create ricotta from low-fat whey instead of whole milk, so it contains little fat compared to other cheeses. Ricotta soaks up other flavors well, so you’ll often find it paired with potent ingredients like a tangy tomato sauce in layers of lasagna or with cinnamon in crisp cannoli. It’s also excellent on a pizza where it complements robust toppings like sausage and onions.
Carlino’s Semi-Soft Cheeses
Every great cuisine has a notable blue cheese, and pale, blue-green veined Gorgonzola is Italy’s contribution to the world. Gorgonzola’s powerful, tangy taste makes it a perfect foil for dressings, dips and sauces where just a few crumbles of the cheese can add big flavor. You’ll also spot it on cheese plates where it goes well with walnuts and pears or on antipasto platters where it adds piquancy to pickled vegetables.
Provolone is to mozzarella what brandy is to wine – a distillation and concentration of an already delicious product. Cheese-makers press and age mozzarella, sometimes smoking it for extra flavor, to transform it into provolone. Sandwiches become special when dressed with a few slices of melted provolone to give them a rich, creamy texture and flavor. It’s also delicious in salads where its smooth texture contributes almost as much as its mellow taste.
Carlino’s Hard Cheeses
Parmesan and Parmigiano-Reggiano are close to the same, but not quite. The former term is the English name for a hard Italian cheese with a powerfully salty, nutty, almost peppery flavor; the latter refers to Parmesan cheese made according to centuries-old traditions in the Parma region of Italy. Just as champagne is more than sparkling wine, Parmigiano-Reggiano is more than Parmesan cheese. Both are exquisitely sharp and hard enough to grate over pizza or pasta, but Parmigiano-Reggiano is good enough to eat in thin shards all by itself. It’s a mainstay of Caesar salads as well as an essential topping for tomato sauces.
Pecorino Romano is Italian for “little Roman sheep,” and that’s just where this ultra-sharp cheese comes from. Often used with grated Parmesan, Pecorino Romano – sometimes shortened to Romano – is a traditional topping for anything with a savory tomato sauce.
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Throughout most of the world, New York and cheesecake are practically synonymous, but the modern cheesecake’s roots are as Italian as the Mona Lisa and a good bit older. In fact, cheesecake is almost as old as cheese itself.
The Greeks were the first to turn soft, fresh cheeses into cheesecake about 4,000 years ago. The original version contained only honey, cheese and enough flour to form the other ingredients into a thick cake that baked until it turned solid enough to slice. It was popular as a wedding cake or festival cake, and athletes ate it before races in the belief that it gave them energy. The idea of downing a thick slice of cheesecake before running a marathon seems odd, but the ancient libum was far less rich than today’s delicious version.
While the classic New York cheesecake is dense, smooth, creamy and sweet, its ancient Roman ancestor was dry and almost savory. The Romans didn’t have the luxury of granulated sugar to sweeten their desserts, so they used honey like Greek bakers did. The Romans added eggs and a pastry crust to their savillum, along with common flavorings of the day such as bay leaves. Grated orange and lemon zest were also popular flavors; unlike bay and ground pepper, citrus fruits still go great with cheesecake. Wherever Romans went in Europe, they brought their cheesecake with them, spreading the traditional food throughout the continent.
King Henry VIII clearly enjoyed his meals, and according to one of his cooks, cheesecake was one of his favorite desserts. His version contained bits of bread soaked in milk, sugar and butter along with soft cheese in a dish that probably resembled a bread pudding more than a modern cheesecake.
The sweet treat stayed more or less the same for hundreds of years until a dairy farmer in New York created cream cheese. The smooth, creamy cheese was perfect as a base for the already beloved cheesecake, transforming it into something far greater than the sum of its ingredients. Despite its association with the product, it’s not Philadelphia, but New York that can lay claim to being the home of cream cheese – and that positioned the state perfectly as the home of cheesecake as well.
By 1900, New York cheesecake was already held to be the best in the world. Other parts of the country experimented with fewer egg yolks or more sour cream, but the quintessential New York version remained the gold standard. It still does, as any glance at a menu elsewhere will tell you. Every restaurant that boasts a great cheesecake invariably calls it “New York style.”
The next time you enjoy a slice of classic New York cheesecake, take a moment to appreciate the history you’re tasting with every bite. It may not be the best thing to eat before running a marathon, but it’s the perfect end to a great dinner and the ideal companion for a cup of espresso.Tweet read more