The woman on the label is a darned good cook. Unlike such mythical foodies as Betty Crocker, the Maddalena of San Antonio Winery's Maddalena Vineyard is real. She is Maddalena Riboli, the matriarch of the family that owns and operates the winery. Matriarch, however, is far too overbearing a term for this youthful and contemporary woman.
At the moment, Riboli is in northern Italy, conducting wine business (San Antonio imports wines produced there) and researching her current love, pasta. As evidence of this interest, pasta strands now hang as decoration in the winery restaurant, where the bill of fare is entitled "Maddalena Award-Winning Entrees."
The restaurant has operated for 15 years, drawing customers who find in the cool, cavernous winery building a pleasant escape from city congestion. They also find some wonderful food, the sort of hearty dishes one visualizes hearty, happy Italian families eating with gusto around a broad table covered, of course, with a red-checked cloth. Again, the food is real--really Italian and really home-style. (But San Antonio recently abandoned its red-checked tablecloths for a new design.)
Riboli was born in Mombaruzzo, a small town in the province of Asti in Northern Italy. The seasonings of that region--sage, rosemary, bay leaf, basil and garlic--dominate her cookery and the dishes served at San Antonio. Riboli's Florentine lasagna, one of the restaurant's "award-winning entrees," was researched in Florence. And she is a stickler for freshness.
"I like to use everything from scratch," Riboli said. That includes making her own seasoned bread crumbs and marinara sauce.
The sauce, by the way, is simmered only about 20 minutes, which defies the rule that pasta sauces require long hours on the stove. "I don't believe in that," Riboli said.
Her standards are so exacting that she banished the caterer who had been engaged to handle the reception when son Steve was married last September and organized the dinner herself.
Refreshingly, Riboli is not stuck in tradition. Such non-Italian elements as teriyaki sauce stray into her cooking at home. She adds a dash of teriyaki, along with Chardonnay and water, to the pan when cooking a lamb roast. "It gives a good flavor and makes a nice sauce," she said. The lamb itself is seasoned with thyme, rosemary and garlic and browned in olive oil.
Like many others, Riboli has lightened some fare. "I haven't used meat sauces (for pasta) at my home for at least four years," she said. Her focus in Italy this month is pasta sauces, which are used sparingly there rather than flooding the plate American-style.
Riboli is spending much of her time in Asti, where the food is "fantastic," she said with pride. The region is known for mushrooms, which are a key ingredient in Chicken in Wine Sauce, a dish that sells briskly at the winery. The chicken is coated with homemade seasoned bread crumbs, baked with dry white wine (San Antonio's Velvet Chablis) and topped with sauteed mushrooms. The key to success in this dish is using small (2-pound) chickens that are lean and cook quickly, Riboli said. These may be hard to find, but they are available in some supermarkets.
Another popular dish at San Antonio is Eggplant alla Parmigiana. Dusted with flour and browned in olive oil, the eggplant is layered with mozzarella and Romano cheeses. Marinara sauce goes into the layers and also over the top. Both dishes are accompanied by buttery toasted rolls that have an unusual topping--seasoned bread crumbs. Here are the recipes:
MADDALENA'S EGGPLANT ALLA PARMIGGIANA
3 medium-large eggplants, peeled
1 cup milk
1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon dried parsley leaves
1/2 teaspoon dried basil leaves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
Maddalena's Marinara Sauce
1 1/2 pounds mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced
1 cup grated Romano cheese
Cut eggplant into 1/2-inch thick rounds. Pile eggplant in colander and let stand 45 minutes. Beat egg with milk, then add garlic powder, parsley, basil, salt and pepper. Place flour in shallow bowl or on plate. Heat small amount olive oil in heavy skillet. Flour each slice eggplant, then dip in egg mixture and place in single layer in skillet. Saute until lightly browned. Remove and set aside.
To assemble, line 14x11-inch baking dish with 1 cup Maddalena's Marinara Sauce. Place layer of eggplant on sauce. Cover with mozzarella slices. Add 1/3 cup Romano cheese. Cover with 1 1/2 cups marinara sauce. Top with layer of eggplant, then cheeses. Make 1 more layer in this fashion, ending with cheeses. Cover with foil, supporting with wood picks so foil does not touch cheese.
Bake at 375 degrees 20 to 25 minutes, until heated through and cheese is melted. Cut into squares to serve. Spoon additional marinara sauce over each serving. Makes 12 servings.
Maddalena's Marinara Sauce
1/2 cup finely grated or ground carrot
1/2 cup minced or ground celery
1/2 onion, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 (28-ounce) cans tomato puree
1/2 puree can water