Comfort Food

From fresh tomato sauce to stuffed shells with winter squash, a new cookbook by food stylist and writer John F. Carafoli includes Italian American culinary classics to dig into this fall and winter.

Recipes by John F. Carafoli | Photography by Francine Zaslow

Long before Cape Cod was a premier vacation destination, about 500 Italian laborers traveled from New York to Sagamore and Sandwich in 1880 to help dig the Cape Cod Canal with picks and shovels. In his latest book, “Great Italian American Food in New England,” John F. Carafoli tells the story of his own background and upbringing on Cape Cod, as well as the region’s rich Italian history. In addition to including dozens of timeless recipes, he touches on the importance of passing down family recipes and how his own Italian heritage has shaped so much of who he is today. On the following pages, we highlight six recipes—salads and sauces to stuffed shells and a citrus olive oil cake for dessert. Buon appetito!

—Meghan Nanan

Insalata Di Arancie (Salad with oranges – pictured at top)

Serves 4-6

“Sicily has an overabundance of oranges in many varieties. In the winter and spring season, the famous blood oranges can be found. Sliced oranges make a terrific palate cleanser and are often found paired with fish.” —Michele Topor, Boston Food Tours


6 oranges, peeled with the white pith removed
1 red onion, thinly sliced and soaked in water for at least 30 minutes
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
Several oil-cured olives
Chopped fresh Italian parsley for garnish
Fennel, thinly sliced

Cut the oranges into segments (see photo) and place in a shallow salad bowl.
Drain the onions and pat dry. Dress the oranges with the onion, olive oil and vinegar.
Season to taste with salt and pepper. Garnish with olives, parsley and fennel.
This salad is best if allowed to marinate for 30 minutes before serving.

Fifteen-Minute Fresh Tomato Sauce

Makes about four cups

This versatile sauce is a must-have recipe for a quick, tasty and delicious topping for any dish that calls for tomato sauce—pizza, pasta or fish.


2–3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small hot pepper or a few shakes of red pepper flakes (optional)
12 large ripe tomatoes, blanched, skin removed, seeded
and coarsely chopped
3 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 tablespoon chopped fresh marjoram
3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
½ teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1. Heat olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic and pepper (if using). Cook for three minutes until the garlic starts to turn light brown.

2. Add all of the remaining ingredients, stir and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. This sauce can be used immediately, stored in the refrigerator for a few days or frozen for future use.

Shells Stuffed With Spinach

Makes about 35 stuffed shells
Serves 8–10


1 pound spinach
2 cups ricotta cheese
4 ounces cream cheese
¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg,
or more to taste
Salt and pepper
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 (12-ounce) package)
jumbo pasta shells
(approximately 35-36 per package)
Fifteen-minute fresh tomato sauce
(see above recipe)

1. Remove any tough center ribs from spinach. Wash, but do not dry. With only the water left clinging to the leaves, cook in a large pot for a few minutes to wilt the leaves. Drain and squeeze completely dry. Finely chop the spinach.

2. In a medium bowl, beat together spinach, ricotta, cream cheese and nutmeg until smooth. Salt and pepper to taste. Then beat in the egg.

3. Prepare the shells according to package; drain and rinse with cold water to cool and carefully set aside. Lightly butter a shallow baking dish large enough to hold the shells in one layer. Stuff shells with about 1 tablespoon of cheese mixture each.

4. Arrange in baking dish. Cover with sauce. Bake at 350 degrees for about 25 minutes until heated through.

Lamb and Eggplant Meatballs in Simple Tomato Sauce

Makes 20 meatballs

My friend Julia Della Croce developed this recipe. She explains: “I added the eggplant to the meatballs because it gives you less meat and also makes the meatball more tender. What is more classic than mixing meat and eggplant?”


1 medium eggplant
1 cup day-old sturdy bread, such as sourdough or country loaf,
crusts removed, cut into 1/4-inch cubes (2 ounces trimmed weight)
1 egg
1 scant teaspoon fine sea salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground
Black or white pepper
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 pound ground lamb leg or shoulder
3 tablespoons minced fresh Italian parsley
2 tablespoons fresh minced rosemary or 2 teaspoons dried, crushed rosemary
Extra-virgin or pure olive oil for frying
2 cups homemade meatless tomato sauce of your choice

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

2. Prick the eggplant in several places with a cake tester or sharp knife. Place it on a baking sheet and roast until entirely collapsed, soft, and charred, about 35 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, place bread cubes in a shallow soup bowl and cover with water. Soak until moistened, several minutes. Drain and squeeze excess water from bread.

4. When the eggplant is cool enough to handle, push out excess seeds. (Leaving some of them in with the pulp adds texture to the meatball.) Chop the pulp finely in a food processor. Transfer it to a sieve and press with a spoon to drain off excess liquid.

5. In an ample mixing bowl, whisk together egg, sea salt, pepper and garlic. Stir in the prepared bread cubes. Use your hands to break them up until they are well blended with the egg mixture. Add the chopped eggplant, ground lamb, parsley and rosemary. Using your fingers, mix the ingredients together without overworking them. If you have time, chill the mixture before forming the meatballs; this step can help you shape it into perfectly round spheres, but it is not essential.

6. With wet hands, form the mixture into equally sized balls about 1¼ inches in diameter, no larger than golf balls.

7. Prepare a platter with two layers of paper towels next to the burner over which you will be cooking.

8. In an ample skillet or frying pan, pour enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan and warm it over medium heat. Fry the meatballs in batches to avoid overcrowding; there should be plenty of room around each for proper searing. When they have developed a light crust and look golden brown, about 10 minutes, transfer them to the paper towels to drain. If necessary, drain off smoky oil and add fresh oil to the pan to prevent the bits that settle on the bottom from burning. Warm the oil once again and finish frying.

9. If you are serving the meatballs in tomato sauce, warm the sauce over medium heat and slip the browned meatballs into it. Cook them through, about 20 minutes. Serve at once. If you plan to make the meatballs in advance, cool and store them, with or without the tomato sauce, in a covered storage container in the refrigerator for up to four days. Alternatively, freeze them for up to three months.

Spaghetti with White Clam Sauce

Serves 2

This is a basic recipe for pasta with clams. You can embellish this dish by adding crispy sliced garlic chips, or, if you would like a red sauce, mix a tablespoon or two into the wine and clam juice.


½ pound spaghetti
¼ cup olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
3–4 cloves garlic, minced
1 small hot red pepper, sliced or red pepper flakes to taste
¼ cup dry white wine
½ cup clam juice
¾ cup minced clams
6 small clams, 3 per person
¾ cup finely chopped fresh Italian Parsley
Zest of ½ lemon

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook pasta until al dente.

2. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil and butter in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and pepper and cook for two to three minutes until softened.

3. Add the wine and clam juice and bring to a boil, two to three minutes. Stir in minced clams, small clams, parsley and lemon zest. Drain the pasta and add to the saucepan. Serve immediately in warm bowls.

Tip: Steam the clams in ¼ cup white wine and use the stock in the base. This will ensure their freshness and you will not destroy the dish if one clam is filled with sand. Discard any that do not open. The clams should be added last to just heat them through.

Citrus Olive Oil Cake

Serves 8

I have made this cake several times. It is wonderful served by itself or with a dollop of whipped cream. It can also be served with almonds, sweetened raspberries or strawberries on the side.


2 cups all-purpose flour
1 ¾ cups sugar
1½ teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1½ teaspoons baking powder
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 ¼ cups whole milk
3 large eggs
1 tablespoon each grated lemon and lime zest
1/4 cup combined fresh lemon and lime juice
1 teaspoon lemon extract

For the glaze:

1 cup confectioners’ sugar
1–3 tablespoons lemon juice

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Butter the sides of a 9-inch round springform cake pan and line the bottom with buttered or oiled parchment paper.
3. In a bowl, whisk the flour, sugar, salt, baking soda and baking powder.
4. In another bowl, whisk the olive oil, milk, eggs, lemon and lime zest, juice and lemon extract.
5. Add the dry ingredients, and whisk until just combined. Do not overbeat.
6. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 1 hour, until the top is golden and a cake tester comes out clean. Let cool for 30 minutes.
7. Remove sides of pan and let
cake cool for several hours before serving.

For the glaze:

Mix confectioners’ sugar with lemon juice. Drizzle over top of cake.


Recipes and photos reprinted with permission from: “Italian American Food in New England,” by John F. Carafoli and photography by Francine Zaslow, 212 pages, $22.95

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