Casey Wall has a thing for Italian-American food. And the American-born chef and co-owner of Melbourne's Carlton restaurant Capitano, where he's built a menu around it, reckons it's ideal for fast home cooking. He should know.
"Italian-American cooking, particularly in places like New York and New Jersey, has a strong Sicilian influence so a lot of dishes start with a flexible base like passata," he says. "Once you have the base things on hand, you can make a variety of dishes that are all quick to cook."
To this end, Wall has included a recipe for quick and versatile tomato sauce. "I'm not a fan of bought passata and pasta sauces, and this recipe brings the freshness and vibrancy of in-season tomatoes to a number of the dishes here," he says. "It keeps for a while, too, and it freezes well. But it's such a good sauce that you'll probably use it all before you have to deal with any issues of how to store it."
Almost all of these recipes can be found on the menu at Capitano, a restaurant serving a style of food very different from that at Wall's two other venues (wine bar Bar Liberty, and burger and fried-chicken joint, Rockwell and Sons). It's a style born from Wall's nostalgia for the kind of red-sauce-style Italian restaurants he ate at while growing up on the east coast of the US.
"All of those Italian-American restaurants seemed to have the same 25 dishes on their menus," he says. "They're like cultural institutions with their menus of veal saltimbocca, chicken parmigiana, manicotti and baked ziti. We're bringing all those dishes to Capitano, but we use only local ingredients."
Another staple of Italian-American cuisine is pasta with a creamy tomato sauce lifted with a slug of vodka. Wall says the vodka enhances the flavour of the sauce and "makes the tomatoes smell richer and more prominent". It's one of his favourites, along with a "beautifully fresh and simple" sugarsnap pea scapece.
"If you start with a small bowl of pasta with vodka sauce and then move onto the veal parmigiana with a side of the sugarsnaps, you'll have a good night," he says.
And when it comes to quick, delicious cooking, Wall firmly believes that the secret lies in mastering simple recipes and techniques and knowing how to pull them off time and again. "Confidence obviously makes everything easier," he says. "When you get certain techniques down it opens up a whole range of dishes that you can pull together in 20 minutes."
Capitano, 421 Rathdowne St, Carlton, Vic, (03) 9134 8555, capitano.com.au By Michael Harden
"This is a simple starter or salad that combines burrata with one of the biggest staples of the Italian-American menu," says Wall. "Fried peppers know no limits in the scope of American food. Traditionally balsamic vinegar is used but I like the savouriness of sherry vinegar. You can easily substitute friggitello or shishito peppers with any other mild, small pepper."
"Caponata is one of the more complex dishes in the Sicilian repertoire," says Wall. "It's not only a melding of deep flavours, but it's also a nod to the rich cultural history of Sicily. There are many different types of caponata as you travel across the island, but they all are equally moreish. This dish is vegan but has a deep, layered umami base that is rich like a stew."
"Equal parts naff and amazing, this is one of those dishes that seems to always be good no matter the circumstances," says Wall. "It is almost impossible to stop eating this recipe until you get ill from carb overload."
"This is a basic tomato sauce that preserves the freshness and vibrancy of in-season tomatoes," says Wall. "Don't overcook it – overcooked sauces become dull and jammy and lose any sense of ripeness and freshness."
"This is our play on the classic dish of zucchini alla scapece," says Wall. "Traditionally, it's fried zucchini marinated in mint and vinegar, kind of like an escabeche, but ours is a little fresher and lighter."