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Mangia bene! That's the philosophy - "eat well," in Italian - behind two new epicurean stores in Olde Mistick Village. Extra Virgin, which opened this spring to feature olive oils and vinegars from Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal and specialty oils from award-winning executive chefs throughout the United States, has been joined in the past few weeks by sister store Semolina, a tasting emporium for pastas and sauces, Italian bread and hard cheeses from Northern Italy.
The stores and concoctions in them are the creation of Stephen Clemente, who grew up in a big extended Italian-American family in New Haven, and his wife, Sharon, who loves Italian tastes too, in spite of her family's Lithuanian and Slavic heritage laced with dill, potatoes and cabbage.
The goal of the stores is to transport people back in time, to that of their grandparents, Italian or not, and simple preparation of fresh, seasonal ingredients and no long-worded chemical preservatives and additives.
The couple, former corpocrats, decided on a December 2010 visit to Italy that Stephen would open an olive oil and vinegar store as an homage to his grandmother, Dorothy Lauria, who came from the Amalfi coast of Italy as a young woman to make her life in America. "Nonni" celebrated her 100th birthday in September and proudly visited the shop.
"She credits her longevity to an ounce of olive oil and an ounce of vinegar every day," said Clemente, pointing out that vinegar is the number one digestive in the world, often served at the end of the meal.
"In most Italian families, you would find Sunday was reserved for cooking, a day spent in the kitchen as a family," said Clemente, who designed the pasta shop around the Sunday dinner ritual of communal, peasant-style home cooking that he grew up on. "Somebody's making the pasta, someone is grating the cheese, someone's slicing eggplant; it's an all-day process. It's the one day of the week that the family comes together and sits down to eat."
The two storefronts will become one gustatory experience once a Roman arch is chopped into the interior wall between them. Besides four or five base premium olive oils, with tastes that range from mellow to peppery, there are about 20 oils infused with seasonal ingredients. The fall selection includes blood orange, Tuscan spice, shiitake sage, ginger and pumpkin spice infused oils.
Clemente pairs the oils with flavored vinegars, the fall line-up including black fig, pomegranate balsamic, mangosteen, tequila lime, and harvest Riesling to Thai lemon basil designed to complement stir-frys. Lucky family members, friends and customers get invited to regularly scheduled private tasting parties that determine what will be in the stores next.
"If you visit us once a month, you'll see a completely new line of new pastas, oils and vinegars, based on seasonal herbs and ingredients," said Clemente, who enthusiastically recommends food pairings and preparation tips.
Semolina offers samples of the pasta of the day, based on sauces created by the Clementes that are sold by the jar in the store and online. A placard out front attests to the variety and range of seasonal ingredients, from mushroom fettuccine with portobello Shiraz wine sauce and classic egg fettuccine with artichoke chardonnay sauce to nutmeg fettuccine in Semolina's Alfredo sauce, plus a cinnamon pinot noir sauce.
"Pasta is a universal comfort food, one that everyone likes. It's warm, it smells great, it looks good on the plate. People of all ages, from children to seniors, can enjoy it," he said. "Now, pasta is an art, people are looking for it not only to be fresh, but for it to be artisan in both flavor and design, to be conversational."
Semolina currently has seven fresh pastas, 15 varieties of frozen raviolis, manicotti and papardelle, 15 artisan dried pastas made in Italy, 15 wine-based sauces created by Clemente, plus Alfredo, pesto, vodka-based classics. There's also Semolina flour from Italy for scratch chefs. The proprietors are looking for more local purveyors, including Italian bread bakers.
A self-taught foodie with a background in publishing, Clemente is a walking encyclopedia of Italian cooking secrets.
"The secret is to cook pasta properly," he said. "The number one mistake that home chefs make is that they cook the pasta in one pan, they make the sauce in another and they just dump everything together on the plate. The pasta has to be undercooked by 90 seconds, drain it and finish cooking it in the simmering sauce. The pasta is starved for water at that point, so it soaks up the sauce."
Then, one final step: Take the pan of pasta and sauce off of the heat and top it with a splash of the companion Extra Virgin Store olive oil to bring out the bouquet of flavors.
Clemente already envisions the next chapter in the story, a wine room.
"You will have everything you need here, from oil and vinegar for your vinaigrette, fresh bread, hard Italian cheeses, your pasta and sauce, and your wine," he said. "At that point, it's my childhood."
Extra Virgin and Semolina are at 27 Coogan Blvd, Suite 15-D, open seven days a week, online at www.extravirginoilstore.com.
Quarter 10 figs and toss them with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Bake in a shallow dish at 375 degrees F for 10 minutes.
SautÚ 1 stick butter with ╝ cup good balsamic vinegar until butter melts.
Add baked figs to the pan and sautÚ 1-2 minutes more.
Cook 1 pound fresh fettuccine.
In large bowl combine pasta, balsamic/butter/fig mix and 1 tablespoon poppy seeds.
Serve with a simple arugula salad and a nice Pino Grigio wine.