MARK CARALUZZI is a man who enjoys taking his work home with him.
One of three co-owners of the two American Cafe restaurants, Caraluzzi's chief responsibility is food preparation. In addition to supervising the kitchen crews, he has devised most of the restaurant's recipes. His laboratory is the kitchen of a Virginia ranch house off Route 7, not far from Sterling Park.
"I make it a point to try to cook at least two dinners a week, for friends or for myself," Caraluzzi said, "and the bigger our operation gets the more emphasis I place on small-scale cooking." At least once a month, he will execute a dinner party with several courses and wine, but he is just as conscientious about having musician friends over for a jam session and a stew or chili supper. (The set of drums one encounters in the living room isn't merely part of the decor. Caraluzzi used money he had saved from playing with bands as his investment in the restaurant business.)
Caraluzzi was only 18 when he, Bob Giamo and Jim Sullivan, Georgetown University students who missed the distinctive sandwiches of their native New York, went into the restaurant business. None of the three was a cook and the restaurant didn't even have a stove. Everything they bought was either precooked or, like lettuce, in its raw state. But Caraluzzi soon was bitten by the cooking bug and learned quickly.
"The first meal I made," he recalled, "was when I was in college. I called my mom and asked her how to make tomato sauce. Then I went to Litteri (the Italian grocer on 4th Street NE) to buy sausage. The pasta was a hit and so was the other dish. I bought fried clams at Howard Johnson's and reheated them in butter with some lemon juice."
The distance between that repast and one he offered on a winter Sunday not long ago was a leap worthy of those fictional space heroes who move through time warps. Among the dishes he prepared were French fried sweet potatoes flavored with an exotic imported vinegar, a nouvelle cuisine chicken with raspberries, shrimps flavored with pink peppercorns, a delicate lasagna made with homemade noodles and apple-smoked chicken, squash baked with maple syrup and an esoteric variation on chocolate mousse.
"Two of my teachers, Giuliano Bugialli (author of "The Fine Art of Italian Cooking") and Francois Dionot (of L'Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda), were coming, Caraluzzi explained, "so I wanted to combine principles of Italian and French cooking in the menu. I wanted to try something beyond what I'd done before, to innovate. I stuck to basic techniques and simply tried to take the dishes in other directions. I was dealing with elements with which I was familiar; it was only the tastes that would be new. So I figured it was worth taking the gamble. Even if a dish or two flopped, it wouldn't be a disaster."
There wasn't a disaster. While the quantity of wine Caraluzzi had on hand was sampled liberally, no one resorted to it to drown out an unpleasant taste. One condiment that played a major part in the feast was raspberry vinegar, currently a favorite plaything of France's experimental chefs. Caraluzzi had recently made an eating tour of France and was eager to recapture some of the flavors he had discovered. The vinegar and the pink peppercorns he used with the shrimp had come back on the plane with him, but are now available at some specialty stores here.
His formula for entertaining has evolved over several years. The house itself is important. Low and rambling, it is tucked away in a grove of trees. The kitchen opens onto the main room where one finds -- not far from the drum set -- a specially constructed table that seats 12. Heat is provided by a wood-burning stove and the atmosphere is as casual as one might expect of bachelor "digs." He describes with amusement a gathering there for potential investors in the Capitol Hill American Cafe that opened last spring. "My partners insisted we hire professional cleaners to spruce up the place and polish the floors. We even bought new towels and rugs.
"It's a perfect house for entertaining," Caraluzzi said. "I've had 100 people here for barbecues, but usually it's very peaceful. I do all my work on recipes here and have people out for taste tests. I will have 15 or 20 for a jam session and a one-dish meal. But for dinners with wine I don't have more than 10 or 12."
Even for these affairs the dress is casual. Guests are invited for late afternoon and the meal continues well into the evening with the host moving from table to kitchen to finish each course. Caraluzzi plans three or four courses. Although much of what he serves requires last-minute cooking, he does desserts and as much preparation as possible the day ahead. "It's essential," he says, "for me to take an hour off before guests arrive to relax. I take a walk in the woods or read the paper."
He serves the first course in the living room before asking guests to move to the table. Caraluzzi has become an enthusiastic explorer of California's vineyards, so there are wines to compare. "I put a lot of emphasis on matching wine with food," he said, "so I will offer a couple of wines with each course. But I try to have others available for those who don't want to play the tasting game and each person only has one glass, unless they ask for more."
The kitchen itself is not extraordinary. Only a few pieces of equipment show that the occupant is a serious cook -- a KitchenAid mixer, a smoker and a food processor among them. "I'd rather have a small, crammed kitchen with good equipment than a model layout with inferior pots and pans," he said. In summer he grows vegetables, "basics such as pappers, zucchini and corn, plus herbs like basil, chives, thyme and oregano."
During the week, the fare he prepares is considerably less exotic than his meals for company. Pasta with vegetables, risotto, roast chicken may make up a meal, or perhaps some new stew he has been testing.
"I don't want to limit myself," he said. "For the last four or five years I've been pursuing a knowledge of food through cookbooks and travel. I've worked with French, Chinese and Italian cooking and lately I've done a lot with regional American food. I talked with James Beard when he visited our restaurant and found him to be completely open to new taste experiences. Like him, I want my background to be as broad as possible."
Here are recipes for several of the new tastes. Caraluzzi introduced at the dinner, plus his interpretations of two classic recipes -- black bean soup and pecan pie -- that are popular at the American Cafe. SWEET POTATO FRENCH FRIES (4 servings) 2 medium or large sweet potatoes, peeled 1 bottle (48 ounces) vegetable oil 3 tablespoons raspberry vinegar* Salt to taste *Available at various specialty food stores
Wash potatoes and cut them into shoestring fried potato size. Pat dry on paper towels. Heat oil to 260 to 275 degrees. Drop in half the potatoes and cook for 5 minutes. Drain well on paper towels. Repeat with remaining potatoes. (This may be done an hour or two in advance.)
Reheat oil to 325 degrees and fry potatoes in batches for 30 seconds to a minute, or until they are lightly browned. Drain, sprinkle with vinegar and salt very lightly. BLACK BEAN SOUP (Makes about 2 gallons) 4 cups black beans, soaked overnight in water about 3 inches above the beans 1 stick (8 tablespoons) butter 2 to 3 large onions (about 1-1/2 pounds), coarsely chopped 4 large cloves garlic, peeled and minced 4 leeks, cleaned and coarsely chopped 2 ribs celery, coarsely chopped 2 bay leaves 2 or 3 cloves (optional) 4 quarts veal stock or chicken stock 2 quarts bean stock and water 2 pounds smoked ham hocks 1 tablespoon salt 1 teaspoon black pepper 2/3 cup dry madeira wine Garnish of chopped hard-cooked eggs, chopped parsley and thin slice of lemon
Drain beans into a colander with a pot underneath to catch liquid. Add water as needed to equal 3 quarts. Reserve.
Melt butter in a large kettle. Add onions, garlic, leeks, celery, bay leaves and cloves. Saute vegetables for 5 to 7 minutes. Add veal stock and bean water, beans and ham hocks, salt and papper. Bring to a boil, then cut back flame and simmer liquid for 3 hours with the kettle almost covered.
Remove ham hocks. When they have cooled, strip the meat from them and reserve.
Puree soup by batches through a food mill or in a blender. Pour into a fresh pan. Taste and adjust seasoning, then add reserved ham meat and madeira. Bring to a boil and serve in bowls with garniture passed separately. MARK CARZLUZZI'S RASPBERRY CHICKEN (4 servings) 1 chicken, about 3-1/2 pounds, washed and well dried 10 tablespoons unsalted butter, not ice cold 1/2 cup fresh raspberries, or 1/3 cup frozen unsweetened raspberries, drained 1 slice lemon 2 tablespoons peanut oil 1 tablespoon salt 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper 2-1/2 tablespoons raspberry vinegar
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Puree 6 tablespoons of butter with the raspberries by hand or in a food processor. Working carefully, slip your fingers under the skin along the breast and work along until the skin on both sides is free from the breast meat and forms two pockets. Spread the butter-rasperry puree in these pockets, being cautious not to tear the skin. Truss chicken lightly
In a small pan, heat 1 tablespoon butter with 1 tablespoon oil and set aside to use for basting.
Place chicken on its side on an oiled rack in a shallow roasting pan. Baste with oil-butter mixture and cook for 20 minutes. Turn the chicken on its other side, baste and roast another 20 minutes. Turn chicken breast side up, baste again and cook an additional 20 to 30 minutes. Cover breast with foil if necessary to prevent it from becoming too dark or burning.
Remove chicken from oven and let rest in a warm place for 10 to 15 minutes whitle prepapring sauce.
Pour off fat and all but 4 tablespoons of pan drippings. Heat atop stove and scrape up any dripping stuck to the pan. Add raspberry vinegar and simmer 3 or 4 minutes. Strain into a small sausepan. Reheat and stir in, bit by bit, the remaining 3 tablespoons of butter. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve in a sauceboat. PECAN PIE (Makes one 9-inch pie) For the crust: 1 1/4 cups all purpose unbleached flour 1/3 cup shortening 6tablespoons butter, cut into very small pieces 1/3 teaspoon salt 1/3 teaspoon sugar 1/4 cup (about) cold water chilled in the refrigerator For the filling: 1 tablespoon melted butter 3 eggs 1 cup sugar, minus 2 tablespoons 1 1/4 cups corn syrup 1 1/4 teaspoons vanilla extract Pinch of salt 2 cups of pecan halves
To make pastry, pour flour into a mixing bowl. Make a well in the center, add the butter and shortening and work the ingredients together with a pastry blender or finger tips until the mixture is the consistency of rough oatmeal. (Work quickly so the butter does not become greasy or melt.) Pour in the water and mix quickly until a ball forms and holds together. This should take less than a minute. Wrap the ball in plastic wrap and refrigerate until the dough is frim, at least 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Filling: Beat eggs lightly then add butter, sugar, syrup, vanilla extract and salt. Mix well.
Roll out pie shell and fit into a 9-inch pan. Place pecans in shell and pour syrup mixture over them. Bake 15 minutes at 375. Reduce temperature to 350 and bake 30 to 40 minutes longer, or until when the pie is shaken the filling moves only slightly. Cool for at least 15 minutes before serving hot, or let cool completely and serve at room temperature.