While attending dental school in Chicago back in the 70s, I was on a limited budget and always on the lookout for good but cheap dining experiences. One of my favorite discoveries was a small storefront restaurant in suburban West Dundee called Mama di Pinto, named after its chef owner, Virginia Pinto, who died last year at the age of 101. Dinner at Mama di Pinto felt like a Sunday visit to your favorite Italian Nonna’s house. We were always greeted warmly by Virginia and her son, Silvio, and often Virginia snatched our toddler, Anne, out of her high chair and took her into the kitchen so that Mom and Dad could enjoy a few quiet moments together.
My prior exposure to Italian cuisine had been limited to spaghetti and meatballs, lasagne and minestrone. Everything on the menu at Mama di Pinto was so new and exotic and I would always end up asking Virginia or Silvio to pick something out for me, to expand my culinary horizons. Their filled pastas were always delicious and revelatory, but the dish that has remained deeply embedded in my food memory was a baked apple stuffed with veal sausage. It was so unlike anything I had ever encountered before in my early culinary explorations.
I’d always loved apples in desserts such as pies and cobblers, but never before had I experienced apples in a savory context. Over the years I’ve tried to recreate this food memory and I feel that my current rendition comes close. I prefer using Honeycrisp apples in this recipe because they hold their shape well when baked, but any crisp variety will work. Stuffed apples make a good brunch dish or a holiday side dish. Hollowing out the apples can be a bit time-consuming but can be done ahead of time and refrigerated.
Savory stuffed apples
Juice of one lemon
For the stuffing:
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon neutral oil
½ lb ground pork
½ lb ground veal (if ground veal is not available, use 1 lb ground pork)
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 slice white bread, crust removed, crumbled and soaked in 2 tablespoons milk
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme leaves
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/4 teaspoon minced garlic
1/4 teaspoon dried chile flakes
Salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Cut the top off of each apple. With a sharp knife, remove the core. Use a melon baller to scoop out some of the flesh, leaving a ½-inch-thick shell. With the point of a knife, make an incision in the skin about a third of the way down each apple and cut through the skin 1/8 to 1/4 inch deep all around. As the apple cooks, the flesh expands; without this scoring, the apple could burst.
Brush the insides with lemon juice.
Make the stuffing: in a small frying pan, sweat the onion in the oil over medium heat for 4 to 5 minutes, or until translucent. Remove from the heat.
In a bowl, combine the pork, cooked onions, egg, bread, Parmesan, thyme, fennel seeds, garlic, chile flakes and a pinch of salt and pepper. Mix together using your hands; it should have the texture of a raw meatball.
Arrange apples in an oiled baking dish. If the apples won’t stand upright, set them in “donuts” made out of foil.
Divide the stuffing mixture among the apples, stuffing it carefully and deeply inside each one. The stuffing will be mounded above the apples.
Bake for 40 minutes.
Remove from the oven and drizzle olive oil on top.
Use a metal spatula to lift apples out of the baking dish and onto a serving plate.
Several years later I returned to Chicago with my family to attend a dental convention and was excited to learn that Virginia and Silvio had opened a new restaurant in downtown Chicago called Sogni Dorati (which means Golden Dreams). I made a dinner reservation for my young family for the Saturday evening after my meeting. When I made the reservation I told them that I had been craving the stuffed apple for years. Unfortunately, I was informed that the stuffed apple was not on their current menu.
When I arrived back at the hotel after my meeting my wife informed me that the children weren’t feeling well and she didn’t think we should risk taking them out for dinner. I was very disappointed, but not to be deterred I called the restaurant to see if they could put together a carry-out dinner for us. I ordered an assortment of pasta dishes for my wife and me and plain buttered noodles with Parmesan for our picky kids.
I opened the containers of food back in the room and to my surprise and delight I discovered that Silvio had prepared for me my beloved stuffed apple. My joy was short-lived however because soon after eating their noodles my three sick children began throwing up all over the hotel room.
Peter Glatz is eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Monarch butterflies; their annual fall migration passes through Oklahoma City.