Everybody just LOVES Italian restaurants. People always pick Italian for special occasions....ask 10 people what their favorite Ann Arbor restaurant is, and the majority will say Gratzi. Heck, even Billy Joel wrote a song about Italian restaurants.....
I'm in the minority when it comes to both Billy Joel and Italian restaurants. They are both not my first choice for the same reason - boring stuff that you've experienced too many times. So I was prepared to be underwhelmed at a holiday luncheon I had at the Dearborn branch of a ho-hum Detroit based Italian restaurant chain called Andiamo this week. I have never had a memorable meal there before... pasta is a cop out meal for me to make at home when I am crunched for time. I don't care if it is hand rolled with semolina imported from Italy....I can't taste the difference. I'm afraid Mario Batali is going to show up on my front porch for a throw down just for saying this. Italian food is like Billy Joel on the radio - I'll put up with listening to the occasional "Piano Man" maybe once a year, but otherwise he's a guaranteed channel changer for me.
So imagine my surprise when I had this fantastic meal at Andiamo's...first of all, the building is really beautiful and sunny and overlooks the Rouge River and the woods. I was going to get a salad because I'm trying to eat light this holiday season, but ended up sampling tons of appetizers and got a wonderful spicy seafood risotto that I am still thinking about, it was that good. One of the appetizers we had was ammoglio, which is something I see around these southeastern Michigan parts. It's a garlicy tomato based bread dipping sauce. My brother served it with chicken fingers last spring at my nephews First Holy Communion. I'm not sure if it's an Italian American thing or a true native dish from Italy, but it's very good! I wanted to try making it at home with canned tomatoes. The good people over at Red Gold tomatoes had recently sent me a case of their products for tasting...so I decided to experiment. I have always bought Red Gold tomatoes because they are a local Midwest brand and the tomatoes are grown here on Michigan farms. Canning tomatoes myself isn't worth the effort for me - I find Red Gold tastes just as good and I can't can tomatoes any cheaper myself. Just for fun, my family tasted Red Gold tomatoes and compared them with spendy canned San Marzano tomatoes imported from Italy, and it was agreed that we all liked the Red Gold better. It tasted less like the can and more tomatoey, and had a better texture, too. I'm glad I can keep my food dollars here in Michigan where we need them.
I made ammoglio with canned tomatoes and dried herbs, instead of the traditional fresh ingredients, and it was great for this time of year. Serve it with thin sliced Italian bread - I had some day old Zingerman's Farm Bread and it was delicious.
3 cloves garlic
1 tsp kosher salt
2 T dried basil
1 T olive oil
1 tsp fresh ground pepper
1 can petite diced tomatoes drained
2 T balsamic vinegar
In a blender, coarsely blend the ingredients in two stages. Start with the garlic, salt, basil, olive oil, and pepper. When that is thoroughly mixed, blend in add the diced tomato and balsamic vinegar. Tastes better if you can refrigerate overnight to allow the flavors to meld, but it can be eaten right when it is made and it's good, too.