Ah, the Fourth: burgers on the grill, fresh-squeezed lemonade, creamy potato salad, the first corn of the season, and . . .
Crabs and spaghetti?
If you are a member of the Campanaro family, that's what you smell in your Fourth of July dreams.
"It's one of those things you long for, you know?" said Lou Campanaro, chef and co-owner of Village Belle, the Italian-leaning Front Street restaurant.
As a chef, and member of a family who love to eat and cook (and compete; just ask them about their family meatball contest), the dish takes him back to summers at the Shore.
"My brothers, father, cousins, friends, we would wake up at 4 a.m., rent a boat, and catch crabs," Campanaro recalled. Once the traps were full, they'd motor back to the North Wildwood bayside house, pull off the belly of the blue-clawed pinchers, sear them with the Italian mirepoix (olive oil, pungent garlic, fresh basil), and toss them in the marinara, which was already simmering on the stove.
Those weekend crabbers are all grown up now, and two of the Campanaros are in the restaurant industry (Lou's brother, Village Belle co-owner Joey Campanaro, owns New York restaurant the Little Owl), which means their family celebrations have to be flexible.
Village Belle is open on the Fourth, and this year Joey is coming down to cook burgers on a grill outside the restaurant for the masses flocking to the Delaware River to watch the fireworks.
But all it takes is the mention of crabs and spaghetti to get the family together.
There is, of course, all "the usual stuff, too," Campanaro explained, just like on Thanksgiving, when they have ravioli "and then the turkey."
For their pre-July Fourth gathering on the restaurant's rooftop deck, corn on the cob shares the Weber with spiedini - skewered shrimp and scallops marinated in oregano, oil, and garlic.
Fruit salad sits beside the tomato salad, which has a subtle tang from nothing more than the tomato's natural juices. It's a contribution from the chefs' mother, Patricia. According to Lou, it must be served with a loaf of Italian bread, to sponge up all that goodness.
"I like to add vinegar," said Campanaro, with a wink. "My mom says the acid of the tomatoes is good enough."
The Campanaro family is certainly not alone in making their own traditions on the most patriotic holiday.
"I think Americans have learned that there are other things besides hot dogs and hamburgers," said Guillermo Pernot, Cuba Libre concept chef and partner.
"There's nothing wrong with hot dogs. A good hot dog on the grill is really delicious. But people are eating lighter, trying different cuts of meats . . . different salads, different drinks."
Avocados, quinoa, couscous, lamb, and even oysters on the grill are a few things he has seen at cookouts lately. "Barbecues have become more sophisticated."
His Wynnewood neighbors rarely turn down an invitation to the chef's backyard bashes. "We usually do something Latin. Either Argentinian rib eye, a Cuban-style pork, or even the whole pig," Pernot said. He still asks his friends to contribute, though, encouraging them to bring whatever they are best at.
His philosophy: Why fret over a seamless menu? Instead, just enjoy a mixed bag of the best eats.
"We have a wonderful neighbor who is known for her biscotti. Another makes delicious lemon bars."
At the Portuguese restaurant Koo Zee Doo in Northern Liberties, chef-owner David Gilberg fires up the restaurant's outdoor grill on Sundays to re-create barbecued dishes that still linger on his tongue from his visits to Portugal.
But there, he said, the takeout versions are so good, most people just take it home, "just like we would pick up a pizza. It's classic summer food there."
One of his favorites, a traditional riff on American grilled chicken, takes some prep but cooks up quickly. He brines small chickens, then uses a press (like heavy-duty grilling baskets), set over a rotisserie and fueled with natural wood charcoal. He bastes it with piri piri, an Argentine hot sauce. Fried potatoes, rice and beans are traditional accompaniments; Gilberg offers his chicken at the restaurant with ribs for a mixed grill.
As the festivities wind down on the roof of Village Belle, the kids start to yawn, and the grill has cooled down, they talk about other family parties, all of which involve lots of food.
"When the family gets together, it's really Mom's time," said Campanaro. "But everyone wants to do something, so we all bring our thing. We all find the things we like and want to bring it back to the family."
Mom Patricia admits that at the annual Campanaro meatball contest, they all just cook a slightly tweaked version of her mother's meatballs. Which is when her daughter-in-law, Amy Campanaro, swoops in. "I make my family's version. Which is why they are the best."
A little loving competition falls right in line with the spirit of this family. Besides, traditions have to start somewhere.
Makes 4 servings
4 large, ripe tomatoes, cut into wedges
1 large Vidalia onion, sliced
3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and black pepper
1 loaf Italian bread, sliced
1. Mix tomatoes, onion, and herbs in a bowl. Add salt and pepper to taste. Top with olive oil, toss, and let sit for at least 20 minutes. Serve with sliced bread.
Per serving: 176 calories, 4 grams protein, 23 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams sugar, 8 grams fat, no cholesterol, 183 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
3/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons water
6 large eggs
1 can sweetened condensed milk
1 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. In a heavy skillet or saucepan, combine the sugar and water over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until sugar has melted completely and starts to brown. (You are looking for a nice dark brown that can be a little bitter, which balances out the sweetness of the custard.) Carefully pour hot caramel into 4-ounce ceramic or disposable ramekins, swirling caramel around to coat the bottom and sides evenly.
2. Set water to boil, enough to fill the bottom of the pan you will use to bake the flan. Whisk together eggs, condensed milk, whole milk, vanilla, and salt until well blended, or combine in the blender. Pour egg mixture into the ramekins.
3. Place the ramekins in a pan with tall sides (like a roasting or cake pan). Place the pan in the oven, pull out the rack, and pour boiling water into the pan to make a bain-marie, coming about halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake until flan no longer jiggles in the center, or until an inserted knife comes out clean, about 20 to 30 minutes. Serve warm or cold.
Per serving (based on 8): 237 calories, 8 grams protein, 36 grams carbohydrates, 36 grams sugar, 7 grams fat, 171 milligrams cholesterol, 120 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.
Makes 4-6 servings
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
5 cloves garlic, minced, divided
1 small onion, diced
2 teaspoons red pepper flakes, divided
2 cans whole tomatoes
4 tablespoons fresh chopped basil, divided
2 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley, divided
1 dozen blue crabs, belly removed and cleaned
1 pound spaghetti
Salt and pepper
1. In a large sauce pot, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Sweat 3 cloves of minced garlic, onion, and 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, making sure not to brown. Crush tomatoes with your hands as you add them to the pot. Season with salt and pepper. Let simmer for 1½ hours. Add half the basil and parsley.
2. Meanwhile, in a large, heavy skillet, heat remaining olive oil over medium heat. Saute remaining garlic, herbs, and red pepper flakes, for about 30 seconds, making sure not to brown. Place the cleaned crabs in the pan and cook, over medium-high, until red in color, about 5 to 10 minutes. Add to the marinara sauce and simmer for 30 more minutes.
3. Cook spaghetti according to package instructions, top with sauce, and serve.
Per serving (based on 6): 439 calories, 25 grams protein, 52 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams sugar, 13 grams fat, 116 milligrams cholesterol, 738 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 4 servings
1 gallon water
2 cups kosher salt
1 cup sugar
2 whole chickens (about 21/2 pounds each)
10 dried maleguetas or Thai bird chilis
1 head garlic, peeled
2 tablespoons sea salt
1/2 cup white vinegar
1/2 cup melted butter
1/2 cup white wine
1. In a large container, combine the water, kosher salt, and sugar to create the brine. Using kitchen shears, cut along the backbones of chickens to split in half. Place chicken in brine and refrigerate overnight.
2. To make the sauce, add hot water to dried peppers to reconstitute, and let sit for 15 minutes. Discard water. Using a mortar and pestle, mash peeled garlic with 2 tablespoons salt to make a paste. Add salt mixture, with peppers, white vinegar, and 1/2 cup of water, to blender. Blend well. Set half of the sauce aside to serve with chicken. Add melted butter and white wine to the other half to baste with.
3. Preheat grill to high. (Natural wood charcoal is recommended.) Remove chicken from brine, rinse, and pat dry. Lay the chicken halves flat and use a grill press or a brick wrapped in foil. Keeping lid open and turning often and basting often, grill chicken until done, about 25 minutes. (Can also use a cagelike press and rotisserie.)
Per serving: 622 calories, 79 grams protein, 1 gram carbohydrates, 30 grams fat, 265 milligrams cholesterol, 1,604 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.