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gotta have Gatto
With potatoes, salami and cheese, this dish defines satisfaction

Warm and bubbling from the oven, potato gatto works as a main dish or a side.

AS THE FOOD WRITER in the family, I make dinner, and my wife Laurie has often asked me to prepare mashed potatoes. But the truth is, I've never liked the things. I've always found them either stiff and mouth-coating, like marshmallow creme, or so light and flavorless they might as well be spread on a lemon pie and called meringue. Laurie would dismiss my similes as the rantings of a dyed-in-the-wool potatophobe. For my part, I remind her that the potato plant is a card-carrying member of solanaceae, the deadly nightshade family.

We happened on a solution in the form of a potato-based main dish so good that it would knock Dr. Atkins off his own diet. At least it convinced me that potatoes could make the meal in a form other than fried. Our discovery would take us from the farmer's markets of Seattle to the campagna of southern Italy, in spirit anyway.

The Neapolitan dish, known as potato gatto, consists of mashed potatoes, spiked with Parmigiano, peas and spicy salami, pressed into a baking dish, layered with fresh mozzarella and caramelized onions, topped with garlic breadcrumbs and baked until the breadcrumbs are crunchy and the cheese melts. A crispy ring forms around the inner edge of the pan, and sometimes you can look down through a slim crack and see the mozzarella bubbling beneath the surface. It is like peering into the caldera of a delicious cheese-filled volcano.


Serves 4
3 pounds Yellow Finn, Yukon Gold or red potatoes
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
Salt and pepper to taste
1 1/2 cups coarse homemade breadcrumbs
(I make mine in the food processor from a few slices of Grand Central's Como, with the crusts, plus a clove or two of garlic)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1/3 cup milk
1/4 pound soppressata
(or any other spicy salami), sliced 1/8 inch thick and diced
1 1/3 cups frozen peas, defrosted; divided
1/2 pound fresh mozzarella, drained and sliced 1 inch thick

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place potatoes in a large pot, cover with water and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down and simmer 25 minutes or until a fork goes easily into the largest potato.

2. Meanwhile, brown the onion in a scant tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high heat, seasoning with salt and pepper. Remove the onions into a bowl. Add a bit more oil to the skillet and sauté the breadcrumbs, seasoning with salt and pepper, until lightly browned (5 to 10 minutes). Remove the breadcrumbs to a bowl.

3. Drain the potatoes and let cool 10 minutes.

4. Slice the butter into a large bowl. Using a paring knife or your fingers, peel the potatoes then put them into the bowl with the butter, Parmigiano, milk and salt and pepper to taste. Lightly mash the potatoes; they should be fairly lumpy. Stir in the soppressata and half the peas.

5. Oil an 8-inch square baking dish (Pyrex works well) and press half the potato mixture into the bottom. Top with the onions and remaining peas, then the mozzarella slices in a single layer.

6. Spread the rest of the potatoes on top and smooth with a spatula or the back of a large metal spoon. Bake 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and top with the breadcrumbs. Bake 10 minutes longer.

— Adapted from "The Italian Country Table," by Lynne Rossetto Kasper

Note: For this recipe, it is easiest to buy your salami from a deli counter and have it sliced to order. Columbus brand soppressata is available at Larry's.

Serving suggestion: Serve hot with a simple steamed vegetable or contrastingly bitter salad green on the side, or serve the gatto in smaller portions as a side dish to chicken or fish. Of course, the gatto also makes a complete meal by itself with nothing more than a glass of wine, and that is how we usually enjoy it. With its abundance of wine-friendly tastes and textures, gatto goes well with a wide range of wines. Lynne Rossetto Kasper recommends a soft chenin blanc or a gutsy but non-oaky chardonnay. Mario Batali suggests a full-bodied Campanian red such as Taurasi. And I say you can never go wrong with dry German Riesling.

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The word derives from the French gateau, meaning cake. In the early 19th century, before there was a unified Italy, Naples spent more than a decade under French rule. In Italian, "gatto" would have an accent over the O, but I write it without in the hope that the word — and the dish — will enter the American vocabulary.

In Naples, peasant cooks long ago took an American import, the potato, and did what Italians always do with non-native foods: They improved the crop and created irresistible recipes. The potato was a latecomer to Italy and has never been as versatile there as its fellow Americans, corn and tomatoes. "They're never going to put pasta out of business," observed Lynne Rossetto Kasper, author of "The Italian Country Table" and host of the Public Radio International program "The Splendid Table." But the potato, combined with Italian ingenuity, did give birth to two incomparable dishes: potato gnocchi and potato gatto.

For some people, fall begins when the leaves turn red, but for me, the most powerful signal that autumn is on its way is the August arrival of the Alden Farm stand at the University Farmer's Market. The Aldens sell nothing but spuds: creamy German Butterballs, red Desirees, Yukon Golds and Yellow Finns, all for a buck a pound. I've used all of these varieties in gatto successfully. Farmer Peter Alden is a computer engineer turned organic farmer, and I like to buy from him because I'm a computer engineer turned food writer. It doesn't hurt that the Alden potatoes are the best I've ever eaten. (They're also available at Whole Foods and Larry's.) Kasper, who buys Washington potatoes at her local co-op in Minnesota, reports that Yellow Finns remind her of potatoes she's eaten in Italy.

Mario Batali, a New York chef and TV host whose father, Armandino, runs the remarkable Salumi in Pioneer Square, sometimes serves potato gatto as an appetizer at his restaurants, Babbo and Esca, in Greenwich Village. Batali first ate gatto in a Naples restaurant, where it was served as a side dish, he told me by e-mail. "It was memorable, to say the least." He likes both waxy Yukon Golds and starchy russets, and sometimes substitutes goat cheese for the mozzarella or serves up the gatto with osso buco. For presentation, Batali bakes his gatto in a springform pan and slices it into wedges like, well, cake.

Which just goes to show what Kasper emphasized: "This is not a dish printed in stone; this is home cooking." Then, to prove it, she came up with a vegetarian variation in which the salami is replaced with diced broccoli that has been seared with lemon zest and a wine reduction. "Or even take tomatoes and top the gatto with sliced tomatoes, drizzle them with olive oil, and put the crumbs on top of that."

As she spoke, I began scrawling out a shopping list, sure in the knowledge that my potatophobia was cured for good.

Matthew Amster-Burton is a Seattle free-lance writer. Steve Ringman is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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