Last week, I had the pleasure of dining with friends at Ristorante Lombardo. These particular friends, given a choice, always choose Lombardo’s. And I’m always quick to agree.
After a dinner of gnocchi with wild mushrooms that was preceded by stuffed hot peppers and calamari, I had no intention of having dessert. But when our waiter said there was concord grape crisp on the menu, something I made him repeat twice, there was no way I was going to turn it down. (I had it with my usual glass of after-dinner Chinato, in a grape-themed orgy of sorts.)
Growing up in Jamestown, with a grandfather who farmed an entire block on the outskirts of town along with having a concord grapevine in his back yard (and a barrel of homemade wine in his cellar), there are some nostalgic flavor treats that are like gold to me. Concord grape pie is one of those things.
Made by Tommy Lombardo’s wife, Donna, this pie is labor-intense and pleasure-full. Having a birthday in the fall, I used to ask my mother to make concord grape pie for me in lieu of birthday cake; it always seemed like a special occasion treat because it was work.
I don’t know how often Donna will supply this pie for her husband’s restaurant, having a busy school teacher’s schedule, but I can tell you how to make one because that’s just what I did on my rainy Saturday this week.
With two quarts of concord grapes purchased by my best friend at UB’s farmer’s market, I was in business. Though many recipes will tell you to use a sieve, it’s not necessary if you’re good with a knife.
Cut a third of the grape away so that you slice through the pulp, and with the fingers that hold the remainder of the grape, give it a little squeeze. With a flick of the knife tip, you can separate the seeds and scrape them off to the side with the blade. I always work right next to the sink, so I can send the seeds there, getting them quickly off of the work surface. (Some good background music or conversation makes this seem less like labor.)
Put the grapes (pulp and skins) in a pot, add a cup of sugar, a tablespoon of tapioca and boil. At this point, I get out a potato masher and mash the pulps and skins together so it’s a great purplish puree. Then you pour the mash into the pie crust.
Not one to make my own crust (because then I “know” there’s lard in it), I use a ready made deep-dish shell. They come in twos, and I let the second one thaw, ball it up, roll it out and cut strips for my lattice top. Last night I cheated and did a fake weave (top image), overlaying in opposite directions until I was done because I didn’t want to take a chance on staining the pastry strips with the deep colored filling. Note: wrap the outer edge of the crust in foil so it doesn’t cook too fast, and dot the top of the pie with butter between the lattice rows.
Next, pop the pie in a 400-degree oven for the first 15 minutes, then lower it to 350 for the next half hour. The results are worth it.
Tommy told us the story of the first time he helped Donna make the pie. She solicited his help, telling him to separate the peels from the grapes like most of the classic recipes tell you to do. Once she’d finished seeding the pulps, she asked Tommy where the skins were. “I threw ’em out!” Tommy laughed. “I didn’t know!” And then they started all over again.
I’d call before I headed to Lombardo’s just for the pie, and I won’t blame Donna if she’s upset with me when the demand grows. But now you know what to do if it’s not on the menu. And then there’s the gnocchi…