There are some neighborhood restaurants that just feel like home. For me, that place is Il Bambino in Astoria, Queens. It's a small panini shop that opened a few years after I moved to the neighborhood, and I was instantly enamored of their excellent sandwiches, welcoming owner, and a killer cannellini bean salad with pesto that quickly became my go-to appetizer. The restaurant hasn't changed too much over the years, and while the menu fluctuates just enough to keep things interesting, my main comforts have persisted over time.
It was a sad day though when I came in and saw that the bean salad was not on the menu. In its place was an unassuming fingerling potato salad. I ordered it, skeptical any dish could replace my fondness for the bean salad, but was taken aback with just how amazing it was.
Tender and creamy fingerling potatoes were coated in a truffle aioli, drizzled with the same fresh basil pesto that made the bean salad so magical, sprinkled with sweet and crunchy fried shallots, and generously topped with delicate shavings of sharp and salty pecorino romano. One bite and I'd nearly forgotten about that bean salad.
So, when I was considering a potato salad for a recent cookout I was hosting, I felt like anything less than this particular combination of ingredients would be selling myself, and my guests, short. It's rather process-heavy as potato salads go, but it's worth every second of it.
While the salad on a whole requires a lot of different components, each part is easy, thanks to the work my colleagues and I have done over the years here on Serious Eats. At the beginning of the summer, Kenji posted his own take on a fingerling potato salad and his method there had me on the right path to perfectly tender, well seasoned spuds that remain intact.
The process involves simmering of the potatoes in salt-and-vinegar-spiked water until tender. The salt and vinegar season the potatoes throughout, while vinegar also helps to keep the potatoes from breaking apart while cooking.
Once done, I toss in an additional tablespoon of vinegar to further flavor them, and then I spread them out on a baking sheet to allow them cool and let the excess moisture evaporate.
Once the potatoes are cooled to room temperature, the next step is to coat them in an aioli. The Il Bambino version has truffle oil in it, but not wanting to purchase a bottle, I just stuck with the basic aioli recipe I posted a few years back.
In the eyes of aioli purists, this would be considered more of garlic mayonnaise, since it includes lemon juice and Dijon mustard, but I like the way they enhance the flavor and help stabilize the emulsion.
When I made it, I decided to whip this one up by hand, but regretted not having used the food processor—I would have rather dealt with washing all the pieces of the processor instead of the arm-ache that constant whisking brought on.
After the potatoes have cooled to room temperature, I toss them with the aioli in a large bowl, then set them in the fridge to chill completely.
The Basil Pesto
I know Daniel unleashed a beautiful post on making the most perfect basil pesto, but after my aioli workout, and lacking the required mortar and pestle, I decided to stick with my recipe that employed the food processor instead.
The only change I made to this classic mixture of garlic, basil, pine nuts, Parmesan, and olive oil was to increase the oil to achieve a saucier texture. This was in an attempt to match the more liquid-y pesto of the original dish, which adds an extra creamy texture that both complements and contrasts with the denser aioli.
The Fried Shallots
To me, it's the fried shallots that make the dish—their crunch and balance between sharp and sweet make the salad feel whole. Fried shallots also happen to be one of my favorite things—try them as a pizza topping and thank me later—so I made more than double what I needed for the salad, using yet another method I found here on Serious Eats.
To make them, I combine an equal amount of oil with shallots I had thinly sliced on a mandoline. Then over high heat, I cook them, stirring constantly, until they turn a light golden brown. Once done, I drain them, sprinkle on a bit of salt, and blot them dry on paper towels.
This is a pile of fried golden love right here. I seriously ate almost all of the extra ones before the potato salad was even done.
With all the pieces in place, and over a solid hour of work done at this point, it's time to marry everything in one monumental salad. Mimicking the portion served at the restaurant, I pile potatoes onto a dish. Then I drizzle on the pesto, creating attractive green patches here and there. Next I make sure there are enough shallots on top so each bite will have some. Finally I use my microplane to finely grate a healthy dose of pecorino on top.
Serving it to my guests, I was pretty confident that this potato salad outdid any they'd ever had at a backyard barbecue before. Judging by the speed this disappeared, I can only assume they agreed.