30 March 2012

Epic dinners with weird Italian men...

When I was 21, I spent the summer in Germany playing in a rather unprofessional opera theater.  When we weren't getting drunk before rehearsals, we were traveling all over central Europe, which was a way cooler place to spend my summer than my usual haunts at that time of northern Illinois. Several friends and I took a road trip to northern Italy one extended weekend and ended up in a kooky restaurant in Milan that looked like it had been lifted right out of a Godfather movie.  The non English-speaking proprietress of our hotel (traditional European hotel, so there were two cots, a bidet, and a huge crucifix in each room; running toilets could be found down the hall with middle-aged men lurking nearby) suggested this place, and after a short game of charades, we managed to understand what the hell she was talking about.

This was back in the mid '90s, when Italy was still using the lira for currency and the American dollar traded very favorably. I think at the time $1 was 1,000 lira, which just made everything in my wallet feel like Monopoly money.  Even though we were poor students, we ate like queens all over Europe.  So, we had been sent to what looked like a rather fancy restaurant.  There was no sign over the one subtly placed door we could find, but when we knocked and mentioned our landlady's name, they let us in.  The restaurant was mainly one sparsely decorated room with a few small tables and a few very long tables, barely lit, and adjoined itself to what looked like a massive kitchen.  At 6pm (Midwestern dinnertime!), we were the only ones in the place except for a small army of impeccably dressed waitstaff.  There were five of us, clearly American, young women, and about ten of them.  We were seated at a comically long table in the center of the room and spent the evening being fawned over, flirted with, and given free stuff.  There was no menu (the first time I ever experienced this), but we were promised that we could trust the chefs to take good care of us.

I don't remember every course of that meal exactly, but I do remember that I ate a lot of amazing food, slowly and with great fascination, and I remember the pride with which each dish was set before us.  That was the first time I had ever even considered the genius of cantaloupe wrapped in prosciutto, the first time I was served a salad after the main course(s), the first time pasta was not the main course, and the first time I had limoncello. There were at least minimum of seven courses that night, and the meal took us over four hours to complete.  It was truly an education in northern Italian dining (and living), and it may have been the incident that really sparked my fascination with great food and local traditions.

I am preparing a (much more modest) Italian-inspired feast for friends, and while there is no way to recreate the otherworldly experience of eating in Milan with two personal waiters assigned to me, I keep thinking back to the bounty of flavors, colors, and textures I enjoyed that night; the perfectly paired, beautifully ripe local foods on each plate; and the utter joy we all experienced in spending time slowly appreciating our food and each other's company.  What could be a better way to spend an evening with friends?  I have appreciated the time it has taken me to research things like putting together a well-paired cheese platter, creating an interesting, unique salad, and figuring out what the hell I can serve with limoncello.

The menu

Cheese plate served with salad: fresh goat cheese, sliced parmigiano reggiano, smoked almonds, mixed olives, and a salad of braised radishes in orange butter over mixed greens (recipe coming soon).  

Main courses: platter of mixed roasted vegetables tossed with lime juice, olive oil, garlic, salt, capers, and crushed red pepper; homemade linguine with arrabiata sauce.

Dessert: homemade limoncello (our guests') with dark chocolate and shortbread.  (But if you wanted to get fancy, I also found a great idea in this pistachio and almond cake with orange salad.)