This is Elisa. She is a biomedical engineer by day and a domestic goddess by night. She is also cute as a button and has the most adorable smile that makes me smile back every time I look at her.
I can’t keep my eyes off her. That is actually all I do this evening – except for drinking Aperol spritzer – watching Elisa prepare ragu’ alla bolognese and taking pictures. They say you can watch water, fire and other people work forever. I am on the last one right now and I couldn’t agree more.
What I love about Italian dinner – and that is exactly why we are here today – is how it’s a never-ending feast. You can spend hours around the table: eat, drink, talk, repeat. In fact, we start eating and drinking when the cooking process is yet to begin.
First off – Aperol spritzer. Cooking is more enjoyable when you have a glass of spritzer in your hand. Aperol goes well with something savory and soon enough chips appear on the table. Followed by guacamole. Followed by salmon and cheese rolls. And we haven’t even sat down at the table yet!
When we do sit down, we start with cold cuts. Then we have some burrata, pickled artichokes, and bread sticks. By now we have switched from spritzer to red wine. Ragu has been cooking for an hour and a half and so we move on to the main course – pasta. Afterwards dessert arrives. You would think this is where dinner should be over and you would be wrong. Now is the time to drink Italian liquor and grappa – to help digestion. Then finish it off with a shot of espresso. Now we are all set.
But let’s go back to making Aperol spritzer – that’s where it all began. 3 parts of prosecco, 2 parts of Aperol and a splash of soda. Voila – look at this beauty!
Another thing I love about Italian dinner is how drinking is justified: the purpose of a light drink before lunch or dinner – aperitivo as it’s called – is to get the digestive juices flowing. Don’t you love it?
Elisa is busy cutting up onion, celery and carrots. This mixture, called soffritto, is the base of Italian cooking – preparing most of the dishes starts with soffritto.
She pours a generous helping of olive oil into a heavy bottom pan, heats it up and adds cut up veggies.
While mixing together minced pork, minced beef, pancetta (cubed meat on the picture) and mortadella (thinly sliced meat on the picture), Elisa says that beef alone is enough to make ragu’ alla bolognese but, as it happens with many traditional dishes, every family has its own proven recipe.
Mixture of meats goes into the pan.
Elisa is from Italy, and so are most of the guests. When 8 out of 10 people in the room are Italians, you can feel it. It is the tempo of speech and the volume of voices. It is the fast change of topics and the constant interruptions. Described in two words: it is fast and loud. Even the way Elisa cooks falls under this description. I can see her hands move quickly around kitchen: peeling, chopping, cleaning, stirring, blending. And all of a sudden I also start feeling pumped up and agitated. I can hardly sit on my chair: I am in a hurry, I need to rush – hell knows where! It might as well be the effect of Aperol spritzer, but I believe it’s the atmosphere of joyous chaos around me.
“My granny would have a heart attack if she saw me doing this”, says Elisa blending peeled tomatoes right in the tin. To my mind, making a dinner for 10 after a long working week is a feat in itself. So if you have to use tin tomatoes and even puree them with a mixer right in the tin – go for it!
I got a few questions, though:
– Store-bought or homemade pasta?
– Store-bought, unless it’s a celebration when the whole family gathers together.
– Does every woman in Italy know how to cook?
I guess modern life requires adjustments. But this evening I am lucky to have not one, but two Italian women making dinner for me. Camilla is from Italy, too, and tonight she lends a hand to Elisa.
While Camilla is keeping an eye on ragu, Elisa has switched to the task of making salmon rolls.
Slices of pie dough are filled with salmon and cheese, then rolled up.
Brush them with egg wash, sprinkle with poppy seed and sesame seed and they are ready to go into oven.
20 minutes later…
Time for my favorite – charcuterie. All the cold cuts tonight came from Italian Salumeria located in Boston’s North End. Here we have prosciutto crudo, prosciutto cotto, bresaola and pancetta.
If these words sound to you like magic spell that has no meaning whatsoever – don’t worry, you are not alone. Let’s start with prosciutto crudo (dark pink slices on the right of the picture below). Prosciutto crudo is an Italian dry-cured ham that is usually served thinly sliced. It is made by salting the hog thighs, then hanging them to dry for 8 to 16 months.
Prosciutto cotto literally translates as cooked prosciutto and its production differs. The pig thighs are deboned, seasoned, steamed and then allowed to cool.
Bresaola is air-dried, salted beef that has been aged two or three months until it becomes hard and turns a dark red, almost purple color. The process is similar to that one of salami but bresaola is made from a single muscle of beef.
And, finally, pancetta. Pancetta is an Italian bacon made of pork belly meat that is salt cured and sometimes spiced to add flavor. Pancetta is sold sliced paper thin, or cubed. Thin slices are used as appetizer like here. Cubed pancetta is what Elisa used to add to her ragu’ alla bolognese.
Phew! Now everything seems to be clear. Oh wait, I spot burrata on the table that calls for some explanation too.
Actually, I spot 2 balls of cheese that look like pouches that were tied up at the top. Then I am told it is burrata. Burrata is semi-soft Italian cheese. Simply explained it’s mozzarella that’s formed into a pouch and then filled with soft, stringy curd and cream. That’s how it looks when you cut it up.
Ragu was slowly cooking for the past one and a half hours.
Now it is ready to be mixed with pasta and finely grated Parmesan cheese.
To be completely honest, I was full after appetizers. But no force in this world will stop me from having this pasta.
I should have taken a picture of the plates in 15 minutes – 10 perfectly clean plates with not a single crumb left on either one of them.
For dessert, we have ice cream, mini tarts and macaroons. If I was full before pasta, imagine me now. But I was set to experience a proper Italian dinner tonight and there’s no way back: I am going to town!
Now it gets better. After eating so much you are rewarded with a few drinks and it is healthy too, believe it or not. An after-dinner drink is called digestivo. It can be grappa – Italian vodka, or Italian liquor. They are served at room temperature in small shots that are supposed to be sipped.
We are almost there – stay with me! Espresso shot is the final point of this beautiful night. It was the first time I witnessed how espresso is made at home using a stovetop espresso maker. The kettle consists of 3 compartments. The lower part is filled with water; the middle part (the filter funnel) is filled with ground coffee. The three parts are then assembled together and placed on a stove.
The heat slowly turns water into steam. The steam builds pressure pushing the coffee up the funnel in the center of the kettle until it finally enters the upper compartment through a tube in the middle.
You can define the doneness of your coffee by characteristic bubbling sound – I am all ears leaning over the stove and listening to my espresso being made.
As much as I love food I love the atmosphere of this night. I love sitting around the table for hours talking about anything and everything. I love how flawlessly one course follows the other and how flawlessly the conversation runs. Even though there’s a lot of arguing between Italians from South and Italians from North of the country: they don’t seem to agree on a single point, even on the point where South actually stops and North begins.
It takes a great host to make the cooking process look so effortless, the food taste so scrumptious and the guests feel so relaxed and at home.
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