Everyone into the pool~
Going to a friend’s house for dinner is always a wonderful way to spend an evening. When that friend is someone you haven’t seen in 20 years, it can turn out to be an incredible evening. And when that long lost friend, his wife, and two kids happen to live in a small Italian town an hour’s train ride north of Venice, where you just happen to be vacationing—well, watch out. The evening is going to be spectacular.
We arrived later than expected (no thanks to a train strike in Venice), but my friend Mark picked us up at the Sacile (pronounced “sah-CHEE-lay”) train station and drove us along twisting roads at the base of the foothills to the Dolomites, through quaint villages, past vineyards and pastures, pointing out local points of interest and filling us in on the area’s history before finally arriving at his house in Budoia (“boo-DOY-yah”). After a few minutes in the car, the 20-year void in our friendship felt like it had only been a two-minute gap. Once inside, the rest of our visit was all about food and wine.
Mark and his wife Lena are both US military and, after only three years in Italy, they have fallen into quite the Italian lifestyle—a cellar stocked with bottle upon bottle of local wine and a solid knowledge of Italian cuisine with fresh local ingredients.
Lena has taken some cooking lessons and she was really showing out for our visit. We started with several glasses of prosecco and a selection of two local, artisanal cheeses (Montasio, young but aged in beer, and a fresh Asiago). For the antipasto, Lena made ricotta, goat cheese, sun-dried tomato, garlic, and shallot crostini. She was not very thrilled with it because the phyllo shells she was pre-baking to hold the cheese mixture were not turning out as she had planned. Trust me, they were great. Mark served a Tocai Friulano made by local winemaker Valter Scarbolo.
From the antipasto we moved to l’insalata—the salad, which for Italians would have been served after the meat course, but Lena chose to go American and serve her lettuce, sliced pear, local Gorgonzola cheese, and walnut salad before the pasta course. Very, very good.
We continued drinking the white Tocai through the pasta course…Lena made a pumpkin filling for her handmade pasta. She allowed me to make the ravioli and it was great fun to roll up my shirtsleeves and jump into preparing this course. I rolled out the pasta, spooned on the soft and velvety pumpkin filling, before folding the dough over, sealing and cutting into individual ravioli. Her filling was very similar to a pumpkin gnocchi that Nonna taught me how to prepare in 2005. I love eating delicately spiced pumpkin in November. Lena served the ravioli in a sauce of brown butter and sage with chopped hazelnuts and amaretto cookies grated over the top. BUONISSIMI! The brown butter was nutty, the sage and hazelnuts were earthy, and the sweet but bitter almond flavor of the grated cookies put the dish over the top. I hope you enjoy the photo of it above. Pity you can’t smell the aroma or taste the flavor.
From here, Lena and Mark kept pulling out the stops. Mark has become quite the wine guy while in Italy and besides the Tocai, he also served one of Scarbolo’s merlots with Lena’s meat course of roasted pork tenderloin. Lena had really outdone herself by also preparing homemade potato gnocchi—similar to dumplings. We each took turns forming the pasta in our own styles—I used a fork, rolling each dumpling down the tongs leaving an indention on both sides for the sauce to adhere. Lena rolled hers with a grooved little paddle/board, curling up both sides of the dumpling like a seashell. Our gnocchi were indeed homemade. While Lena prepared the tomato sauce with mushrooms for the gnocchi, I cooked them.
The first time I cooked gnocchi with Nonna I was terrified that I had ruined them.
“Nonna, questi gnocchi non sono giusti.”
“Marco, pazienza, saranno nuotare.”
There is a mystic aura surrounding gnocchi…they are made from dense, starchy potatoes and yet they should be light and airy. If they are not made correctly they can be heavy, tough, and gummy. I was terrified of that as I placed the gnocchi Nonna and I had made into the simmering water and watched them sink to the bottom. I just knew that I had kneaded mine too long or treated them with too much force causing them to be tough—ruined. But Nonna reassured me, “Patience, Mark, they will swim.”
Sure enough, one by one, our fat little dumplings rose from the murky depths and started a little water dance at the top of the pot. They would swim, taking turns floating around the top before disappearing back down to only reappear again.
“Nonna, guarda!” (“Nonna, watch!”)
“Si, si Marco. Vanno bene, no?”
“Si, vanno bene!”
As I placed the gnocchi that Lena and I made into the simmering water, her son came over to watch. I told him that this was the moment of truth. If his mother had ruined them, there would be no swimming in the pot. He looked at me oddly and I told him to watch and, sure enough, mystically, one floated up, then a second, and a third, fourth, fifth. Soon the pot was alive with the swimming gnocchi. “Well, looks like your mother is a great cook,” I said. “Yep, she is,” he said, with complete conviction, pleased to know that I had confirmed what he already knew as the Gospel truth. The gnocchi were tossed with the tomato and mushroom sauce and served along side the pork.
We sat at the table telling stories, laughing, eating, drinking…well, they kids had juice…and it could not have been more pleasant. Mark told how the kids had picked up the language pretty quickly so I tried to chat with them as much as I could in Italian. It was a lesson for the three of us. We all knew different words and phrases and tried to stump each other. It was fun.
Do you think dinner was over yet? Hell no…there was still dessert paired with a local, white dessert wine (Mosmas Dolce, by Enomas Murauro), and caffè. Lena sliced her mango tart and topped each serving with shaved chocolate, raspberries, and a mango coulee. Mark’s fruity and sweet dessert wine, again from a local winemaker, really brought out the brightness of the raspberries and tangy mango.
Our evening was cut way too short by the fact that we had to catch the last train back to Venice, which we managed to do successfully.
I cannot wait to cook with Lena again and drink Mark’s wine cellar dry…problem is, they are soon to be transferred to Alaska. Mamma mia! I am not sure we’ll be visiting them again in November any time soon. But, come to think of it, that night in northern Italy last November was chilly and rainy and yet we were warmed to the core. Maybe we will give Alaska a try…but only if the gnocchi are swimming.
Ciao e a presto~