My life lately has been all about Italy – the book is out, I have started doing interviews where I speak about my time living in Italy, and recently I sent the book to the family in Italy (they received them today). This past Sunday, a dear friend here in town invited me over for Sunday lunch. She is Italian – Roman – and being in her house and eating her very Italian food takes me right back to her homeland.
I live in the Deep South and there is nothing at all Italian about my friend’s house. It is a lovely home that could be anywhere in America, but inside, her decor, the framed images on the walls, the way the table was set for lunch, the smell of lasagna, and the hostess herself – hair pulled back into a stylish-do, fashionably and smartly dressed – were all about Italy. Sitting at her table, if I could have magically changed the view outside, as we do in theatre with a different set, by replacing the pecan trees, garden arbor, and chicken house with a view of the Colosseum – I could have believed that I had been instantly transported overseas.
For lunch we enjoyed a homemade “quiche,” as she called it. The crust of this “quiche” was not dough, it was made of potatoes. She had lined the baking dish with overlapping slices of potato before filling it with cubed potatoes, peas, cheese, and a cream and egg mixture using the eggs from her chickens in the backyard. If you have never eaten a farm fresh egg before – I suggest you try to find some. With tight whites and golden, almost orange, yolks, farm fresh organic eggs are leagues above any carton on a grocery store shelf – regardless if those in the carton are organic or not.
The second item on the table was lasagna. They noodles weren’t homemade. I think as Americans we have this false idea that Italians only eat handmade pasta. If you mention pasta and Italy to me, and I have been there, my first image by default as an American is a floured board with a grandmother standing behind it kneading a large mound of pasta dough. Well, that isn’t the case. Italians eat as much factory-produced pasta as we do. Fresh, handmade pasta is reserved for very special occasions when the cook (usually the nonna) wants to pull all the stops out.
So, back to the lasagne – the filling was made with ground beef and chicken livers. Very Italian. Usually that type of meat filling (ragù) is called “alla Bolognese” - in the style of Bologna; however, when I asked my friend about it, she said that it was the filling that her family always used for lasagna and, everyone in her family is Roman – “al Romano.” So there are not set rules, it seems.
My friend had also prepared a roast and served it with a gravy (sugo) made from the roasting pan drippings, red wine, and some cream. She had cooked the roast with rosemary, so there were bits of it in the sugo, too. The wine, cream, and rosemary gravy pushed the roast right over the edge of goodness – il carne era buonissimo!
We filled our plates and sat at the table as I filled wine glasses with some red wine, while another guest filled our water glasses. We drank, ate, told stories, laughed, drank some more, refilled our plates, and spent a lovely time enjoying each others company around a very Italian table – in the Deep South. But no Italian meal would be complete without a little something sweet. We were treated to homemade tiramisù - also made with those farm fresh eggs from out back. Often in America, tiramisù is made with a liqueur, such as brandy. However, to stay true to the Italian original, there is nothing alcoholic in a tiramisù – which translated means “pick me up”, because of the strong coffee used to flavor this classic dessert. Hers stayed true to the original and we enjoyed large spoonfuls of the egg, whipping cream, mascarpone, coffee, ladyfinger, and bittersweet cocoa dessert. Pick me up indeed!
I hope you can create your own place in Italy around the table in your house – and that isn’t necessarily dependent on the food being served. It really means gathering with friends and family to share a moment of time together. A moment that might not happen soon enough or ever again in our busy lives. To enjoy life, sitting around a table, is very Italian and while it has been on my mind lately, I wanted to make sure that I shared it with you.