Italians take food seriously. Eating is more than routine; it is ritual. The dishes themselves are culture, history and geography served up in a pot or on a plate. Paul Benedetti slows down and spends some time indulging in Tuscan home cooking. This article was originally published in the August/September 2007 issue of Wine Access magazine.
The stove top was covered with pans, all bubbling away, filling the kitchen with the distinctive aromas of cucina tipica toscana – typical Tuscan cuisine.
“Voi vedere?” asked Sidonia, lifting a lid. “Would you like to see?”
In one, she was sauteing chicken livers with onions and handfuls of freshly chopped parsley and white wine. In another, a rich, thick reddish brown tomato sauce made with cinghiale- the famous wild boars whose meat is sweetened by their diet of grapes from the local vines. Sidonia waves me closer and opens the oven to reveal roasting pans filled with chicken, pork and beef flavored simply with local herbs, most prominently with the rosemary that grows in the large earthen post surrounding the villa.
Everything for tonight’s meal – the tomatoes and onions, the chicken and pork, the fresh bread, the olive oil, the wine and even the cinghiale came from the property itself, the Fattoria di Cinciano or from the nearby town of Poggibonsi. In fact, GianCarlo explains that the boar is one of more than two dozen he and other local hunters bagged on the villa grounds this year. The hunters shoot the wild pigs for their dark, flavorful meat — which they turn into robust sausage and strong-tasting cured meats — but also to protect their vineyards.
These local ingredients are transformed into a traditional Tuscan dinner: toasted unsalted bread topped with a thick layer of chicken pate, a platter of carpaccio – raw beef, pounded into paper-thin sheets smothered in aromatic, emerald-green local olive oil, pepper and shavings of reggiano parmigiano. The primo or first course is the local classic pappardelle alla cinghiale (wide homemade noodles that look like fettucini on steroids), for il secondo, we feast on the platters of roasted meat, then simple green salad tossed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and for dessert, a plate of slices of pecorino, aged sheep cheese, and a sumptuous tart of egg custard covered in thinly sliced peaches, strawberries and kiwi, the fruit being perhaps the only ingredients not grown locally.
To finish, of course, demitasses of dark strong espresso and a shot of grappa, the clear digestive produced everywhere in Italy, distilled from the grape pressings left behind in local wine production. The other option, perhaps more regionally appropriate is a small glass of vin santo, the sweet dessert wine made from partially-dried grapes, and cantucci, the distinctive small, almond-flavored biscotti of Tuscany.
Whether it is a home dinner, simple fare at a small trattoria or osteria con cucina (with kitchen) or fine dining at a smart ristorante, Italian meals proceed this way: in separate courses, served at a leisurely pace and accompanied by the local wine, in Tuscany naturally, by Chianti.
Unlike North American chefs who are trained to carefully balance the protein, starch and vegetables on each plate, Italians serve the courses separately, often placing before you a plate of pumpkin-filled ravioli swimming in a simple sauce of butter and sage or a mound of rissotto alla milanese, adorned only with a drizzle of truffle oil and a few shavings of reggiano parmigiano.
This means that dinner and, in a slightly less extravagant way, lunch is eaten in well-paced stages. So, instead of gulping down all the food piled in your plate, you are pleasantly forced to focus on each part of the meal, savoring its distinctive presentation and flavor.
The emphasis in every meal we ate was on the ingredients — top quality local meat and vegetables, freshly-made pasta, recently-caught fish — often simply prepared and elegantly presented.
And food here is fiercely regional. Italy is less a country than a loose association of regions and city states, each boasting its own specialties and whose citizens are convinced that their cuisine is, without argument, the best in Italy.
In my father’s hometown of Conegliano, Veneto, a small, well-heeled community an hour north of Venice, we dined on locally butchered roasted horse meat, wild asparagus and local mushrooms, both picked by my cousins along the riverbanks and fields outside of town. Another evening we enjoyed grilled fish on sliced white asparagus and beef baked in a pan filled with sea salt. At every meal, my cousins assured us that nowhere else in Italy could you eat like this.
There is some truth in this constant boasting. Each region, in each season, has something unique to bring to the table and the Italians, tuned to the tempo of the year and the character of their particular terroir, make the most of it. For example, at Antinori’s small but elegant restaurant, Osteria di Passignano tucked in beside the ancient Abbey of the Vallombrosian Order, young chef Marcello Crini used the local ripe eggplant to make a rich veloute surrounding his tortellini stuffed with basil, tomato, pecorino cheese and pine nuts. Nearby, at Fizzano in the heart of Chianti Classico, is the the hill-top restaurant owned and run by Rocca delle Macie president Sergio Zingarelli. There, surrounded by olive groves and vineyards, the highlight of the lunch was classic grilled Tuscan steak, served by itself on gleaming white plates. The locals drizzled the winemaker’s own extra-virgin olive oil on their meat before digging in. The rest of us followed suit. Each bite, the meat enhanced by the aromatic, fruity olive oil, was a delight.
Today, lunch in most cities in Italy is not a three-hour, multi-course affair. Still, it is a meal to be savored. Many diners favor a simple primo – a pasta of tomatoes and fresh zucchini, or penne with prosciutto cotto (sweet ham) and cream, and a glass of white wine. Pizza, freshly rolled out and covered with a few, top quality ingredients – ripe tomatoes, prosciutto, soft, sweet mozzarella, is popular, but the ubiquitous panini reigns supreme as the casual lunch. Any good espresso counter or “bar” will have a display case filled with freshly-made panini. Make no mistake, though they may share the name sandwich, they bear no resemblance to their fast food counterpart in North America. Freshly-baked buns filled with fresh arugula, sliced tomatoes, provolone cheese, salami, prosciutto, roasted red peppers, grilled eggplant and other delicacies, they are to fast food what Krug is to champagne. Grilled quickly in the press and served with a small glass of beer on tap or some of the local red wine, these sandwiches are a lunch fit for any gentleman. And, on the way back to the office, as a treat, a scoop of gelato, Italian ice cream unsurpassed for its fresh fruit flavor.
And so, we come back to the first and simplest meal of the day — prima collazione — breakfast. Though, of course in Italy, nothing could be simple. Many Italians take, as they say, a cappuccino at breakfast. Milk biscuits with jam, a touch of ricotta cheese, maybe a brioche, are acceptable complements. But make sure you are not caught dead drinking cappuccino past 10 a.m. or you will be immediately tagged by the locals as a tourist or worse a “barbarian.” Only coffee is acceptable and when you ask for cafe in Italy, it means only one thing – espresso. Like all food or drink, discussions about how to make espresso could fill a book (and the they have) but the surprising Italian secret was this, and it was unanimous: coffee at bar is great, but for home coffee the simpler the better. Forget the $5000 espresso maker. Just pour cold water into a simple stove top model — the favorite is the Bialetti — and use great coffee such as illy or Lavazza Gold. Wait until the steam sings out the top and then pour into a tiny cup and drink. A little sugar helps, but forget the milk. It’s for kids and tourists.