I must have been Italian in my last life. Since I can remember I have always loved Italian food. Growing up in the 70’s Italian food was Ragu sauce and Prince spaghetti, no special cheeses or gourmet sauces just the marriage between Ragu and Prince would make my mouth water and I would devour it. It was a treat as we had Indian food most nights. My father hated pasta and if we were to have a deviation from our traditional Konkani food it most certainly would not be Italian. I would actually look forward to his traveling so my mom would make spaghetti. Thursdays was ziti day at the school lunch cafeteria and I would be the only day my mom would allow me to buy lunch.
The eighties brought some more sophistication to my taste buds, items such as risotto; scampi, Bolognese, clams and mussels with pasta and parmigiano-reggiano were happily adapted to the Italian repertoire as well as many trips to Boston’s Italian neighbourhood, the North End. The nineties and beyond brought further gourmet refinements into my secret Italian life with, artichokes, tagliatelle,, pancetta, caponata and just about anything Italian.
I thought I had reached Italian nirvana and could go no further until I was invited to a family friend’s place for dinner. Giacomo Michienzi and my father became friends through work and family friends soon after.
My mom had raved about the lovely food and hospitality of the Michienzis but it was much more than expected. Jeannette, Giacomo’s wife and her sister Phifine love to cook and entertain. Their enthusiasm and warmth are instant as I meet them after a long gap of time and for the first time I meet their children and grandchildren. Italians are much like Indians when it comes to family—large, always around and always eating! The dining room was large with many antique mantels, cupboards and original paintings, all imported from Italy. Fourteen people could easily be accommodated on the table.
The first course is clams and mussels pasta, Spaghetti con pomodoro fresco, vongole e cozze, served in nice flat bowls, they know this is my favourite. Wine is served in regular glasses; for the Michienzis a half glass of wine or beer in small glasses is part of the meal everyday. The mussels are large and plump, a Brazilian variety and I cannot resist a second helping although I should reserve more room for more coming. Stuffed clams, Vongole ripiene, come next. The subtle spices missed with the finely chopped clams and peppers are baked to perfection.
Our plates are taken away and replaced with larger ones. Stuffed pork loin, Filetto di maiale con ripieno di spinaci, cheddar e mozzarella fresca su un letto di pomodorini freschi, corn, eggplant caponata, asparagus, and two types of bread are brought to the table. We pass around the food and begin eating leisurely; there are three conversations going on around the table and since I was in the middle I could listen to all of them. Janet makes sure everyone’s plate is full and keeps on reminding us that there is plenty more of everything in the kitchen.
Again our plates were replaced with smaller salad plates after we finished eating the meat. We should have had desert right after all this course but it did not end there. A beautifully decorated salad plate, Insalata di arance sanguigne e finocchi con fiori di erba cipollina, garnished with dandelion flowers incited a bunch of “wows” from all of us. Jeannette was a natural food stylist as well as cook. Perfectly cut oranges and grapefruit were mixed with fennel bulbs and only a touch of dressing was added to make a tasty as well as good looking salad. I was full and just had a small taste.
Luckily there was quite a bit of time during each course. The dinner was very relaxing and everyone was having a good time. Colourfully decorated fruit, Ananas e fragole, assortments came next. Well, the Italians are eating healthier I thought assuming that this was desert. Along with the fruit, two types of cheeses were also served, both going very well with the fruit which is provided to help with digestion during the meal. Delicious Italian chocolates were also passed around as well. Everyone was stuffed. We were not used to having so much food.
To my surprise the plates were once again taken away and again replaced with small desert plates. My stomach was overfull but I was secretly happy. This was the only time I could indulge and that too with such wonderful cooking. Phifine is a creative baker making all sorts of decorated delights that not only look fine but taste fine as well. This time she made an array of different pastries, Pasticcini assortiti, to sample. Chocolate cake filled with ganache, lemon tarts and gooey eclairs, each one making you want for more even on a full stomach.
As is the case with Indian food, Italian homemade food cannot compare to food at Italian restaurants. The food at restaurants is good no doubt but good homemade food is a treat. Jeannette and Phifine are adept with cooking and entertaining and more importantly enjoy it as they make such warm hosts.
I counted that each person used at least five dishes, 2 glasses and 2 sets of silverware. There was a lot of washing to do afterwards; the dishwasher would have to run at least three or four times. But as is the case with most parties, there were enough leftovers for so there would be no cooking the following day.
We lingered at table for more time chatting about kids, food, travel, President Obama and more before ending the wonderful evening. My Italian food journey I realized has just begun, there was much more to explore and I was looking forward to it.