Five days ago I arrived in Arona, Italy, greeted by the Italian family I will be living with for the next two months. Though I have only been here five days I feel as though I have already been here a month. My host mother and brother, along with their friends and extended family, have been gentilissimo [so kind] and accogliente [welcoming]. And what comes along with Italian hospitality? Lots of amazing food.
On my very first night here, my host mother cooked a traditional Ligurian dish of salted & baked fish with roasted tomatoes, pine nuts, & raisins. She roasted the tomatoes, pine nuts, and raisins in Beck’s beer until the nuts were toasty and the raisins and tomatoes were warm and plump.
On the second day for pranzo [lunch] she made pasta with steamed broccoli, garlic, and anchovies. A very simple dish but full of flavor. Before arriving in Europe almost a month ago, I had practically no gusto [taste] for anchovies. But since being here, and eating more anchovies than I have in the totality of my life, I’ve started to love how they compliment a dish with the perfect amount of salt and fishy flavor. I have had anchovies in salads, sandwiches, grilled and salted on their own, and in pasta. A little goes a long way.
For cena [dinner] the same day my mother made Torta Pascualina [Easter cake], a dish traditionally served on Easter. It looks similar to a quiche but is made differently. You mix thawed frozen spinach with raw eggs, lots of fresh ricotta cheese, and fresh parmigiano then pour the mixture into a pre-made pie crust. Then you tuck artichoke hearts into the filling and set in the oven for about an hour until you are left with a beautifully baked torta.
The third day I made lunch for myself, inspired by the first night’s Ligurian meal. I sauteed zucchini with tomatoes, pine nuts, and raisins in olive oil and had it with a homemade pesto lasagna my host mother’s friend made. And when I say homemade I mean everything- the pasta, the ricotta, and the pesto. It was the silkiest, creamiest, tastiest lasagna I’ve ever had. Divine.
But by far, the best night was last night, not only because my host mother made homemade risotto but because she busted out her RECIPE BOOK!
I was giddy, to say the least. As my host mother began the risotto process, I tried to translate the recipe for riso zucca e gorgonzola [pumpkin and gorgonzola risotto]. I noticed that there were no measurements or times on any of the recipes, just pages written as simply as a love note . My host mother used her mezzaluna [half moon] tool to chop the onions very fine. “The key to good risotto is lots of onions” she told me, gripping the two handles with her manicured hands.
She toasted the risotto in the browning butter and onions, then added white wine. When the rice began to soak all of it up, she started to add in–ladle by ladle– boiling water with dado [stock cube]. This part is crucial for good risotto. You ladle the flavored water in little by little, watching the risotto attentively as it soaks up the liquid. As steam wafted through the kitchen and my host mother kept her eye on the pot, stirring rhythmically, I realized why there were no times or measurements in the recipe book. The recipes are like love notes, heirlooms passed down from generation to generation, traditional recipes that are always good not because they change, but because they remain the same. Italian cooking is intuitive, historical, artful; it is simple but flavorful. I could sense that my host mother cooked with feeling, that she could sense when the time was right to add more water or add in little globs of gorgonzola and pieces of roasted pumpkin. For a busy lawyer who works 12-hour days, a single mother raising a son, I was amazed at how when it came to the kitchen, everything stopped for her. Work is work. Home is home. When she is home she truly leaves her work behind, focusing on the pleasure of making and sharing a home-cooked meal. My host mother didn’t say pronto! [it’s ready] until 9:30 but it was well worth the wait.
Today was spent enjoying tea and sweets at a friend’s house, soaking up Italian language, and looking out to all the sailboats on Lake Maggiore during an aperitivo. Bliss.
If the first five days are an indication of the next two months, there will be lots of beautiful conversation, new discoveries, and amazingly rich food.
P.s- butta la pasta! is a common Italian expression that means “toss in the pasta!”
[Photos: An Italian kitchen//Sarah Diedrick]