A TASTE OF ITALY IN CALIFORNIA
Food, places, and stories dedicated to Italy
I’m thrilled to have received the first requests for private Italian dinners at people’s homes.
Every dinner is different, but their underlying purpose is always the same — curiosity to explore Italy’s dishes and culinary traditions. Some clients visited Italy years ago and dream of reliving their memories, while others have long wanted to travel there and hope to discover more in the meantime. Some dinners are birthday celebrations while others are gifts to mark a special occasion.
Preparing these meals makes my work even more magical because the process always transports me back home. I recall how my mother would always organize a meal for the Sunday closest to my birthday, or I think of the first dinner I cooked for my parents’ wedding anniversary when I was 12 years old. I served a bresaola and goat cheese appetizer followed by risotto with radicchio and Gorgonzola.
When I craft a menu, I always start with the ingredients. I look at what’s in season, and then I choose recipes that best showcase the ingredients. The markets here in the Bay Area sell optimal produce that’s fresh, organic, and seasonal, and spring in California profers up superb fruits and vegetables: artichokes, fava beans, peas, spring onions, wild asparagus, baby spinach, strawberries, blueberries, cherries, and the first plums and apricots.
I also take the fishing season into account. For example, the period for anchovies and squid starts now, while sardines are available all year round. And then there are the farms. Yes, the farms. Real ones with vast green spaces where mainly cows, but also goats and lambs, are raised.
To transport my clients to Italy, I try to bring simple recipes to the table. All belong to Italian regional traditions with genuine territorial flavors that tell a story — each place and each recipe has its own story — the story of a culture founded on food and the love of sharing it.
These simple flavorful spring dishes allow me to share small Italian traditions, many of which I hadn’t thought about for a long time. Risi e bisi is a straightforward recipe with peas and rice rooted in Italy’s cucina povera, or peasant cuisine, heritage. Born in the Veneto, it’s not quite a risotto nor soup. It’s flavored with guanciale and spring onions and made sweet and harmonious with fresh peas. I cook it simply with vegetable or chicken broth. The standard risi e bisi recipe recommends placing a few pea pods in the broth. Never add nuts or herbs — just a carrot, an onion, and a stick of celery. I always incroprate any well-washed vegetable scraps. They’d be a shame to waste as they pack a ton of flavor.
The mere mention of chicory balls conjures up the perfume of Puglia. This preparation has also spread to Basilicata and Calabria, but it originated between Cilento and Salento.
Chicory is in abundance this season, and the recipe is also rather simple: chicory, breadcrumbs, grated Pecorino, and egg — there’s also a version that calls for boiled potato. The mixture is rolled into classic round meatball shapes and cooked in a pan with olive oil. I serve them with a Pecorino fondue which makes them even more delicious.
Artichokes? Alla Romana, alla giudia, parmigiana, fried, in risotto, alongside sausage — the opportunities are endless. There are large purple ones (which we call mammole or violets) that lend themselves to different traditional preparations in recipes that span the north to south while passing through splendid Rome, of course. Plus, I always source products straight from the motherland thanks to small and medium-sized export companies.
Cheese is obviously one of Italy’s most exported goods, starting with Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano. For years, both of their consortia have been committed to protecting their excellence and supporting their exports. Parmigiano from the Vacche Brune (Brown Cow) or Vacche Rosse (Red Cow), and 24-month aged Grana Padano are indispensable. It’s pretty much impossible to cook Italian without these fantastic cheese varieties, which are found in countless preparations and recipes.
Then Pecorino — Sicilian, Roman and Tuscan — Taleggio from Lombardy, Robiola with three milk from Piedmont, Fontina from Val d'Aosta, goat and sheep Caciottine from Sardinia and buffalo mozzarella, fresh ricotta and burrata from Campania.
There’s also an excellent selection of extra-virgin olive oil, flour, and tomatoes. Piennolo and San Marzano tomatoes; einkorn stone ground spelt flour; organic olive oil from Sicily, Tuscany, and Sardinia; Storo yellow flour; balsamic vinegar from Modena; Sicilian capers in salt; Sicilian almonds from Noto; Taggiasche olives from Liguria; and anchovies from Campania. The Caponatina Lab pantry is stocked with these products, which never fail to render the dinner transportive.
My favorite moment during these private dinners is when I tell guests where the products originate, their history, and explain the recipes in which they’re used while elaborating on how I incorporated them into the evenings’ dishes.
Bringing a small piece of my country to people's homes never fails to make me happy, and in doing so, I get to temporarily travel there myself every time.