My Foray into (Genuine) Italian Cooking

As I wrote a few weeks ago, the kitchen is an Italian woman’s domain, thereby it requires a lot of courage to invade such space. Taking into account how much I love to cook, I anticipated dividing my time between studying academics at the Villa and learning the secrets of how to cook in the kitchen like a true Italian woman. In the time that I have been here, however, I have not prepared anything in the kitchen other than my breakfast bowl of cereal. So after a few weeks in Florence, Emily and I decided that it was time we took to the kitchen.

On a typical weekend all students studying in the Villa program are on their own for Saturday meals and for Sunday lunch. Wishing to avoid another restaurant bill and anxious to give Flavia a break from cooking, Emily and I concocted a plan to shop and prepare dinner for our host mother. We began our mission with a trip to Il Mercato Centrale in central Florence. With a large assortment of vendors selling nearly every Italian pantry item one might possibly need, the indoor marketplace is a gastronomic heaven. Meat vendors touting prosciutto and tripe, hand-made pastas with fresh sauces, seasonal fruits and vegetables, a wide selection of dried fruits and nuts: you name it and the market has it. I could have spent hours browsing through the stalls because nearly everything I saw (excluding the tripe and other indistinguishable meats) was something that I wanted to buy in order to prepare a grand Italian feast. Fortunately for my wallet, Emily and I had a list of ingredients in mind, which restrained me from going wild.

For dinner that evening, Emily thought it would be fun and different if we tried to prepare pasta fra diavolo. Fra diavolo literally translates to “from the devil,” and the unique name of the dish refers to its spiciness. Most traditional fra diavolo sauces are tomato based with chili peppers, and often they are served with a seafood, such as shrimp or calamari. Having said that she made it before, Emily decided that we should prepare the sauce with calamari. Although my fish cooking skills were limited, I trusted my housemate, and thus we set off for the fish counter. There we chatted in a mix of both English and Italian with the fish butcher, who advised us on how much to buy to feed three people. From there, it was off to gather our remaining ingredients: garlic, onion, fresh and canned tomatoes, and dried linguine. Along the way, we also picked up some fresh mozzarella for the next day’s lunch and a bottle of Prosecco, or so we thought….

In total, the two of us spent less twenty Euros in the market and that included buying fresh fish and fresh cheese. Throughout Italy, most do not take a weekly trip to the market but rather prefer to do multiple visits throughout the week to the local fresh markets. Unlike in the United States where farmers markets’ prices are significantly higher than those at the supermarket, Italy’s fresh markets are relatively inexpensive and the quality of ingredients is excellent. Besides perhaps the salt and pepper, Italians can oftentimes find everything they need to prepare a satisfying meal at one of these markets.

When we arrived back at the house, Emily and I were grinning with enthusiasm about our plan. I had shared my love of cooking and reading about food with Emily, so she left me with the task of finding a recipe on the Internet. Considering that we had no idea what Flavia had and did not have in her kitchen, it was difficult to find an adequate recipe. Ultimately I settled on this recipe; Mario Batali seemed like a reliable choice.

With a recipe found and the ingredients bought, we were ready to enter the kitchen. There was, however, one small obstacle in our way: Flavia. Although Flavia agreed to let us cook for her, I sensed her anxiety and worry about us invading her space. Of course, neither Emily or I knew where anything was, therefore we were constantly asking questions like, quale coltello dovremmo usare? Which knife should we use? Dovè la pentola? Where is the pot? Hai il vino bianco? Do you have white wine? The experience thus served as an effective review of kitchen vocabulary.

To begin, the first thing we did was put the water on the stove to boil for the pasta. Emily then proceeded to cut the calamari, which, fortunately, had already been cleaned by the butcher. Meanwhile, I was in charge of chopping the onion, garlic, and tomato. Per Flavia’s advice, I chopped up some red chili peppers, which were notably absent from the recipe. In a large skillet, I sautéed the onions, garlic, and chili peppers, and once translucent, in went about three fresh tomatoes, diced, and a small can of crushed tomatoes. Considering that we live in the region renowned for its Chianti red wines, I was worried when the recipe called for white. Fortunately, however, Flavia had some wine available that she specifically used for cooking. Everything was coming together.

In addition to my initial concerns about the white wine, I was worried about how the fresh tomatoes would taste in the sauce; therefore I was continuously tasting the mixture and adding salt to compensate for the fruits’ lack of seasonality. While the linguine was cooking to al dente, I added the calamari into the sauce mixture and allowed it to cook for the recommended five minutes. Then, once the pasta was perfectly to the tooth, I tossed the long pasta strands with the sauce and finished it with a sprinkle of fresh parsley. Dinner was ready.

Before we even took a bite, Emily and I quickly realized our efforts were vulnerable to shortcomings. The wine that we thought was a crisp, white Prosecco was in fact a red Prosecco (Who knew such even existed?). I am no sommelier, however, I do know that red wine is a better match for heavier dishes, such as osso buco or coq au vain, than with seafood or tomato-based pastas. That was the first mishap; the second was seasoning. It is never a good sign when someone gets up from the table to get the saltshaker, as Flavia did after a few bites. Although she spared us of the criticism about the seasoning, she did point out our third flaw: the fish needed to be cooked longer. According to her, the calamari needed at least fifteen minutes in the sauce in order for its flavor to complement the tomatoes instead of competing with them. I blame this error on the recipe, for I could never have guessed how long the fish needed to cook in the sauce. Based on this error, I understand why Flavia and most Italians do not use recipes; why take someone else’s advice when one’s own palate is all one needs to know when something is tasty?

Regardless of our errors, Emily and I fully enjoyed the experience. Although we dirtied a lot of dishes and spent more than an hour working on the meal’s preparation, we learned a great deal about the value of food in the Italian culture. Even if Mario Batali contends that fra diavolo is an Italian-American creation rarely served in Italy, making the dish enabled Emily and I to share a part of our culture with Flavia. Despite Flavia’s attempts to keep us out of kitchen, the two of us are anxious to redeem ourselves and thus are already planning our next foray into her domain.

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3 thoughts on “My Foray into (Genuine) Italian Cooking

  1. What a great blog, so enjoyable (I heard about this on Facebook from Stephen, I’m a paralegal friend of his). I have a question and then will share a tip. My question is, is there a brand of dried pasta Italians use? We have here Barilla, Golden Grain, etc. And I just learned this last night at a salt tasting, that one should season pasta water “to the sea” which is to say, really salty, not just the pinch I’ve been told. Have fun in Florence. I loved it when I was there.

    • Hi Wayne,
      I’m glad you are enjoying the blog. As far as what pasta they use over here, Barilla is very popular because it is actually an Italian company. At least in my host family, dried pasta is always used, but a lot of restaurants make their own fresh pasta with eggs and flour. About salting the water: the salt does nothing but add flavor, so in the case of dry pasta, adding lots of salt to the boiling water ensures that the pasta is able to absorb some of its flavor when cooking.

  2. Pingback: An Old-School Italian Cook | Loves to (Nu)Tella Story

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