For me – Milan is where it all began.
It is where I spoke Italian for the first time.
It is where I was trained to properly cook the dishes of regional Italy.
It is where I discovered the things that fundamentally changed me and changed my life forever.
Milan is the capital of Lombardia. It is not only the second largest city in Italy but it was my second home during Convito’s formative years. I visited it as often as five to six times a year. I know it well – from the superbly rich and romantic Il Duomo, to the grand iron and glass covered Galleria Vittoria Emanuele, to its myriad of handsome and strong libertine buildings. And not to be forgotten – the exquisite Art Nouveau balconies and windows waiting to be discovered on the intricate labyrinth of Milan’s side streets.
It has a strong northern Italian feel. It is a city filled with diversity not unlike the region it inhabits. Here an assortment of the world can be found. Although it is a center for so many things – for business, for fashion, for design, for finance – it remains a city not immediately apparent. It can fool you. It waits and wants to be discovered.
Shortly after Paolo and I formalized our partnership, I began spending time with his mother Wanda (pronounced, “Vanda”) Bottino in her small Milanese galley kitchen learning to cook the regional dishes of Italy. Wanda was a superb home cook, common enough in Italy but rare to find one with her depth of experience. A military husband and engineer father had taken her to many parts of Italy where she had the good fortune to experience first hand the great diversity of her county’s cuisine.
Wanda set the agenda for each of our cooking sessions. She selected dishes that most represented each region; then purchased all the ingredients filing her pantry and fridge with handsome produce, fresh pasta, succulent cheeses and a whole variety of exciting foodstuffs just waiting to be sautéed, poached or stewed. My first day of “cooking with Wanda” was intense. I arrived early in the morning; notepad, pencil and Italian dictionary in hand. We both spoke a handful of words from one another’s language. Thankfully, mine were mostly food words. But it never mattered to her what language anyone spoke. She assumed everything she said was understood and if there was any doubt in her mind, she just spoke louder and gestured more grandly. “Capito” (understand)? she would inquire. Eventually I would surrender and reply “Si” even though that was rarely the case.
Wanda was always a whirlwind of activity in all areas of her life but especially in the kitchen – chopping, stirring, pureeing – all with great flourish. I took copious notes, based mostly on observation but as time went on I found myself understanding more and more. Never was I more comfortable speaking Italian than with Wanda. No matter how I struggled she made me feel like a linguistic genius just for trying.
She cooked at least 15 dishes that first day. All were incredibly delicious. Needless to say, I was stuffed. Tasting 15 dishes is a lot especially 15 dishes from the very rich region of Lombardia. My head was also stuffed – jam-packed with new words, new tastes and new information. I left exhausted yet happy and strangely energized.
This became our routine. I came to Wanda’s apartment each weekday morning prepared for a day of cooking. Once she became more confident in my kitchen skills, she actually allowed me to act as her sous chef. Looking back, I can’t imagine a better culinary education. I not only leaned how to prepare many of the classic dishes of each region but I also learned many of Wanda’s “tricks” – enriching techniques like the addition of a little tomato paste into a beef stew or drizzling a Tuscan bean soup with olive oil from the region elevating its flavor and giving it that piquant, peppery Tuscan taste. Her tiny kitchen became my own private, somewhat unorthodox culinary institute.
We eventually expanded our recipe testing to include dishes for our about-to-be- launched Wilmette market – initially salad and pasta sauce recipes. How lucky I was to have her as my teacher. She was a natural born instructor– knowledgeable, fearless and exuberant. Shortly after Convito opened in 1980 we began offering cooking classes each time Wanda visited from Milan. Her classrooms were not only instructive but also alive with laughter and good fun. Incidents like a smoking sauté pan setting off the fire alarm or an out of control sneezing spell from breathing in a cloud of flour during her pasta making demonstration were all part of the experience. Nothing fazed her. And along with learning the art of making pasta or risotto her students learned not to be afraid of cooking. Making mistakes was all a part of the process. “Non importante”, she would say, shaking her finger at her students. Wanda was my Italian Julia Childs long before Julia Childs appeared on TV in her famous chicken dropping scene where she casually picked up the chicken from the floor, dusted it off and continued her class without missing a beat. Wanda was out of the same mold. “Cooking with Wanda” was most of all – fun!
Today Convito offers 21 different sauces for sale – most all of which were developed in Wanda’s tiny kitchen. We began with the classics – Bolognese, Tomato Sauce, and Clam Sauce – but soon began inventing sauces with made-up names like Spinacciola; an intensely flavorful sauce of Gorgonzola and spinach. But all were based on the Italian palate. “è possibile t dipingere con un pennello impressionista fino a quando non hanno imparato i classici” (you can’t paint with an impressionist brush until you have mastered the classics) Wanda would say
Spinacciola is a very intensely flavored sauce not unlike pesto. This recipe is enough to serve as a sauce tossed with pasta or potato gnocchi for 6 to 8 people.
1# frozen chopped spinach (thaw completely, squeeze our excess water – should be completely dry)
2 tablespoons butter
6 ounces Gorgonzola Dolcelatte*
¼ cup dry Marsala wine
1 tablespoons demi-glace*
¼ teaspoon minced garlic
1-cup heavy cream
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Melt the butter in a saucepan over low heat. Add the Gorgonzola and continue cooking over low heat until the Gorgonzola has blended with the butter stirring constantly. Add the Marsala, the demi-glaze and the garlic. Cook over low heat for 2 minutes until well incorporated.
Add the heavy cream. Turn the heat to medium and cook for approximately 5 minutes until the mixture has thickened somewhat. Add the chopped drained spinach, salt and pepper and stir well. Cook for five minutes.
*Gorgonzola Dolcelatte is a milder tasting and smelling alternative to Gorgonzola
*Demi-glace is a rich brown stock. If not prepared in your own kitchen, use a beef or veal stock available in specialty markets.
Beyond a comprehensive survey of Wanda’s culinary repertoire, we also experimented with dishes I had tasted during my travels elsewhere in Italy. We would spend hours in her kitchen trying to duplicate the taste or often, coming up with what we thought was even a better version.
Wanda had stacks of cookbooks many of which I would page through as she was preparing the ingredients for our next dish. My favorites were Le Ricette Regionale Italiane by Anna Gosetti della Salda and Luigi Carnacina’s Le Grande Cucina Internazionale . But the set of “In Bocca” (in the mouth) books from Editrice de “Il Vespro” which featured both regional specific recipes (Umbria in Bocca) as well as city specific ones (Milano in Bocca) were priceless. The artwork is gorgeous and
the text digs deep into the heart of each region with recipes not readily available in other cookbooks – like pan-soused eel, tripelike egg, the parmesan way and Queen’s Pasta in Noah’s Arc Sauce. To this day the translations always make me smile – “a fistful of rice, smash the potatoes, a knob of butter, lightly fry the salami in the butter but with caution or it will acquire a rather nasty taste.” Although we didn’t cook many recipes from these books, they always gave me a true sense of each region. I have them in my office today and still reference them before testing any new regional fare.
Pasta e Fagioli is one of my favorite Italian soups. Different regions have different versions – some meatless – some not. But all contain pasta e fagioli meaning “pasta and beans”. I ordered it whenever I saw it on a menu. Some recipes were very simple – a broth with few ingredients. Many recipes included pancetta and some ground beef. The following recipe is a result of combining my favorites. I think it is the perfect pasta e fagioli.
Pasta e Fagioli
Serves 8 – 10 as a main course
I prefer serving this soup as a main course on a cold wintry night with just crusty bread and a simple salad. It’s a great dish to have in your refrigerator during the holidays to serve the night before or night after the holiday meal. However, it doesn’t have to be cold outside. I can eat pasta e fagioli any time of the year!
1-tablespoon olive oil
3 oz. pancetta chopped fine
1 cup finely chopped onion
2 teaspoons finely diced garlic
¾ cup finely chopped celery
¾ cup finely chopped carrots
¼ cup finely chopped parsley
1 ½ pound ground beef
1 teaspoon dried rosemary crumbled
1 ½ teaspoon dried basil
¼ teaspoon dried chili pepper flakes
1 28 oz. can diced tomatoes
2 cups (16 oz.) tomato sauce *
5 cups veal or beef stock
3 (15 oz) cans of cannellini beans, drained & rinsed
Freshly ground pepper
8 oz. tubetti pasta cooked al dente
Parmesan cheese for grating
Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling
*We use Convito’s Tomato Basil Sauce sold in our freezer. You can make your own tomato sauce or buy one of the jarred versions.
Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large stockpot over medium high heat. Add the pancetta and sauté until browned approximately 5 minutes. Add the onions, garlic, celery, carrots and parsley and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes or until vegetables are soft. Add the ground beef, rosemary, basil & chili pepper flakes. Crumble the meat into tiny pieces with the edge of a wooden spoon. Cook, continuing to crumble just until it loses its raw red color but has not browned about 3 minutes.
Add tomatoes, tomato sauce and stock and bring to a simmer stirring until all ingredients are incorporated. Puree 1 can of the beans. Add to the soup. Mix well. Add the other two cans of beans. Turn the heat to low and simmer until the flavors meld approximately15 to 20 minutes.
Add the pasta and mix well. Ladle the soup into individual bowls. Drizzle with olive oil and serve immediately with grated Parmesan cheese.
Pasta note: You can add the pasta to the soup after the beans are added cooking al dente according to the cooking time on the pasta package. I prefer to cook the pasta separately and add it just before serving since I usually keep the soup in the refrigerator for leftovers and feel the pasta does not remain al dente with reheating. I toss the cooked pasta with a little olive oil to prevent sticking. I have also frozen the leftovers.
When we were cooking Milanese dishes, Wanda made it a point to dine with me at many of Milan’s finest restaurants where they served sumptuous helpings of the kind of slow, stew-like cooking that has made Milanese cuisine famous throughout the world. I was always fascinated with her ability to break down every dish into a detailed list of ingredients – and usually with great accuracy – down to even a dash of Allspice, simply by tasting it.
The restaurant Antica Trattoria della Pesa was one of her favorites. It served many traditional Milanese dishes difficult to find in other city restaurants. Their version of Cassoeula – a wonderfully lusty casserole of various cuts of fresh and cured pork and sausages with savoy cabbage, carrots, celery and onions, nested on whipped potatoes – was a classic. This one hundred-plus year-old dark wood paneled restaurant was usually filled with savvy locals and offered – according to Wanda – a precise and perfect rendering of the Lombardia kitchen. “Gusto Autentico” she said – words Wanda used to describe a restaurant that was true to its regional heritage.
A rather elaborate dish, Cassoeula is best served in winter. It makes for a hearty, rib-sticking meal. The basic ingredients are pork and cabbage. The ancient version traditionally makes use of the “poor” parts of the pig: trotters and head as well as ribs and pork sausages. We decided to eliminate the trotters and head. Instead we used pancetta but kept the ribs, and sausages – still hearty and still delicious!
2 tablespoons butter
1-tablespoon olive oil
3 pounds pork spare ribs cut into 6 sections
1 – ½ pounds pork sausage cut into 6 links
4 ounces pancetta diced
1 cup diced onion
1 cup diced carrot
1 cup diced celery
¼ cup tomato paste
1 cup dry white wine
2 ½ cups beef stock
2 – 2-½ pounds Savoy cabbage
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
In a heavy casserole over medium high heat, melt the butter with the olive oil. Turn the heat to high; add the ribs (do in two batches) and brown on both sides. When browned, remove and set aside. Add the sausage and brown well on all sides. Remove and set aside.
Add the pancetta and brown well. Add the onion, carrots and celery and turn the heat to medium. Sauté until soft stirring often for approximately 5 minutes. Add the tomato paste and cook for another 2 – 3 minutes.
Add the wine. Turn the heat to low and cook for approximately 5 minutes. The wine will reduce somewhat. Add the beef stock and the reserved ribs and sausages. Add salt and pepper. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Uncover and cook for another 40 minutes.
While the meat is simmering cut the cabbage in half. Remove loose outside leaves. Cut each half into three sections. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Place the cabbage in the boiling water and blanch for 3 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain well on paper toweling.
Add the cabbage to the casserole and cook for 30 minutes. Skim off surplus fat from time to time and check seasonings. This is a dish that should not have too much liquid.
Delicious accompanied by polenta or mashed potatoes. And have lots of crusty bread on hand to soak up the sauce.
My time with Wanda was intense. Even though our association lasted only eight years, they were the “Convito” years – when my business began, when I was totally immersed in all things Italian.
They were also years that took me on another kind of journey – a personal one which expanded my view of the world and opened up possibilities I never knew existed. Wanda was also a big part of that secondary journey.
Paolo left Milan to work in other areas of the world. Eventually he moved to Turkey. Wanda followed him there and I heard she opened a little pasta shop. I lost track of them many years later but their imprint on my business is profound.
I eventually learned that Wanda passed away some years ago. She may be physically gone from my life but her spirit and her approach to cooking and to life remain with me to this day. Her contributions to Convito were many. She is a part of our soul.