My fortieth birthday marked a turning point. Up until then my life had moved forward pretty much just as I had expected, evolving from one stage to another the way my parents, friends, relatives and I had all assumed it would. Transitions were appropriately significant, but neither particularly surprising nor terribly enlightening. Going from childhood to adulthood, leaving home for college, getting married, having children all had remarkable meaning for me, but each period followed a path that had been etched in my mind from the time I was a young girl. The details needed filling in, but the destination was inevitable. However, shortly before I turned forty I made a detour that was not a part of anyone’s plans, certainly not mine. I opened my own business and in doing so began a journey of self-discovery that was not only unexpected, but life-changing. Making this leap – which I was only able to do with the support of many of the people I have already written about in the blog – was intense, expansive, sometimes frustrating and oftentimes confusing. In the end it was a conduit to the answers to questions I hadn’t even yet thought to ask. It was the beginning of the relationship I would have with myself, which I only recently realized is probably the most important relationship anyone can have. I believe that everything else in our lives is inexorably affected by how we interact with and what we think about ourselves, whether we know it or not. In short this was my “coming of age.”
Considering that my own personal period of enlightenment was about to begin, there was a certain irony to the fact that I would be celebrating my fortieth birthday in a restored medieval castle – clearly a relic from the “dark ages.” My partners Paolo Volpara and his mother, Wanda Bottino, selected Castello di Pomerio for my birthday gathering because it was close to Milan where they both lived and offered an abundance of intimate private rooms in all sizes and shapes perfect for weddings, birthdays and any number of celebratory events. Our particular room was a handsome somewhat dungeon-like space with faded tapestries and baroque-looking oil paintings lining its ancient stone walls. Candlelight and a wood burning fire lent the appropriate glow and necessary warmth to what was an especially cold February evening.
Wanda selected the menu for the party. She wanted dishes from Lombardia the region we had been studying for the past many months. Our first course was Risotto alla Milanese (saffron risotto) followed by La Cotoletta alla Milanese (a breaded veal cutlet). Both were regional classics. Celebrants included my then husband Bob, Paolo and his then wife Maretta, Maretta’s business partner Sante, a Chicago couple, Bill and Maria Battaglia (Bill was working at Paolo’s agency in Milan) and of course, Wanda. After much laughter and appropriate toasts the grand finale arrived – a gorgeous stuffoli. Stuffoli is a Neapolitan dish made of deep fried balls of dough similar to the French Croquembouche. Forty of them, each with a candle in the middle were clustered together to form a pyramid. Forty brightly burning candles (a veritable blaze) added a rich glow to the dark but cozy medieval room. My “enlightenment” was about to begin!
The celebration was one I will never forget, but in truth my real enlightenment had already begun and would continue over the next five years – much of it taking place in Milan, my Italian headquarters. I learned about the cooking of regional Italy in my partner Wanda’s Milanese kitchen (Milano I – Cooking with Wanda). I learned about food and wine markets walking its streets (Milano II – Street Smarts). And now I was beginning to learn about the art of running a restaurant not just by eating in them, but actually studying them.
Shortly after the first Convito opened, we outgrew our 1,500 square foot store and moved to a larger location that would accommodate both an expanded market and more significantly, the addition of a small café. Now lunches and dinners in Milanese restaurant and throughout Italy became my classrooms. Our syllabus included ambience, décor, menus, wine lists, food descriptions – everything down to the smallest detail – even the salt and peppers shakers on the table.
Milan was the perfect resource. It offered every kind of Italian restaurant from fancy to casual to trendy to formal to down-and-dirty hole-in-the-wall types. We could actually dine in every region of Italy without ever leaving the city limits – Liguria, Piemonte, Bologna, Tuscany, Sicily and more. All regions were represented.
Il Verde was a restaurant I visited frequently. Hip, handsome and always teeming with young professionals, its menu offered a long list of salads difficult to find in most Italian restaurants where salad choices are mostly limited to Insalata Mista (mixed salad). For that reason alone it was a great lunch place. I felt entirely comfortable dining by myself while enjoying amazing people-watching alongside whatever delicious salad or pasta dish I ordered. Invariably I came away with lots of new ideas.
I especially loved the dishes that put a “twist” on Italian classics. When successful, the additional ingredients a chef added never seemed to interfere with the integrity of the original version. They weren’t outrageous interpretations but rather seemed just to make sense. Like Spaghetti con Pomodoro, Basilico e Mandorle which was basically a straight-forward tomato basil sauce served with the “twist” of an added drizzle of pesto. It was a natural match since the tomato sauce already contained basil (the main ingredient in pesto) while the toasted almonds sprinkled on top added just the right crunchy finish. The other ingredients of the pesto – pinenuts, parmesan, pecorino and garlic gave the dish a punch. I liked it so much I put it on my Chicago Convito menu a few years later.
Spaghetti con Pomodoro, Basilico e Mandorle
Spaghetti with Tomato, Basil and Almonds
Serves 6 – 8
½ cup olive oil
Two 28-ounce cans Italian plum tomatoes, drained and roughly chopped
16 fresh basil leaves, finely chopped
1 ½ teaspoons salt
Freshly ground pepper
Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the tomatoes, basil, salt and pepper. Simmer over medium-low heat for about 20 minutes. Put the mixture through a food mill or puree in a food processor. Makes 4 – 5 cups.
2 cups fresh basil leaves packed
2 medium-sized cloves of garlic
1/3 cup pine nuts
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
½ cup freshly grated pecorino or parmesan cheese (some recipes use ¼ of each)
Combine the basil, garlic and pine nuts in a food processor and pulsate until coarsely chopped. Slowly add the olive oil and again process until smooth. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer pesto to a bowl and add the grated cheese.
* More than enough for a drizzle on 8 portions of spaghetti. Save for other uses.
Toasted Slivered Almonds
Place 1 cup almonds in a heavy, ungreased skillet. Stir often over medium heat until golden brown.
2 pound spaghetti cooked al dente, drained well
Toss with tomato sauce
Drizzle with pesto
Sprinkle with toasted almonds
Paolo was the first to introduced me to Aimo e Nadia a restaurant I would come back to over and over again. In most guidebooks its menu is described as “Tuscan style” though this hardly begins to describe the amazing dishes served by Aimo and Nadia Moroni, a husband and wife team who turn out some of the best food Milan has to offer (two Michelin stars and the Relais & Chateaux designation attest to that fact). Not only was it one of Paolo’s favorite restaurants, but I soon learned it was also a favorite of many wine makers – always a good sign. I ate here several times with Neil and Maria Empson, fine Italian wine exporters and with Maurizio Zanella, a renowned winemaker from the Franciacorta area of Lombardia. Although the large abstract artwork lining its clean white walls is very attractive, the food is really the star here. I never left without some dish inspiring me. Aimo e Nadia’s “twist” is subtle – never contrived – always inspired and supremely delicious.
One of the most memorable dishes I enjoyed in this quiet suburban restaurant represents simplicity itself -Passato di Pomodoro. It is a first course – somewhat soup-like – that is an absolutely perfect beginning to a summer meal. Since it requires amazing, flavorful, meaty tomatoes easily found at the peak of the tomato season, but impossible to source at other times of the year, it is only served during the summertime or the length of the tomato season – probably longer in Milan than in Chicago.
Following is my recipe based on what I remember as one of the most flavorful, simple and delicious summer dishes I have ever eaten.
Passato di Pomodoro
Puree of Fresh Tomato with Toasted Bread Cubes
2 – 3 pounds fresh tomatoes (2 cups Pureed)
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh basil
Freshly ground pepper to taste
12 cubes of hearty bread, crusts removed, cut into 1-inch cubes
4 basil leaf bouquets for garnish
Peel the tomatoes by plunging them in boiling salted water, then peeling off their skins. See the tomatoes then pass the fleshy meaty parts through a food mill. To the tomato puree add the olive oil, chopped basil, salt and pepper. Cover and let flavors blend for at least 3 hours.
Heat a heavy skillet over high heat. Add bread cubes and quickly toast over high heat turning them to toast all sides. Remove from the pan and set aside.
When ready to serve, divide the puree into small shallow bowls. Place three toasted bread cubes in each bowl. Garnish each bowl with a basil bouquet. Serve at room temperature.
*The tomato puree should be made several hours ahead in order for the flavors to blend.
My wine knowledge increased exponentially during those early Milan years due in part to my friendship with Neil and Maria Empson. Neil and Maria were exporters of fine Italian wine. They represented some of the best winemakers in all of Italy. I first met Neil in Chicago when he was meeting with his Midwest importers. Our mutual goal of spreading the word about fine Italian wine produced an immediate connection. He not only visited Convito to talk with customers about wine but he conducted many wine tastings in both my Chicago and Wilmette locations.
Neil and Maria formed their company in the early seventies. It was located in Milan so when I visited I was lucky enough to meet with them in their lovely, warm sumptuously comfortable apartment located in an old part of Milan that had escaped bombing during World War II. We often tasted their newest wine “find” or on many occasions, dined or lunched together at one of their favorite restaurants. Their taste was impeccable. To me, even though their were transplants (he from New Zealand, she from the U.S.) they were Mr. and Mrs. Milano. Their elegance, chic and class perfectly matched this great city.
Under his tutelage my knowledge of wine increased greatly – knowledge about the wines themselves, about marketing wine and about restaurant wine lists. I was amazed at the myriad of ways a wine list could be organized – by country, by region, by grape, by intensity or just simply by color. During our restaurant visits, we discussed all of this. They were always incredibly generous and gracious hosts and I was grateful for their support and guidance in those early Convito years.
As my wine knowledge increased so did my wine confidence. It “came of age” during a lunch I had with my friend and Paolo’s assistant Roberta Lai. I ordered a bottle of Pinot Grigio, which was delivered to the table by a very snooty, unfriendly, most unctuous waiter. He ceremoniously uncorked the bottle, poured us each a full glass, then disappeared with the bottle before either of us has taken a sip let alone seen the bottle. We had no idea if the year of the bottle matched the year on the wine list. The tawny dark yellow color informed me immediately that this wine was way too old, its dull and musty smell agreed with that assessment. After a sip to convince myself that I was right, (it tasted like a bad sherry), Roberta called our waiter back to the table.
“Questo vino e imbevibile,” (this wine is undrinkable), she said holding up her glass. “Ecco come I gusti Pinot Grigio” (That is how Pinot Grigio tastes), he answered most haughtily. No, Roberta protested explaining that her friend (pointing to me) knew Italian wine – actually sold it in her own wine shop in Chicago. He was not impressed. Eventually after an animated exchange between the two of them, the waiter returned with a different bottle and two clean glasses. He begrudgingly poured us another glass. This time it was a lovely golden yellow, was light and crisp and had the aroma of pears, apples and lemon – just like the Pinot Grigio described in the wine list. Crisis averted. But never did the waiter acknowledge that our assessment of the first bottle was correct. He left the table muttering something to himself that to this day I’m sure went something like “Due donne che conoscono il vino – mai” (two women knowing wine- never!).
Women – particularly in my generation – didn’t for the most part take the time to go on anything like the journey of discovery I was in the middle of. Often we were too busy taking care of other people – especially if we were mothers. That was certainly true in my case. But by forty – for me – that noise had died down. I was ready to explore!
Since I had plenty of time alone, I was free to investigate all wonders of this diverse city – not just food and wine but museums, churches, art deco buildings, designer stores, art galleries and little out-of-the-way specialty shops. I had unconsciously begun to sort my experiences into two categories – experiences, tastes, sights I loved and would like to repeat – and those that I wasn’t so fond of, didn’t especially like and did not want to replicate. Deciding my own preferences, likes and dislikes was a huge step in my enlightenment.
Paolo always encouraged me to try new dishes, new wines, new experiences. “Really”, he would say, “you’ll love the eel!” I did. “Try the fried whitebait. Their eyeballs are the best part” he would laugh. Enthusiastic, though a tad reluctant, I did indeed try them, but could never get past those crunchy eyes! There were hits and misses along the way, but the experimentation and adventure was what really turned me on about the new experiences. I think Paolo sensed this and always pushed us both to go beyond what was familiar and easy, something I still try to embrace when I create new dishes and visit new places.
One night Paolo suggested another “experience,” that we go to Monza for dinner. Monza is a city about nine miles north-northeast of Milan best known for its Grand Prix motor racing circuit. He decided it was the perfect distance and the perfect summer evening for me to take my first motorcycle ride. That particular activity had never been on my “be sure to experience” list. But I was willing to try.
I wasn’t sure about the proper motorcycle attire so I rifled through the clothes I had packed and decided on a pair of black jeans, a black silky cotton turtleneck and black leather knee-high boots. I proudly walked out of the hotel to meet Paolo who was waiting for me at the end of on the long driveway near the entrance of the hotel. “I nailed the outfit”, I was thinking. “Where’s your horse?” Paolo asked with a wide ironic grin on his face.
What seemed like hours later, we arrived in Monza. I was so tense and tight from the ride; I literally staggered into the restaurant. I needed to calm down. After a glass of Prosecco to celebrate the halftime of my adventure (I unfortunately still had the ride back to Milan), I began to relax. While Paolo continued to tease me about my “too fashionable” motorcycle attire, I studied the menu.
I chose a most interesting first course. Three breaded, cheese stuffed rice balls (called suppli in Rome, arancini in Sicily) were presented on a long narrow plate atop a small pool of a green herb sauce. Suppli is generally regarded as street food. They make great appetizers and are usually eaten with the fingers. I had never seen them presented in this manner. Another “twist” I added to my list to be resurrected at a later date on one of my menus.
This was suppli dish patterned after the dish I had in Monza that was on our last menu. Convito Chef Noe Sanchez added sun-dried tomatoes to the suppli filling and placed them atop a pea puree.
Makes approximately 18 balls
3 cups leftover risotto
3 tablespoons sun-dried tomatoes, diced
3 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
1 cup grated Parmesan
3 ounces Fontina cheese cut into 18 sections (or Mozzarella is also commonly used)
1 cup breadcrumbs
Mix together the risotto, eggs, sun-dried tomatoes, basil, parmesan and ½ cup of the breadcrumbs. Take approximately ¼ cup of the mixture in the palm of your hand. With your index finger, poke a hole in the center. Insert one cube of the Fontina cheese. Roll again to make certain that rice has surrounded it on all sides. Place each ball on a baking sheet lined with parchment and repeat until you have no risotto mixture and cheese left.
Place the remaining breadcrumbs on a plate. Roll each ball into the breadcrumbs coating all sides. Place in refrigerator for about 30 minutes.
Heat 3-4 inches of oil in a deep heavy-bottomed pan. Remove balls from fridge and fry 3 – 4 balls at a time over medium-high heat until golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper toweling. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Or as pictured, serve 2 to 3 balls over a pea puree as a first course
1-½ cup peas (you can use frozen – defrosted and rinsed)
¾ cup chicken stock
3 tablespoons heavy cream
¼ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated pepper
Place all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. In a small saucepan, heat over low heat until warm. Spoon a small amount on plate (approximately 1 tablespoon per suppli and place suppli on top. Serve as an appetizer.
Our trip back to Milan was pretty much the same teeth-grinding experience as our trip to Monza. Relief swept over me as Paolo delivered me in one piece to my hotel, but as with so many of my experiences during my early years in Milan, I learned a lot that particular night. Not only had I realized that even street food can be transformed into something exceptional in the hands of someone willing to embrace a “twist” on the everyday, but I also learned that the activity of motorcycle riding – with or without a former professional rider – would most definitely not be added to my “things I love and want to repeat” list. Oh well, exploration was all part of my years of “enlightenment”. You’ll never know if something fits unless you try it on!