TORRE ALFINA, Italy — Monday’s adventure into the Italian countryside brought several challenges and more than a few triumphs. It was also a day of boys against the girls.
The women went off to do some shopping, while the three of us guys were left with the job of picking up the groceries. I had volunteered to cook dinner, with the understanding that the menu would be largely left up to whatever we found.
What we found in the nearby town of Acquapendente were two supermarkets, each with plenty to explore. In the first, we loaded up on fresh fruits and vegetables, including a red pepper about the size of a football, celery, several types of lettuce, local apples, onions and deep red tomatoes (likely from a greenhouse, since it isn’t the season for tomatoes yet, but the color was tempting).
We next hit the deli where the woman working behind the counter probably never knew what hit her. We stocked up on fresh mozzarella, burrata, Grana Padano, something creamy looking called Gorgonzola mascarpone and a couple of other cheeses, both hard and soft that I don’t even remember the names of. We also bought plenty of salami, mortadella and other cuts to go with breakfast, lunch or whenever we feel like raiding the refrigerator.
Capers, anchovies, olives, giardinara — you name it, it went into the basket.
All but the meat. We had wanted some seafood, and it just wasn’t at the market.
Fresh seafood wasn’t at the next market, either, and we remembered that we weren’t that close to the coast, so the likelihood of finding great trout, clams or shrimp wasn’t going to happen. So, we opted for two chickens with the most golden skin you can image. At least three of in the group, myself included, are suckers for roast chicken with skin that is loaded with flavor, so that was an easy choice for a main course. We also managed to pick up fresh strawberries and some 85-percent dark chocolate to go with cheese for dessert.
We got our purchases home, loaded up the fridge and headed out for a little lunch and a chance to check out the market in our own town. We stopped at the market first, where we found the freshest looking zucchini we had seen all day, but not the shallots we had hoped all day for.
The rain that had teased us all morning was beginning to get a little heavier. We made it to town, but nothing really was open, so we ended up at the hotel next to the house we’re renting.
Nuovo Castello was empty when we entered, and though the door was unlocked, we thought it wasn’t open. It turns out that lunch for the locals is a little after 1:30 p.m., and we were there just a little ahead of time. The waiter didn’t speak English, but he was able to get across several important pieces of information: The olive oil on the table was pressed by the hotel restaurant, and the pasta was all made by hand in the kitchen.
While he waited for us to decide, the waiter brought over a bottle of the house red, which he opened with a beer bottle opener. It was fruity and enjoyable, especially with the food.
The oil wasn’t grassy or peppery, as so many extra-virgin olive oils can be, but it was fresh, bright and rich, infused with the sunlight that the day was missing.
But it was nothing against the lasagna with porcini mushrooms that I ordered. The dish wasn’t pretty. It looked like a kind of odd slice of omelet with a gravy on it, and it seemed sadly deflated. Yet the pasta sheets, so rich in egg flavor, were rolled out almost paper thin, and there was a mushroom filling in between each of the many layers, with the flavors complementing each other in a way that made it like nothing I had ever tasted before. Honestly, it was the best pasta I have ever had — and I’m looking forward to the chance of repeating the experience.
Cecil’s tagliatelle with wild boar and Steve’s gnocchi with porcini both showed the chef’s deft hand with pasta, though neither seemed quite at the level of the lasagna.
We followed that with a trio of equally wonderful veal dishes, one in a lemon sauce, one in wine sauce and the third in what was described as “rustico” on the menu, which I now translate as being something that isn’t pretty to look at but tastes great. I had the rustico, and again it came with mushrooms, but this time in a sauce that covered the thin veal cutlets completely.
I needed a nap after that and before I could tackle dinner. First, it was time to devise the menu.
The first course would be a Caprese salad with the tomatoes, mozzarella, burrata and basil we bought with some olive oil and balsamico. Toasted rosemary bread with some leftover seasoned oil would be served alongside it.
Then would follow the roast chickens, stuffed with lemon, rosemary and sage. I stuffed butter and sage leaves under the skin and rubbed the outside with a little olive oil. Zucchini sautéed in olive oil and lemon juice with a little Grana Padano grated on top would be the vegetable. And macaroni and cheese would finish out the meal. (I know pasta comes first in Italy, but working out that kind of service isn’t entirely practical, especially when you don’t know the oven you’re working with.)
I started by toasting breadcrumbs in butter and garlic, before taking that nap.
When I got up, we all sort of tended to details without getting in each other’s way. Steve made up the Caprese salad, while I got the stock pot ready for the pasta. Then came time to make the béchamel sauce. Steve whisked the butter and flour to a light tan color, before I added milk and heavy cream, while Cecil grated the hard cheeses. I added the soft cheeses and they slowly melted into a thick sauce.
When the pasta was ready, I filled the bowl with half of the shells, then sprinkled on half of the grated cheese. Then we repeated the pasta, sauce and cheese before putting the dish in the oven. When it was almost ready, we removed the dish from the oven, topped it with the breadcrumbs and set it back in for the last few minutes.
It wasn’t on the level of the lasagna, but it was rewarding, thanks in large part to the help, physically and culinarily speaking from my friends. That’s what having fun in the kitchen is about. Yes, it’s great when you can make pasta as perfectly as our next door neighbor. It’s also something when you take two chickens as perfect as can be and roast them simply to achieve all of the natural flavor you can get. But it’s also great when you can get people working together to make something delicious.
Sure, too many cooks can spoil the broth, but working together can also result in something you’ll be able savor for a long time to come.