A Birthday Party: Italian Style

By Marian Romano

In 2011 I had the amazing good fortune to spend 6 months studying the culinary arts in Italy.  This took place at the restaurant where I was doing my internship, while in Calabria, the owners were from Naples.

Last night was a family birthday party, just aunts, uncles, and cousins-about 60. A simple dinner, it took only two days to prepare. 

Antipasto was a trio of crostini. Bread is purchased daily from a bakery on the next block, sliced by hand (usually mine), and toasted in the Neapolitan stone pizza oven at the end of a long handled peel.  No oil, no garlic, just bread. The first was topped with an eggplant condiment. We started with light purple eggplants, pure white on the inside, nary a seed and no trace of bitterness. Cubed, it was tossed into a huge skillet to fry in at least an inch of EVOO with a few garlic cloves, followed by a liter of tomatoes passed through a food mill, sprinkled with a bit of basil, then simmered for an hour. 

Another was topped with diced tomato, EVOO, salt, and oregano. The tomatoes were large and small, but always lumpy with blemishes galore and they tasted wonderful.  The last was a tonno.  Chef took the oil-poached tuna, some mayonnaise and a little water and blender-ized it into a sauce! 

The primo, or first dish, was pasta.  We prepared the Neapolitan sauce yesterday.  It started with a TON of olive oil, a few onions floating in there, followed by the minced ends of the pork loin that had been sliced thinly for the secondo, or second course.  They cooked for a while, then ground pork was added, a few kilos, then Chef grabbed a very large plastic jug that looked like a gallon of generic vegetable oil.  I nearly fainted since he poured in half the contents, but then I saw the label and it was wine. Whew!   To this mélange, two bags of frozen peas were unceremoniously dumped.  Vegetables receive interesting treatment here, they are cooked-to-death.  Pasta is toothsome, shrimp might be served raw, but vegetables, vegetables are cooked into olive drab mush, always.  Remarkably, they still taste good, perhaps because they are basted in garlic and very good, very fresh, local olive oil.  These poor little peas cooked for probably 30 minutes in the boiling pot when the chef’s wife tasted them for completeness.  She covered the pot and let it go for another hour.  Apparently, they were still raw. About half a case of bottled strained tomatoes went into the pot followed by some fried eggplant and then covered and left to cook for “trenta minuti”(30 minutes), Rosanna said, however, it actually cooked for 2 more hours.  It will be better the next day she told me.

Just before serving the big bowls of pasta, chef topped each plate with diced salami, chopped hard boiled eggs and then finished each dish with a small handful of FRESH buffallo mozzarella.  They treat mozzarella, ripe tomatoes, and olive oil like we treat snow, there will always be more, just go outside and get some.  Which, by the way, was exactly what Pepe did when someone requested peppercinis for their pasta. He ran out, grabbed a handful of tiny hot Calabrese peppers growing somewhere in the yard, brought them in and wiped them of the day’s dust, picking out the few weeds that came with them, put them on a plate and brought them out.  This is a food paradise.

After pasta there was a respite, called The Party, including karaoke, balloon popping, a video collage, and presents.  The thin fillets of pork, floured and fried, crowned with white wine sauce, along with tiny white potatoes with oil and rosemary were warming up when I was relieved of duty.  It was 11:45 PM.  They still had salad, fruit and dolce (sweets) courses coming but I was home in bed before the last plate of pork was served.