February 26, 2012

What We Served and Didn’t Serve to Alberto

When our great friend Alberto breaks off from an intense work schedule and flies up to NC from Tampa for only one night, he must enjoy a sustaining dinner, one that reminds him of Tuscany! Alberto owns the house above Bramasole. We share Italy on many levels, and back in the USA, our interests also intersect and blossom. If you read Every Day in Tuscany, you’ve already heard of our friendship. He, Ed, and I, when we get together, talk non-stop of creative plans–from creating a whole town to painting a five-inch watercolor to solving the humidity problem on the back wall of his house. A day can be long and short when there’s so much to say.

First we sat by the fire and opened a prosecco–Rustico, what we often drink in Cortona. With some crackers and olives, we devoured–and practically shouted over–a three-milk, grassy, chalky cheese from Piemonte: La Tur.  Such a creamy, pillowy delight!

At the table, we began with When in Rome Artichokes. We talked about a poetry / art project for Ed and Alberto based on architectural fragments around Italy–the Etruscan stairs at Tarquinia, the Jovis ruins at Capri, the disappeared villa of Pliny near Città di Castello. The talk paired easily with the ancient thistle stuffed with black olives, croutons, basil, parsley, drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice. I’m only half-kidding–shouldn’t the music and talk complement the food as much as the wine?

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We decided to skip the crab and lemon pasta we’d planned.  Too much cheese before dinner, which quickly satiates you. I normally serve cheese only at the end of dinner. I was just in love with La Tur–that melting goodness–and wanted to share it immediately.

So, we moved on to Tuscan Short Ribs with Rich Polenta–from The Tuscan Sun Cookbook–and grilled asparagus.  This is such a hearty, wintery recipe that to feast on it, you feel you should have been out in the woods chopping logs or hiking snow-covered Roman roads. The ribs are browned, then slow-roasted with soffrito, sautéed carrots, garlic, onions, and celery, and some chopped tomatoes. Low and slow–that’s the secret. Like ossobuco, the ribs’ meat just slips off –it’s that tender–leaving the primitive bones clanking on your plate. Talk was heady: the Danteum of Terragni, a Fascist-era architect’s memorial to Dante, the only building we know of that was based on a book–other than Tara, as one of the comments below insisted!  The Danteum was never built but the plans linger with power.  (Terragni’s Danteum by Thomas L. Schumacher).  Perhaps a bit too ethereal a conversation for such an earthy dish. With such a savory sauce, and this is one of the best things you can put in your chops, we pass the bruschette smeared with roasted garlic.

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Oh, my.  This tastes so deeply of Tuscany.  (That’s Ed, pressing out the pulp from the roasted garlic.)

So, we skipped the salad, too. The chopped, crisp romaine with roasted beets and walnuts and crumbled gorgonzola.  Maybe, by then, it was the Brunello talking. We were onto plans for designing tableware for a restaurant, and the ideal seasonal menu, and the name of this restaurant.

By this time, the camera was forgotten. Please imagine the intense, roasty ribs on a bed of golden polenta!  We moved on to Wallace Stevens, Cortona news, Caravaggio, and a sweet panna cotta with raspberries and blueberries. Why is this dessert so popular in Tuscany? Because it is the easiest dessert imaginable. You make it in ten minutes and can embellish it with a purée of strawberries, a slather of chocolate sauce, a spoon of  lemon marmalade, or simply seasonal berries.  We lingered long at the table, though we did not, as we would have in Tuscany, haul out the grappa.  Just espresso.  After midnight, we said buona notte, already a bit sad that the trip to the airport would start shortly after breakfast, and that we would be texting and calling and e-mailing until we can meet again this spring on our beloved hillside overlooking the valley where Hannibal defeated the Romans in 217 B.C.