Tuesday, October 9, 2012

An Italian Celebration


At the end of the summer in Italy we had a great celebration that remains one of my very favorite meals of my life.  It epitomized the connection between food, culture and community.  We ate at Ristorante Le Casaline, run by Benedetto and Patrizia Zeppadore, near Spoleto.  There were gifts to acquire, songs to write, tributes and toasts to script.  On the way we stopped at Nocera Umbra, a town decimated in the ’97 earthquake and now seeing fruits of recovery, including a small, but very nice museum.  The highlight, a crucifix in a style we have seen many times.  The surprise, it’s mounted as it would have been, high above the alter as if floating in the air.  Gorgeous.

But let’s get to dinner.  Le Casaline sits in the middle of agricultural land, acres and acres of olive groves mostly.  When we get out I feel surprisingly at home…clean air, trees, scrubby grass and across the yard….chickens, geese, a couple turkeys.  I make a b-line to go check out future dinners.  There are chickens everywhere, scratching under trees, running up a trail into the woods…chickens of all colors…running…with space…eating bugs….being chickens.  What a concept.  I can tell you right now, I had no chicken here, but I know they would taste infinitely better than what any of can see in a grocery store in the States. 

Let’s get to the food.  We began with prosecco for everyone and a few hors d’oeuvres on the patio. Prosciutto thinly sliced right in front of us with an apparatus you only see in places serious about prosciutto (read:  All of Italy).  A pastry beautifully buttered and wrapped around a cinghiale sausage…seriously, folks…pigs in a blanket?!  Really?  This little pastry could (may have) brought a grown man to his knees.  I actually felt an artery solidify just smelling it.  Platters of bruschetta with liver pate, a standard that never gets old…and this was mouth-watering.  Platters of the lightest, most delicate rosemary bread…a taste of summer. 

Then we moved to the tables under the tent.  First round could have been the last and I would die a happy man.  Sit…down….now…ready???  Deep fried, lightly-battered, whole zucchini blossoms.  If you have never heard of such thing it’s time to book a trip to Italy.  The blossom really is stout enough to stand up to a light fry.  And they taste like nothing you have ever experienced.  Next round, gnocchi with saffron bread with pistachio.  Those are some delicate but unmistakable flavors, and they worked wonders together. 

Then the meal took a turn than would really require you to be there to fully appreciate.  And if you are a vegetarian, stop reading now.  If you are prudish, stop reading now.  The next dish was water buffalo carpaccio with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, red cabbage, and mushrooms.  Carpaccio simply means thin-sliced and raw.  This was like little I have ever had.  One of our quieter, dryer, soft-spoken participants put it well when he exclaimed with a loud sigh, “This is erotic!”  Then a faro salad; faro is similar to barley and this tasted so bright, fresh and crisp it was a perfect cleanser for this point.  But then it ramped up again to pecorino bread with salt pork, similar to prosciutto.  Perfetto.  But then came the cured meat piece de resistance…lamb prosciutto.  If you closed your eyes and put a piece of it right up to your nose, rubbed the underside of your nose with it, you would swear you were in the field with the very lamb who gave her life for this delicacy.  I have never smelled anything like it.  In fact, and it’s confusing and stressful to say this, I almost didn’t want to eat it.  I didn’t want the smell to end. 

But then something I would never order, would never dream of, not in my worst nightmares.  They called it pate negra….white chocolate puff with black prosciutto.  Now I know black prosciutto is a unique delicacy, but putting it with a white chocolate-flavored puff pastry just seems so wrong.  I took a bite.  Consider me humbled.  All I could do was stare trying to comprehend this.  But then came a perfect little cube of lightly seared creamy polenta with deer sausage and a sauce of lemon and calvados.  All the elements were incredible…the polenta was the best I have had.  The deer sausage melted in my mouth and the teaming of lemon and calvados, apple brandy, was inspired. 

The next dish I smelled coming from over 50 feet away.  I felt like Scooby Doo turning with an ear up, knowing something was going on.  In came the linguini with truffles that smelled like the woods and dirt.  That’s a good thing, an earthy, raw, damn near phermonic smell.  What would the world be without truffles.  What would I be?!

Then the best gnocchi I have ever put in my mouth.  Soft pillows that melted in your mouth covered with a red sauce of castrated pig.  Sure, I feel bad for the little guy, but he’s really done great work with his life!

Then we hit the animalistic, carnivorous coup de grace – meter-long skewers filled top to bottom with meat.  Pork loin, sausage, beef and a chunk of liver that may quite possibly be the most rich, creamy, tender, obnoxious simple meat I have ever eaten.  It still had fat on it, not all cleaned up and standardized like the liver we get in the States.  And the flavor and texture…profound.  

I had the unique opportunity (it came out for our lone vegetarian…The horror!  The horror!) to try scarmorzia….smoked mozzarella.  Wow!  We need to learn how to cook chunks of cheese without calling them Poppers. 

Ready for dessert right?  Before a meat coma set in we were force fed a lovely and delicate mold of blackberries, currants, and blueberries and whipped cream.  Then they got a forklift and put us in the bus.

Incredibly, we all still had energy to chat on the way.  And what strikes me was that there was a new, deeper connection between us.  We couldn’t help but have a laugh over Wes’ blunt “erotic” comment.  We poked sympathetic fun at the vegetarian.  But we reminisced about this incredible journey we had shared.  Friendships had been formed. Faiths had been renewed and strengthened.  Long-held but forgotten dreams were being shared.  We had shared an intellectual, academic experience but had connected over food, scenery and faith.    
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