Posted on June 25th, 2012
My heart was racing a little bit as I tied the apron strings around my waist and prepared to join Mirella in the kitchen at Osteria del Trivio. I couldn’t remember any of the carefully rehearsed Italian “kitchen” phrases I’d been repeating for the past several days and my hands felt all thumbs. Could I do this without making a fool of myself? What did I really know about cooking in a restaurant kitchen anyway? And, in Italy! My confession, spoken to Mirella three nights earlier, that I had dreamed about cooking with her in her kitchen suddenly seemed absurd. But her immediate response, “Si, e possibilie!” gave me the courage to follow through on the hastily arranged plans. I swallowed and walked through the swinging doors to hear her say, “Allora, vuoi fare pizze?”1 and the dream became reality.
Five years earlier, we had walked into the unassuming but charming osteria2 on our first night in Spoleto, Italy. We were greeted warmly by Umberto, ushered to seats at a small table with a view onto the street from opened windows, and he recited the menu to us, slowly, giving us time to decipher his Italian. We ordered wine and, as we waited, I gazed upon the medieval stone wall outside, glistening in the early evening rain, and started to cry. The moment was a culmination of all my fantasies about Italy and travel and the long years of waiting to see them fulfilled. I wanted to sit on ancient stone walls in the sunshine, walk the rounded cobble remains of Roman roads, and contemplate the centuries of history, which I had only taught in the classroom, while drinking strong, red wine. I was finally here! As the evening unfolded, we spoke with Umberto, met his lovely wife, Mirella, and were treated to the culinary delights that ushered out of her kitchen: bruschetta con pomodoro, strangozzi con zucchine, gnocchi con funghi, coniglio brasato, crosanda, biscotti,3 on and on. We ate, drank and conversed with them for three hours. We returned five more times in the two weeks we spent in Spoleto, each time reveling in the simple but delicious food and the warmth and generosity of our hosts. Silver-haired and tongued Umberto, who could converse, cajole and joke in English, German and French and pressed gifts upon us when we departed the city that first time. And, Mirella, petite, dark-haired, with flashing eyes who dismissed compliments with the words, “Non, e semplice,”4 and informed my husband that I was, “stupenda!”5 He (correctly) answered, “Io so,”6 and she patted him approvingly on the head. I began to dream about learning the secrets of Mirella’s kitchen, how to take simple ingredients and turn them into savory moments, memorable flavors that lingered in the mouth and heart.
So, here I was, five years and two more trips later, in Mirella’s kitchen with my hands kneading dough on the wooden counter and worrying about whether I was making the pizze round enough–was I doing it the “right” way? I looked at her as if to ask and she smiled, saying “Non importante, la forma!”7 And, taking the dough I had just shaped into a somewhat circular form, she placed it on the stove’s griddle. Poi!8 The pizze was followed by chopping, mincing, mixing, one after the other, ingredients for ragu, fagioli9, biscotti, carciofi10and, finally, strangozzi con salsicce e zucchine11 for the kitchen’s lunch. I learned some of the secrets of Mirella’s kitchen: soffritto as the base for ragu and fagioli; an abundance of pungent, green, Umbrian olive oil in every dish; simple ingredients and straightforward technique; don’t be fussy; semplice, tutto semplice!12 I discovered that, like me, she uses a knife to peel vegetables (no need for fancy peelers). Use orange oil in the biscotti. A pinch of saffron is added to the zucchini e salsicce for lunch. I lost myself in the familiar rhythms of food preparation and realized, several times, that Mirella had left me alone in her kitchen. All at once, in that moment, I knew that she trusted me and my heart soared.
Umberto came into the kitchen, tapping the watch on his arm and asking the whereabouts of his lunchtime pasta. Mirella rolling her eyes, shooed him out of the kitchen with words to the effect of, “Can’t you see we’re busy here?” and together we completed the sauce for the strangozzi she’d made by hand the day before. We carried the plates of steaming pasta to a table in the main room, filled our glasses with the local Montefalco Rosso wine and then raised them in a toast to the morning’s efforts. As I looked out the window onto the now sun-filled street, I was smiling as I tasted the first forkful of pasta, redolent with the aromas of fennel-studded sausage, that pinch of saffron, and the just-made memories of a shared kitchen. Che meraviglia!13
Pasta di Pranzo14(all measurements are approximate here –not a measuring cup in sight!)
1 sweet Italian sausage link
2 small zucchini
Very good olive oil (preferably Umbrian)
8 oz. fresh pasta (fettucine or linguine will work as substitute for strangozzi)
Pinch of saffron
Freshly grated pecorino cheese
- Heat approximately 3-4 tbs olive oil in large, heavy sauté pan over medium heat.
- Quarter zucchini lengthwise and cut into small diced pieces.
- Add zucchini to sauté pan, cook for 1-2 minutes.
- Remove sausage from casing and mash into pan with the zucchini and brown.
- Boil pasta water and add fresh pasta – cooking 2-3 minutes.
- Add one ladle of pasta water to pan with zucchini and sausage.
- Add saffron to zucchini and sausage mix.
- Add drained pasta to the sauté pan and toss ingredients together, adding small amounts of pasta water if necessary to emulsify sauce.
- Add 1-2 handfuls of freshly grated pecorino to pasta and toss.
- Divide among 4 serving plates, with additional pecorino if desired.
3 Bruschetta with tomatoes, strangozzi (a type of Umbrian pasta known as “priest stranglers,” literally shoelaces!) with zucchini, gnocchi with mushrooms, braised rabbit, a pastry tart, biscotti.