After 5 days of having others cook for us, we prepared – then leisurely enjoyed – our own delicious Umbrian dinner last night. Rita greeted us with her usual smile, followed by her tail-wagging dogs Baldo, a yellow lab, and Pepito, a shaggy, soccer-playing terrier. Within seconds, she had us in the kitchen, hands washed and aprons tied. A few feet away, Rita’s husband Carlo suffered quietly while watching Italy play its final World Cup soccer match. Following Rita’s expert directions, Martha, Suzanne and Florence prepared our dessert: a strawberry tiramisù. Next, Don and Jill prepared the stinchi di maiale (pork shank), which was slow-cooked with white wine, potatoes and carrots for over 2 hours. Tracy, Cheryl and Suzanne mixed the spinach and ricotta (from sheep’s milk) dough and we all tried our hands at rolling, cutting the dough into little gnocchetti, which we dimpled with our thumbs or index fingers (the indentation helps the gnocchi gather up sauce). As soon as she realized we had a non meat-eater in our midst, Rita quickly came up with an additional dish: panzanella, a salad made with dry bread, chopped fresh tomatoes, onions, olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper and any other ingredient you’d like to incorporate (i.e. other chopped veggies, tuna, cheese).
By eight o’clock Carlo reappeared to pour us glasses of prosecco as we watched the sun set behind Todi. We enjoyed our slow cooked meal slowly and didn’t say ‘buona notte’ until long after 11:30, long after the last bite of tiramisù and, yes, a little glass or two of Carlo’s famous limoncello. Even nonna (Rita’s spunky 83 year-old mother) came out to greet us and share some laughs.
Although I hope many will try to repeat Rita’s recipes at home, the Italian lessons learned while cooking were equally valuable. We learned verbs like mescolare (to blend), tagliare (to cut), aggiungere (to add), bagnare (to soak or dip in liquid) and lots of food vocabulary: biscotti di Savoia (“lady fingers”), stinco (pork shank), the difference between sugo (always a tomato sauce) and other sauces labeled by ingredients or nick-name (i.e. alla carbonara, al tartufo). And a few experienced the linguistic revelation of understanding the difference between cuocere and cucinare, the two verbs that translate as “to cook”: cucinare is what a person does – i.e. Cucino bene. Abbiamo cucinato la cena while cuocere indicates what the food does – i..e La carne deve cuocere a 200 gradi per due ore; E’ cotta la pasta?). “So you’re saying that I’ve been telling people they’re cooked all of these years?” Martha asked as we all burst into laughter.