Cinzia’s Polenta Dinner:
I have observed that upon entering an Italian home, no matter what size the room, a major part of the square footage is dedicated to a large dining table. When you arrive at a party, there is no roaming about the room with drink and food in hand making small talk. People are introduced, you do the right-left Italian air-kiss, and proceed to the table. (This type of greeting is supposed to be reserved for people who you know well, but my experience is that most folks will greet you that way either immediately or wait until they have known you a few hours.) Appetizers are put on the dinner table, everyone chooses their seat, the first bottle of wine is opened and the party is in full swing. This may be because all dinner parties begin at 8 or 8:30 PM, so you need to get right to it. Once you have taken the time to enjoy the antipasto, the entree appears around 9:30-ish and you won’t finish with cafe and digestives until about 11 or 11:30.
A week ago we were invited to Cinzia M.’s home for a “polenta party.” When the day came, unfortunately, Larry was still struggling with his second bout of bronchitis and made the wise decision not to go. It was another cold wet night. We have come to love Cinzia so that I was excited to meet her family, more of her friends and see her home. Mariella, a lovely woman who is often with us but speaks no English, and Grace picked me up. When visiting an Italian home, my experience is that no matter what size the room a major portion of the square footage is dedicated to a large dining table. Everything was as I imagined. Her home was warm and inviting with a large beautifully set table. Her friends were welcoming, relaxed and gregarious. Her mother is a lovely older Cinzia and, as is often the case, lives in the flat across the hall. However, upon entering there is a nice stairway immediately to your left that apparently goes nowhere – a great conversation starter!
As Cinzia and Grace were the only English speakers at the table, and Cinzia was at the other end, I had the pleasure of watching the typical Italian dinner evolve while several conversations in Italian were held around me (always at one time and often across each other). Italians converse intently, use their hands for emphasis and laugh a lot with sincere gusto. Grace would occasionally translate, but I didn’t care about the conversation details as I was really enjoying the show.
As is always the case, even when not tasked to do so, people will bring food and wine. Mariella brought a delicious warm cheese bread she had made. Grace and I both brought biscotti for dessert. Cinzia had prepared a classic Ascoli antipasti. There was the typical curled up fresh sausage, a suggestive-looking thing that is always present, some plain and some hot! One just chops off a piece, takes the skin off and spreads it on bread and while trying not to giggle. She had put together a very impressive tray of cheeses with honey and jams, from the wonderful gourmet shop she had taken me in during our shopping trip, and a basket of various breads to go with them. And, of course, beautiful trays of olives (black ones) with slices of orange. People here eat olives like we eat peanuts, which are so healthy. If the table is large enough, they leave the antipasti on the table when they serve the entree. I probably don’t have to say that we had all manner of wonderful wines with the courses, but I will and we did.
Cinzia made polenta from an old family recipe and it was the best polenta I have ever had. As most of you know, polenta originated as a peasant meal before its rise to the realm of a gourmet meal. I don’t know what she did to give the polenta so much flavor (maybe she used stock instead of water?) but I do know she layered the polenta with a slight amount of sausage and parmesan cheese and more polenta and so on – yum! Then she served chicora, which I think is chicory greens (and is on every restaurant menu) and a great salad with apples in it. The table is then cleared of the antipasti and entree prior to dessert.
Cinzia’s dessert was a recipe from Spain which began with a puff pastry crust, then a layer of something granular that I didn’t recognize, a top layer of cooked apples with raisins and cinnamon garnished with sliced almonds. It was delicious! My fennel seed and pine nut cookies (a Giada DeLaurentis recipe) were served as well as Grace’s marvelous biscotti (which really were the biscotti that we know in the U.S.) along with a bowl of fruit – which the Italians really eat after dinner. One of the men brought Vino Cotto that he had made (aged in oak) and we dipped Grace’s biscotti in it. Then we had some of Cinzia’s homemade coffee liquor to round out a perfect meal and a perfect evening. Thank You!