travel through the kitchen: italy


Tuscan countryside vista
One of the stunning viewpoints in Montepulciano

Italy is one of my favorite places in the world. After studying the language in Tuscany during college, I fell hard for the people, the landscape, and yes of course, the food. Not that I hadn’t already loved Italian food (like any good American), but my love for the cuisine deepened while living in the small Tuscan village of Montepulciano for a few months. 

My memories of the town are very fond ones, and sometimes I find myself daydreaming about the food I ate and restaurants I visited… using the same simple water glass for both water or wine at Osteria Acquacheta, a well-known restaurant for its bistecca fiorentina (a large shared steak for the table)… learning how to make fresh pasta by hand at Cantina Gattavecchi… using traditional unsalted Tuscan bread to soak up leftover pasta sauce at Trattoria di Cagnano…

A plate of truffle pasta
A plate of truffle pici, the regional noodle in Montepulciano

In those romantic stone streets, I learned first-hand about the cultural norms behind a true Italian meal, most notably different from a typical American meal by its courses. It’s quite normal and expected to have a primo and secondo piatto, or a first and second course, with the first dish almost always being a pasta and the second being your “main” dish of fish or meat. Sometimes an antipasto, or appetizer, and contorno, or side dish, is included.

Part of the fun in traveling is finding a way to bring the trip home with you, stretching out the fun memories for as long as possible. Sometimes, this means buying a t-shirt, a postcard, a magnet… But I find that nothing evokes old feelings and memories the way food does.  So for this date-night-in, I let my nostalgia for Italy be my guide. A Negroni Sbagliato for a pre-dinner cocktail, the classic cacio e pepe as a primo piatto, and a secondo piatto of garlic-rosemary leg of lamb accompanied by a contorno of homemade Caesar salad. After dinner, an aperitivo of homemade basilicocello from our friend Isaac Kitching. So turn on some Dean Martin and travel through the kitchen with me to Italy for the evening…

Menu:

  • Cocktail: Negroni Sbagliato
  • Primo: cacio e pepe pasta
  • Secondo: garlic-rosemary leg of lamb
  • Contorno: Caesar salad with homemade croutons
  • Aperitivo: homemade basilicocello by Isaac Kitching

Negroni Sbagliato

This is without a doubt my favorite cocktail, although its bitterness makes it an acquired taste. A play on the classic Negroni, the story goes that a bartender once “mistakenly” subbed prosecco for gin, and thus the Negroni Sbagliato, or mistaken Negroni, was born. The bubbles make for a lighter and easier drink than the original, while still packing the bittersweet punch it’s known for.

A bottle of vermouth, Campari and prosecco and a cocktail

Ingredients:

  • 1.5 oz Campari
  • 1.5 oz good quality sweet vermouth, such as Carpano Antica
  • About 1.5 oz prosecco, more or less to taste
  • Ice
  • Orange Peel

Fill a rocks glass with ice. Add the Campari and vermouth and stir for about 30 seconds, to sufficiently chill the liquor. Top with as much prosecco as desired. Run an orange peel around the rim of the glass and twist the peel over the top of the drink to release its oils. Garnish with the peel and serve.

Cacio e Pepe Pasta

Cacio e pepe is basically just mac and cheese parading around as a sophisticated pasta dish. It’s so easy to throw together, and tastier than the blue box stuff. Essentially, you’re just tossing cooked pasta in with grated parmesan, cracked black pepper, and enough of the pasta cooking liquid to keep everything creamy. Below is Bon Appetit’s recipe, but I used all parmesan for the cheese, instead of mixing it with pecorino, because that’s what I had and convenience is king.

Two bowls of pasta and a glass of wine

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 standard box of long pasta (I prefer bucatini, but spaghetti works great here too)
  • 3 Tbsp butter
  • 1 tsp fresh cracked black pepper
  • 1 c finely grated parmesan

Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook until just shy of al-dente, a minute or two before the box recommends. While the pasta is cooking, melt 2 Tbsp of butter in a heavy skillet large enough to fit the pasta. Add the pepper to the melted butter, and toast for about a minute. Pour in 1/2 c of the pasta water and simmer. Turn the heat to low and transfer the pasta from the pot to the skillet using tongs or a spider. Add half of the parmesan, tossing the pasta to coat until the cheese melts. Turn off the heat and add the rest of the cheese, tossing with more pasta water if the sauce seems dry or stiff. Transfer to bowls and top with more fresh cracked pepper. 

Garlic-Rosemary Leg of Lamb

Traditionally, lamb in Italy was a luxury meat reserved for Easter. We certainly don’t eat it all the time at home, but its rich and gamey flavor make it a favorite for me and Matt when we want a decadent meal. Admittedly, this is a *huge* piece of meat for just two people, so be prepared to use what’s leftover in stir fry, tacos, or even with eggs and toast for an indulgent breakfast.

The inside of the cooked lamb leg

Ingredients:

  • 4 lbs lamb leg
  • 4 sprigs of rosemary
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 1/4-1/3 c olive oil
  • Kosher salt
  • Kitchen twine

2 days before you want to cook, lay out the flattened lamb leg and season liberally all over with kosher salt. If you forgot or don’t have time, aim to salt the meat at least a couple hours before cooking.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a roasting pan with tin foil to catch any juices (save them for the end) and easier clean up. If you don’t have a roasting pan, you can use a rimmed baking sheet with a wire rack fitted inside. The idea is just to lift the meat off the bottom of the pan to allow heat to pass on all sides and cook evenly, as opposed to steaming on the bottom where it would sit on the pan.

Chop rosemary and garlic. Transfer to a small bowl and mix with olive oil. Pour half of mixture over the flattened lamb leg and spread evenly over the meat. Roll the meat into a cylinder and tie with kitchen twine across the width of the meat three or four times, until it stays together without you holding it. Rub the rest of the garlic-herb mixture into the outside. Transfer to prepared pan and put in the oven as far back as possible. Let it roast for about 2-2.5 hours, until an instant-read thermometer reads 140-145 degrees Fahrenheit for medium rare.

Remove lamb from oven and let sit on a cutting board for at least 10-15 minutes. Slice and serve alongside any pan drippings that collected in the roasting pan.

Caesar Salad with Homemade Croutons

Although the Caesar salad was technically created in Mexico, the recipe was developed by an Italian immigrant and is always a crowd favorite. I’ve been reading Samin Norsat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, so my loose recipe below follows her technique, letting my taste buds be my measuring tools. I love the illustrations in her book for her mayonnaise and Caesar salad, which you can find in her book or online (I won’t post them here for copyright reasons). Don’t let the lack of precise measurements scare you off! It’s easier to make than it seems and is a great lesson in different ways you can layer salt in a dish.

A caesar salad with cut lemon halves in the background

Ingredients:

  • 1/4 – 1/2 loaf bread (great use for bread going stale here!)
  • 1 room temp egg (or run it under some warm water if you forgot to take it out of the fridge earlier – this is super important!)
  • 3/4 c olive oil plus more for croutons
  • Finely grated parmesan
  • Pounded fresh anchovies or anchovy paste (if you like a short cut like me)
  • 1 or 2 crushed garlic cloves
  • Salt
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Lemon 
  • Dijon mustard
  • White wine vinegar
  • Crunchy lettuce, such as romaine, escarole, or even cabbage (or a mix!)

Croutons:

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Tear your bread hunk into large, craggy pieces and put in a large bowl. Pour in just enough olive oil to well coat each piece of bread and toss with your hands. Transfer bread pieces to a rimmed sheet pan, being careful not to crowd the pan, and season with a bit of salt and anything other spices or herbs that appeal to you. Cook for about 15 minutes in the oven, but keep an eye on them and check halfway through every few minutes to make sure they don’t burn. Pull them out when they’re golden and smell good. Let cool while you make the dressing. 

Dressing:

First, make a mayonnaise by putting the yolk of the room-temp egg in a large mixing bowl (seriously, it’s gotta be the same temp as your olive oil or they will never emulsify. If your emulsion breaks, drop me a comment so I can talk you through saving it). Whisk the yolk and slowly start adding the olive oil, starting one drop at a time and gradually adding more as the mixture emulsifies. (You can add a couple drops of water or lemon if the mixture gets too stiff.) Once you’ve added all the oil, whisk in some parmesan, anchovy paste, garlic, salt and Worcestershire sauce, each a little add a time. Add in a little lemon juice, a squeeze of dijon mustard and a splash of white wine vinegar. Taste once they’ve all been added to see if you think it needs any more of the items you just added. 

Once you’ve got the dressing to your liking, toss enough lettuce for two with the dressing. You can chop the lettuce into bite size pieces, or leave whole leaves intact for a more balanced bite and modern feeling dish. Top with croutons, parmesan and cracked black pepper. 

Basilicocello

While in Montepulciano, Isaac Kitching, another student and fellow foodie on the trip, fell in love with limoncello. Everyone found it so interesting how vastly different the store-bought and in-house restaurant versions tasted, as the house made versions always tasted so much better. He started asking questions about it at restaurants and doing a little research, and decided to try his hand at a batch. His first batch was absolutely delicious and just like that, a new hobby was born. He started experimenting with fruits other than just lemon, like orange, raspberry, strawberry, and blackberry. But everyone’s favorite was an unexpected twist: basil. The green liquor had a surprising cinnamon aftertaste, reminiscent of a red hot. Ever-thoughtful, Isaac made some and gave it to us as a going-away gift before we left Atlanta. It was the perfect finishing touch on the evening’s culinary adventure through Italy. I don’t have a recipe to post here for it, but I think any after-dinner aperitivo works here. *Cin cin!*

A small bottle of liquor and two filled shot glasses

2 Replies to “travel through the kitchen: italy”

  1. wendymitch says:

    Wonderful memories and food, Sarah! You have become such a wonderful cook and I’m so proud of you. I might be biased, but I think many would agree with me! Thank you for the recipes. Will be trying some in my new kitchen soon.

    Liked by 1 person

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