Friday, June 08, 2007

Travel: Family Dinner in Southern Italy

I love to travel, but don’t have the budget to do more than one trip a year. (And that was to Saigon in January, which seems so long ago now. Sigh.) So recently I’ve been living vicariously through my friend David, who traveled to Italy to visit his wife's newborn niece. I asked him to write up some of his food observations because 1) I love Italy and Italian cooking and 2) I know it’ll be a few years before I visit Italy again because my list of countries I still haven’t visited keeps getting longer. (Next year: Brazil?)

The following is the first of three posts from David. He starts with an intimate, traditional family dinner. I love how families in foreign countries typically invite visitors into their homes and throw these simple but festive dinners showcasing food from the land. When relatives come to the United States, why do we always end up taking them to a restaurant? Hmmm, something to ponder. Maybe you’ll find some insight in David’s post:

My wife, Ann, and I recently visited Italy for two weeks to visit Ann’s sister, husband and their newborn daughter, Zoe. Aside from family, of course the other highlight was the food (no surprise, right? This is a food blog!).

One of the biggest treats was visiting my brother-in-law’s family in the small southern Italian town of San Severo in the Foggia province. Our first night there the family (six members that night) prepared a simple but delicious dinner for their American guests.

Since this was Italy, we didn’t eat until about 9:30 p.m. You get used to eating late. Besides, the bigger meal of the day is lunch, so the evening meal is generally simpler and not as heavy.

As you’ll see in the photos below, the food is fresh and simple. Recipes are very uncomplicated—lots of fruits and vegetables. In fact, dessert is usually a pear or an apple followed by an aperitif.

The meal was served family style. Everybody digs in and you take as much or as little as you want. Our main course was veal, prepared two ways. The first was a veal steak, pounded thin, and lightly seasoned with salt and pepper. My favorite, though, were my sister-in-law’s veal meatballs. The meatballs were flavorful and were a great accompaniment to the side of rapini, also known as broccoli rabe. If you haven’t tried it, rapini – essentially nutty, bitter leaves with small broccoli buds – are a big staple in southern Italy. You can find rapini in the United States, but usually at places like Whole Foods and other high-end grocery stores. [[I see broccoli rabe and broccotini at my Safeway—ben]] That’s interesting considering that in Italy the greens are so popular because they’re cheap and plentiful.

I was also impressed with the fresh balls of mozzarella, which were creamy but weren’t stringy and didn’t have that briny flavor sometimes found in U.S.-made mozzarella.

Also served was fresh Italian country bread cut from a bread wheel that was the size of a donut tire. Perfect for dipping in our host’s homemade olive oil.

Following the main course was an arugula and chicory salad. In Italy and other parts of Europe, salad is usually eaten after the main course. Finally, we were treated to homemade liqueurs, one from lemons and the other made from walnuts.

As they say in Italy, “Delicioso!

— David

Salim’s veal meatballs
This is my sister-in-law’s recipe. There are no exact measurements. It’s really a recipe intended to be made using a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Experiment to see what works best for you.
Ground veal (Italians also sometimes use beef or lamb)
Spoonful of oil (olive, of course!)
Fresh mint
Bread crumbs to bind
Egg (usually just one; the mixture shouldn’t be runny)
Grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients. Lightly roll the meatballs in flour and sauté in olive oil until meatballs are firm and cooked thoroughly. Drain on paper towels.

Scenes from dinner:

Fresh rapini, ready for boiling
My plate
Salvatore, our host
My brother-in-law, Lele, slices bread
After-dinner aperitifs

Home video of our dinner

Next: Discovering Rome’s “Drunken Grape.”

Photos and video courtesy of David Kligman. All rights reserved.


Chef Ben said...

Hey David, where were the subtitles for the video? ;-)

Did you feel lost in the conversation at dinner with everyone speaking Italian around you? They seem like your typical Italian family that I imagine in my head: very boisterous and fun-loving!

Anonymous said...

It was a little intimidating but it only took a matter of time to communicate. It also helped that my sister-in-law translated for us and my wife studied in Italy for a year so it wasn't too difficult. It's great to visit other countries because it reminds you that even though it's a different language and the customs may be a bit different, people are essentially the same. A recipe for world peace. ;-) -- David

Alison said...

Molto buon! That is my kind of meal. I'd like some of everything, including a nice glass of limoncello. Looking forward to the next installment.

Anonymous said...

David - you should enter this for a Gold Quill :)


Chef Ben said...

David, I agree with your sentiments about travel, although I'm not going to get all sappy like you wishing for world peace. Ha! :)

But I will say that food is the universal language (not love). Oh, wait, or is it Cinema is the Universal Language? Damn Frameline!

Chef Ben said...

Correction: I think that reference about cinema is actually Landmark Theatres when I think about it. So, damn Landmark! ;-)

Anonymous said...

Ora ho fame! But I'm most looking forward to your next blog. I like drunk grapes.

Anonymous said...

If you had tasted those veal meatballs and mozzarella, you would have thought anything was possible, too -- even world peace!