Usually I’m not a total wreck when it comes to cooking for friends. In fact, I do it fairly regularly. Dinners, Holiday parties, brunch and lazy weekend lunches. But this particular Sunday, I planned a meal for my Italian friends. These are the same friends who were so wonderful to me on my recent trip to Italy and whose mom is a pretty fabulous cook. All week long before their arrival my mantra was “The Italians are coming!” I planned a menu, organized friends, both Italian and English speakers and basically got myself mentally prepared like I was about to summit Everest.
I decided to make a meal with all the courses like I’d seen Laura’s mom prepare for one of the pre-wedding parties. Antipasto, a soup, pasta course, meat, and salad. And of course, dessert and cafe. The latter I was pretty confident about since desserts are usually my specialty.
I shopped at all my favorite local markets, ordering in fresh ricotta for the manicotti, and hunting for frozen porcini mushrooms for the soup. The zuppa di funghi was actually the only recipe of Laura’s mom that I decided to try and replicate since I’d watched her make it. She let me chop the mushrooms for it and gave me credit for helping in the same way my mom used to when I was a kid, and my contribution was to peel potatoes or grate cheese.
The kitchen of my Manhattan apartment is about the size of a port-a-potty. Not a lovely image I know, but accurate. I have it well organized and can churn out all manner of confections and meals, but it takes some planning. The hardest part is the refrigerator. Loading in all of the groceries in my half-sized fridge requires dexterity, packing expertise and some foresight as to what will need to come out first. Nothing worse than getting everything in, wedging the door shut and then realizing that you put the marscapone in the back and now can’t get to it. The other challenge is of course, finding a spot for the things you are cooking. After simmering the ragu for the manicotti the day before, I was forced to unload the whole bottom shelf to put the pot in overnight. Cinder heard a lot of cursing at this point.
On the day of the lunch, I was getting nervous. I’d taken Laura and her new hubby to dinner the night before and she’d commented on how poor the pasta had been on their trip across the country. I willed the crespelle I was making for the manicotti to be as light and delicious as they usually were when I was just cooking for my regular, we-eat-everything-you-make-and-love-it friends. Most of my friends don’t cook so the fact that I do automatically gives me status as the best cook in the crowd. Sadly, this is not going to be the case in Italy. I’m definitely going to be the “she’s okay for an American” cook. The little pesce in the big pond of Italian cooking.
My other worry for the lunch was my lack of dishes. I learned on my last trip to Italy, that you don’t serve anything on the same plates. Laura had offered me salad one day at lunch after we’d had our pasta and had looked horrified when I’d said I could use the same plate. So my first order of business was to enlist best friend Cheryl to bring her soup bowls. Plates would just have to be washed between courses. I was so not looking forward to that.
I set a pretty table, telling myself that my mismatched dishes had a bohemian air. I bought bread and flowers and went about preparing the meal.
By the time my guests arrived, I was exhausted but ready to go. I served bruschetta and an arugula pesto for the antipasto, then my zuppa di funghi. It tasted nothing like Laura’s mom’s, but it seemed to be a hit. By the time the manicotti came out, I was on my second glass of wine and my confidence was growing. I was getting a round of “Buono” from Laura and Gianni. Friend and Italian tutor, Alessandro, gave everything rave reviews as well, but his wife doesn’t cook so he is always really effusive about my cooking!
The meat course was a bit of a disaster. I’d made this pork tenderloin recipe a bunch of times and it had always come out perfectly, so the fact that it was a little overdone really bummed me out. No one said anything, but I was feeling deflated when it was time for the dessert.
Laura who is the confection maker in her family makes a wonderful tiramisu. Mine is pretty good, but after two bites Laura pointedly asked me what kind of ladyfingers I’d used. Apparently she uses something different. Gianni must have seen my crestfallen face because he immediately took a second serving. As did Cheryl and Alessandro.
All in all it was a success. And more importantly, I did it. I cooked for Italians and they left well-fed and happy. It may not have been like mama used to make, but I’m going to keep my own style as I incorporate the recipes of traditional Italian cooking. As my friend Carol says, “Once they taste your carrot cake, they’ll be eating out of your hand.” They may have to since I don’t have enough plates!