Want a simple, sure-fire way to break the ice with strangers? Try committing a social faux pas! Rich and I proved the effectiveness of this method yet again last Saturday night when we showed up at a dinner in Turin, Italy with a bottle of white wine as a hostess gift. I’d chilled it in our rental apartment’s refrigerator and now pulled it out of the bag to present it with our compliments.
“Oh my God,” exclaimed Rich. “We brought the wrong wine.”
In my haste, I’d grabbed the bottle we’d sampled two nights earlier. I was mortified. An unopened bottle of wine says, “Thanks for your hospitality.” I’m not quite sure what a partially drunk bottle says. “We’re barbarians who don’t know the first thing about social niceties” perhaps?
Fortunately for us, Carlotta and Paolo were extremely relaxed and easygoing hosts; as we fell all over ourselves apologizing, they just laughed and kept reassuring us it was fine. Meanwhile, Carlotta started handing around glasses of Rocca dei Forti, a delicious, dry, sparkling white wine. “Would you like to try it with a little vermouth?” she asked. Turin is proud of having invented vermouth back in the 18th century, and locals like to incorporate it in drinks whenever possible. We agreed at once and found that adding vermouth gave the flavor a pleasant depth.
We’d connected with Carlotta and Paolo via EatWith, aka “the Airbnb of dining,” a website that enables you to find local chefs offering private meals in their own homes. You review the menu, check available dates, alert them about any food restrictions, and book and pay in advance online. I love this feature, because it lets you arrive at the dinner without any pesky worries about having correct change or deciding whether it’s really worth another ten bucks for a handful of cookies or figuring out how much you should tip when your math skills are dampened by vino excessivo.
A few days earlier, browsing the EatWith site, I’d said to Rich, “This one sounds fabulous. Salami and cheese with truffle honey … risotto with sausage … that weird dish we tried in Cuneo, the veal with tuna we liked so much … and for dessert? Hazelnut cake with a sauce I can’t pronounce.”
“You had me at risotto,” he said. “Sign us up.”
I sent Carlotta a note explaining that we were on a Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour and asking if we could come early and film the cooking. She kindly agreed, and even though we knew wine was included in the meal, we thought we’d show up with a bottle as an extra courtesy to express our gratitude. Oh well, as they say, man plans, and God laughs. Fortunately, God wasn’t the only one laughing that night. The combination of Carlotta’s wine and our little icebreaker soon had us all talking and chuckling like old friends. Note to self: Perhaps make a point of doing something idiotic at the start of every EatWith dinner? Additional note to self: No need to make an effort, this is likely to happen all on its own.
Black and green olives accompanied our wine-and-vermouth aperitif, along with some of the slender breadsticks known as grissini wrapped in prosciutto di Parma (cured ham). Carlotta then produced a platter with local salamis and cheeses, slivers of golden pear, and two sauces — grape compote and honey with truffles — which combined divinely with the cheese.
We learned that Paolo was an architect, and that Carlotta had a small tour guide business called Torino Discovery which, in addition to traditional sightseeing, offers market tours, vermouth tastings, and chocolate sampling expeditions. Carlotta asked where we’d eaten in Turin so far, and I mentioned we had our eye on one with the tongue-in-cheek name Santa Polenta. Carlotta and Paolo cracked up.
“What?” I asked.
“Here in Turin, that’s an expression you use when you want to swear, but need to make it a mild swear,” explained Carlotta. Ah, the local equivalent of drat or gadzooks! That should come in handy. (Incidentally we did make it to Santa Polenta a few days later; see the photos below.)
The conversation naturally revolved around food, and Carlotta confided that she’d had a passion for cooking since she was a young girl. Which made it especially challenging when she learned she’d have to give up gluten altogether.
“At first,” she told me, “when I was diagnosed with celiac disease, I thought it was the end. Not only of my good eating, but also of my cooking. But actually, I would say it was a blessing in disguise. Because it helped me to look at things in a different way. And to adjust recipes, even traditional recipes, and to do more research about the science that is behind baking especially, and about cooking in general. All in all it was something that made me progress in my cooking, in my passion, and in my knowledge.”
Her skill and passion became abundantly evident as I watched her prepare the centerpiece of the meal: risotto with sausage. It’s so simple and delicious I’ve promised to make it for Rich as soon as we’re back in our own kitchen.
[Get Carlotta’s Risotto with Sausage recipe here.]
Along with the wonderful risotto, we ate vitel tonnè, thin slices of cold roast veal dressed in a creamy, slightly salty sauce flavored with tuna, a summer favorite in the region. And then, just when I was sure I couldn’t consume another mouthful, it was time for dessert.
“My hazelnut cake is of course flourless,” Carlotta said. “And really quite simple. It has just three ingredients: hazlenuts, eggs, and sugar. On top I put Moscato Zabaione. Would you like to watch me make this sauce?”
Leaving Paolo and Rich chatting at the table, Carlotta and I went into the kitchen, where she proceeded to put egg yolks and sugar in one of those fancy food processors that can also heat the food, a local brand similar to Thermomix. “I use one egg yoke and one tablespoon of sugar per person,” she said, “And for every egg yoke, I add one eggshell of Moscato.” And with that she picked up a half eggshell and used it to measure the sweet Moscato d'Asti dessert wine into the mix. “I make sure the machine heats it enough to destroy any bacteria but not cook the egg.” In minutes she had a thick, sweet, creamy sauce ready to serve.
[Get Carlotta’s Flourless Hazelnut Cake with Moscato Zabaione recipe here.]
Rich and his sweet tooth were in their glory. “This is incredible,” he said, finishing his own piece and eyeing the remains of mine. I had slowed to a halt, having reached my optimal consumption capacity back at the risotto and vitel tonnè stage. I passed my plate to him and he tucked in with a happy sigh.
“You see?” Carlotta grinned. “You can eat a full Italian meal that is good just as a gluten-y meal.”
Santa Polenta, ain't that the gospel truth!
What's your definition of Italian comfort food? Let me know in the comments below.
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Where are we now? Turin, Italy
Where are we heading next? The French Alps
Our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour Continues!
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
As we journey through the pandemic together, my blog provides a regular supply of survival tips, comfort food recipes, and the wry humor we all need to lighten our hearts on dark days.
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