When Elizabeth Minchilli set out to write her latest book, she decided to focus on easing people into entertaining. Providing a step-by-step approach, she takes the stress out of socializing and cooking at home with detailed menus and planning tips from her Italian kitchen.
A snapshot of eating in Italy today, “The Italian Table: Creating Festive Meals for Family and Friends” (Rizzoli, $40) was written and photographed entirely by Minchilli, who spent her early childhood in Italy but grew up in St. Louis, Mo.
Minchilli headed to Italy for studies in art history more than two decades ago. She found herself in love with the foods of Italy. She met an Italian architect, and when they married and started a family, she eased away from academia to writing. Her first cookbook was “Eating Rome.” She is the creator of the “Eat Italy” app, she leads food tours in Italy, and she shares recipes and adventures at elizabethminchilli.com.
For the second stop on her book tour, Minchilli will be in Milwaukee April 23 for a dinner sponsored by Bartolotta Catering and Boswell Books. Featuring recipes from “The Italian Table,” the dinner will be held at the Italian Community Center, 631 E. Chicago St. The four-course dinner, with cookbook, costs $85; $75 for community center members. See the menu and purchase tickets at bartolottas.com.
Question: What do you want people to take away from this newest book, “The Italian Table?”
Answer: My main point is to convey context. I want them to know how Italians actually eat. The 12 meals in the book are meals I actually attended and photographed as they were made and as they were eaten. It is not necessarily encyclopedic, but each is a moment in time of how Italians ate that day.
Q: What is misunderstood about eating in the Italian style?
A: The question I get most often, frankly, is why don’t you weigh more? It appears as if I’m living this life where I go from a plate of pasta to a bowl of gelato, more pizza, cocktails and some wine. It is sort of misleading.
They think Italian is this big carb fest, but the way the Italians eat is very much the Mediterranean style. Yes, we eat pizza and pasta, but lots of vegetables, too, and we’re not eating all day.
They’re very aware of what they’re eating. You wouldn’t stop in the middle of the day and have a big frappuccino in Italy, for instance. There is an agreed-upon time for cappuccino.
Q: This book is about planning and preparation as much as cooking. What was your goal?
A: Food is about being social and sharing. A lot of people get scared by the idea of having people over. I wanted to take the fear out of the equation. I’ve been cooking for friends and family since middle school. I wanted to give people a game plan to do this without being stressed. I tell people when to shop, when they should set the table, and (to) keep last-minute fiddling to a minimum. That stresses people out, it stresses me out. I’d rather be sitting on the couch with a cocktail.
Q: Are there any ingredients that were hard to source in the United States?
A: One of the questions that kept bouncing back and forth between my copy editor and me was the word “ricotta.” I use a lot of ricotta in my cooking, as a lot of Italians do. The editor kept asking fresh or regular ricotta? I didn’t understand, because in Italy all ricotta is fresh. I finally understood not everyone can walk down to the sheep farm and get ricotta.
That was a difficult thing to translate to some recipes, but I helped explain how to incorporate differences in recipes, and if you can’t find it, what you can do. Same with tomatoes. If you have great fresh ripe tomatoes, that’s great, but canned tomatoes are fine, too, and those are always available.
One of the things I stress is the necessity of using high-quality dried pasta. It does cost a lot more, but it is extraordinary and really changes the dish. I like Beneddetto and Rustichella, then Faella. All are available online.
Q: What are you still working on when it comes to your cooking?
A: Lately, I’m trying to perfect certain skills you can’t get from cookbooks. I’m very interested in going into the kitchens of women who make a certain pasta that you can only learn by going in and learning by hand. That for me is fascinating, something you can’t get unless you’re in a place.
Q: What are you planning for your Milwaukee visit?
A: I’ve never been there, and I’m really excited. When I announced all the dates for my tours, I had more response from the Milwaukee stop than anywhere. People were writing me from there, and my brother-in-law’s family is there. They’re all going to come to the dinner.
Q: You also run food tours in Italy. What do people most want to see?
A: They want to see behind the scenes, how food is made. They want to meet the people making the food. They have seen the Colloseum and the tourist stops, and they want to dig deeper into the culture. That’s what we do on our tours. We do weeklong tours eight times a year.
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“This little dish was made by the rezdora Maria Elisa as a start to our lunch at her home in the hills outside of Parma,” Elizabeth Minchilli writes in “The Italian Table.” It’s her invention using local ingredients.
“Of course, Parmigiano-Reggiano makes its way into this dish (as it does most dishes in the region), but instead of using prosciutto, for this dish Maria Elisa chooses its fattier cousin: pancetta. Made from the belly of the pig, the fatty cut of cured meat wraps the bitter leaves and keeps in the filling — which is basically more pancetta!”
Be sure you use radicchio di Treviso, the type of radicchio with long, pliant leaves that is particularly sweet and tender, Minchilli advises. If you can’t find that variety, you can use Belgian endive. And while Maria Elisa used local walnuts, Minchilli said she’s often made it with hazelnuts.
Radicchio with Pancetta and Parmigiano
Makes 8 servings
- 4 heads of radicchio di Treviso, leaves separated
- 30 thin slices of pancetta (about ½ pound)
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- 8 shelled walnuts, roughly chopped
- 4 ounces of Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated (1 cup)
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and lay the radicchio leaves on top. If some of the inner leaves are very small, you can put two together to make a larger base.
Fry half the pancetta in a nonstick skillet over medium heat until it has released its fat a bit. Don’t let it burn. You won’t need any oil, as the pancetta should be pretty fatty. This may need to be done in a few batches. Each batch should take only a few minutes.
Season the radicchio with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil. Distribute the cooked pancetta on top of each leaf, then add the chopped nuts and sprinkle with the Parmigiano.
Wrap each stuffed leaf with a slice of uncooked pancetta. Bake in preheated oven about 20 minutes, until pancetta around the outside is cooked and beginning to sizzle. Serve immediately, while warm.
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