I was your basic American cook. My husband was your basic Italian—raised on his mother's Old World recipes.
- Posted on Sep 1, 2008
All I have to do is tell people my husband, Giorgio, is from Italy, and they get this glint in their eyes and say, "How romantic!" It's true! But being married to someone who comes from a country known for romance, opera, art—and great food—also has its pressures.
The first time I set foot in my in-laws' home in the Alto Adige region of northern Italy, I had butterflies.
Mamma Gina was an accomplished cook who was determined to teach me Giorgio's favorite dishes. We sat down to a feast of antipasto, salad and vegetables, but the centerpiece was Gina's lasagna.
I glanced across the table, covered with a crisply pressed linen, to see Giorgio savoring the dish that for him meant family togetherness.
"Mamma Gina, could you teach me how to make lasagna?" I asked as I helped clear the table.
"Of course, cara," she replied. "We can make it together for Sunday dinner."
Early Saturday morning I bumped into Mamma Gina in the hallway. "I'm glad you're up early," she said. "We need to get to work on that lasagna!"
I was puzzled. Giorgio and I had planned on a hike that day in the Dolomites. And weren't we making the lasagna for Sunday supper?
By 8 a.m. I was standing at attention in Gina's kitchen. She marched me down to the cellar and handed me a jar filled with tomato sauce she had put up the previous summer. "Now we better hurry to the butcher's—he closes at noon."
I was a city girl with a full-time job! Our apartment had no garden and I bought my hamburger at the supermarket. I'd never be able to reproduce Mamma Gina's old-world lasagna in Florida.
When we returned, Gina started the Bolognese sauce, which would simmer overnight. As onions and garlic browned in a copper pan, Gina dumped flour on a cutting board. She fashioned a hole in the middle, forming what looked like a volcano, and motioned for me to crack eggs into the empty crater.
She worked the flour into the eggs with a fork. Next, she fed a small slice of dough through the crank-operated roller 12 times. We finished the rest of the pasta dough around 7 p.m. I was exhausted. "Tomorrow we'll make the béchamel sauce, grate the Parmesan cheese, assemble all the layers and bake the lasagna," Gina promised.
I lay awake that night, worrying and praying for help. I wanted to cook like Giorgio's mom, but no way would I be making lasagna from scratch!
After church the next morning we spent most of the day completing the lasagna. "Now you can make Giorgio's favorite dish at home," said Gina.
"Right!" I said, not so confidently.
On Tuesday we visited Giorgio's Aunt Maria. She had prepared her specialty: a piping hot plate of spaghetti with a tangy red sauce. As Giorgio finished his last bite, he swept a chunk of bread across the plate to enjoy the sauce.
"That was really good!" I said to Aunt Maria. "Could you teach me to..." I paused, remembering the very involved lasagna recipe.
"…to make this dish?" she finished my sentence. She rattled off the ingredients: a can of olives, a can of crushed tomatoes, three tablespoons of capers—everything came from the pantry!
Preparation time: 30 minutes. "That way you have more time to spend with your husband than in the kitchen." Maria laughed. Now that was my kind of Italian dish!
Spaghetti alla Puttanesca has now become my specialty. I even made it for Mamma Gina when she visited us, and she gave it a thumbs-up. My success with this dish has led me to try other Italian dishes, even lasagna.
Grazie, Aunt Maria, for helping me to become an authentic Italian cook!
Try the Spaghetti alla Puttanesca!