I promised two blog entries in one night so here goes. Tonight, Gian Luca cooked me dinner. It was so nice to have him in the kitchen, cooking Penne all' Amatriciana. It reminded me of the first time we made the dish together. Here's a story about it... Enjoy!
I like to think that I am a great cook, that I’ve inherited this innate talent from my mother, but the truth is, I need a lot of practice. This is problematic because when people learn of my upbringing they expect me to know how to cook Gnocchi alla Fiorentina, or Chicken alla Zingera. But the fact is that, even though my mother opened an Italian restaurant when I was seven, and I was literally raised in the kitchen, I spent most of my time sitting in the dry storage room playing with my Barbie dolls. Once I became old enough to learn how to cook, I decided that I’d rather waitress, so I left the kitchen for the adventures in the dining room. Though I’d collected many stories, I never really learned to cook.
I managed just fine in college. I knew the basic how-tos of cooking, and at the very least, I was able to make edible food. Most of my friends at the time were accustomed to living off of boxed macaroni and cheese and instant ramen noodles, so anything above those was a step in the right direction.
By the time I finished grad school I had mastered a few dishes. The kitchen in my New York apartment was barely the size of a closet, but I resisted take out and cooked myself dinner on a daily basis, and even managing to replicate my mother’s Pizza Rustica for Easter.
The year after, I found myself living back at my parents’ house in South Jersey. I gladly surrendered all cooking responsibilities to my mother and didn’t give it a second thought until I met Gian Luca.
I had recently become friends with a group of Italians who were all working at U Penn. There was Luca from Prato, Enea from Padova, Franscesa from Milan and Michelle who was raised in Singapore but spent summers on Lake Como. We met at Penn every Tuesday for dinner and discussion. Sometimes we would cook in someone’s small apartment, other times we frequented New Deck, a local bar for burgers and fries.
That particular Tuesday I was running late and had just parked my car at 7:30, our designated meet up time. I sprinted across campus, trying not to slip on the thin layer of snow that was quickly accumulating on the ground. I was breathless by the time I reached the second floor of the building. That was when I saw him first, standing in the doorway of the room, wearing an oversized coat, speaking quick fluid Italian with Luca. I was staring.
“Hi” he said looking at me and extending his hand. “I’m Gian Luca.”
“Piacere, sono Antonietta,” I said trying to speak Italian.
“Ah, you’re Italian?” He said in English.
“Well, I’m Italian- American,” I replied feeling paralyzed.
That night, for dinner we all went to New Deck and I managed to steal a seat across from him. I just couldn’t stop staring. I knew logically that we had never met, but I couldn’t rid myself of the feeling that I knew him from somewhere.
We ordered Burgers and Fries. Everything else at the bar was mediocre, but their burgers were thick and juicy and the fries were double fried, leaving them with a crunchy coating, perfect for dipping in ketchup.
I picked up the Heinz bottle and shook it violently, the loosened the cap and allowed the red river to flood a corner of my plate. This time he was staring at me.
“What?” I asked him smiling and hoping that no one else would interrupt.
“That is disgusting,” he replied and laughed.
My heart sank. “What is disgusting?” I said indignantly. I dipped my fry in ketchup and took a bite.
“That,” he pointed at my ketchup. “Try this.” He slid a cup of mayonnaise across the table. “It is so much better with your fries.”
I hated mayonnaise; the thought of it made me sick. “No, that is okay. I like ketchup better.”
“Trust me, you must try it,” he said inching the cup of white lard in front of me and smiling.
Reluctantly, I grabbed a fry and dipped the tip in the mayo. He watched as I took a bite. It was actually a lot better than ketchup.
By the time I got home I was smitten.
“Mom,” I squealed with the zeal of a star-struck teen. “I met the man I’m going to marry.”
“Well then you are going to have to learn how to cook.”
Of course, with every subject, there is a learning curve, and mine, however small, was still blaringly evident.
I considered myself more advanced than the average cook. Although I never cooked in the restaurant, I was sure that simply being around food so much had ingrained some recipes in my brain. This confidence was my hubris.
For our next dinner, I wanted to impress. Gian Luca had mentioned that he loved Chicken Picatta, so the entrée choice was obvious. But I chose to make profiteroles for dessert, thinking that the fluffy puffs of pastry would surely win him over.
Given my lack of experience, it was obvious that I needed help. My mom had recently developed a passion for desserts and made profiteroles on a daily basis for the restaurant. She was happy to assist.
Together, we melted equal parts butter and flour in a saucepan.
“Stir it until it is all combined,” she instructed. “Then flatten the sides against the pan until it sizzles.”
Once the flour and butter mixture looked like greasy dough, we removed it from the heat, let it cool, and slowly added eggs, one at a time.
“The trick to profiteroles is the oven,” my mom said. “You have to watch them very closely.”
She was right. After fifteen minutes at 400 degrees, we lowered the oven and watched them puff. When they were finished, each one was the size of a small fist, with a golden crust on top. As they cooled I made a chocolate sauce with condensed milk and bitter sweet chocolate.
An hour later I was driving across the Ben Franklin Bridge, confident that I would win Gian Luca’s heart.
“Did he like the profiteroles?” My mom asked as soon as she heard the door unlock.
“Not really,” I said removing my coat and sitting at the table. I had watched intently as he took small bites, eventually leaving half of the pastry on his plate, allowing the ice cream inside to melt into a thick white puddle. Earlier, I had burned myself while cooking an unsuccessful Chicken Piccatta. Michele had wowed everyone with creamy bowtie pasta with salmon and spinach, next to which my mediocre chicken did not shine. The profiteroles were going to be my saving grace, my wow factor. Instead, they ended up being devoured by everyone except the one person I wanted to impress.
Slowly, I was learning about his palate. This was a man who despised ketchup and dipped his fries in mayo; a man who came from the most famous wine village in Tuscany; a man who was not impressed by complex desserts, but loved Philly Cheese Steaks from street vendors. I was up for the challenge.
I began watching my mother each night, asking questions as she effortlessly created amazing meals. “Cooking is simple,” she’d say. “You just have to feel it.”
Dinners with my friends continued, and since I was the only one who did not live in Philadelphia, I always offered to bring different things that I could cook ahead of time. I was successful in preparing bruschetta in New Jersey and assembling it in a small city kitchen hours later. I made focaccia, frittata, brownies, bunt cake, flourishing in appetizers and desserts, things that could be prepared ahead of time and served at room temperature or even cold. I would arrive and act as if I had just whipped something up, while in reality I had spent hours planning and preparing dishes. My friends always enjoyed my creativity, and sometimes after eating, I would catch Gian Luca staring at me. My heart fluttered with hope.
Almost six months after the profiterole disaster, Gian Luca emailed me about a dinner party he wanted to throw. His research position was ending and he would be returning to Italy. This would be his one last dinner party before moving out of the city. He emailed me for help.
I promptly emailed back, offering my culinary expertise, which, at this time, he was clearly impressed by. Still, I was a little nervous. I had yet to execute an entire dinner menu from start to finish. I was good on the start, and also the finish, but the pesky in-between, the main course, was still a rough spot.
We decided on a simple crowd pleaser for the main course: Penne all’Amatriciana. A favorite in small taverns in Rome, this delicious mix of crispy pancetta, sweet caramelized onions and juicy plumb tomatoes would be the perfect dish for the final dinner in Gian Luca’s West Philadelphia home.
The apartment was tiny and the kitchen even more so. The studio was part of the university housing and was one step above the dorm room I had my freshman year of college in New York. The main difference between the two was that Gian Luca’s apartment had a tiny kitchenette nestled into one corner. The building housed around one hundred students, most of whom seemed to be home at around 6:30 when we began cooking.
Our friends were coming over at 7:30, leaving us just enough time to cook a non-fuss meal. I did not make menu cards or waste time with a fancy setting; we would be lucky if everyone had a chair to sit on. The water for the pasta was already on the stove and while we waited for it to boil, I started cutting radicchio for the bruschetta. Gian Luca sliced the bread and placed it on a baking sheet. Into the oven went our bread to crisp and we began slicing the ingredients for the Amatriciana sauce. Gian Luca took the pancetta while I worked on cutting the tomatoes and onions into long strips.
I was nervous. There were times that I though he was interested in me, other times when I was convinced we would never excel beyond friendship. I feared that he would go back to Italy and we would communicate a few times a year through mass emails.
By seven, the radicchio bruschetta was finished and we were prepped to make the Amatriciana sauce. Though I had never actually made the dish, I had seen my mother make it so many times that I was confident in the process. The first step is to cook the pancetta until it crisps. Since the meat is fatty, there is no need to put oil in the pan, you just dump the pancetta in and turn up the heat. That is exactly what we did.
We watched the meat stirring it occasionally. We waited. And waited. And waited. We couldn’t proceed with the sauce until the pancetta was crispy; soggy pancetta is fatty and tough, not what we wanted to serve our guests, so we had no choice but to allow it to cook.
An awkward silence passed between us. “Maybe we should cover the pan,” I suggested. He agreed.
As Gian Luca reached to grab a lid I reveled in my brilliance. I covered the pan and lowered the heat just a bit, sure that the pancetta would crisp quickly. We moved to set the table and spent a little too much time averting glances and pondering whether or not we were falling in love.
He smelled the smoke first. “Is something burning?” he asked.
“The pancetta!” I squealed, running towards the stove and turning it off. I lifted the lid and was met by a monstrous cloud of smoke. The pancetta was not just burned; it was welded to the bottom of pan.
Even though the heat was off, smoke continued to rise from the pan. We knew enough not to run water over it, but we were not sure what to do with the waste.
Gian Luca had an idea. “The toilet,” he said between coughs. He grabbed the handle of the pan and walked it over to the bathroom, his arm extended to its furthest reach to distance him self from the smoke. I heard a sizzle as the burnt meat met the water in the toilet bowl. Instantly, there was more smoke.
It was May and the small window in the apartment that was already open was doing nothing to assuage the smoke. After a few minutes, the smoke detector started to beep. I rushed to open the door, thinking that the cross wind would provide us some relief.
The alarm continued to sound.
I jumped on a chair and tried pushing buttons on the detector. When that did not work, I began fanning the smoke away from it with my hands. This only enhanced the alarm. Soon the main alarms in the building started blaring and the lights in the hallway blinked as if there really was an emergency.
We looked at each other nervously. We saw his neighbors beginning to evacuate and I had the urge to tell them all to stay in their rooms.
“There’s no emergency, I was just cooking!” I wanted to scream, but thought better of it when I saw the look of embarrassment on Gian Luca’s face. My heart sank.
“What should we do?” I asked.
“I guess we should leave,” he said. He walked over to the stove and turned off all of the burners.
Slowly, we left the building, walking with our heads down, lightly fanning ourselves in an attempt to get rid of the lingering smell of burning pork fat that nailed us as the culprits.
Outside, crowds of people were gathered on the sidewalk. Some were already in their pajamas; others were still carrying their backpacks.
It was seven-twenty five, our friends would arrive to find us in the middle of the crowd, and we’d have to explain ourselves.
The distant sound of fire engines grew stronger. Gian Luca and I both looked at each other. I could tell he was disappointed. I had ruined his dinner party. How could I have made such a horrible culinary mistake? I fought back the tears.
“Hey,” he said, placing his hand on my lower back. “Don’t be sad. This will just end up being one of our stories.”
I looked at him and smiled. The smoke had cleared.
He was right, it is.