Cooking in Rome, for locals.
- steve h. Feb 1, 2010 01:06 PM
This is intimidating. My wife is an accomplished home cook. We've been renting an apartment every March on the Via Giulia for a few years now. We've invited colleagues from the states to break bread with us but I've been reticent to invite a small group of locals over for dinner to express our gratitude.
What to buy, where to shop doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of my concern. Orchestrating a successful menu, start to finish, is a tough call. Wines? My guests will be Roman. After dinner? Our rental has a wonderful rooftop terrace. I would like to make things tasty up there so we can enjoy the view after the meal in the formal dining room.
I'm thinking this should be a Saturday/Sunday afternoon meal. I'm clearly out of my depth here but would appreciate all thoughts/comments/criticisms. I'm not afraid to fail but I would like advice on menu, wines, protocol and whatever else comes to mind.
Thanks in advance.
Is it Schadenfreude, or else why am I smiling? Welcome to my life. Whatever you do, do NOT be too ambitious, make sure they have plenty to eat, but without the abbondanza typical of somebody trying too hard. Don't show nervousness. DO take advantage of the prepared foods available at, for example, Volpetti or things you can just slice, thus saving your creative juices for a couple of well chosen dishes. If you try to make too many things from scratch, you'll get exhausted and possibly nervous, which you will be. Imagine that you have an adversary relationship with your guests, but you have to pretend you don't. You can give them something American, but not too scary or inviting of sarcasm.
Start with prosecco and a very good salami (like Cinta Senese) and two kinds of olive. Also a bowl of plain cherry tomatoes and a piece of very good mozzarella, which you do not encourage them to eat (it will spoil their appetite and see below).
The primo should be something you can make ahead, or all the women will be in the kitchen checking you don't scottare la pasta and they'll make you so nervous that you will. Serve pasta e fagioli, pasta e ceci, pasta al forno, something you can just heat up.
Likewise, the secondo should be either very quick cooking or, preferably make ahead, such as a pot roast or meatballs. Serve two vegetables or one and a green salad. In March you'll have a good choice. Don't serve puntarelle, because there's always someone who doesn’t like garlic. Announce that the mozzarella (above) is available in case someone doesn’t eat meat.
Make sure you have a full bread basket on the table at all times until you clear for dessert. And serve bread with the salami too.
Do what you like for dessert, including a homemade American-style fruit pie, which they like, and don't be ashamed to buy gelato and some sort of biscotto or a colomba or a pastiera napoletana, given the season.
As for wines, after the prosecco, I suggest sticking to one wine, which you will have laid in a good stock of, or one white and one red. Don't have a lot of different wines. Just keep pouring the same one, but since there's always someone who doesn’t drink the color you've chosen, make sure you have both. You might, depending on your menu, decide to serve white first, then red, which should not be too difficult. A moscato d'Asti with dessert is always a crowd pleaser. Have plenty of water on the table.
I can't speak for Romans but every year, we spend time in our Venice apartment and have cultivate a few Venetian friends that we occasionally have over for dinner. From our experience, most of them are just happy to be guests. We are also thankful that most are extroverts and the conversations are always lively. We follow a few rules:
Keep the number of courses to a minimum, otherwise, you will have dishes, pots and pans piling up.
You and your wife want to enjoy your guests and your guests want your company, therefore, plan ahead, serve some things room temperature, and not spend the whole evening holed up cooking. That would surely make your Roman friends uncomfortable.
Keep things simple. Cook a few things well rather than a lot of things not so well. It doesn't need to be a multi-course affair. Cook straight forward food that is forgiving and doesn't need a lot of babying. Make sure you are comfortable cooking for the number of guests you are inviting.
Cook what you and your wife are good at, provided you can get the ingredients in Rome. Given a menu of what to cook is generally pointless because we don't know your culinary skill or what your kitchen is like.
Usually we follow this plan for around 8 guests with some ideas:
I would serve some room temperature finger food on the terrace. Some suggestions: savory biscotti, crostini, stuffed eggs, simple poach or grill shrimp with a room temperature sauce (flavor mayonnaise, salsa verde, tartar sauce are just a start). Just set them out and let your guest help themselves. Pick a simple white wine to goes with them. If in doubt, can't go wrong with a decent champagne. In Venice, we always just serve prosecco (save a lot over champagne) or Compari spritz.
If you want to serve a first course after all that finger food: depending on the weather, a salad is always good and easy. You might want to jazz it up with some crabmeat, or smoke fish, citrus, etc. Keep the dressing simple, no creamy stuff. If the weather is cool, a soup or a bake pasta would be fine. Never risotto or a sauced pasta; too much last minute stuff and it rarely comes off perfectly the way one wants. For the main course, I would do a braise, a seafood stew or a roast. It is easy or can do ahead and fool proof. Italians, unlike we Americans, tend not to junk up the main course with too many side dishes. If you served a salad as a first coarse, can skip the vegetable and just serve an appropriate starch. If the braise has vegetables, just serve bread with it. Can serve a room temperature vegetable course (blanched and serve with a squeeze of lemon) if you feel a vegetable is necessary. I love cheeses, therefore, I always to serve a course before dessert. It can be a single cheese in perfect condition or an assortment of 3 different types: can't go wrong with a blue, a runny cows milk and a hard aged such as Parmesan Reggiano or Pecorino. If there is a dessert to follow, I just don't serve any fruit with it; maybe just some good nut bread. If you and your wife are good at desserts, this is the time to pull out all the stops. Even if the rest of the meal is not perfect, a great dessert always save the day. I have one rule: if there is a cheese course, I tend to stay away from heavy chocolate desserts but who am I to criticize debauchery. There is nothing wrong in going out to the best bakery and buy dessert because that is what most Italians would do. Or you can impress by serving cookies and a really good bottle of dessert wine. And if that is not enough, grappa afterward. As for wine, once you decide on your menu, use your nearby wine shop for advice. And coffee is always serve as a separate course after dessert. No dairy product with it. Since you are in Rome every March, you might already have an idea what is seasonal at that time: asparagus (room temperature as a first course?), maybe a baby lamb stew with artichokes or roast baby lamb, should be some good strawberries. I have not spent much time in Rome but we were there for a couple weeks two years ago with an apartment. Found a great butcher kitty corner from Il Forno on the Cp de' Fiori.
Hope the above gets you in the mood and set your mind in motion. Rome in March: wonderful, I envy you.
re: steve h.
When my parents (and I) lived in Rome, we had dinner parties all the time. Sometimes my mother made pasta, but more often she made something more exotic to Romans. Which would be my advice--make them something they themselves don't make at home. Hungarian, Asian (if you can get the ingredients), French--whatever you might be comfortable with. Korean? since you said you lived in Seoul.
Also, if they're your friends, they'll be thrilled to be invited and will enjoy themselves no matter what you serve. Especially if you and your wife are enjoying yourselves as well.
And yes, copious libations never hurt and were always a part of our Roman dinner parties.
Ah, have been doing that for some years now and the best advice I can give is: Do not be afraid and just be sure of what you are doing/serving.
Go for Sunday lunch. Prepare as much as you can beforehand. Make antipasti easy and just serve some great salumi, olives, burrata etc. (Volpetti or Roscioli bought).
I do not agree with Maureen on the primo front - if you are accomplished cooks, you won't have a problem with cooking pasta right. I wouldn't go into risotto maybe, as that can really be time consuming, but nothing wrong with pasta. Also, depending on the apartment / kitchen, the informality of the group and your self confidence, it can be fun to prepare the primo while everyone is standing around, nibbling on salumi and nipping Franciacorta (not prosecco).
As a secondo, go for a nice roast - again, if you have a kitchen with an oven and trust yourself, you can do it yourself (the first lamb will be around - buy from Annibale, for example) and let it slow roast in the oven - not too much work but impressive results. Make some greens to go with it and some potatoes. If you don't feel comfortable with that, buy (pre-order) from Volpetti or Roscioli (heavenly porchetta!, sometimes they even have a very small one filled with foie gras - very, very expensive, but you can imagine).
Dolci, it seems to me in Italy in general, is perfectly fine if store bought - often when I invite Italians who don't yet know that I like to cook all my menu myself, bring a cake, tart or gelato as a host-present. I would say have a back up (like a pie) but expect them to bring some dolci, too, in which case you just serve both.
Take a walk through the markets (Campo bcs it is close to you, but also testaccio or trionfale if you can, they are better markets) a couple of days earlier to see what is in season vegetable-wise and get inspiration.
Have white and red wines. As for the ending, I love to surprise my Italian guests with sweet still wines that have a nice acidity - they are not used to them and fall in love with these wines. When you decide what your exact menu is, I can help you choose wines and name sources (I am a sommelier). If you want, you can contact me per mail and I will be very happy to help you.
In bocca al lupo!
re: Sam Fujisaka
Have to disagree on the rooftop terrace. I have one and have spent years developing systems and menus for meals there, and it's my own home with an electric hoist for carrying trays from the kitchen, not a rental, which may be wonderful but will always lack something essential. I'd do aperitivi or maybe coffee up there. Don't forget, it's March, so uncertain weather, and somebody will always be worried about catching pneumonia if there's a breeze, and the food will get cold. Believe me, I've been there.
re: Sam Fujisaka
I agree with mbfant about taking the entire meal on the terrace. We have a terrace in Venice and trying to get a sit down dinner to go well out there is a huge chore and not worth it. Food gets cold in a jiffy. A stand up all antipasti affair or an informal sit around buffet is fine.
I can add very little to the expert advice below except to echo the advice not to get too ambitious, to cook as much as your can ahead, to serve some excellent quality purchased antipasti and otherwise (with the single exception below) not to not veer too far from the familiar italian cuisine. My daughter recently recounted the bemused reaction at a communal Thanksgiving dinner to the american style pickled peaches she had prepared (not). I highly recommend serving contorni, including salad since you may have some lighter eaters, but they need not all be ones that are served piping hot. The one area that an american style dish might be warmly welcomed is dessert - if you wife makes some good desserts, why not splash out there?