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Multicourse Italian Menu - Your Input/Ideas, Please

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Learned Hounds, I’d like your input, please. I’m making an Italian dinner for four in about a week. My aims for this dinner are in this order: 1) Deliciousness 2) Using several ingredients I recently brought back from Italy and an Amarone I already have, and 3) Adherence to as traditional an Italian experience as possible. Please comment on the below menu and tell me what might be done better, or what might be tweaked for a better experience. I am not bound to most of it quite just yet, so comment away.

Aperitivi – I’m considering serving either an Aperol or Campari spritz, or maybe a Prosecco on its own here (depends on food) and maybe a small bite, amuse bouche-style. Any suggestions on what would work best with either of those beverages? Any recipes for an appropriate bite? I brought back from Piedmont a small jar of artichoke sauce (creamy) we got at a farmer’s market. We already ate the radicchio cream sauce from the same producer, and if it’s anything like that, it will send us over the moon. I thought that maybe I could use it here, but I just can’t think of the best way, and I hesitate to just spread it on crostini, though that might be best. Ideas?

Antipasti – Nothing yet identified, and I also need help here. Bagna cauda maybe? I brought back a tin of salted anchovies, and it’d be nice to make use of them here. I tried to replicate an antipasto we had in Asti consisting of a large piece of roasted red pepper with a thin anchovy on top, drizzled with olive oil. It came out terribly- chewy, crunchy, not delicate at all. Can I use these anchovies for this antipasto? How do I prepare the anchovies? Other than that, these other things have jumped out at me: this Batali swordfish recipe: bit.ly/VLKXst (would halibut work?) and I also thought of some simple preparation of mozzarella di bufala. I would like to avoid more common antipasti such as melone e prosciutto and similar, if possible. Also, I have a small jar of beautiful carciofini, which are soft, delicate, and delicious, if you can think of a way to serve them. Lastly, if I don’t serve the Prosecco up front, I’d like a suggestion for a wine with this course, also, in the $30-$40 price range, maybe from the Veneto or Piedmont.

Primo – I have perfected the CI Creamy Tomato Sauce recipe by adding these salt-packed anchovies (instead of prosciutto). We brought back some beautiful fusili pasta which I think will drink up this sauce beautifully. Topped with fresh shavings of Parm-Regg. I thought of serving up the 2007 Amarone (don’t have label in front of me) bottle I already have with this course, but I’m open to suggestions, if hounds think I should serve it with secondo course, only. (I only have one bottle, but two of the guests are light drinkers.)

Secondo – Lamb shanks. I settled on this because I think the Amarone will be fully enjoyed with this type of meat cut, and I was already gifted the wine, which I want to drink at this meal. I am between these two recipes, and would like input on which is best with this menu: Batali’s Orange and Olives Recipe - http://abc.tv/YWQrPR or Bitmman’s with Lentils - http://nyti.ms/YxleCV. Either way, I feel I need to serve this with a starch and a contorno. I think polenta would be fabulous, but I don’t know if it’s worth the trouble/time to make in the middle of the meal. If not, any other starch? For a contorno, I’d think that both recipes kinda have that built in, but I was also thinking that a bit of braised kale or collards might be exquisite. Also, I brought back a bag of kamut, which I thought might do well thrown in with the lentils in the Bittman recipe. Thoughts? Could I used them any other way?

Salad – I don’t know what is most traditional here and what would go with the rest of the menu. I am leaning toward a jicama/tomatillo/citrus/watercress mix, or something else refreshing. Wine suggestions here? I imagine the Amarone would kill any salad here.

Cheese – My guests (and I ) love Sottocenere al tartufo, so I was thinking of serving that with Cacio di Roma, and a third cheese to round things out. Maybe another sheep’s milk cheese? My cheese counter is pretty complete, so I should be able to find any of the better-known Italian cheeses. As an accompaniment to the cheese, I’d like to serve a Mostarda di Frutta we were gifted on our trip. I also have truffle honey (miele al tartufo) I was thinking of serving in miniature dishes for the cheese. Comments? Wine suggestions?

Dolce – My wife is in charge, and she’d appreciate suggestions on a flavorful dessert, maybe not too rich given cheese course.

Caffe – Got it covered with Lavazza Oro in our moka.

Grappa / Limoncello – I will have to buy either one. Recs?

Thanks in advance of any/all input. These are special friends with whom we’ve travelled to Italy, and I’m trying to bring a piece of it back on this night for all of us.

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  1. A few comments.

    If you want polenta, here's an oven baked version that needs NO tending, except for one stir after 40 minutes.

    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/4546...

    Your salad really threw me for a loop. I'm not seeing jicama and tomatillos here. One of my fave salads is baby arugula with shaved Parm and GOOD olive oil and sherry vinegar.

    If you don't go with polenta earlier, here's a really good polenta shortbread cake from M. Hazan.

    http://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/20...

    I'm sure you'll get other suggestions. Sounds like a good dinner.

    5 Replies
    1. re: c oliver

      Thanks for the polenta recipes. I'm sure I'll go with the first one. That flavor combo is just great.

      As far as the salad, I know that's not very typical, but I was having trouble coming up with something else fresh tasting in that way. I love arugula, but the baby variety leaves me wanting more and I was hoping for something more uncommon. Perhaps the placement in the meal calls for something straightforward like that, though. Thanks again.

      1. re: c oliver

        there is another great salad I've had in Italy that is just shaved fennel and orange - you don't need a lot but it is a great refreshing palate cleansing type salad.

        1. re: thimes

          Like this?

          http://www.globalgourmet.com/food/spe...

          I've made this several times. And I agree with you. Just a tiny portion as a palate cleanser with such a big meal.

          1. re: c oliver

            This is exactly what I was looking for. I think I will go for this one -- I really appreciate the idea.

          2. re: thimes

            I agree, segment the oranges, and top all with curls of parm reg using your vegetable peeler

        2. I did an Italian inspired dinner recently and did osso bucco for the main and so I love the idea of shanks over polenta (which I prepared a la minute).
          After a heavier main, I served a duo of Chocolate Pot de Creme and Blood Orange Panna Cotta. Loved that I could prep them the day before and quickly assemble them with their respective garnishes just before serving.

          4 Replies
          1. re: monavano

            Thanks, monavano. I've never made either dessert, but I will look into both.

            1. re: monavano

              monavano, could you tell me where to find the blood orange panna cotta recipe? I tried your HG blog but could not find it.
              Thanks!

              1. re: blue room

                http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/foo...

                I made it twice. The first time I topped the panna cotta with a layer of whipped cream, then added the syrup reduction along with a supremed orange segment or two. The cream added a Creamsicle taste that was fun.
                The second time was as the recipe says and that was great too.

                1. re: monavano

                  Thanks very much, looking forward to this!

            2. I agree with c oliver on arugula salad -- consider arugula, roasted beets, goat cheese, and avocado, almonds or pine nuts. I use a light orange champagne vinegar dressing (vinegar is from Trader Joe's, if you don't have one sub OJ + a light vinegar or other fruit-based vinegar, eg raspberry or fig).

              For dessert, I would do this meyer lemon budino (souffle pudding-cake) -- delicious. http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/foo...

              The milk mixture can be mixed in advance and the ramekins (or a single large souffle dish) prepped in advance, then you just need to whip the egg whites, combine, and pop it in the oven. I like to serve it with creme fraiche (is there an Italian equivalent?).

              1. I commend your wish to do things the Italian way, so let's get started.

                Crostini with the artichoke spread would be fine for your finger-food with aperitivo (Prosecco). Also just olives and a little sliced salami.

                We're in the middle of winter, so forget melon. You could have a plate of prosciutto and other salumi with some sottaceti (marinated artichoke hearts). Or roast peppers and make involtini with tuna/mayo/capers. Or make a little bagna cauda and serve it as a sauce with a few blanched vegetables (you can find recipes for these in any Piedmontese collection). You don't want a whole bagna cauda, and be warned that many people don't like all that garlic.

                I don't know what you mean by CI, but if you are using anchovies in your tomato sauce, you don't want parmigiano, and if you have anchovies for your antipasto, skip them in the primo. You don't say what kind of pasta you would put with the tomato sauce, but in any case none of it sounds very Piedmontese, if that is important. Unless you think the guests really won't drink much at all, I'd hold back on the Amarone and stick with the Prosecco, or another white, such as Roero Arneis.

                If you are serving a primo, polenta is out of place with your meat. Lentils too unless (in both cases) you serve only a soupçon, but that is not worth the trouble and a bit too restaurant-y. I don't know these recipes, but they sound complicated and you probably don't need a contorno. Maybe just some greens, like spinach with butter. If you are determined to add more starch, a little mashed potato will be perfect to grab the meat's sauce. Make it Italian style, with parmigiano and sweet butter.

                Salad, mixed greens, the wilder the better. Nothing fancy. This is a palate cleanser, not to be seen as More Food.

                Sounds like you're OK on the cheese. The amarone would be good here if there's any left. If not, have a sweet wine ready, such as Muffato della Sala or Passito di Pantelleria or, to stay north, Picolit from Friuli or Sciacchetrà from Liguria.

                For dessert, stay away from the tiramisù/zuppa inglese family. Look into Piedmontese bonet or bunet (nice little puddings) or just offer a selection of biscotti and chocolate-covered orange rinds to follow the cheese, and leave them on the table while you serve the coffee.

                Skip the limoncello, which will lower the whole tone of your elegant meal. (Go ahead, shoot me.) Look for barolo chinato, my favorite Piedmontese digestivo.

                2 Replies
                1. re: mbfant

                  Mbfant, this response is so thoughtful and I truly appreciate all the suggestions. This is the kind of direction I was hoping for. I never thought that the starch in the secondo might be superfluous. I will probably go with that simple spinach and uncomplicate myself a bit.

                  The primo pasta will be with high-quality fusili I was sent from Italy recently, and the recipe I will use (roughly) is from Cook's Illustrated (CI). I usually mash up just two or three anchovies when I'm cooking down the onion, garlic, and tomato paste in the beginning, and have them disintegrate into the sauce (for background flavor) later with the tomatoes. I know this type of tomato sauce is not typical piemontese or northern Italian, but it's one of my standouts, so I'm going to stick with it. I know of the fish/cheese rule, but I see this as more tomato than fish.

                  Your advice on dessert, digestivo, and all else are very, very helpful -- thanks! This is exactly the type of input I was hoping for, and why I love this board so much.

                  1. re: Noice

                    Well, I don't think much of Cook's Illustrated when it comes to Italian food, which is my area of expertise. I don't presume to criticize their other areas, but I have my doubts. But I downloaded a few episodes of their television show that had to do with pasta and was truly appalled (they used cottage cheese in something they called "faux Alfredo" -- most Alfredo made outside the Alfredo restaurant is faux; CI's doesn't even bear a passing resemblance -- AND they put it in lasagne, if I remember correctly. Zero credibility.

                    It's not a question of the fish rule. It's more that Italians just don't put parmigiano with anchovies. And CI doesn't seem to care what Italians do, and this all began with your request for something realistically Italian. In any case, I wouldn't waste the Amarone on this dish. Save it for the meat and cheese.

                2. Wow, any way I could finagle an invitation? Really ambitious effort, perhaps just a wee bit too much but you know your guests as well as your own appetites. My suggestion are going to be food pairings for a wine based event.....Amarone is one of our lifelong favorites and we've built family event
                  Around great bottles of Bertani Amarone going back to the '64 vintage. Your 2007 is an excellent vintage just open early and lightly decant it.

                  We tend to start with simple ice cold prosecco sine it is light enough and festive enough to mark an occasion. Initial bite can be a crostini or bruschetta with perhaps some of the artichoke cream with a marinated diced artichoke heart and some finely minced chives for color and acidity balance with the wine. Just one or two small pieces per person

                  The antipasti should progress with a bit more substance and flavor profile both for the food and the wine. As heretical as it sounds I have advanced the salad here keeping it more a melange of just cooked veggies like green beans, a few roast pepper strips, a bit of shaved fennel strips and some sautéed matchsticks of guanciale dressed over one or two endive leaves. Dressing very very light application of olio Nuevo (EVOO) onto the veggies and a couple dashes of good balsamic creates a velvety smooth sweet salt complement for a soft simple red like a Dolcetta.

                  My primi of choice is feather light homemade gnocchi (combination sweet potatoes and Yukon golfs) in a tomato cream sauce with aged reggiano parmigiana and served with a sublime Travagnini Gattinara. It is a sublime combination that also works with light manicotti filled with fresh ricotta (homemade is surprising simple) or a fresh buffalo milk buffata, fresh basil,. Pecorino, etc.

                  Amarone with Osso bucco over a dab or creamy cheese polenta along side of sautéed broccoli rabe or oven roasted cauliflower with EVOO drizzle is a fabulous matched pairing although braised lamb shanks would fit equally well with he star wine.

                  After all that we are happy with a couple cheeses that can work with the remainder of the Amarone. Gorgonzola dolce di cremificato is truly worth searching out as it is more unctuous and less aggressive than other blues. The truffle cheese also works but on a different set of favors..

                  After a dinner like that, simple small biscotti with espresso or moka is for us more than enough although a bit of chocolate cream is seldom refused in a individual serving pot. Dessert wine vs grappa is a whole discussion in its own right.

                  Great luck and enjoyment

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: ThanksVille

                    Thanksville, thanks for this great response. I had been too busy to respond previously, but I have taken many of your suggestions on board.

                    Probably the most important tip you gave was to decant the Amarone. I don't drink fine wine at home hardly ever, so I didn't even think of decanting. We picked one up, so we will be prepared for this and many other fine bottles in the future, I hope.

                    I will be making a variation of your endive/guanciale/veggies antipasto. One question: do you put the stuff inside the endive, boat-like? I wasn't clear from what you wrote. I agree with your suggestion for a Dolcetto, and picked up a bottle this afternoon. I think it will also match nicely with my primo, tomato-cream fusili.

                    Thanks again.