A report on two wonderful Home Food dinners, each totally different, one in Palermo and one in Firenze
Hello Chowhounders wherever you are,
I am typing this on the fly while traveling so please excuse any typos and such. I always check out Chowhound before I travel but I didn't see much posted recently about the Home Food orginzation We were so excited by 2 dinners we booked through the Home Food that we wanted to share our enthusiasm with others even though we are more home cooks ourselves than restaurant goers like most of the regular posters on Chow. A Home Food dinner is something we had always been curious to do on previous vacations in Italy and we wish we had done it much sooner. I'll come back later with my journal notes about our other meals from our January traveling in Italy, when I get the chance.
We had an absolutely outstanding experience with HOme Food in Palermo, the kind you cannot possibly get in a restaurant, hosted at a beautiful modern apartment in one of Palermo's most elegant neighborhoods. (We were able to walk from where we were staying in the Capo market area in 20 minutes). Had it been warmer weather, we could have dine al fresco on the rooftop terrace. As it was, we joined our marvelously cultivated, book-loving, art-loving, politically well informed hosts in their lovely dining room filled with books and modern art. The first thing you discover when you do a Home Food experience is that the hosts are really committed hosts. They take all the responsibility for making you feel at home and entertaining you.
Food, right? For Palermo, we chose a menu from the Home Food website that was pan-Sicilian rather than strictly local Palermo. This dinner was fashioned around the concept of what historically represented high cuisine in the homes of the wealthy in Sicily's baronial period. We began with exquisite individual servings of cured fish and cured meat rolled around batons of crunchy raw winter vegetables along with a hint of capers, beautifully plated on china that was dedicated solely for that purpose, fitted with two tiny pitchers, one filled with lovely new olive oil, the other with a kind of salsa rosa, for dipping and dressing. This was followed by the evenings piece de resistance, roasted fowl stuffed with caserecce pasta, a kind of miracle to me, given that the pasta was not one bit overcooked, and made lovely by the "sauce" of the juices of the bird, and the breast meat of the fowl was not one bit dry.
What followed was two different desserts, the first was a convent recipe which will defy my powers of description, but here goes: It was a brilliant green couscous of pistacchio, jasmine and watermelon sugar, studded with tiny bits of black chocolate and shiny gold flecks of hard sugar. It was so elegant. The other could not have been more straightforward and simple: a "gelo" of winter oranges, a bright explosion of color and fresh fruit flavor.
We also had very lovely and lively wines to go with all of this and I promised myself I would commit their names to memory so I could tell others but I don't remember anything unless I write it down and I was not about to take notes and interrupt the wonderful stories about Sicily we were being told by our talented and gracious hosts -- so I am sorry. I have forgotten.
We ended the evening in the living room looking at fascinating family photographs (and we had a bite of candied ginger and a bit of after dinner sweet wine from Pantelliera) and we left feeling as if a door had been opened for us into Sicilian life that we just could not have gotten any other way as visitors -- strangers, really -- to the city. Plus, we had absolutely authentic Sicilian food from historic and home hand-me-down recipes that I feel certain you cannot find on any menu in any restaurant.
Our experience in Firenze could not have been more polar opposite except that it was just as warm and wonderful and delicious -- but what a difference in cuisines and style! We were welcomed into the very cozy home of a mother and son (the daughter/sister sent apologies for being unable to join us), filled to overflowing with a whole jumble of eclectic bric-a-brac, family mementos, sturdy antique everything and no fear of breaking anything. The table cloth was well used. I can't remember if the dinnerware matched. It didn't matter. We instantly felt at home and ready to dig into an absolutely local traditional meal.
A huge platter of crostini with chicken livers appeared and they were out of this world. Rich, sweet but oh-so-simple. I'm nearly a vegetarian and nearly ate the entire platter by myself. Next we had a bread soup with black winter cabbage. I was surprised that it was served warm rather than piping hot but the lower temp made the flavors sing. (And what gave it zing was a sprinkling of raw red onion.) Next came a whole (but small) rabbit prepared in what I would describe as almost a porchetta fashion -- inasmuch as a paste of aromatic rosemary, garlic, salt and pepper and been worked into the crevices of the rabbit before it was pan-roasted to tenderness. It was really excellent -- and just the right amount, too, to follow the very filling crostini and soup.
(By the way, I want to add that I never understood saltless Tuscan bread until I tasted this crostini and this soup.)
Tuscan pecorino appeared, followed by cantucci and vin santo (a very good vin santo). Then a sip of Gemma d'Abeto, a digestivo from Mugello.
Words just fail to convey not only how satisfying and fun this dinner was (I am writing with a smile on my face from the memory) but also how much conversation was an integral part of the long, slow meal. The family had lived in Florence for generations. We talked about everything under the Tuscan sun (including the Roman theater under the Palazzo Vecchio) plus the political prospects of the city's mayor, to the "crisis", the European Union, popes present and past and the Pisan navy -- and of course a great deal about food and wine (one was an organic wine from Montespertoli and another from Mugello made from a grape more typically found in Trentino.
Again, I'm sure for Chowhounders the bottom line is the food, and having eaten in dozens and dozens and DOZENS of restaurants in Italy over the past 15 years, I honestly feel that Home Food is offering precisely the kind of food experience and home flavors so many people seek to find in Italy and never really do. I have eaten many lovely memorable restaurant and trattoria and osteria meals in Italy but the professional, commercial experience is simply not the same experience as this, however admirably or devotedly done. Professional kitchens aren't the same as home kitchens focused on a single meal to be shared by all.
"Passion" is a very overworked word in Italian tourism, and yet these women (and the husband and son) were just so passionate in their response to every question I asked about what we were eating and drinking. They were so obviously enjoying the cooking and entertaining. Plus, they were funny and charming and totally disarming when they didn't have to be at all because their food was so deeply delicious I never wanted to leave their tables anyway. But it is a completely different feeling to be talking with waitstaff and restaurant owners than these home cooks in their own homes, with their own families and pets and houseplants and baby pictures beside them, sitting down and sharing delightful food with them and their loved ones.
I cannot wait to try new meals in new places with other Home Food host cooks, and when I go back to Firenze or Palermo, I will go back to these people's homes as my first choice for eating.
Whew! I'll try to post a report on other places I've been eating while traveling because some of the addresses I picked up from Chowhound threads or famous guidebooks everybody reads here.
We too loved our Home Food experience in Rome 2011. We're headed back to Italy in November and when I looked at the calendar, I was delighted to see so many new hosts in a lot more locations. We had dinner with Flavia and her husband in Rome. I see she is still offering up her delicious Roman/Jewish cuisine, which was a lovely experience all around. From the conversation, to the food, and also meeting another interesting couple, the dinner was top notch; set in a beautiful apartment, rich with her family's history. Anyone have any other Homefood Hosts/Hostesses they would recommend in Rome. I think that's the city we'll end up doing it in again.
Something I missed including writing in haste the first time:
In Palermo, we ate a winter caponata of zucca and artichokes (same capers and onions) instead of the more familiar summer caponata of eggplant and tomato. It was great and was one of the main attractions of our choosing that menu. It was the best caponata we had the whole time we were in Palermo.
Hi again everybody,
I knew I would forget something even though I felt like I was already talking too much!
For the dinner we ate in Palermo, we were served home baked bread. Not dinner rolls. A real square and tall brick of real bread. Plus, it was made from a wonderful dark cereal grain. A very unusual bread from times past in Sicily. It was enchanting -- and it was especially interesting to me because in Florence, the bread was the main feature of the meal, and how it was utterly transformed by the liver in the crostini, and then utterly transformed again for the soup.
At one point, in Florence, I rather mindlessly nibbled on some of the plain bread that had been left on the table, and it was awful! But with the fat of the liver in the crostini, it was impossible to stop eating. It was so enriching and flavorful in the soup.
Anyway, I am glad that my post is encouraging other people who love traveling and eating in Italy to book with Home Food. I also realized that I can actually mention at least the first names of the hosts we had, although you really must book through the site to learn exactly who they are and where the dinners are held.
In Florence, it was Carla (and the menu theme was "the foolish bread") and in Palermo it was Anna Maria, and the menu theme was "baronial." There were other options with different hosts and menus for each city, and they were very appealing, but we decided to just book one in each city in case we didn't like it. By our second dinner, we were really sorry we hadn't booked all the options because the food was so good.
There were no other guests but if there had been, I think our hosts would have calibrated everything to make it optimal. I think if we had been Chinese speakers instead of English speakers, they would have invited a Chinese speaker to join the dinner. I think Home Food limits the number of spaces for the dinners, depending on the size of the home, etc. In Palermo, it looked like the rooftop terrace garden could accommodate 8 or maybe more, and the "Cesarina" said that summertime was when she hosted the most guests.
I don't think the quality of the food would have changed had there been more people at our table. (Maybe my husband and I would not have selfishly eaten more than our fair share of everything, however, and been better mannered about that!)
Thanks so much for this report. I am a huge fan of the Home Food organization, and have been a big supporter ever since we filmed a meal at one of the Cesarine here in Rome for Gourmet's Diary of a Foodie. Here is the original video clip:
Paola, the Cesarina we spent the day with, is still with the organization.
I cannot express strongly enough how important this organization is for keeping alive local traditions and making them accessible to both tourists and locals. It's true, it's not often been discussed here on Chowhound, but it should be!
The "Cesarine" themselves spontaneously talked to us about how they hoped the purity of some of the traditions could be kept alive this way through Home Food -- but that even their own grown children don't have time to cook like this anymore. Also, one of our hosts was really articulate about how uncomfortable it can be for most visitors in Italy to go to restaurants. She said even she often felt tired rather than nourished after a restaurant meal because she feels the waiters are nervous and trying to be so careful it makes her nervous!
I feel like Italy has all these wonderful food experiences like farm stays and Home food or traveler's inns where you eat and sleep in the same place, so while of course people need lists of restaurant recommendations when they travel, that is just a fraction of understanding food in Italy. I think most Italians don't spend much time eating in restaurants!