hen my 18-month-old son watches me cook, I feel like I’ve stepped back in time to the days when I hovered around my mother as she camped out over the stove. I started cooking at age 20, usually making lunch for my brother and my grandmother in her kitchen. She’d knit — and quiz me: “Did you remember the capers? What about the sardines? Is there ham?” The guidance helped transform even modest pasta and tuna dishes into something special.
Cooking for a close-knit group is a lot easier than doing it professionally. Restaurant work has to flow seamlessly. If a dish you make for friends doesn’t work out, you can always say you tried or that you were experimenting. Not in a restaurant. My grandmother, who once worked at my great grandfather’s restaurant, told my brother and me stories about how hard it was.
When The New York Times first published a story about Home Food, which sponsors a program that encourages locals to prepare meals for foreign visitors, my wife and mother-in-law saw it as a perfect fit for me. They were right. Cooking for perfect strangers has helped me uncover my strengths and weakness, as well as get helpful feedback. Admittedly, my parents weren’t so cheery about the idea. They couldn’t see me inviting strangers home for a meal.
Home Food is a cultural association that seeks to protect and enhance Italy’s culinary heritage. It promotes and spreads traditional food culture. It also emphasizes the use of local ingredients.
By nature, Italian cuisine reflects rich and diverse culinary traditions and ingredients. Regional culture celebrates links with the past, with food acting as a bridge. The array of culinary traditions makes it virtually impossible to define “Italian cooking” in monolithic terms (it’s like talking about one Africa). Italian food is really a loose confederation of regional cuisines.
Eating at an Italian family home can mean sampling recipes that reflect generations of cumulative wisdom (it’s defined by “ars coquinaria,” the ancient tradition that perceives cooking as a construct, the scientific “art” of preparing food.)
Home Food has built a network of guest cooks across Italy. It trains “Cesarini,” or little Caesars (“emperors of the kitchen,” wrote The Times), so that visitors to Italy can find and sample local home cooking. The program is open to Italians and foreigners. The Cesarino is the host and cook; he describes the menu and its history. Home Food describes the Cesarino as a conduit to “grandparents, nannies, mothers or aunts, all those people who helped make the flavors of our childhood.”
Home Food is not so much a home restaurant as a setting. Sharing a table also means sharing opinions and stealing cooking secrets. A guest gets not only a home cooked meal, but also a family concoction very likely not found in a restaurant
As a kid, my grandmother told me that each house had its own special kitchen smells that could help you understand the character of the homeowner. When I’d visit my father’s Milanese sisters I’d get the aroma buttery sweetness. Both of them were overly affectionate with me. I’d be smothered in kisses, so much so that I’d wriggle free. To this day, a sweet-smelling kitchen makes me feel a little suffocated.
I’ve been a Cesarino for nine months now, mostly hosting foreigners who like traveling comfortably and eating well. A Dutch guest, also a journalist, asked the others at the table about their own traditional dishes. He met his match with two Americans from Michigan who told him that Jell-O was a typical local salad. “You can now understand why we’re here,” said one. The interview was published in a Dutch newspaper, opening the door to more Dutch visitors.
My guests are usually shy at the start, but tend to open up as the kitchen yields its warmth. It almost always makes for a delicious evening.
Gnocchi alla Romana
Gnocchi are a traditional first course in Lazio. The round semolina gnocchi are cooked in milk and enriched with cheese and egg yolks. This recipe is my family’s and includes additional ingredients such as sage, which my grandmother grew in the garden.
- 250 grams of semolina.
- 1 liter of whole milk.
- 100 gr of butter.
- 100 gr of grated Parmesan cheese.
- 1 tablespoon of grated Pecorino cheese.
- A pinch of nutmeg.
- A pinch of grated pepper (optional).
- 3/4 leaves of salvia (sage).
— Place the milk in a saucepan on the stove. When it begins to boil, pour in the semolina, stirring vigorously with a whisk to avoid lumps.
— Cook the mixture over low heat for a few minutes until the semolina thickens (the instructions usually call for between eight to 10 minutes).
— Remove the pan and add the following to the mix: two egg yolks, 60 grams of butter, a large pinch of salt, a pinch of nutmeg, and 50 grams of grated parmesan cheese.
— Pour the mixture into a large baking pan (greased or wet) with low edges. Level the mixture with the help of a wet knife, creating a 1-centimeter layer.
— Take another casserole dish and butter it.
— When the mixture cools, use a glass (or a cup- or round-shaped pastry cutter), to create individual “discs” of gnocchi with a diameter of about 5 centimeters. Place these discs in the buttered casserole dish, ensuring that each disc slightly overlaps the one beside it.
— When the gnocchi are all in the pan, sprinkle the surface with chopped sage, adding the rest of the Parmesan and pecorino. Fry two leaves of sage and mix with the remaining melted butter. Sprinkle the preparation with the sage-flavored melted butter.
— Put the pan in a preheated oven (180/200 C) until the gnocchi acquire a golden crust (20-25 minutes).
Gnocchi go well with a medium-body white wine, whether from the Trentino-Alto Adige or Lazio. Another choice is a Vermentino from Liguria or Sardinia or a Verdicchio from Le Marche. My own suggestion: Pinot Blanc “Sirmian” – Nalles & Magrè-Niclara.
Joining Home Food
Home Food has a web page in English where you can find out more. The site explains the registering process and costs. After you register, a Home Food representative will get in touch. Dinners are booked by location.