When a 10-year-old refuses broccoli and feeds exclusively on pizza and hot dogs, no one bats an eye. When my son wants to know the kinds of olives in a particular tapenade, both host and dinner companions go quiet.
This is the child that at age four ate not one but three portions of polpo alla Luciana in a seaside tavern in the Tuscan town of Castiglione della Pescaia (the owner still remembers us and demands to treat my son to the savory stewed octopus dish each time we visit). The same year, at a posh seafood restaurant in northern California, the kid ordered spear-caught grey snapper and steamed asparagus spears. The chef came out and shook my hand.
On a recent business trip, he impressed a seasoned cheese-maker when he tasted ricotta forte — a ricotta that’s been aged five months to the point of becoming pungent and spicy. My son asked for seconds.
My boy is a bizarre alimentary wunderkind, but it’s not all his doing. As a child, I was a picky eater who whined a lot. I didn’t eat tomatoes, fish bones scared me, and I ironically dreaded cheese. I didn’t want him to be like me.
So I encouraged him to try different flavors and foods. I never forced him. Nor did I lazily fall back into the trap of routine meals. He tasted his first fast food “Happy Meal” at age nine and loved it. On nights when I don’t feel like cooking, dinner is popcorn and milkshakes. We’re not food snobs. When we dine out with friends, seeing him experiment with new foods is beautiful. He’s partial to bold flavors and has always loved fish. These are my gourmand son’s top 10 dishes.
- Spaghetti with clams, hold the parsley He says his nonno makes the best spaghetti alle vongole, and this may be true. Whenever we go to the beach this is the first dish he asks for, and it becomes the yardstick for the quality of the kitchen.
- Chicken liver crostini We spent many summers in Tuscany at a beautiful Renaissance villa converted into a B&B. Meals there would inevitably open with crostini toscani washed down with copious glasses of the property’s own Sangiovese. While the adults poured the wine, my little boy swiped the crostini platter clean. No one ever suspected it was always the smallest child in the group eating all the chicken liver spread.
- Octopus salad (insalata di polipo) freaks out many of my adult American friends. Imagine their faces when they see my son wolfing down tentacles of tender octopus mixed with crisp celery, Gaeta olives and carrots. He gets a huge kick out of shocking them.
- Mussels I let my son taste cozze only after he turned seven. I worried mollusks would be too much for his young digestive system. He not only tolerates them well, he also loves them. Steamed, stewed, au gratin… so long as they’re cooked, he eats them all. One evening I left him with his nonni, who were eating impepata di cozze. Since had a bad stomach (too much chocolate) I told them to serve him banana and rice. But he kept staring at the braised peppery shellfish in his grandparents’ bowls. Hoping to outsmart my diktat, he casually told them that a famous chef, his acquaintance, made a dish called “banana and mussels.” The ruse didn’t work, but my parents got a good laugh out of it.
- Radishes à la Français During a memorable trip to Provence with my dad a few years ago, my son first tasted radishes at the St. Remy farmer’s market. The gentleman selling bunches of beautiful crimson radis had set up his little farm-stand table with a pot of homemade butter and a small bowl of fleur de sel. Responding to my boy’s quizzical glance, the man gave him a lesson: slather the butter and sprinkle the salt (read this part with a heavy French accent). I had to drag the kid away.
- Meatballs & mashed potatoes Meatballs are a classic child’s favorite. My son learned to love my mother’s Sunday lunch polpette, a tradition she maintains to this day. Lean ground veal meat mixed with milk-soaked bread crumb, one egg, salt and love are shaped into bite-size orbs and fried in butter. She always serves them with homemade mashed potatoes. No leftovers here.
- Pomodori al riso This one is a summer favorite. Large heirloom tomatoes are scooped out, the pulp then mixed with rice, herbs and olive oil. The savory mix is spooned back into the tomato shells and baked in the oven alongside potato wedges. Whether oven warm or picnic basket cold, this is a perpetual treat.
- Spinaci al burro As a toddler, my son was passionate about zucchini and Brussels sprouts. But peer pressure and a recent palate evolution have caused a green embargo in the household. But he’ll still go for chopped spinach that’s been lightly sautéed in butter and sprinkled with grated Parmesan. Call it the Popeye effect.
- Risotto al nero On recent trip to Venice, I suggested he try some local dishes. Of the many seafood preparations he tasted, my son’s favorite turned out to be risotto dressed with nero di sepia, or cuttlefish ink. Stained clothes and black-toothed smile on his face, he called this “the best risotto in the universe,” but maybe he was just schmoozing the nearby chef.
- Crème brûlée Let’s face it, cracking the hard slab of caramelized sugar that tops voluptuous and velvety crème brûlée is half the fun. Seeing my progeny lick the bottom of the bowl is equally satisfying.
They say your palate changes every decade. Who knows what’s next for my son. I raised him as an international kid so you’ll get no resistance if you offer up burgers, French toast and PB&J sandwiches. But that’s another story.