My boyfriend, Leo, is from the coastal area of Versilia. His mother is from northern Italy, from the town of Stresa on Lago Maggiore. His father was from the area surrounding Lucca, a jewel of a city slightly north of Pisa. Last night we went to Leo's father's aunt's house for dinner. Her whole family was there, including her daughters and their husbands, grandchildren, and great grandson. When we arrived it was late, and so within the first few minutes we were seated at the long dining room table that was set for a banquet. "Try our focaccina, we made it here!" aunt Nicla urged. I took a little piece of the homemade focaccia, which was richly endowed with olive oil. "Try some mortadella and Parmesano with the focaccina!", very soon I was double fisting my antipasti. There is nothing like eating at someone's home in Italy.
Prosecco was poured, and the first dish of lasagne with asparagus and bechamel sauce came out. It has taken me all of these years, but I have finally fallen in love with lasagne. I had even made my own lasagne at home, and thought it was pretty good, until I came to Italy. See, I had been making my own lasagna based on what all the other lasagne dishes around me looked like. In the States, lasagna is made of a few layers of pasta divided by vast expanses of filling. Whether it is meat, ricotta, or bechamel, there is more filling than pasta layers, which has always made the dish too heavy for me. However, here in Italy, lasagne is made with many soft layers of pasta, barely separated by a thin sauce that makes the pasta layers fall around the plate loosely. The theme ingredient is not so much a filling, but rather something that laces the sauce. Last night it was asparagus. When I was in Bologna, the sauce was tomato with a little bit of meat in it. Eating lasagne here has been a complete revelation.
I am realizing that I could write a whole entry on just lasagne, but I must continue. After the pasta came the secondi, a sort of chicken stew with carrots and onion, which was very tasty. It was not a typical dish, but as I learned during the meal, that particular family has a catering business, and it was one of their own recipes. On the side was delicious spinach, the kind my father would die and go to heaven if he ate. And fresh peas. Because the meals always begin with pasta, there is no need for rice or potatoes while eating the secondi. It might happen on occasion in a restaurant, but it is rare at home. After the chicken, there was roast beef, but I could not eat any more. For dessert, we poured Vin Santo and passed around cantuccini (little baby biscotti) to dip in the sweet wine. Vin Santo is one of my favorite things about Italy, and I had often heard that it was tradition to drink it with the little cookies, but I had never done it myself. I was so excited to have taken part in an authentic "Tuscan" ritual. We sat around for a while longer, talking and enjoying the company before heading home. Lucca is not only a little jewel of a city with beautiful architecture and gorgeous shop windows, but also part of a rich gastronomic area known as the Garfagnana. I was lucky to have been invited to dinner there!