Italy in my Imagination

“I think we should get a margherita,” said Alfonso Cevola, as our server approached the table a little over a year ago in Dallas.

“Do you guys make good margaritas here?” I asked our server, making a complete fool of myself.  He began describing how they made their margaritas, and soon Alfonso cut in.

“I meant another pizza!” he laughed.  He motioned toward our server and said “A margherita with Calabrian chiles.”

It was a rare afternoon when both my colleague Bianca and I were not scheduled to work later, so we were joining Alfonso for a long-anticipated lunch at Dough, a pizzeria that had opened a location in Dallas and was working on getting VPN certification for their oven at the time.

A few days later, I picked up a jar of Calabrian chiles from Jimmy’s Food Store, an item that has since become a staple in my refrigerator.  It was at the beginning of this year when I discovered my new resource for this perfectly spicy condiment, a pepper my girlfriend always requests when I make pizza.

I last used them when my close college friend Matt was visiting Seattle in early January.  We headed downtown for an obligatory walk around Pike Place Market, and dropped into DiLaurenti’s to pick up items for an impromptu dinner party at my house, and found an entire row of Calabrian chile jars on one of their shelves.  We chose the larger-sized peppers.

As usually happens when I visit that store, I got briefly lost on the wine floor, and came across a bottle of Castello di Verduno Basadone, a wine made from Pelaverga Piccolo grapes.  It was from Piedmont, and memories of the rustic mouthfeel of a Nebbiolo and the bright acidic finish of a Barbera ran through my mind.  I had first tasted a Piedmont wine on a whim – how might this one taste?  I did not buy that wine on that day, instead choosing a Barbera d’Alba.

It was not until the next time Carla and I stopped at DiLaurenti’s that I remembered the Verduno I had left behind, but I was more focused on Montalcino at first, a region usually been beyond my price range.  I nearly left the Verduno behind again as we walked to Target, but then ran back, knowing I would always be curious  and only able to imagine its flavor if I did not pick it up.

I opened the bottle on Sunday to taste it with another culinary experiment, an Italian improvisation of fettucine with a poached duck egg and dandelion greens.  Recipes on blogs seem to be a trend these days, a trend I have resisted for fear of I might develop a complacent and passive writing formula.  This time, however, I think my essay in the kitchen was a way of actively exercising my imagination:

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¼ lb. fresh fettucine
Olive oil
small handful hedgehog mushrooms, the smaller the mushroom the better.
1-2 Calabrian chiles (I managed to neglect using these when I made this dish)
2 cloves garlic, quartered then sliced
small handful dandelion greens, rinsed
sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 duck egg
breadcrumbs
Wild greens such as chickweed and cress, for garnish (I forgot to use these too)

Toss mushrooms and Calabrian chiles in enough olive oil to coat, season with salt, pepper, and any other desired seasonings, such as paprika and/or cumin.  Cook fettucine in salted boiling water to desired tenderness.  While fettucine is cooking, heat olive oil and garlic in pan and add the mushroom mixture.  Sauté until reduced in size by about ¼, then add dandelion greens and sauté until greens begin to wilt.  Set aside and keep warm.  Crack egg into ramekin lined with plastic wrap, then tie plastic wrap with rubber band.  Remove pasta and drain, reserving water so you can poach the duck egg in it (I like to minimize the amount of dishes I clean, since I have no dishwasher).  Poach egg to desired doneness (I like a medium poach to use some of that yolk for a tasty and slightly thick sauce as I eat), keeping the plastic from all falling into the pot.  To plate, pour pasta and mushroom and dandelion mixture into pasta bowl (I really need to buy a few of these) and toss together.  Then remove duck egg from plastic and place in center, and finish with breadcrumbs, then chickweed and cress.

On Il Corvo’s website, Mike Easton says the act of pairing pasta with condiments “is all about creating the perfect bite, matching up the size/texture of the pasta with the right chunkiness/sauciness…[y]ou must imagine the physical act of eating the pasta, pushing around the sauce, stabbing, twirling, and chewing, and then ask yourself ‘is this the right noodle for the sauce?’”    In my recipe above, I must admit that my combination may have been thrown off by the chunks of mushrooms, which may have been more suited to penne, but I digress.  The Verduno was a lush blanket of barely ripe strawberries and cherries, a wine that did not draw too much attention to itself, and let me feel relaxed as I finally dove into my pasta after taking a picture for this blog.

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“I have a love-hate relationship with Italian wine,” I told Bianca shortly after we started working together.  “I love the wines, but it is so hard to keep them straight because there are so many unfamiliar grapes only found in Italy.”   As if I was reading a beckoning call a few weeks ago, I ran across one of Alfonso’s blog posts that culminated in a tasting of some Calabrian red wines.  He mentioned “beyond the names and the confusion, there is the shiny golden soul of Italian wines.  And very few people get that.”  My love-hate relationship stems from a constant endeavor to see into this elusive “shiny golden soul” from a place where I have never traveled but have longed to visit ever since reading Chaim Potok’s description of Florence in My Name is Asher Lev. Italy has thus far remained a place I have tried to see and taste in my imagination, every time I stretch my own hop-infused pizza dough, or sip a wine made from an obscure grape.  With each cork I pop, I feel inclined to explore it more.

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