The best compliment I ever got
At first glance, this may not seem like a big deal, and I didn’t even really know what a big deal it was until after I invited my neighbors for dinner.
I have been visiting Italy for many years and have been studying the cuisine – especially of Tuscany – for a long time. This certainly does not make me an expert, but I had some confidence that I could provide my Tuscan friends with a good meal if they came over for an evening.
I love rabbit and it’s hard to find it on a menu in this area, so whenever I go to Italy I order it several times. I decided to make coniglio in umido, rabbit braised in wine, both to fill my own craving and because I thought it would be relatively easy to do.
I went to the butcher shop looking for rabbits and there they were in the case – looking right back at me! The quality of meats in Italy is very good, but they have an undesirable habit of displaying the meat with all its original parts. The rabbits had heads – and eyes – and without their ears, they looked just like big rats. I asked the butcher if she could cut off the heads before wrapping them up. After having a good laugh at my expense, she obliged and I went home with two good-sized rabbits. I sautéed the parts in good olive oil, added garlic, carrots and onions, which I bought at an outdoor market that morning, and then poured an entire bottle of Morellino di Scansano wine over the top of the pot. Outside, I picked fresh rosemary, some sage and a few bay leaves, which all grow in the yard. I tossed them in and closed the cover for about three hours. The apartment smelled like heaven.
The Italian dinner typically consists of antipasti, or appetizers, then a primi, which is usually pasta or risotto, sometimes soup, then a secondi, which is the meat course.
For the antipasti, I picked up some pizza by the slice at a local bakery. In Tuscany my favorite pizza is topped with sliced potatoes, salt and rosemary—it’s so simple it’s wonderful. For the primi, I went to a fresh pasta shop and bought some tiny little gnocchetti, which I would later serve with a brown butter and sage sauce, called al burro e salvia in Italy. Of course, I bought a hunk of Reggiano Parmigiano to grate on top of the gnocchi.
I set the table and waited for my guests, who showed up an hour late – typical for Italians! We sat down to glasses of wine, some pizza and conversation. Then I called everyone to the table for the gnocchi. Italians eat very quickly, but by the happy noises they were making, I could tell they approved.
I put the pieces of rabbit on a big, beautiful platter that I bought in a ceramic shop there, and topped them with some of the extra sauce and a garnish of fresh herbs. My neighbors sniffed the air approvingly as I placed the platter in the center of the table.
Everyone tasted the rabbit, then tasted again, then had a few more bites. Finally, Alessandro, stopped what he was doing and paid me the ultimate compliment: “You cook like an Italian woman.”
Truly it meant more to me than if he had said “You are more beautiful than Sofia Loren.” The funny thing about Alessandro is that he is Tuscan through and through, and he even admits to thinking that food from neighboring Umbria is “ethnic food.” So, for him to swoon over my rabbit and even then to compare me to his grandmother was about as good as it gets.
After we finished our rabbit and before we dove into Flora’s sublime homemade Tiramisu, Alessandro made a confession. He had told the other neighbors that they were coming to our place for dinner and that they did not know what to expect for food, but they would go anyway because it was the polite thing to do. His blunt honesty and genuine amazement that an American was capable of putting together a few good ingredients and coming up with dinner had me laughing to myself all night.
We finished the evening with a bottle of Vin Santo, a dessert wine that is always served with small biscotti, called cantucci, which you dip into the wine and then eat. All in all it was a great evening.
I am back home in Jamestown and there’s sleet banging on the windows today, but I am still warmed by the smell of stewing rabbit, the feel of Vin Santo as it slides down my throat and by my Italian friends who paid me the best compliment of my adult life.