I’m a pretty sentimental person, with family and friends being at the top of my priority list. So when Neil planned a night where I could spend quality time with family & friends, feast on amazing food that held sentimental value and I didn’t have to clean up a single thing – it resulted in one memorable night. And major husband points for a creative birthday gift to celebrate my 32nd year.
Last summer Neil and I travelled to Italy for a friend’s wedding and our own belated honeymoon. We visited Rome, Florence, the Tuscan countryside, and our favorite place of all, Bologna. Needless to say, we feasted our way through each region, leaving no stone unturned when it came to trying the special food items that each place had to offer.
That’s where the sentimental part of our recent Italian feast came into play.
Massimo Bruno has been a well-known chef in Toronto for years and we’d wanted to try his ‘Italian Supper Club’ dinners that he holds monthly, but never seemed to get around to it. Little did I know, Neil had been planning a special Massimo night all our own. He emailed back and forth with Massimo, trying to create the perfect menu that would take me on a trip down memory lane, right back to our Italian getaway. And best of all, we would be able to share some of the things we fell in love with in Italy, with the people that we love back at home.
Massimo cooks authentic homestyle Italian food, and explores different regions of his native Italy through cooking the dishes that are unique to each area. He shares not just the foods and methods from each region, but also the stories that go along with them. He cooks out of his kitchen studio in a beautiful loft in the city, where guests lounge at one long candle-lit table as Massimo and his team cook the meal. The feeling is friendly, rustic, casual, and Massimo himself adds to the atmosphere; sharing stories with everyone, taking the time to explain what’s about to be served, where it came from and most importantly, why.
I was almost brought to tears when I got a glimpse of the menu that Neil and Massimo had put together for me. Massimo had even attempted a few new dishes for the first time ever, on Neil’s request. His passion really came through as he talked about each item on the menu, and his stories coupled with the amazing food transported everyone to Italy that night. Here’s a taste of my special meal…
The night started off with Massimo’s Focaccia Barese, which was probably one of the best focaccia’s I’ve ever had. Thankfully he warned us not to fill up on it, because I probably could have eaten an entire plate of the doughey, salty, tomatoe-ey goodness.
But we needed to save room for the copious amounts of food that came next.
The antipasti course could have been a perfect meal on its own: Burrata imported from Italy (flown in once a week and available at Maselli’s on Danforth!), Prosciutto di Parma & wild boar prosciutto with gorgeous roasted figs.
“Trota della nera” – Trout with seasoned breadcrumbs. Massimo kept telling us how incredibly simple this dish was, but everyone was raving about it. The flavors were bursting out of the lemony breadcrumbs and the tender fish fell apart with every forkful.
I didn’t get a good picture of the fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with ricotta, but Massimo’s version was just as delicious as the ones we ate almost daily on our trip to Italy. He made a beautiful salad of breaded oyster mushrooms on arugula, which complemented the other antipasti so perfectly.
Next came homemade pasta – Pappardelle al Cinghiale, aka: wild boar ragout. Neil and I had had an unforgettable meal of simple stewed wild boar at the agritourismo where we stayed in the Tuscan countryside, and Massimo’s pasta brought me right back to that place.
If one pasta wasn’t enough, Massimo also made a dish inspired by our most memorable meal in Bologna, at a family-owned restaurant just off the beaten path called Pape Re. We had ordered a pasta with homemade pistachio pesto topped with crispy prosciutto and the flavor was so unique and special that I talked about it for months. Massimo’s Bucatini al pesto di pistacchi was prepared differently, but I so appreciated that he had researched the dish and created his own from scratch for the very first time. His was absolutely amazing, another favorite of the group.
Then came fried artichokes in tomato sauce, Spigola al sale – fish cooked in salt crust – and perfectly-cooked zucchini with cherry tomatoes. You know you’re eating authentic Italian food made with love when something as simple as zucchini and tomatoes takes your breath away with every bite.
We were already full when the smell of hot butter came wafting through the air, followed by the sound of saltimbocca (veal with prosciutto & sage) frying in it. The dish was beautiful and so delicious that we all somehow found that last bit of room when it came to the table.
The grand finale and probably the most meaningful dish of all was dessert: Schiacciata all’Uva – sweet focaccia with grapes. At that same agriturismo in Tuscany, on a lovely evening overlooking the hills and olive groves, Neil and I had this delicious and interesting dessert. The family who own and operate the agritourismo make wine and olive oil, so their homemade version used small wine grapes folded into the sweet layers of dough. Massimo used regular grapes and his version was as amazing as I had hoped. I had been talking about this dessert since our trip and have always wanted to try making it. Massimo nailed it. Sweet, slightly crunchy, doughey and moist, it was the most amazing ending to a seriously unforgettable feast.
There really is nothing like great food & wine coupled with great friends, conversation and the warmth of the happy memories that go along with it all.
And I’m so lucky to have a husband who ‘gets’ it and knows how important those simple things are that mean so much.