I don’t get invited to enough dinner parties. I backed myself into this corner. I believe it’s mostly because I am a food snob and a vocal one at that. I mean who would want to cook for someone that has such high expectations for every meal he eats AND might just write about it online? And frankly, my friends are justified for their sensitivity. I judge. I notice subtleties. I criticize, even if it is in my own head. Who would want that pressure?
Still, I have a dark, and very pedestrian, side to my culinary experience. I eat Spaghettios. I love Stouffer’s Creamed Chipped Beef. I have a soft spot for all things crap (in fact I have a post queued up called “Eat Shit”). So, while I wear my judges hat in many realms, I try to spare my friends the expectation of performing for a critic. If you’re reading this, I’ll be expecting an inbox filled with invites…
A few months ago I was invited to a dinner by a relatively new friend we shall now call from this point forward “the Contessa”. While technically not a Contessa by Italian aristocracy (I think), she has regal qualities, an impeccable social standing, refined tastes and a certain air of luxuriousness that follows her every move. She owns a Napa estate that makes Olive Oil for celebrity chefs. She pals around with the SF Opera elite. You wouldn’t necessarily put us together…until we start talking about food. The Contessa and I are soul mates in our zealotry for everything about food, and especially Italian. So, when the invitation came to join her at a home of some friends for dinner, I didn’t have to think twice.
Frankly, my life is so chaotic these days that I didn’t pay much attention to the specifics of the invite. I knew they were friends and somehow into food but I didn’t delve into the specifics. It was enough that the Contessa wanted me there. We’d play it by ear. My calendar invite read “Ciao Adam happy New Year!!! Tiziana wish to have confirmation you and me will go to her Piemontese dinner.”
When we arrived at the lovely loft in Mint Plaza we met our hosts Tiziana and John. It turns out that she is a photographer, who specializes in food. He is an importer of Italian culinary delights (Un Po Pazzo – click on this link to visit), particularly from the Piedmont region. Tiziana is from Piedmont and I immediately knew we were in for a treat. When an Italian is cooking with confidence I’m putty in their hands. The traditions run so deep and food is so engrained in their culture that I am almost embarrassed to claim that I cook Italian food. The mastery and skill of Italian regional chefs, including amateurs and home chefs, makes my dabbling seem Mickey Mouse.
I could see as I entered that Tiziana was organized and had put an effort into this meal, but I joked that it was probably effortless for her, even if it took her days. We started with a simple platter of the finest cheese known to man, in my opinion, Parmigiano-Reggiano. But this wasn’t just plain old Reggiano. No, it was Vacche Rosse, a special variety of the lauded formaggio made exclusively under a traditional process including prime red cows. The taste was subtly different than your average PR. It was a little more mellow, like a nice aged Cab, with a more crumbly texture (it was aged 4-years versus the 2-3 year we typically eat). I wolfed down a bunch along with some homemade foccacia that was lovely.
I watched Tiziana working her salad, which included seasonal greens topped with some poached shellfish, including squid and shrimp. She mixed in some of the fish liquid with the dressing which added a hint of seaspray to the dressing, marrying the fish and the salad. I never thought to do that, but loved the result. Otherwise, your salad would just have a topping of fish, without any real tie to the entirety of the dish. Brava!
Next came the Agnolotti del Plin. Interestingly enough, the first time I tried this dish was the night before at Flour + Water. When it rains it pours! This traditional Piemontese dish is a pasta (Agnolotti) that is pinched (del Plin) to seal it. In both cases it was stuffed with a veal, chard, pork filling and served in a light butter sauce. Flour + Water did a great job. It was light and lovely. Their pasta was incredibly delicate, which I love, but I never would have guessed it was a little too soft, by comparison. But Tiziana had the home field advantage here and brought out subtleties that you’d be hard-pressed to find in a restaurant. The sauce was simple and sparing, just enough to kiss the pasta but not overpower it. The filling bursted with flavor, surrounded by a silk blanket of pasta that retained a little bite of al dente. Brava again!
If that wasn’t enough, our next course was a brisket served with a deep, dark barolo sauce and a light vegetable melange. Her skill at cutting a brunoise was apparent and the lightly-herbed vegetables played a nice counter to the rich meat. As for the sauce, I can confidently say that I have never made such a lovely elixir myself. I find this type of sauce to be elusive for my culinary talents and I made a decision to try to add a few to my repertoire. It was rich and buttery and meaty and rich and barolo-y. I couldn’t get enough.
I must comment that John was no slouch with his additions to the meal. He paired wines impeccably, all from Piemonte. The cheese was from his import company (I’m planning to buy some hunks if anyone wants to split the wheel up). He shared some tomatoes that he claims are far superior to your average DOP San Marzanos I swear by. And his stories of his life’s careers and capers were incredibly interesting.
Dessert was another regional treat called Bonèt, a custard with ground almond cookies. Paired with a perfect dessert wine (which I will count on John posting in the comments) the night ended on a high note.
As we walked out into the crisp night air I thought about a few things. First, I was wowed by a great meal. How lucky to share such treats with the Contessa and her friends. I cannot wait until I have the chance to visit her Napa estate or, better yet, meet up in Italy for the real thing. And…I love going to dinner parties. It’s not just the food, but the company and the opportunity to talk in small groups. And for the rare opportunity I have to score an invite, I don’t have to do the cooking.