Our Thursday Night Bible Study group had Italian night as the dinner theme. Italian cuisine is simply one of the best in the world. If I had to pick just one cuisine to eat every day, I would probably choose between Italian and Chinese (maybe because of the Marco Polo link?). I've visited Italy twice, once several years ago for five weeks when my sister, brother-in-law, and niece lived there (my sister and brother-in-law are back living there now for a couple of years).
1. The main dish was pasta pesto. Pesto is a multi-purpose sauce usually made with sweet basil, parmesan cheese, garlic, pine nuts, salt, and extra virgin olive oil. It seems that many Italian food products have a special city or region which is considered the definitive place for them. Pesto originated in Genoa, Christopher Columbus's hometown. Parmesan cheese is, naturally, from Parma. The best kind is called Parmigiano-Reggiano. I have to admit that because of the price, my family usually uses Kraft brand parmesan cheese, but on special occasions, nothing beats a good Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Extra-virgin olive oil refers to oil that comes from the first pressing of olives in the production of the oil. It is the most flavorful. Believe it or not, Costco has very good extra virgin olive oil.
The pasta shape used Thursday night was farfalle. Called "bow-tie" pasta in America, the word actually means "butterflies," a prettier name. Italians have great names for pasta, such as spaghetti ("little strings"), the corkscrew shaped fusilli ("little spindles"), and linguini ("little tongues"). Perhaps the least appetizing name in English is vermicelli (little worms).
2. We had delicious bruschetta at dinner. A little Italian pronunciation lesson: in English, the "sch" combination is pronounced like "sh," as in "shell;" in Italian, it is pronounced "sk" as in "skate." So the delicious dish which often consists of toast rounds, tomatoes, cheese, is pronounced broo-sket-ta, and not broo-shet-ta. I know...way too nit-picky, but I have a thing about pronunciation, especially, for some reason, Italian pronunciation. Please forgive me.
3. We had a homemade balsamic dressing to go along with the salad. The bruschetta that night had a wonderful balsamic reduction. Balsamic vinegar is most famously from Modena. Like olive oil, there are several grades of Balsamic vinegar, and the best is somewhat to very expensive. Top quality balsamic vinegar has a wonderful, delicate taste that even goes well with many things, including avocados (a little bit poured in the "bowl" formed by the removal of the pit) and even strawberries.
4. The mention of balsamic vinegar with strawberries sparked a discussion about pairing fruit with other things. The Italians often pair prosciutto (ham) with melon. We then talked about how many in the United States salt their watermelon. This is common in the South, but I first learned this from a friend from Michigan. The salt somehow enhances the flavor of the watermelon. I haven't done it in awhile (I get plenty of salt in other food), but have enjoyed it when I have. Who else in America salts their watermelon?
5. In America, we usually think of Ragu as a brand name for spaghetti sauce. In Italy, ragu refers to just about any meat based sauce. Perhaps the most famous Italian version is the one from Bologna. In America, we are more familiar with the ragu from Naples.
6. There is often quite a bit of difference between Italian and Italian American cuisine and customs. For example, the seafood stew we know as cioppino originated in San Francisco (just like you won't find chop suey in China - it also originated in America). If you go to Italy, don't cut your spaghetti and don't ask for a spoon to twirl it. Those are both American traditions.
7. The best Italian restaurant in Kailua? I think there are four contenders: Zia's (which means "Auntie's"), Buonasera ("Good evening"), Assaggio's ("Taste"), and Baci ("Kisses"). I think each has its merits. I think Zia's is the most friendly to traditional American palates (although one of our members who lived in Italy for many years said that Zia's was the most authentically Italian restaurant in Kailua...I'm not as sure, but it is good...and you're most likely to see members of my church there). Assaggio's has the best ambiance, and is the best at using garlic (e.g., the Caesar salad and the "clam Scampi," which is the closest to an authentic spaghetti alle vongole that I've had in Hawaii); Baci uses fresh pasta and feels the most like an Italian trattoria (casual restaurant). Buonasera has interesting combinations of ingredients, and one person I've dined with called it "the best Italian food I've eaten in my entire life."
What do you all think?
Grace and aloha,
P. S. One of my favorite podcasts was about traveling to Italy. It was interesting that this podcaster (who never identified himself as a Christian) would frequently mention visiting churches as an important and natural part of touring Italy. I'm pretty sure he was recommending the churches strictly for their architectural and artistic qualities, but there is something truly powerful about the experience of these places that I hope - if you ever visit Italy - you will discover. My faith was definitely deepened during these visits. Perhaps the most powerful was the simplest. I don't even remember the church, because it was not really on the "must see" list in the guidebooks. It was in the midst of a very busy part of Rome, with cars, buses, motorcycles buzzing all around. I went into the church and then to the cloister in the middle of it. It was amazing. Even though the cloister was open air in the center, it was peacefully quiet. Somehow, the place was engineered so that the street noise could not be heard. All I could hear was the gentle trickle of the fountain at the very center of the cloister. It was a reminder that the peace that God offers takes an intentional effort to seek the quiet and spiritual.
It was also a reminder that the presence of God can be powerfully felt in unexpected places, even in a church.....