Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Cooking for Gianni

Gianni is not impressed...

I have seen the way he eats. He’s reduced his wife to tears in front of guests with a scolding when the risotto was not al dente. He has pushed plates away after a single bite, causing a bit of a scene. But he can be just as dramatic when the food is done right. He practically bear-hugged a chef for producing a pitch perfect roast beef, cooked just long enough to not be raw, short enough to still be slightly bloody. Whether he loves it or hates it, he is an enthusiastic eater who is not short on opinions nor shy about expressing them.

Born at the start of World War II near Venice, Gianni was the first of three children born to a homemaker who tended to the children and a surgeon who tended to wounded soldiers on the front lines. With her husband away for two year stretches at a time and no guarantee that he would return, Gianni’s mother did the best she could with the rations she received, watering down soups to make them last longer and filling hungry bellies with stale bread. In fact, young Gianni was so accustomed to “pane vecchio” – or “old bread” that he never knew that bread was supposed to be soft and chewy. To this day, he will pass over freshly baked ciabatta for a hard, crumbling slice of three day-old pane vecchio.

But Gianni wouldn’t always have to settle for stale bread. The war ended, his father returned, and a period of prosperity followed. He was the favorite eldest son and was spoiled by his mother’s adoration heaped upon him at the table. Her roasted meats, fragrant risottos and homemade pastas were stuff of legend. And her legendary repetoire was the direct result of her husband Antonio’s legendary appetite. He would famously eat an entire meal at home before going for dinner with friends because his voracious appetite would otherwise embarrass his wife. While I fancied myself a decent home cook who could turn out a creamy risotto, a few enviable tomato sauces (thank you Marcella Hazan) and a perfectly balanced capresse, I would not dream of attempting to make any of these dishes for my very particular, very well-fed, Italian father-in-law.

But I have made Boeuf Bourguignon – a day in advance – in my Le Creuset, over store bought egg-spätzle noodles. He ate it slowly and did not ask for seconds. A whole baked fish – too dry. I made a creamy mushroom soup from Food 52 that Ingo and I love – again, no second helping. “You shouldn’t eat too many mushrooms in the evening – they are hard to digest,” he said. Last weekend when he came to pick up the twins to take them to the Baltic sea, I made a roasted red pepper and tomato soup that is on regular rotation at our house. He cleaned his bowl relatively quickly – although the bowl was shallow so I only considered it a partial success when he asked for more.

But the next day as I was packing up the kids things for the trip, I cut up the Rice Krispie treats I had made the day before, slicing them into squares and putting them in a Zip Lock bag for the drive. I had already given the twins two each and had to shoo them away repeatedly as they snuck back into the kitchen trolling for more. “Cos’e?” asked Gianni as he held up on of the squares suspiciously. Rice Krispie Treats, I answered. An American childhood favorite. My mom always made them for road trips and picnics, I added. He eyed the motley cube with measured distain, then suddenly and uncharacteristically threw caution to the wind and bit in.

He chewed. And chewed and chewed. I reached for the hand broom and swept a pile of crumbs the kids had left behind. As I turned back to Gianni, I saw him reach for another. Mm, he said. Mmmmm. He ate three Krispie Treats in rapid succession and then turned to me, pointed at the pan, and straight-faced said, “Molto buoni, questi. We’ll bring these with us.” He walked out of the kitchen and left me standing there with my mouth open.

The organic cuts of marbled beef, the farmers market wild mushrooms, the toasted hazelnuts and shaved aged parmesan, the homemade cheesecakes… the research and calculation, the practice and the planning, the fuss over the presentation, the nervous anticipation, and after all that, after the blood, sweat and tears… he fawns over a mixture of melted butter, a bag of marshmallows and Rice f*cking Krispies.

I should have remembered the pane vecchio: when it comes to this sophisticated palate, it’s best to keep it simple.