Friday, November 6, 2015

Inside 'La Cucina Italiana' (The Italian Kitchen)

This weekend I got to experience what it's like to work in a busy Italian kitchen! I helped prep the cakes and pasta in the morning when it was quiet and calm and then came back during the evening when the kitchen was busy with 7+ cooks. I helped a little bit everywhere, from plating and garnishing the dishes, preparing bread baskets and plating the desserts. It was exciting to be part of all the action and controlled chaos! I was impressed by everyone's patience with me, even during a huge rush (110 people dining!). They allowed me to observe as well as participate. I kept thinking how much Jarrod would LOVE this! When he and I eat out he is always curious about the operations of the kitchen. (And if he has a view into the kitchen I can forget about him paying any attention to what I say; unless of course it's about the kitchen!)  How ironic that it was me who found myself in the center of a busy, authentic Italian kitchen. I made sure to snap a few photos to send to him (which I am now sharing with all of you). 
Grissini time! We made an assembly line to whip out a huge batch of rosemary breadsticks.

Grissini were originally invented in Piedmont at the end of the 17th century to help Duke Vittorio II with his digestive issues!

Handmade pasta time! While Michele was working on tajarin pasta (made with egg yolks), I sliced the tagliatelle verde 

I have never worked in a restaurant kitchen, so I was fascinated by the way that everyone had their own tasks, but also worked together, moving to another station when needed and shouting things out so everyone could hear. (In fact the only person who sees the hand-written tickets is Alessandra, the head chef, who shouts out what the order is and everyone gets to work.) They are focused and efficient, but they also joke around, talk to each other and work together as a team.  I love this laid back mentality that is so typical of Italians. "Non c'e fretta" (no rush) is a common expression used in Italy and it's true that no one seems to be in a hurry. This doesn't mean that you wait forever to get your food when you are dining. Part of the Italian dining experience is all the different courses that come out at just the right time. (Rather than one plate with everything on it, you are served each dish on a different plate and at different times.) This prolongs the meal and allows you to savor each dish at the right time. In my opinion it also keeps the dinner exciting! When guests first sit down they are treated to a taste of La Torricella Chardonnay and an amuse buche (party in your mouth) to wet the appetite. Last night it was a handmade meatball with local veal and veggies from the garden. Then out comes the bread (focaccia, baguette and grissini breadsticks, all handmade). This is all before the antipasti (appetizer) even comes out! A common antipasti in Piedmont is vitello tonnato, which is thinly sliced veal served cold with a thick and creamy tuna sauce and capers on top. You will also often see "carne cruda" (raw ground meat), which is surprisingly really tasty and does not make you sick. (The meat here is very high quality). One of my personal favorites from La Torricella is Crostata di Zucca, which is a savory pumpkin torte made with the pumpkins from their garden and local cheese. 
Vitello tonnato and carne cruda

Handmade pie crust with cooked pumpkin and local cheese makes a delicious appetizer

Out comes the Crostata di Zucca! 
After the antipasti comes the primi, which is usually pasta or risotto. A good Italian kitchen will hand make their pasta everyday, as I have witnessed (and contributed to) at La Torricella. A classic favorite is meat ravioli with a sage and butter sauce. Another popular Piedmont dish is Tajarin, which is thin pasta made with egg yolks and topped with either meat ragu or (when in season) freshly shaved truffles!
Ragu simmering (rabbit stewing in the other pot)

Black and white truffles brought to the restaurant directly by the truffle hunters

You only need a little bit shaved atop your pasta for big flavor (and big bucks: 1 serving of white truffle adds around 30 Euros)

If you saved room for the secondi (second course) you have your choice of veal, rabbit or perhaps chingiale (wild boar) that has been braising all morning until it's tender. For veggies, roasted potatoes and cardi are common here. (Cardi is 'cardoon' or 'artichoke thistle' in English and it looks like giant celery and can be eaten raw or cooked. Baked with beshemel sauce and sprinkled with Parmesan is oh so good!) You really have to be mindful of how much you eat with each course, otherwise by the time the delicious stewed meat comes out you will be full!
Piedmont is very meat-heavy. Nothing vegetarian on the stove here!

If you do it right, you will also save room for the dolci (dessert), which are all handmade by the sister who is a physical therapist during the week and pastry chef on the weekends. Also, no Italian meal is complete without a caffe (espresso). You could combine the two and order an Affogatto (homemade gelato topped with espresso). And if you really don't want the night to end, you then order grappa (brandy made from distiller grape pummace). The whole affair will generally last 3+hours. 
A selection of hazelnut cake, chocolate cake and frozen Parfait'
I think that since there are so many courses there is not as much of a rush in the kitchen. But don't get me wrong, there is still A LOT of action and excitement, especially with all those dishes going out! 
So many hands contribute to each delicious dish going out
Since I was mostly helping to plate the dolci, I didn't get very busy until 11:30pm. Did I mention that Italian dinners can be LONG?? In Italy, dinning doesn't start until after 8pm (and no Italian will show up before 8:30). Most restaurants in Italy are closed between lunch and dinner so there is ample time to prep without distraction. The best part is that everyone in the kitchen sits down to eat together before opening (at a reasonable 7pm). The same happens at lunch time (we eat around noon, before lunch guests arrive at 1pm). I love this concept and it works well here because Italians are pretty regimented when it comes to eating times. Lunch is always at 1pm and if you show up too early or too late restaurants will be closed. If you show up to have dinner before 8pm you will be turned away because the staff is eating and they are not ready for you. This is so different from most restaurants in the states that will usually stay open between lunch and dinner for people who want a late lunch or early dinner. This means that staff have to sit (or stand) alone to get something to eat and may not even get to eat at all (which was the case when I worked the 4-close shift at a restaurant in Durango. (Ironically, it's an Italian restaurant!) In Italy, not eating is not an option. No matter what your role is, everyone makes sure that everyone eats (and generally something delicious is prepared especially for the staff). "Mangia, mangia!" is what I hear most often: (eat, eat!). "Con piacere!" (with pleasure!). 

No comments:

Post a Comment