The long wooden table was adorned with sunflowers, dogwood flowers and Italian pottery. Wine from the village of Cortona in Tuscany was ready to be poured and an assortment of antipasta – olives, grissini, figs drizzled with balsamic glaze, slices of truffled salami, prosciutto, and a large wedge of Grana Padano – were ready to be served.
Our special guest would arrive any minute so I started a playlist of Vivaldi, Italian folk songs and Dean Martin. Soon the air was filled with an eclectic mix of classical and kitschy Italian music. While Dean Martin crooning to “Volare” is one of my favorites, I was afraid my guest of honor would laugh at my stereotypical selection. But what music do you choose when hosting a dinner party for an acclaimed concert pianist?
Last month, the East Texas Symphony Orchestra and Liberty Hall presented a two-night event with Italian concert pianist Francesco Attesti. He was born in Cortona, a small Italian village made famous by author, Frances Mayes and her popular book and movie, “Under The Tuscan Sun.” Attesti began studying piano at age six and performed his first public concert at age eleven, performing a transcription of the “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” by JS Bach.
At 16, he met world-renowned pianist, Sergio Perticaroli and was invited to take summer courses at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. There he explored romantic piano repertoire, especially that of Chopin and Liszt.
After many years of training and competition he began touring the world and performing in prestigious venues such as Philharmonic Hall in St. Petersburg, the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory, the Salzburg Mozarteum, the Essen Philharmonic, the International Piano Festival in Warsaw, Sarajevo Winter Festival, the University of Cambridge, Columbia University and the Conservatorio in Milan.
His connection to Tyler came about through Ron and Marilisa Safford. As president of the Rotary, Safford was contacted by Attesti when inquiring about possible performances in the United States. Mrs. Safford, who was born in Verona, Italy, was happy to serve as translator and they were eager to assist Attesti with plans for upcoming concerts.
His performance at Liberty Hall was his third visit to East Texas and he hopes to make it a frequent stop on his international schedule. On this trip, I was asked to host a small Tuscan dinner party and create a menu that included some authentic Italian dishes he wouldn’t expect to eat while visiting East Texas.
Last summer, I had joined the Saffords for a Tuscan dinner prepared by Chef Simon Webster at Sabor a Pasion Country House & Bistro and we agreed it would be the perfect venue for Attesti’s East Texas taste of Tuscany.
The vineyard views, blooming dogwood trees and Tuscan-style wood-fired pizza oven created a beautiful backdrop for a multi-course authentic Italian meal. Even Frances Mayes, in her book, “Under the Tuscan Sun Cookbook,” describes Tuscan style dining with a sort of rustic elegance. The atmosphere is relaxed and the food is all about fresh, seasonal flavor.
“The ambience of the Tuscan table never feels like a dinner party but as if, somehow, you’ve come home,” Mrs. Mayes states. “You never know what will happen in the course of a big night under the stars of Tuscany. … So, the long table. Shoes off. Fork poised. Pull up the extra chair. … You are carried by something larger than yourself that is at the same time yourself. Salt the pasta water. And expect to be surprised. Always surprised.”
Upon arrival, Attesti was impressed by the scenery and would soon feel equally enthused by the food. As the meal progressed from course to course, Attesti was thrilled with the casual atmosphere and slow pace of the meal.
“Having a lunch or a dinner in Italy is quite different (than in America.) We take time to eat, especially during the weekends. For an Italian, the eating experience is very important not only to taste good food but also to talk about life, interests and hobbies with friends and family. It’s a way to be nearer to relatives and know them better. In particular occasions, a lunch could take hours with several different dishes, but everything is served in smaller portions. We love quality not quantity.”
Mrs. Safford agreed as she reminisced the days from her childhood in Verona. Many of her memories were from the time in the kitchen preparing the meal with her mother and nonna.
“Simplicity and freshness come first. In Northern Italian cooking, we incorporate any vegetable or fish into pasta. As an example, a typical home cooked dish would be Pasta con Tonno, a simple spaghetti with tuna packed in olive oil and finished with garlic, a good olive oil and capers,” Mrs. Safford said.
“Personally, I don’t use as many recipes as much as I use a cooking style, a method, as my Nonna would say. You usually start with a soffritto, a base for the dish you are cooking. It can be garlic based, or onion based. For instance, a great Bolognese sauce starts with sautéing onions, celery and carrots.”
Attesti also remembered some favorite recipes from his mother and grandmother.
“They were both very good cooks and it is quite difficult to choose a favorite, but I have always remember Tagliatelle with mushrooms and truffles or Bolognese sauce. Also, gnocchi or rabbit with sage, rosemary and garlic,” he said.
When he visits America he misses good homemade pasta, but enjoys American meat dishes such as, steaks, filet and ribs.
Mrs. Safford moved to America in 1971 and enjoys recreating some of the Italian dishes she grew up eating, but many of the ingredients are not readily available; risotto, made with Vialone Nano rice and porcini mushrooms; Polenta e Baccala (salt cod) and desserts, such as Pandoro or Panettone, and Panna Cotta with fresh berries are particularly hard to find or recreate.
“Italian dining is defined by “Il Primo” and “Il Secondo” which are served after the antipasto, of course. Il Primo (first plate) is typically a small risotto, pasta dish, or soup. Il Secondo (the second plate) is usually grilled meat, and vegetables,” Mrs. Safford said.
For our multi-course dinner we enjoyed an assortment of antipasta on the patio around the Tuscan table. We then moved to the kitchen where Attesti prepared the pasta dish. Chef Webster graciously turned his kitchen over to his guest and allowed him to prepare an authentic Italian pasta dish.
After surveying the available ingredients, he chose to make a Pasta Carbonara made with Tagliatelle pasta from Italy, pancetta, eggs and Grana Padano cheese.
We enjoyed the “Il Primo” pasta dish in the dining room seated around the bar and then went back out to the Tuscan table for “Il Secondo” prepared by Chef Webster.
He emerged from the kitchen with a large platter containing a whole leg of lamb roasted with whole garlic, rosemary and oregano. The lamb was cooked in the wood-fired pizza oven, but is just as easy to cook in the oven.
Alongside were baby new potatoes, whole mushrooms, cipolini onions, and asparagus with lemon-pecan gremolata. This glorious piece of meat was the centerpiece of the meal and was simply prepared to highlight the natural flavor in the meat and the side dishes.
Paired with the lamb was another wine from Attesti’s hometown of Cortona. The 2010 Villa Antinori is a blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah grapes and is ruby red in color with intense aromas of cherries, mint and chocolate. On the palate the wine has a velvety mouth feel that is long and savory. The hints of cherry and mint made it the perfect pairing for the lamb.
A light dessert of fresh fruit tarts topped with sweet mascarpone and a sip of homemade limoncello ended the evening’s feast with a hint of creamy sweetness to clear the palate.
The evening ended with Attesti playing a small portion of his Liberty Hall concert on Webster’s piano. It was slightly out of tune, but the remarkable music that emerged from Attesti’s fingertips would sound amazing on any piano.
After a night of good food, beautiful music and new friends, I was reminded by the popular Italian saying, “Mangiare bene, Bere bene, Vivere bene! Eat well, Drink well, Live well!”
Attesti hopes to return to East Texas to perform again in the future. To see his concert schedule or purchase a CD go to www.attesti.com or contact the East Texas Symphony Orchestra at 903-526-3876
Sunflowers from Petal’s Florist & General Store, 903-729-7771
Sabor a Pasion Country House & Bistro, 903-729-9500
Wine and all ingredients available at FRESH by Brookshire’s
Roasted Leg of Lamb
5 pound leg of lamb
Cracked black pepper
Several sprigs of fresh rosemary, thyme and oregano
1/2 cup dry red wine
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
several whole, peeled garlic cloves
baby new potatoes
whole, peeled cipollini onions
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place the leg of lamb in a large roasting pan. Rub the leg with olive oil, salt and pepper. Add the wine, vinegar, fresh herbs, garlic, potatoes, mushrooms and onions to the pan. Roast for about 2 hours, depending on the size of the leg, or until a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest portion of meat registers 140 degrees. This makes the lamb medium-rare. Because lamb is grass feed with a lower fat content, cooking past medium makes the meat tough.
1/2 pound tagliatelle or fettuccini pasta
4 ounces pancetta, diced
4 large egg yolks
1/2 cup Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, finely grated
2 tablespoons Italian parsley, finely chopped
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
In a sauté pan over medium heat add pancetta and brown lightly. Turn off heat and leave pancetta and the drippings in the pan. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add about a tablespoon of salt, and cook the pasta according to package directions. While the pasta is cooking, in a medium size bowl whisk together egg yolks, grated cheese, parsley, freshly ground black pepper and salt. Whisk for about a minute to incorporate air and volume into the sauce. When pasta is done, reserve some of the pasta water in a small bowl, drain pasta but don’t rinse. Return pasta to stove top. Add pancetta and drippings and with tongs and work into the pasta. Add egg mixture and continue to mix until pasta is completely coated. The heat of the pasta will cook the eggs. Add small amounts of the reserved pasta water if sauce seems too thick or dry. You are looking for a silky texture that is not too sticky. Serve immediately.
Asparagus with Lemon-Pecan Gremolata
1 pound asparagus stems
1 cup parsley leaves
12 basil leaves
3 cloves garlic
1/4 cup pecans
1/4 cup grated parmesan
2 small lemons, juice and zest
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Trim two inches off the stems of the asparagus. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Have ready a bowl of ice water. Place the asparagus in the boiling water for 30 seconds to 1 minutes. When asparagus is still bright green and partially cooked through, remove it from the boiling water and immediately place in the ice water. When cool, remove from water and set aside to dry. This can be done a day in advance. On a cutting board, finely chop the parsley, basil, garlic and pecans until you have a fine, crumbly, consistency. Adding a small amount of salt while chopping will help with this process. Add the juice from half of a lemon, the zest from both lemons and the parmesan cheese. Continue to chop until all ingredients are combined. Place in a bowl and stir in 2 tablespoons of olive oil and lemon juice from half of a lemon. Sprinkle with a small amount of salt and freshly ground black pepper. Heat a large sauté pan over high heat. Add the remaining olive oil to the pan. Add the asparagus and sauté for about a minute. Squeeze the remaining lemon and its juice over the asparagus. Add a tablespoon of the gremolata and continue to sauté for another minute. The asparagus should be heated through and lightly charred. Remove to a serving plate and sprinkle more of the gremolata over the top. The gremolata is also good over grilled meats, pasta or as a spread on garlic bread.
Fresh Berry Tarts with Sweetened Mascarpone
1 box VIP frozen tart shells or premade 9-inch pie crust
3 ounces dark chocolate
2 cups fresh raspberries, blueberries and blackberries
1/2 cup blackberry jam
2 tablespoons water
Whipped cream or powdered sugar, for garnish
Bake the tart shells or pie crust according to package instructions. Cool completely. Melt the chocolate in a double-boiler or the microwave. Brush the chocolate over the sides and bottom of the pastry. Let set. Fill with the fruit. Place the jam in a saucepan with 2 tablespoons water. Warm gently and stir until smooth. Cool slightly, and then spoon the jam over the tarts to glaze. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Garnish with whipped cream or powdered sugar.
Makes 8 small tarts or 1 9-inch pie
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup whipping cream
8 ounces mascarpone cheese
Using an electric mixer combine the sugar and mascarpone until well blended. Slowly add the cream. Add more cream, if necessary. The consistency should be creamy, drippable, but not whipped.
1 liter of grain alcohol
12 medium lemons
2 cups of sugar
3 cups water
With a sharp peeler, peel the top layer of skin, in long vertical pieces, from the lemons. Place the peels in a large sealable container and pour in the alcohol. Seal the jar and store in a cool, dark place for 2 weeks to 2 months. Pour the liquid through a strainer lined with cheesecloth. Discard the peels. In a large saucepan heat water and sugar over low heat until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool. Add to the strained alcohol. Let sit for another week to let flavors combine. Pour into decorative bottles and store in the freezer. Limoncello is best served very cold.