So there I am, resting easy in my barcalounger-come-bed, fluffy blankie and real pillow snuggled around me, NOT sleeping, because; a) I don’t really sleep well on planes, despite pharmaceutical enhancements, and b) If I sleep I’m afraid the magical birthday trip will disappear, plus I’m too excited, plus I may miss some first class goodies they hand out only to the folks who are still awake… That’s a LOT of things to have going on in a nearly 50-year-old brain at 35,000 feet. As dawn rose on the world below, all I could think about was what was the next tasty morsel I’d be shoving into my very happy self. You see, I was determined to eat my way through Italy. I had prepared for the culinary onslaught too – walking damn near 10 miles a day for weeks, counting every calorie that went down my gullet in an attempt to build up a deficit of pounds allowing me to actually fit in my clothes on the trip back home. So as the plane landed on EU soil (Munich, remember), I’m thinking what’s for breakfast.
When you are on vacation you are, well, on vacation, meaning the normal constructs of nutrition, pyramids and such are on vacation too. Ice cream for dinner? Sure, you’re on vacation! I take this idea very seriously. And since I’m a grown-up (debatable, but true), I decided the absolute perfect way to the start the day was a pretzel. But not your garden-variety squishy salty thing from a dirty-water-dog cart (which I love by the way, decoratively enhanced with fluorescent yellow mustard). When you are in the land that actually invented them, you order eine BRETZEL bitte, mit Salz! THESE are the pretzels of my childhood, and I never knew they existed until my Tante Rosa Bosa (true, that was her name) made them for my 12-year-old palate on a summer visit to Germany. Dark mahogany in color, a chewy tangy crust, and soft bretzely wonderfulness underneath. No mustard needed, it’s perfect as is and I was in heaven.
Giddy in the knowledge of next stop Rome and the food that surely awaits us, we boarded our connection to Fiumicino. Know what Rome’s Fiumicino airport looks remarkably like? Newark. Well, Newark with an espresso counter directly across from baggage claim and stylishly bored travelers bellied up for a fix. But I didn’t care what the airport looked like – the point was WE WERE IN ITALY!! From plane we trudged to our train to Milan, wishing like hell I had either packed less or a Sherpa. By the time we hopped a cab from train to our Milan hotel, I was wilted like lettuce in the freezer and would have sold a kidney for a bath and a nap. But the day wasn’t near over yet, and my sneaky companion had one last rabbit to pull from his hat.
It seemed odd at first that the desk manager would have to escort us to our room. Sure all this first class treatment was swell, but lady, just give me my friggin’ key and get out of my way, per favore! As I turned the corner to our room there was a loud and strangely familiar sound…then a bright light. The thought flashed in my head “oh crap, I’m having a stroke…and I haven’t eaten Italy yet!” But no, it wasn’t a neurological incident, it was my other best friend from NYC, waiting to surprise me and join us for my birthday weekend. I believe the words out of my mouth were, and in this order: “Oh my GODDDD!!!….You BASTARD!!!” Then I smacked him. Then I hugged him. Then I hugged the mastermind of this plot. Then I repeated the hugging, the squealing ala pre-teen at a Bieber concert and the OMG-ing. And then…for the first of several times over the next two days, I had no words. Me…SPEECHLESS! (If you knew me you’d understand how extraordinary that was.) I just stood there, mouth agape, looking back and forth between the two of them as they grinned. Seems the co-conspirators had this plot going for weeks, in cahoots with my mother, aunt, brother and several friends back in New York. This crew was so slick they could knock over a Brinks truck and not break a sweat.
Much birthday merriment (and a ridiculous yet wonderful number of birthday cards) ensued, including being woken on my 50th to coffee in bed provided by fluffy-robed fairy godmother and godfather, much laughing and snorting, and my mom delivering a singing telegram via Facetime on iPad (at 3AM her time!) The rest of the day then ran something like this:
- Fabulous breakfast in a café in La Galleria, ogling handsome passersby (mostly by my companions…and a gal can pick up more than a thing or two from hanging with fairy godparents.)
- A visit to Milan’s Duomo, prefaced by being flirted with by a very handsome very young Italian soldier at the door. His job is to check if you are suitably attired to enter. The flirting? Well, he’s Italian. The three of us then proceeded into the church, where we prayed we wouldn’t burst into flames at the thoughts now circulating in our collective heads…
- Fabulous pizza and prosecco at an outdoor café, more ogling by my compatriots (oh OK, and me)…
- A visit to THE cathedral…Milan’s flagship Prada store, where beautiful things leather and fabric are born, and where we spoke in hushed tones and bowed our heads in reverence as I tried to figure out just how I was going to get out without buying something…
- Fabulous birthday dinner complete with flaming birthday torch on molten chocolate cake, singing patrons and staff, and a very charming waiter named Jonathan who has promised to follow my blog (Ciao Jonathan!)
At the end of the weekend, voice now returning to my throat, I gushed, thanked, hugged and welled up, wondering just how the hell I got so lucky to have all these wonderfully sneaky people in my life. And the trip had only just begun…
While everyone cautioned us that late August is not the time to go to Italy (is there ever NOT a time to go to Italy???), what they don’t know is late August brings fresh porcinis to plates. My birthday dinner, fettuccine with fresh porcinis was all that I love about Italian cooking – simple and sublime, letting the best of seasonal ingredients have the staring role. In this country fresh porcinis are hard to come by, and if you are lucky enough to find them in a market the price is steep. So in trying to recreate my birthday dish, I used the fresh mushrooms I had available, namely creminis (or little portobellos), a few chanterelles, and some dried porcinis reconstituted with hot water. This is a simple yet elegant dish, letting the mushrooms do most of the talking. Now if I could just get my Milanese waiter Jonathan to fly over to serve it….Ahhhh….Milano!
Mixed Mushroom Sauce
This sauce is great over pasta, but if I wanted to be truly authentic to the foods of Milan, I’d serve it over soft polenta. It also makes a terrific topping for toasted bread (which is how I ate it this morning!)
Serves 2 over pasta or polenta, more if a topping for bruschetta, and can be easily doubled or tripled
- 2 TBSP butter, in two pieces
- 1 tsp olive oil
- ½ tsp minced garlic
- 1 TBSP minced shallots
- 1 tsp chopped fresh thyme
- 1/4 cup dry white wine or white vermouth
- 8 oz mixed fresh mushrooms (I like a combination of cremini and chanterelles), sliced about ¼ inch thick
- 1/4 oz. of about 1/3 cup dried porcini mushrooms
- 1 tsp lemon zest
- 1 TBSP finely chopped parsley
- Salt and pepper to taste
Soak the dried mushrooms in 1/3 cup boiling water for 15 minutes until soft. (DON’T throw out the soaking liquid – you’ll need it for the sauce.)
Melt 1 tablespoon butter with 1 tsp olive oil in sauté pan. Add shallots, garlic and thyme and cook just until you can smell the garlic (about 1 minute). Add the sliced fresh mushrooms, and the soaked porcinis, giving them a quick squeeze to get some of the liquid out. Don’t forget to saving the soaking liquid. Add in a few grinds of black pepper, a good pinch of salt and sauté over medium heat until the mushrooms have given up all their water and the pan is relatively dry (about 10 minutes).
Once the mushrooms are pretty dry, turn up the heat and add the wine. Carefully pour in the mushroom soaking liquid, making sure to leave the grit in the bottom of the dish behind. Bring the liquid to a boil, scraping up any browned bits from the pan, and add in the second tablespoon of butter and half the lemon zest. Turn down to low and simmer about 3 minutes. Taste for seasonings and add salt and pepper if necessary. Add in the remaining lemon zest and chopped parsley. Serve over pasta, polenta or toasted crusty bread. Buon appetito! Calories: about 165 per serving (for 2 servings).