An American living in Tuscany teaches her L.A. friends how to cook like an Italian
"Don't you just love living in Italy?" my friend Weezie Mingenbach asked, though she said it more like a statement than a question. "I bet you hardly ever miss anything from L.A." Another statement. She was certain of what I was going to say, even as we sat watching an incomparable West Coast view: a brilliant red sun slipping into the Pacific Ocean.
The truth is that I do love my life in Tuscany. Ten years ago my husband Jean-Louis and I bought a few wild acres of farmland and a heap of stones that had once been a house. Our plan was to bring the place back to life and to use it as a summer refuge from the demands of running Locanda Veneta and our other Los Angeles restaurants. We weren't expecting to be captivated by what emerged: the ochre house with its green shutters and climbing roses set in a patchwork of grapevines, olive groves, woods and fields. Our children and I now spend about nine months a year in Italy, Jean-Louis somewhat less. And yet, even if I lived there for a thousand years, I would never become Italian. Sometimes I just want to be unapologetically American in America.
Weezie, a costume designer, and I were at my homecoming dinner party at our friends Judith and Dominick Guillemot's house in Malibu. He is a fashion photographer; she's the West Coast editor of Harper's Bazaar. Their home is everything an Italian farmhouse could never be: pale wood, clean lines and glass, with one huge wall of windows overlooking the Pacific. The interior is so open and luminous it makes me feel like I'm outdoors.
Judith and I had organized this dinner while I was still in Italy. My idea was to help her cook for a group of our friends. I was envisioning something American like barbecued ribs and corn on the cob, or better yet, soft tacos and a few pitchers of margaritas (my craving for Mexican food is nearly impossible to satisfy in Italy). But she wanted Italian food. Since I'd spent the past year working on a book of recipes and stories about Italian life, she thought it only fair that I pass on a bit of what I'd learned. Margaritas would have to wait.
Judith told me she has trouble with bread, so focaccia was a perfect lesson. Although it's a true yeast dough that must be kneaded and left to rise, it's one of the easiest and most satisfying of all breads to make. We cranked up the stereo and kneaded in time until our thick clump of flour, water and yeast turned into a soft, silky dough. For the first course, I chose a risotto. Antonio Tommasi, my husband's partner and a risotto king, was coming and I knew he'd enjoy dishing out a bit of risotto commentary while Judith and I stirred the pot. Using his usual mixture of playfulness and vigilance, Antonio made sure we added just a ladleful of simmering broth at a time and stirred not only regularly but thoroughly so that the grains wouldn't stick.
Our friends Michael and Sydney McDonnell arrived first, bearing a bottle of Muscat to drink with the mascarpone custard Judith and I had made for dessert. As the rest of the guests trickled in, we chatted about Michael's latest film project (he has produced several well-known films, my favorite of which is The Usual Suspects) and ate stuzzichini, or Italian finger food: the spicy olives, garlicky spinach dip and focaccia we had prepared. When we gathered at the table, Judith and I served our meal and, in between bites, the conversation drifted from surfing in Costa Rica to Weezie's costumes for the upcoming X-Men movie (something about plastic pectorals). I could smell the familiar salty air and the scent of eucalyptus drifting through the open windows. I was home.
Story and recipes by Lori De Mori, the coauthor of Italy Anywhere (Viking/Penguin), a collection of recipes and stories that will be published next year.