I talians love to linger at the table. In the summer they love to stay even longer. I had the chance to linger at a summer Italian table under an arbor of kiwi fruit in the Riviera. At a flower-ensconced Roman restaurant patio overlooking the Pantheon. At a cafe clinging to a cliff in Positano, with grapes and grapevines dripping overhead. At a table canal-side in Venice while the blue lagoon sparkled. And at a private home in the Piacentini hills where a three–story fig tree laden with fruit loomed outside the window.
Of course, the focal point of lingering is the food. And the wine. The fruit and the cheese. The summer vegetables transformed into gems and jewels for the taste buds. The pasta fragrant with fresh herbs. I once tasted a roast of meat cooked in an outdoor, wood-fired brick oven. The salient flavor came from a branch torn from the adjacent laurel tree ...fresh laurel leaves: the dream-intensity flip side of flavorless dried bay leaves. Dessert that day, out on the terrace that overlooked the Mediterranean and the distant light of Portofino, was a fresh peach, peeled and sliced in hand with a paring knife, peach slices slipped into a small glass of white wine. The peach soaked up the flavor of the wine and, while we ate each piece slowly and savoringly, conversation meandered from food to weather to news to daydreaming. Just below us, gardens grew on terraced plots that scaled the hills. Zucchini and basil, string beans and tomatoes, peppers and rosemary.
Italian cuisine tends to move vegetables front and center. Not only as a side dish, vegetables take on a starring role. Meat is the side dish, the portion of the meal often used more as a flavor than a main course. Yes, there is the Florentine bistecca, a he-man of a steak, but it is a phenomenon, not the norm. Why else is the Mediterranean diet so lauded as healthy eating? Lots of fruits and vegetables, olive oil, legumes, unrefined flour …what's not to like?
So, just what do those Italians do with their summer bounty?
Take zucchini (we will all be taking a LOT of zucchini): shred it on a grater and add ricotta, eggs, lemon zest, a bit of flour, and herbs and seasoning. Fry it up into fritters. Or,: using a potato peeler, strip thin slices of zucchini, toss them with olive oil and lemon juice, add grated Parmigiano and, slivers of mint, and eat like a vegetable spaghetti.
Basil? Pesto sauce is not just limited to pasta. It’s a flavoring sauce. Add a spoonful to soups, spread on bread instead of mayo, or use as a salad dressing. And pesto doesn’t have to be confined to basil. Make a pesto with any assortment of herbs. Add garlic and olive oil. Make a pesto with arugula. With broccoli rabe. With spinach.
The nightshade triumvirate—tomatoes, peppers, eggplant—may as well be the colors of the Italian flag (they’re close). These three vegetables find their way to the Italian table in a multitude of guises.
Tomatoes? Italians embraced the New World “fruit”- with wide-open arms. They make fresh tomato sauces, dry tomatoes in the sun, roast them to caramelized perfection, slice them to flavor pizza.
Peppers are roasted black, then peeled, so the silky flesh can be added to pasta and rice dishes, to wrap cheeses, or all alone with a drizzle of olive oil and a few capers.
The Sicilians and eggplant got married in the kitchen! Cubed and sautéed for the famous “pasta Norma,” layered and baked with tomato sauce and cheese, rolled around in cheeses, herbs, and other veggies for eggplant rollatini, or simply dusted with flour and fried.
Sicily loves fennel, too, where it also grows wild. The famous Sicilian dish Pasta con le Sarde is a blend of all the cultures that have ruled the island over the centuries: Spanish, French, Arabs, Italians. The dish includes wild fennel, pine nuts, sardines, capers, currants, and garlic over bucatini pasta (thick spaghetti with a hole in the middle). Superb!.
It’s not so hard to echo the passion of Italian summer cuisine right here at home. Simply fill your menu with vegetables, cook with love in your kitchen, and, perhaps most importantly, linger at the table.