Buon Pranzo—Still at the Table
Now that we’ve finished the Sunday lunch first course, we’re settling in for the duration. We’re pleasantly full, but still captivated by what’s coming to the table. And still coming. An array of dishes has made its way to us and now we know that this is the moment when Pugliese cuisine really shines.
From the lightest frittura of eggplant, radicchio, scalogni (a cross between a shallot and a scallion) fennel, deep orange winter squash, wild mushrooms and lampascioni (wild grape hyacinth bulbs) to grilled octopus, the savories just keep coming. Melanzane alla parmigiana—grilled and/or lightly battered eggplant layered with fresh mozzarella and tomato sauce, then baked until fused together into an ethereal yet earthy mouthful—is followed by cardoncelli, a kind of feathery wild mushroom found under the oaks here, served gratinato or sprinkled with extra virgin olive oil, dusted with parmigiano and bread crumbs from nearby Altamura.
These small dishes of Puglia go and on. Savory bread dumplings are napped with a fresh, light tomato sauce and sprinkled with cacioricotta, the lightly aged local cheese. Focaccia is hot and crusty from the oven, fairly oozing sweet tomatoes and fruity, piquant extra virgin olive oil. Zucchini are sliced thin, grilled and layered with fresh wild mint, then sprinkled with extra virgin olive oil. Vegetables of every kind are preserved in vinegar and preserved in extra virgin olive oil. These sott’aceti are served along with thinly sliced, intensely flavorful capocollo, prosciutto and culatello, the salumi (cured meats) that are the pride of Puglia.
But wait! The main course is yet to come. When orecchiette al ragu are served as the first course, you can count on the meats that flavored the ragu‘ to make an appearance as the main course. If you have any room at all, you can eat one or two small pieces of meat, grateful that the end of the meal is in sight. But you would be wrong. It is not at all uncommon to follow the ragu’ meats with yet another main course. Maybe it’s a leg of lamb or it could be an assortment of locally raised, grilled meats. And oh, the sausages. Skip them at your peril because they are always wonderful.
All of this is accompanied by good, local wine. It’s usually a primitivo or sometimes a negroamaro—two of the local varietals that are ubiquitous here. But when you ask, most people will just say it is “vino d’uva” or “wine from grapes.” Huh. There is plenty of bottled water around and it’s usually fizzy, which provides the illusion of levity amidst all this very serious eating.
Some families rally with a cheese service at this point, which never fails to make me feel slightly giddy after everything that preceded it. How is it possible to eat another bite, no matter how enticing? But when you’re eating with farming families, don’t pass it by. Farmers will often serve the ricotta that they have made during one of the courses while we were all busy eating away. The ricotta comes to the table still hot, a silken, quivery mass that tastes like the freshest milk you could possibly imagine. Fresh mozzarella made that morning and aged cheeses—pecorino, scamorza and cacioriccotta—are also possibilities.
Next is a welcome pause for fruit, which is always seasonal and invariably outstanding. If you’re lucky, the father will peel it for you since Americans apparently have no ability to peel fruit while holding it in their hands. It’s this point in the meal when I marvel that all of the children, from the tiniest to the teens, are still at the table conversing with relatives while being urged to eat by their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Italians just seem to know that more than food is consumed at the table, so it’s standard practice for all members of the family to contribute to the acculturation of its next generation.
After the fruit, the dessert arrives. Since most Pugliese nonne don’t make desserts unless it is a special feast day with a traditional dessert required to accompany it, Italian guests know that the appropriate dinner gift is the dessert, especially if it’s a “nostrano” (our local) kind of dessert. Again, innovation is not advised. All over Italy, you’ll see families hurrying through town at 1:00 p.m. with paper-wrapped and ribbon-tied pasticceria packages, confirming this custom. So sometimes dessert is an embarrassment of riches, with several desserts on offer that must be consumed because they were brought by the ospiti (guests).
Though our eyes are glazed and our speech has slowly failed us, probably the result of some gastronomic short circuit brought on by an imminent food coma, we are encouraged to partake of the digestivi or after-dinner “digestive” drinks to help clear our heads and digest our meal. These might include amari (bitters) like Fernet-Branca or Amaro Lucano or something a little “lighter” like limoncello. Wild cards in the form of digestivi made by the nonne or nonni (grandparents) in the family always make an appearance. Nocino, an especially potent walnut-based digestivo, can be divine or disastrous. Liquore d’alloro made with Mediterranean bay leaves, is almost always wonderful. And then there is the famous cent’erbe, an elixir reportedly made from a hundred different kinds of herbs that is meant to do battle with the shocking quantity of food consumed all afternoon long.