Saturday, September 3, 2011

Tina's Vin Santo Tiramisu & Fellini Insect Bites

Vin Santo Tiramisu
Tina Fallani teaches the History of Italian Cinema and Italian Cooking for Santa Reparata International School of Art. She spent time on the film set of Fellini’s Casanova as her artist father, Mario Fallani, was the master painter of frescoes for the film. With Tina’s background as a film editor on the Godfather Trilogy, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and a translation consultant on Willow, directed by George Lucas, there was a strong indication that we are in for a very special evening at Tina’s cooking class. 

Her city home is on the “altro Arno,” or other side of the Arno River from the main part of the town where we live, and the 48 steps to her apartment seem easy after mastering our 53 steps. “Welcome, welcome, come in,” says the small delicate woman with short dark hair, wearing a slim black dress. Having spent several years in the United States, she does not have a strong Italian accent nor does she eat European-style. A table for 16 is set in the formal living room. We are now a group of 18. “No problem” she says motioning us into her home, “there’s always enough food, we’ll just make the table bigger,” and in moments her pretty blond daughter and daughter’s good-looking boyfriend extend the table, add another cloth, and set two more places.

A hillside of vines and a lemon tree with ripe fruit can be seen out the living room windows while the open kitchen windows invite air from the Arno to float up over the rooftops, and join us inside as we prepare the meal. We scrub our hands and begin to slice and dice, peel and stir in a syncopated rhythm that infers an established routine from years of communal cooking. It is actually Tina’s carefree attitude and gracious style that choreographs our 18 novice apron-clad chefs in creating an authentic four course Italian meal.

Although tomato, garlic and basil are the three ingredients many of us believe to be the holy trinity of Italian recipes, in real Italian cooking the trio is called “soffritto,” a combination of carrots, onion and celery. As steam rises from the pasta water, three men easily master the rocking motion of a sharp rounded cutting tool with wooden handles called the “mezzaluna” (crescent moon), to create the soffritto. Capers, garlic, and parsley are chopped finely for crostini green salsa; mushrooms delicately stripped of their outer skin for a pasta sauce; and Parmesan and Fontana cheeses grated into feather light piles. John cracks and separates fresh eggs, flexing his muscles as he whips the orange yolks for custard.

“Ingrid, you stir the custard,” Tina turns to me saying, “in one direction.”

“One direction” I ask, waiting for an answer with a reason.

“Yes,” Tina says, “One direction,” offering no explanation.

She checks on the mezzaluna progress and adds, “And don’t stop. Keep stirring.”
Yikes. I have to commit. How many minutes of stirring? What will happen if stir clockwise? What will happen if I stir counter clockwise? Before I have time to answer my own questions, the wooden spoon in my grip rotates in the pot over the flame in a clockwise motion reminiscent of hand-cranking an ice cream machine. After several minutes, the good-looking boyfriend eyes my custard and speaks to me in Italian. I listen closely assuming that if he speaks of food or numbers, I will certainly understand. He sees that I do not understand. He walks behind me, takes my hand in his, and changes the speed of my stirring – almost immediately, the custard is cooked to perfection.

In the adjacent room, the student chefs peel and slice peaches for the dessert, which is now ready for assembly. A layer of custard, then a layer of lady fingers carefully dipped in peach nectar, and next a layer of sliced peaches, and continue the sequence until the pan is filled to the brim. Moving with precision, we perfectly place the dipped pastry fingers on the custard bed, until unexpectedly, we are almost out of peach nectar. Tina retrieves some other fruit juice from the refrigerator, but it is not enough for our remaining cookies, filling, and fruit. 
 “How about adding some Vin Santo,” Barbra pipes up. Vin Santo, wine of the saints or holy wine, is a favorite Italian treat served after dinner in a little glass tumbler with small crunchy biscotti-style cookies called cantuccini.  
In seconds, Tina motions the good-looking boyfriend to the top shelf in the kitchen from which he grabs a bottle of Vin Santo. “This will do well,” Tina says with authority, extending the sauce using the dessert wine with the same ease her dining table was extended. And, as the story will be told to future generations, that was the memorable night of strangers cooking together, eating delicious food, drinking fine wine, enjoying lively conversations about art and film, and…the true story of the unlikely invention of Tina’s “intoxicating” Vin Santo Peach Tiramisu.   

Fellini Insect Bites

I brought insect body spray and a post-bite itch stick from home. We’ve seen few mosquitoes; at most five. But at night, especially when it’s unearthly hot following an ungodly hot day, after we dose off and before we wake, we are a feast for biting creatures. Whether they fly or crawl is unknown. Barbra swears she saw a small spider, but our eyesight is so strained from working either in the darkened room behind our shutters or outside under the blinding sun, that her observation is not to be trusted. What is reliable are red welts, the size of dressmaker’s glass-head pins, which cover our bodies.

Our beds are positioned so that Barbra can fall off of either side. Her exterior side has only enough room to open the large shaft windows inward and her other side is the narrow center aisle, created by a small table separating the twin beds. The non-aisle side of my bed is an interior wall. I have learned to press my naked, bitten left arm against the nighttime chill of the wall to calm the sting from the bites. A few hours after we cooked at Tina’s, I awoke startled to find a large portion of my body pressed up against the cold wall as if being held by suction. I was picturing the execution, or was it satisfaction, of the bee captured under a wine glass pressed to a woman’s breast in a Fellini film. I can only guess it was the sinful Vin Santo Tiramisu that caused that particular crystal clear, big screen image from more than 30 years ago to be retrieved as if just recently filed in the motion picture canister of my memory. 

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