Move aside, buffets. Under Nonna Antonella's guidance, bruschetta is anything but basic.
One of the first big trips Ryan and I did together was a two week adventure through the American Southwest, with plenty of time in Las Vegas. We were so excited to check out the city's legendary casino buffet scene that we even invested in the "Buffet of Buffets" all you can eat package. I hadn't made it halfway through our 24 hour pass before I tapped out. Can someone please pass the vegetables!?
While Vegas is a more extreme example, I experience the same conflict on every trip; my desire to indulge is constantly fighting with my will to survive and avoid scurvy. As such, I constantly have an eye out for a mythical perfect dish that manages to be both decadent and nutritious, enthralling my senses without destroying my stomach.
In Rome - in its own way, the original Las Vegas, a swirling, enchanting, hedonistic kind of town - I found exactly what I was looking for with humble bruschetta. And with our very own "nonna" (a real Roman grandmother and expert home cook) by our side for an evening, we couldn't go wrong. Nonna Antonella was dishing out recipes AND great advice!
Of course, I'd eaten bruschetta long before visiting Rome. Bruschetta was a mainstay of my student backpacking diet and its primary ingredients - bread, tomato, herbs, oil - were always cheap, readily available, and simple to prepare, with leftovers that were easy to use up. The market fresh tomatoes I sourced, from Ireland to France to Malawi, always tasted like summer sunshine and made me feel less like a broke vagabond and more like a glamorous global foodie. (Unfortunately, my wardrobe always confirmed that I was the former.)
Somewhere along the way, my passion for simple, sensational, local food got lost in the allure of glitzy buffets. It was time to get back to basics. A small group cooking class - with a focus on authentic, homemade Roman food and hosted by Nonna Antonella and the team from Eating Italy Rome - was the perfect way to honor my travel roots, leave those buffets behind, and - of course - hone my culinary skills.
Under Nonna's watchful eye and encouraging tutelage, our small group of 8 met in a bona fide old fashioned Roman apartment for a night of food, fellowship, and fun. While bruschetta might seem rather basic as far as recipes go, the rest of the evening's menu was anything but.
We mastered the art of making homemade pasta dough, which we stuffed with ricotta and spinach filling and topped with a simple marina sauce. We pounded veal and carefully folded sage leaves for an incredible main of pan-fried "Saltimbocca Alla Romana" (veal with proscciutto and sage) and we whipped our tiramisu filling with two spoons - one for stirring, one for tasting! There was so much to learn and take in! But I saved most of my questions for the bruschetta prep.
Nonna's recipe called for approximately 1 cup of cherry tomatoes, cut into eights (Does it really matter what kind of tomatoes you use? Nonna says no), along with 3-4 fresh basil leaves (It also doesn't matter what kind of basil you use but Nonna says it's imperative to tear the basil, not cut it with a metal knife.) I have to admit, I usually apply a more generous ratio of basil to tomato, but I deferred to Nonna's expertise. A gentle toss, a glug of extra virgin olive oil, and a sprinkle of salt and pepper was all that was needed before the mixture was left to meld for nearly an hour.
Bread sliced 1 centimeter thick was toasted in a 400 degrees Fahrenheit oven for about 8 minutes before the finishing touches were applied. A light drizzle of olive oil found its way to the warm, toasty bread and a clove of garlic, sliced in half and roughly rubbed over each slice, seasoned the dish without overpowering the more delicate flavors. It was at once precise and relaxed, restrained yet indulgent. And it was utterly delicious.
Nonna's recipe was a departure from my usual bruschetta that I make at home and on the road. I have a heavier hand with the garlic and a penchant for adding in Parmesan. I usually throw in whatever other vegetables happen to be kicking around - chives, peppers, arugula - and sometimes balsamic vinegar finds its way to the mix, occasionally chilies.
But I'm impatient. I never take the time to tear the basil by hand or let the mixture sit so the flavors can develop. And therein lies the beauty of our experience. A cooking lesson from Nonna forces you to slow down, smell the garlic, and experience food the Roman way. Nonna Antonella's passion for quality over quantity and her eagerness to guide us through any culinary challenge has stayed with me longer than the meal itself. Her measured, experienced, thoughtfully considered cooking and instruction left all memories of Vegas buffets in the dust. And I'll bet you'll feel the same way. We cannot recommend this experience highly enough.
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PS: Here's a peak at the rest of our meal!