Chow Town

Italian dinner raises awareness and funds

Our culinary adventure began in early summer when my friend, Ellen Henry, and I decided to create a multi-course Italian dinner that would help raise funds for my October trip to the country.

I had two reasons for visiting Italy:

First, I would serve as one of 240 Slow Food USA delegates during Slow Food International’s biannual conference in Turin. Terre Madre/Salone del Gusto is a five-day celebration of and conversation about “good, clean, fair food” with delegates from 130 countries.

Second, I would also explore the heritage of my mother’s family who were Renaissance aristocrats in Ferrara.

Our menu would reflect the culinary traditions of both cities.

At the library, I found a one-book recipe gold mine, “Biba’s Taste of Italy.” Our menu would feature a taste of each city in each course. Seafood Meatballs and Roasted Mushrooms were our appetizer selections.

For the second course Ellen would make small pasta portions with her amazing Bolognese sauce and arugula salad with pancetta and balsamic dressing.

I would make polenta with a sweet, fresh tomato sauce and turkey breast stuffed with prosciutto, spinach, cream, butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Apple cake from Ferrara and hazelnut-infused chocolate mousse with whipped cream and chopped hazelnuts —reflecting Turin’s heritage — would end the meal.

George Vesel with veselbev agreed to provide Italian wine tastings with each course and Somerset Ridge Winery offered wine for an entrée recipe.

A measuring tape determined we could seat up to 20 people in my living and dining rooms after moving a little furniture. We had all of the china, silverware and tablecloths we needed and George would provide glassware.

Shopping came next. About a week before the dinner, Ellen and I arrived at Carollo’s Italian Deli in the River Market neighborhood, where an employee was already cooking sausage on an outdoor grill. The legendary small store was jam packed with authentic Italian ingredients. We admired imported meats and cheeses in the deli case, perused Italian wines and purchased pasta and polenta ingredients, as well as Amaretti cookies for Ellen’s cake.

We then departed for Pezzettino Italian Deli & Market. Occupying a recently refurbished space inside a vintage brick building, Pezzettino was as big, bright and airy as Carollo’s was small, seasoned and pleasantly cramped. An employee wrapped our huge wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano, and wafer-thin prosciutto, in white butcher paper as we perused the lunch menu.

On the day before our dinner, we arrived at the Overland Park Farmers’ Market by 7:15 a.m. I needed six pounds of tomatoes for sauce and one vendor suggested that I purchase canning tomatoes at half price. We also found flat leaf parsley, fresh carrots and crisp green apples.

The next stop was McGonigle’s Market — the best priced place I could find for large turkey breasts in the middle of summer. I had pre-ordered the meat and we arrived as they unlocked the door for the day. As Ellen collected several more ingredients, a butcher pounded the breasts for me. I would buy the fish for my meatballs at the Hy-Vee nearest to our neighborhood.

When you’re preparing a “Slow Food meal,” buying fresh, local and authentic ingredients whenever possible is very important. But when you’ve already chosen recipes before shopping begins there are sometimes necessary switches — such as substituting green beans for asparagus because its peak local season had already ended.

While the original meatball recipe used halibut, I had also learned it was tough to find and frightfully expensive. After talking with my Hy-Vee seafood expert about how I would use the fish, he suggested substituting swordfish and had already put some aside for me. By 11 a.m., Ellen and I said goodbye and our respective cooking marathons began.

On Thursday evening, 16 people savored the gourmet Italian meal, sampled and learned about wines and heard more about my upcoming trip. Votives and small Italian flags decorated the tables and dozens of china plates piled up in the kitchen as guests finished each course and my husband, Mark, rinsed them. Every dish had turned out beautifully and on time.

Of course we raised money from the event. But, almost as important, our friends had thoroughly enjoyed their evening as Ellen and I gratefully basked in our success.

Lisa Waterman Gray is a freelance writer based in Overland Park. She specializes in food and travel writing.