Tag Archives: Mediterranean cooking

Good friends, good wine, good eats equals good times.

Good friends, good wine, good eats equals good times.

Torta della Nonna - Grandma's Cake

Time could not pass quickly enough for the return of my cooking/traveling companion/friend Kelly and her lovely family to Seven Mile Drive. They had stayed on in Europe traveling to Naples, Sorrento and Florence for a week longer than I.  But, I was excited for her to arrive home.

My cookbook from Casa Ombuto was getting plenty of use. Each day I would prepare a breakfast buffet just like the one we had at CO and then a luscious recipe, like Grandma’s Cake or Tuscan beans for my family. They certainly were enjoying my newly acquired talents.  It was all so delicious and I knew Kelly would be as excited as I to share our culinary skills with a

Z'breakfast-eggs, fruits, yogurt and granola, cheese, salami and freshly baked 5 grain bread

mediterranean dinner party for some of our closest friends.

We met on Tuesday to prepare the menu. We chose Eggplant Caviar, Bruschetta and Antipasta for appetisers. For our first course we chose  Casarecce’ Pasta with speck and saffron; Basil, green beans, fresh tomato and mozz salad with a light dressing plus baked goat cheese salad. For the main course we decided on Roast Pork Loin Arezzo Style with Chunky Olive Oil and Parmesan Mashed Potatoes. We would finish with a light dessert of Zabaione and Strawberries. Each course would have a pairing of regional wines to compliment the flavors and we would finish with after dinner liquors: Limonciello, Amaretto d’Saronna and Frangelica. With the menu set,we agreed who would prepare which items and we were off to the Fresh Market to shop.

It was important that our friends get a true feeling of what our experience had been so we agreed we would prepare a sit down dinner, meaning table settings for at least 20 of our friends.  This could be challenging for most, however, you must remember, Kelly works for Williams Sonoma. I seem to recall her saying some weeks she actually owes them money when the mark-downs have been exceptionally tempting. So, we pulled the dining room table and chairs into the kitchen for the final 6 settings, visited the buffet holding all of my table cloths and napkins for the perfect selection and then raided Kelly’s kitchen for additional glass and bakeware.  We had a plan and it was coming together nicely.

We agreed to prep as much as we could. On Thursday we shopped and Friday we spent the entire afternoon together cooking. Some might find the idea of entertaining 20 dinner guests to a sit down dinner a bit intimidating but, Kelly and I were up for the challenge. In fact, we agreed we were having fun even during the preparation. Oh,and let me tell you I wish I had an application that could record the aroma in the kitchen to share on this blog! (Maybe we could invent that Matt?$!) We plugged my I-Phone in to the kitchen Bose to hear Andrea Bocelli belt out  “La voce del silenzio”. There  is something to be said for the smell of garlic and pork roasting along side cippolini onions in balsamic vinegar that just exudes Italia. We felt as if we were back at familiar Casa Omboto once again.

There is one element of our dinner party that was a true blessing to us all. On Wednesday I got in touch with Liza Chung, the brilliantly creative florist for Lindsay and Matt’s wedding. She had prepared a trial centerpiece for them a couple of weeks ago and had graciously brought it to the house for us to enjoy. This centerpiece was over the top gorgeous. ( I don’t wish to give any of her secrets away, so I will not include the picture in this post. Just stay tuned for wedding pictures after October 2nd.)  We loved having the scent of the flowers in the house but, like us, fresh flowers drop their petals, wither and die. The beautiful 3 and 1/2 foot tall glass vessel had been sitting in the living room waiting for Finn to send it toppling over. I phoned Liza to find out when and where to return it. She explained she had a meeting on Friday at TPC and would swing by and pick it up, asking what time would be convenient for me.  I explained I would be cooking all afternoon for a dinner party.  “Ohhhhhh…” she said.  I could hear a sparkle in her voice as she told me she would drop by late afternoon. Around 6 Friday evening Kelly and I had set the tables, the water and wine were chilling and just a few last minute dishes were warming in the oven when the doorbell chimed to “The Wedding March”.  It was Liza and her son with two of the most magnificent floral masterpieces I had ever seen. Liza had put a pic of them on Facebook the day before and I commented “I loved dahlias”, one of the main flowers of the design. They placed the beautiful gold vessels on the buffet , and were on their way, the perfect compliment to our culinary masterpieces.


By seven-thirty Kelly and I donned our clean Casa Ombuto aprons as the guests began to arrive with bottles of rich Tuscan wines in hand. They snacked on appetizers and drank chilled Prosecco until we were ready to share the main course. Our friend Michele led us in a beautiful blessing then Kelly and I explained each dish. We opened the buffet to our guests and smiled at the “oohs and aahs” as they loaded their dinner plates and headed for their seats.

In true Zitiello tradition, the wine was poured and Tom offered up the first toast, explaining what a wonderful experience Kelly and I had shared. He explained the trip was a dream of a lifetime but, better yet, one we could all benefit from….Munga!

It was a beautiful evening with great food, great wine and even greater friends.

Thank you to our teacher, friend and Chef Laura Giusti of Casa Ombuto, who was in our hearts and on our minds the entire week.  We miss you so Laura.

Farewell Casa Ombuto

Farewell Casa Ombuto

A page from my personal journal dated Friday, June 11, 2010

Sadly, today is our final day at Casa Ombuto.  Tomorrow morning we will rise bright and early, drive the now famous Fiat Panda back to Florence, do some shopping at Ponte Vecchio, have lunch and catch the train to Rome where we will be met by Bob and the girls. But, we have one more day, the morning is free, an afternoon cooking lesson, break and then the farewell buffet consisting of our personal requests. It will be an emotional day and we are very sad to think about leaving this little slice of heaven on earth

Kelly and I awoke early and met at the cantina for tea.  We were dressed for our walk and headed up the mountain to the road around 8:30.  We find the trail to be challenging, but, both of us agreed we were happy to be walking and burning off some of the calories we intake each day.  The spectacular views are waiting around each corner as we push to make it to the paved road.  The wildflowers are so plentiful. The patchwork of the farmland and the occasional home with bell tower and red clay roof is reminiscent of an Ellen Diamond oil painting. When we reach the summit we can see all of Poppi below.  It is truly beautiful.  We walk for an hour and then must quickly freshen up for our short trip into town to check out the little pottery shop next to the pizza shop Elizabeth,Kelly and I stumbled upon the day before.

At the cantina we greet our classmates who are planning their morning excursions.  Lindsay and Cassie seem sad they have no transportation and I suggest we try to fit them in the Fiat and accompany us to town.  They excitedly agree.  It is only a fifteen minute drive, so we head down the path to the car.  I am quite surprised we can fit all five in the car, although it is tight.

When we arrive at the piazza, we see Jim, Eleanor, Rosemary and Tom parking their car.  I beep the  crazy sounding horn and we all wave.  The locals look up in surprise.  One amazing thing I realize is we have not heard a single car horn since our arrival in Florence.  Everyone seems to be patient here in Tuscany, which is far different than what we will experience in Rome tomorrow.

The small shop is packed with ceramics of every shape and color and we excitedly search for more treasures, all of us amazed at the low prices.  Laura later told me the Vietri is made in the southern regions. We begin to make our individual selections and the clerk bubble wraps each piece and puts them in cardboard boxes for shipment. She explains we can ship 20 kilos for 200 euro at the post office.  We know we can do better than this if we investigate, and after paying we return to the Fiat with two large bags each for Kelly, Elizabeth and I.  Lindsay and Cassie have one bag each which they agree to hold on their laps. I unlock the trunk and somehow we are able to pack our packages in the back. I suggested we take the packages back to the ceramics factory where we were the day before and have them pack and ship our things back in a wooden crate.  Kelly was afraid they would not want to do this for merchandise purchased somewhere else.  I told her we should try.  And, we all packed back into the Fiat like sardines, off to Tanaressi.   With “I-speak Italian”, an app on my I-Phone in hand, we walked back into the ceramics showroom.  The two salesman were surprised to see us return.  I attempt to explain our request.  After several translations on my I-Phone,we were successful.  In fact, they were happy to accommodate us.  They promised to rewrap and pack our things and ship them with the other things. The crates would arrive at our door in 2 weeks max.  We told them in Italian we would recommend them to all of our friends and they hugged us and gave us the traditional Italian kisses, first on the left cheek then on the right.  We had made  new amici, oh and we had added to their economy in the process.  We all were happy and headed back up the mountain to Casa Ombuto for lunch and our final class and farewell buffet.

On the rocky road up the mountain we encountered a stray bale of hay right in the middle of our path.  Kelly jumped put of the Fiat to move it aside. We were fearful someone would come flying around the bend as they had done several times before.  I rolled down the window and suggested we  put it on top of the roof and she did as Elizabeth, Lindsay, Cassie and I laughed hysterically. I figured we needed some light entertainment back at the Casa.  We were very close to our

destination but drove slowly so the bale would not slide off the roof.  When we pulled up in front of the cantina the group greeted us with jaws dropped and laughing wildly.  Chef Laura smiled and laughed and said…” where you get?”. Tom and Jim just shook their heads smiling as Eleanor and Rosemary said, “you girls are so much fun”.  We announced, “only 20 Euro……for this bale of hay……”

Laura asked if we could all gather around the car and take a picture with her on top……sitting on the bale.  We told her it would be a great Facebook profile picture.  We all laughed till we cried.

After freshening up we returned to the cucina where we prepared the recipes we had requested.  Tom wanted to learn how to make good meatballs, Eleanor, red sauce, Kelly , gnocchi, and others wanted to learn some of the dishes Laura had prepared for our dinner the night we arrived. The kitchen was a buzz with laughter as we followed our lovely instructor for the final time. Danielle was busy with white tablecloths, at least fifty red roses, white candles and fresh ivy vines from the garden.  I learned it is not necessary to  use a professional floral arrangement, even wild flowers and grasses can be a beautiful compliment in a simple glass vase.  Life is very simple in Tuscany.  Kelly and I promised each other we would bring home this simplicity and incorporate it in our own homes.  Simple, fresh ingredients prepared in simple ways.  One thing I also noticed…..there’ is no microwave as Casa Ombuto!

Chef Laura atop the Fiat Panda surrounded by her class at Mediterranean Cooking Class - Casa Ombuto

Laura and Barbara wanted to take more pictures of us on the Fiat that stayed parked in front the of cucina.  We all had our aprons on and thought it would be the perfect group picture for our class.  It sort of summed up in words the fun we had with this great group who shared our dream with us.  So, Laura once again was helped atop the Fiat, and we fit as many in the car as possible and all around.  Barbara took the picture so we all would be included.  We returned to our rooms around 7:30 to dress for our farewell dinner in the garden.

Everyone looked beautiful as we made our way back to the cantina where champagne flutes awaited us on the rustic wooden table outside of the cucina.  Laura motioned for me to come in and told me she thought I was a beautiful person and

she wanted to stay in touch with Kelly and I.  I told her she was welcome to come and visit us in Florida whenever she could. She said she would like to come to teach class with me. I told her I would be honored and it would be something the girls would love, and cherish, so we would make a plan. Barbara led a toast as we all clicked our glasses cooking straight into the eyes of the other person……very important.  And as the beautiful platters of food were carried to the pergola in the garden, we headed to the buffet in trepidation, wanting to taste the food that smelled so delicious yet wanting the evening to never end.


The gnocchi was served in two ways.  One was a pomodoro sauce that took  4 kilos of tomatoes and about two hours to prepare and yielded two cups of sauce.  The rest of the gnocchi was bathed in a gorgonzola cheese sauce. OMG!!!!  The pasta with basil and oil with speck,an Italian meat similar to bacon, was once again my  personal favorite. Tom and Jim had rolled the meatballs made of pork and veal in chopped almonds at Laura ‘s instruction.  The roasted fennel was unbelievable, the chicken tangine….amazing. Laura prepared a plate for Tom and when he took it from her realized the three pastas were the colors of the Italian flag…..nice presentation. The salad was wonderful….so delicious and accompanied by a wonderful white wine from the Tuscan region.  The red was our favorite Tartarini from our friend at the chateau

It was Jim’s 65 th birthday and he had no idea when the lights went out and the chocolate cake with cherries arranged in a small heap on top and ivy vines falling down the sides, dusted lightly with confectioner sugar and candles burning…..it was for him.  We sang happy birthday and after he blew out the candles, Eleanor read the email wishes sent from his children and best friend.  It was a

Jim's chocolate birthday cake "Tenernia" made and decorated by Danielle

wonderful surprise to be a part of.

After the cake was eaten, Laura asked if she could be excused. When she returned she had changed from her chefs clothing to a beautiful sheer top, pants, looking lovely with makeup and a slightly different hair style.  She presented each of us with our certificates individually sharing her thoughts about us as she went thru every name. We received a warm hug and smile from her as we promised to one day return. As the shot glasses appeared and Danielle with the bottles, we sipped our after dinner drinks and reminisced.  Laura told us she would not see us in the morning as she would be heading to Milan and wanted to say her goodbyes tonight.  It was a fitting sendoff in the Casa Ombuto style.

Kelly and I walked arm in arm back to our apartment sad to be leaving early in the morning.

His is truly a slice of heaven on earth!