Italian Days - Cooking with Anita

Milan, Italy

The grand, seasoned Italian kitchen was dowsed in that lazy, late-morning type of light. Fresh air poured in from the garden, quietly streaming in past the bright, blue door we’d left propped open; letting in the first breaths of early spring.

Anita clanks around the kitchen, opening cupboards and slamming drawers shut as she grabs the various cutlery and plates to assemble today’s dishes. Among the bowls filled with egg batter- which has subsequently splashed onto the counter- lies the dust from a bag of flour, scattered like fresh powder from the first winter storm. Amidst the chaos lies a row of zucchini blossoms, lined up and patiently waiting like little toy solders.

There is something so beautiful about zucchini blossoms- unequivocally Italian and always evoking some romantic idea of spring.. A lot of people do not know that atop these lanky, green vegetable stalks grows this feathery, marigold-colored flower. A traditional Italian dish soaks and breads the entirety of the vegetable, flower included, and lightly fries it for an appetizer or “contorno,” which means “side dish” in Italian. Either way, in my language, it means “delicious.” 

I watch Anita carefully coating and frying this little delicacy as we chat about past nostalgias, other life times, family and literature- a passion her and I both share. Even in her older age, (she has just turned 86), she moves with grace and agility around the kitchen, her hands spotted with freckles, wrinkles and the dustings of time.

When pressing Anita for the recipe of these zucchini blossoms, or any other dish (one of my favorites of hers: garlic, butter, bacon wrapped turkey roast- yes, it is as heavenly as it sounds), she always brushes it off- insisting she is not much of a cook, but rather, likes to invent as she goes along. I beg to differ, as does anyone who comes into contact with any of her food. It is “sempre buonissimo” (always delicious).

But I understand the humility, cooking is something that she does from the heart; it is one of the truest tokens of her love- something she cannot measure or mark down. I respect the difficulty of putting numbers and words onto something she feels is so pure and intangible. The act of cooking, or rather- creation of it, truly gives her pleasure. She excuses such brimming happiness when creating a dish and sharing it with another soul- over a glass, (or four), of wine and long winded, deep conversations. I appreciate the nostalgia and tradition that watching her cook wraps me up in- tasting the food from generations past. 

I take a moment to step into the little garden outside. After such a long, grey winter in Milan, the sunshine feels so foreign and beautiful. I smile, hearing her muttering things to herself as she moves around her favorite domain. “Ah bene, vieni qui,” she turns from the oven as I return to the house, her face breaking into a growing smile. The wrinkled lines of history and happiness branch out from the corners of her eyes and trickle out onto the rest of her face. She is beaming obvious pride as she sets down the cheesy cabbage tort with a beautiful golden, buttery and flakey puff pastry crust. “Perfetto.”

The zucchini blossoms have finished frying and the table is set. The lovely dishes of the day sit steaming their heavenly Italian perfume amongst the Pellegrini bottles, glasses of red wine and vase of flowers. We sit down, immersed in the intersection of tradition and present to enjoy in a meal of history. Wandering through the elms of culinary nostalgia is my favorite way to spend Sunday afternoons, and so we bask in the new Spring sun and dig in. Buon appetito.