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A Foreign Affair

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Mambo...mambo Italiano! If you’re like me, you love Italian culture. And when I say Italian culture, I mean Italian food. It’s rich, unique, and involves savory flavors. Come on, who doesn’t drool over the sweet sauces and fragrant meats of Italian cooking?

So why not gather a select few friends, a few bottles of fine Italian wine, and a menu full of classic Italian favorites for a night to remember!

You can create this magical evening by first setting the mood.

Before the guests arrive, make sure that the dinner table is well decorated with everything Italian. My suggestion would be to try and mimic the feel of an outdoor Italian café. Pull plants close to a wrought-iron table and chairs. Make sure there are tons of “drippy” candles, preferably tapers that have been inserted into the tops of old Chianti wine bottles.

Sure, a red checkered table cloth instantly conjures up the right atmosphere, but if you’re looking for something more elegant, use linens in reds and deep greens (to represent the flag). The centerpiece can be a nice platter of cheese and cold cuts along with a couple baskets of bread. You can even position bottles of olive oil and bushels of basil around them for a more Italian-looking table. To make the whole venue come alive with the sounds of Italy, slip in a CD of Luciano Pavarotti or any other tenor singing Italian ballads. Or, you could have “That’s Amore” by Andy Williams on repeat. Actually, don’t do that.

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A great Italian dinner party doesn’t always mean hours slaving in the kitchen (after all, your guests don’t have to be small children to get excited about spaghetti and meatballs). That’s why Italian is a perfect choice when you’re looking for a theme. Nobody complains about Italian food, and it’s not just because Tony Soprano will have them whacked.

You can prepare everything well ahead of time and enjoy the “foreign affair” with your guests of honor.

So just as your guests are arriving, start off the festivities with a classic Negroni or a fiery gin martini.

Negroni Cocktail

  • 1 oz. Campari (or bitters)
  • 1 oz. Sweet Vermouth
  • 1 oz. Gin

Combine all ingredients in an ice-filled shaker and strain into cocktail glass. Garnish with a curl of orange peel. Yum!

I won’t hear any arguments or disagreements about it: the easiest and most delicious of all Italian dinner recipes is Bruschetta. The cool sweetness of tomatoes, the crisp freshness of basil, the bite of fresh garlic. There’s no more perfect combination of flavors and textures. Plus it’s light (leaves room for a rich main dish), healthy, and fun to eat. What could be better? You can even combine it with a plate of insaccati (cured meats) such as prosciutto, and Italian cheeses.

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Bruschetta

  • 1 1/2 lbs. ripe Roma tomatoes
  • 2 tbsp. finely chopped red onion
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
  • 2 tsp. red wine vinegar (balsamic is also nice)
  • 3 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • Parmesan shavings
  • Crusty bread

Cut tomatoes in half, squeeze out seeds and excess juice. Dice and place in bowl.

Add onion, garlic, basil, vinegar, salt and pepper (to taste), and olive oil. Let sit at room temperature for one hour.

While that’s sitting, toast thin slices of crusty bread in the oven. To serve, brush toasted bread lightly with olive oil. Spoon tomato mixture over bread, sprinkle with shaved Parmesan cheese. Devour.

By selecting the right dishes, your Italian evening will be a breeze. For the easiest preparation (and the greatest opportunity to spend time with your guests), pick a casserole-style dish, such as Baked Ziti with Sausage.

Prepare, pop it in the oven, and enjoy your party.

Pair this savory pasta dish with a crisp romaine salad with a vinaigrette dressing.

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Baked Ziti with Sausage

  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 1/2 lbs. spicy Italian sausage, casings removed, crumbled
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1/4 cup dry red wine
  • 1 (35 oz.) can chopped tomatoes, with juice
  • 4 tomatoes, diced
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh oregano (or 2 tbsp. dried)
  • 1 cup ricotta cheese
  • 3/4 to 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/3 cup flat leaf parsley, chopped
  • 1 lb. dry ziti pasta, cooked to al dente
  • 1/2 to 1 lb. mozzarella cheese, diced
  • Olive Oil

Heat oven to 425 degrees. In large skillet, heat two tablespoons of olive oil over medium. Sauté onion in oil until soft, about five minutes. Add garlic and sausage, sauté till sausage is browned. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Drain fat, return to heat.

Add red wine, and bring to a boil to reduce. Add tomatoes with juice, simmer about 10 minutes, until sauce is slightly thickened. Add oregano. Season to taste.

In a bowl, combine ricotta, half the Parmesan, and the parsley. Season with salt and pepper. Combine drained, cooked pasta with ricotta mixture. Add sausage and sauce. Mix. Add mozzarella.

Pour into large, shallow, greased baking dish. Sprinkle with remaining Parmesan. Bake uncovered until bubbly and lightly browned, about 20 minutes. Serves 4-6.

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Ultimate Garlic Bread

  • 6 large garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh oregano leaves
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup good olive oil
  • 2 tbsp. unsalted butter
  • 1 loaf ciabatta bread
  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Place the garlic in the bowl of a food processor and process until minced. Add the parsley, oregano, salt, and pepper and pulse twice.

Heat the olive oil in a medium saute pan and add the garlic mixture. Remove the pan from the heat.

Slice the ciabatta bread in half horizontally, and spread the butter on one side. Spread the garlic mixture on the other half of the bread, and put the halves together. Wrap the bread in aluminum foil.

Place the bread in the oven and bake for five minutes. Open the foil, and continue baking for an additional five minutes.

No Italian-style dinner would be perfect if there wasn’t Tiramisu served afterwards.

It’s the star of your Italian affair. While authentic Tiramisu is a bit more work-intensive, below you’ll find a recipe for a simple Tiramisu that tastes wonderful. As a bonus, it contains no raw eggs, in case you have a raw-egg-squeamish guest or two (or are a little funny about raw eggs yourself—I understand).

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Tiramisu

  • 1 cup whipping cream
  • 8 oz. Mascarpone cheese, softened
  • 1/2 cup powdered sugar
  • 2 tbsp. dark rum
  • 1 pkg (3 oz.) ladyfingers (approx. 12)
  • 1/2 cup cold espresso
  • 2 tsp. cocoa

Whip the cream until stiff peaks form. Beat cheese and powdered sugar with an electric mixer on medium speed until smooth. Beat in rum on low. Fold whipped cream into cheese mixture just until blended.

Split each ladyfinger in half horizontally. Arrange half the ladyfingers in the bottom of an un-greased 8-inch square pan.

Drizzle with 1/4 cup of espresso. Spread with half of cheese mixture. Repeat the layers. Sprinkle cocoa when all the layers are complete. Cover and refrigerate for four hours, until firm. Serves 9.

There you have it. A quaint, intimate Italian dinner in Bakersfield with an authentic Italian feel. Since these dishes are easy to prepare, easy to serve, and very easy to enjoy, you can put more time into turning your backyard (or dining room) into an Italian bistro and spending more time with those special guests you do invite.

I’m resisting the urge to end with a line from “That’s Amore,” so instead I’ll end with chow and diverti!

Drink image by ©istockphoto.com/karandaev

Article appeared in our 27-6 Issue - February 2011