Always on Sunday: Two Italian mothers serve a luscious luncheon lesson



On a recent Sunday morning I hit the foodie gold standard: a cooking lesson delivered by not one, but two Italian mamas.
Our friends, Maria and Francesco, invited me to witness their mothers prepare my favorite local dish – patate, riso and cozze (mussels). Unlike cooking confabs one might hold with friends, this was a serious affair – no idle chitchat, no brunch-time beverages, just a seamless 2-hour culinary tango between Nicoletta and Marisa.

Since it was her kitchen, Maria was permitted to assist; as a guest, I was not. Who can blame them? Sunday lunch, the most important meal of the week, was at stake.

Maria warned me that like most Italian cooks, the two operated per occhi, by eye. In other words, recipe free. The exercise was mostly measurement free, too.

So as the ladies assembled the dish, I begged them to tell me how much salt or parsley or grated cheese they were tossing into the pan. No luck.

Desperate, I resorted to slipping a tablespoon under the olive oil as they poured it, counting the size and number of potatoes as they sliced them, cajoling them in bad Italian to recall how many kilos of mussels they used. They humored me, but just barely.

I wanted a real recipe to make this most delicious of Puglia’s dishes. True, I was initially horrified by the carbohydrate train wreck of rice and potatoes in a single dish, but that was before I tasted it. Once I put the first briny-sweet-succulent forkful in my mouth, desire quashed all nutritional qualms.

I labored to keep track of the preparations, stealing behind Nicoletta to watch how she cleaned the mussels, eyeballing the ratio of rice-to-water Marisa used, guessing at the size of the square pan that held it all. The two cooks would occasionally confer – how many garlic cloves to submerge in the rice, how much parsley to sprinkle in – but they never disagreed.

The result was gorgeous, a casserole glistening with Puglia’s finest ingredients – cherry tomatoes, cheese, olive oil and the beloved cozze. But that wasn’t the only highlight. A lightly tangy octopus salad started the family meal ( my husband,Don, Francesco and his father showed up in time to dine).

Then the mussel theme took over, with first the casserole, followed by raw mussels on the half shell and finally steamed mussels with tomatoes and garlic.

An earthy dish of baked mushrooms appeared, too.

Fresh fruit and a lethal homemade coffee liqueur finished off Sunday pranzo – and us.

Don and I rolled home with another wonderful meal under our belts, this one made special by sharing it with two generous Monopoli families. We left full, happy and with the best memory of all = a recipe for my favorite Puglian dish.

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