Eating and cooking in Italy is all about love, says JJ Martin, founder of La Double J lifestyle brand, who left the US to make a new life in Milan…
1. EMOTE! If the conversation doesn’t get heated over dinner, it’s the fallen soufflé of all evenings: a total downer. In Italy, mad hysteria and red-faced screaming are effortlessly followed by a calm double-kiss and a civilised sit-down lunch, where talk turns to the vintage of the wine, or the richness of the broth. Everything is fine. The first time I witnessed this, I was working at Costume National. The CEO, Carlo Capasa, started shouting at the sky, unleashing a torrent of feelings about a business deal all over the conference room table. I was shaking in my shoes. I thought we were going to get fired. But as soon as his eruption ended, he smiled, and said, “Let’s go get lunch, guys!” in a genuinely friendly tone. We all walked out of the office and sat down to a two-course meal without a trace of negativity soiling the starched white tablecloths. Italians wear their big noisy emotions on their beautiful silk sleeves. I’ve seen people scream in restaurants, and in offices. It’s totally normal. What’s not normal is holding a grudge.
2. The Art of the Aperitivo: Aperitivo hour in Italy is a holy time. It lasts well over an hour and is always fortified with enough tasty treats to keep Americans like me from complaining about the late-night dinner time. The mark of an excellent Italian aperitivo is one that can be decided upon at the last minute (since no one likes a plan), and whipped up in less time than it takes to dry your wet hair. A decent Italian kitchen pantry is always stocked with these essentials, so spontaneity is a cinch: awesome olives (always use the big, meaty ones); artisanal taralli crackers from Puglia; a towering hunk of 18-month aged Parmesan cheese that can hold ground like the Statue of Liberty inside your frigo all year round; a block of dry aged meat (such as bresaola); a tasty vegetable submerged in a great olive oil (such as roasted artichoke or eggplant); crispy, artisanal-style potato chips; and a yummy multi-grain seeded cracker. Th ese items last longer than most high-school romances, and because of their longevity, you can do what the Italians do and invite anyone over at any time without any prior grocery shopping.
3. THE MORE THE MERRIER: The key element, like all things joyfully Italian, is the following mantra: the more the merrier! So be sure to stuff your cocktail table with as many tasty treats as possible, mix and match your printed napkins with your printed dishes, and always, always, always be willing and waiting for your friends to show up with unexpected guests. It’s the best part of Italy’s beautiful game. Inevitably, half of your guests will be late. This is fine. Also, it’s practically guaranteed that one of them will bring another person to your house without any forewarning. These random extra people always end up spicing up the crowd stew. Finally, for god’s sake, dress up! A bella figura takes you to a fresh state of mind. I love to wear a gown to my own dinner parties at home – and then be barefoot. The second part scandalises the Italians, but it also relaxes them more.
4. SIT DOWN! Everyone sits down for every meal in Italy. There is no walking/eating, working/eating, driving/eating. There is no rush, ever. Not even in a restaurant. No one tries to kick you out of your seat so someone else can come for the next sitting. This brings such a sense of relief to the proceedings, with no fear of a cut-off time, that everyone just melts into the scene and truly relaxes. At home, dressing your table is a must. Always use the good china, even when you’re alone. I use and enjoy my best DoubleJ plates and my parents’ wedding set every day. When friends visit, I go over the top, adding layer upon layer of pattern, print, colour, and flowers to create visual landscapes for everyone to enjoy. I’ll use one particular setting for a while, but then I love to change things up. Sometimes I’ll just recreate the entire setting from scratch, and I find this non-stop creative birthing on my table incredibly satisfying.
5. Befriend Your Greengrocer: Italians don’t like big supermarkets. They want to have a relationship with the person who sells them their meat, their cheese, their vegetables, and their fish; none of these people are found under a single roof. They also don’t want to be pinned down to a plan, a timetable, or the number of guests who will arrive for a meal. That’s why they always prepare extra and why plus-ones were always showing up to my home unannounced, whether I was having a big buffet for 40 or a sit-down dinner for ten. That unpredictability used to frustrate me. But, eventually, I realised that food is a special member of the family, as beloved and essential as La Nonna.
6. PLAY IT COOL: Once I was a guest at the home of Cristiana Ruella, who at the time was managing director of Dolce & Gabbana. When we arrived, she had walked in from the offi ce in a skintight pencil skirt, silk blouse, and what looked like 20-inch heels. As if it were the most eff ortless thing in the world, she waltzed up to her Poliform kitchen counter and showed me how to make a broccoli pesto in 15 minutes. Frozen broccoli was pulled from the freezer and dumped into boiling water, while a pan of hot oil simmered with four dried crumbled peperoncino and three garlic cloves (that had to be removed before the broccoli was saturated and later smashed up with a wooden paddle). Th at was the fi rst time I realised Italians like to make sauces in the same exact time it takes to boil the water and cook the tagliatelle, so everything is completed at once.
7. MAKE TIME! Italians prefer not to do anything over the phone or email. They ask to meet over coffee, a two-hour lunch – or, even better, in the comfort of their own home, where both parties can sink into the pesto sauce and coax the work part out with ease and grace. For years, this drove me nuts. I couldn’t believe that the PR woman of that A-list fashion house couldn’t give me the answers I wanted RIGHT NOW by phone. I was on a deadline! No, she had to be seated before a starched linen tablecloth for any helpful information to flow. Once I gave in to this practice, its wisdom became clear. The Italians are not big on action items. The final objective may be an exchange of information or a deal, but it unfolds through having an enjoyable time and making a real connection. And all of that chatting, laughing, and eating cooks up something that we rarely have time to savour in America – a relationship.
From: Mamma Milano by JJ Martin, published by Vendome Press in October.