As my hunger grows in thinking about my lunch, I want to share with you one of my favorite tastes of Italy that can be enjoyed at anytime or anywhere, offering you a connection to the country itself, like an edible picture of the hillside.
Sitting here looking out at the rolling hills of Italy in the Gargano region, I think that food is the best tool I have to help lead you to the land, the culture, and the gifts of Italy. Here one cannot help but be overtaken by the intensity of a beautiful sky, as if the sky is trying to define the color blue for the first time. Today the mountains provide a gentle breeze whispering on my cheeks, and the backdrop of sunshine is almost blinding, illuminating a beautiful stage that time has forgotten. A small glass of frizzante (water with bubbles) rests at my side, accompanied by a small glass of chilled white wine under the umbrella I have set up so I can stay cool for the afternoon. Inhaling all the aroma of the hills covered with olive trees, fig trees, and fields of tomatoes, I sit here filled with the appreciation of life as I hear the sea off in the distance, singing to me her gentle lullaby of rolling waves.
I love everything this region of Italy has to offer: her culture, her music, the romance, the lifestyle–and, most impressive, her food. The freshness and quality of every ingredient cannot be duplicated anywhere I know of. Her food gives a sense of Italy’s generosity and pride, that she wants to share a part of her soul and history in what she grows from her soil.
Starting with a food found on every table of the old country, I offer you a recipe that has bread in every bite, with a thick crust made in hot ovens fueled by wood and generations of wisdom. Next we add mozzarella cheese made from the milk of grass-fed buffalo that have been roaming the sunny hillsides, a cheese that has a depth of flavor that only here at this place, in this time, will ever taste this good. Add arugula, with its grassy freshness and pepper taste grown for centuries in the rich soil of the country. Now we lay before you ham from Parma, to make each bite tender, deep, and flavorful with a backdrop of salt.
Now we cover this with a blanket of the best tasting and reddest tomatoes in the world. Last, and truly my favorite and what I am most passionate about, extra-virgin olive oil. This is truly nectar from the gods, as each olive is handpicked from the small ancient farms that adorn the hillsides of the Puglia region. Each olive is persuaded to give up her oil only after months of work and effort by the love and attention of her owner.
The recipe I want to share with you is of course the panini, and if done well using only the best ingredients, it will provide you with the taste and smells of the countryside of Italy.
Makes 4 sandwiches
- 1 large round loaf fresh crusty bread
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 pound thinly-sliced Parma ham
- 2 whole red ripe tomatoes, thinly sliced
- .45 kg (1 pound) fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced
- A handful of fresh arugula
- Chopped parsley, for garnish
From the middle of a large round of crusty freshly baked bread, cut slices of medium thickness.
Next, drizzle extra-virgin olive oil on both sides and finish with a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Place bread in the hot panini grill and let crisp so that both sides are toasted, then remove and set aside on a work surface.
Place 3 slices of ham so that they cover the entire slice of bread with even thickness. Follow this with several slices of tomato, and then fresh mozzarella broken into pieces so it will melt evenly. Finish with 4 to 6 leaves, coarsely chopped, of fresh arugula. (The reason for slicing thinly and for chopping herbs in panini is to allow for clean bites without large pieces sliding out.)
Return the panini to the grill and set it to “warm.” Cook until the inside cheese is gooey and melted as the outside becomes even crispier, 4 to 6 minutes. Gently remove the panini and cut in half with a strong diagonal cut. Plate with a slight stack and finish with a sprinkle of parsley.
A glass of water with bubbles and a small glass of white wine at the head of your plate, whether on the streets of any great city or sitting alongside any Italian countryside, you can now experience something of the best Italy has to offer.