Mamma often tells me the story of how she didn’t really cook until she moved to Australia. Her family owned bars and osterie when she was growing up in Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia, so it meant that meals for the family were mostly made by the employed cook. So at 22, married to a man who was fairly demanding when it came to food, and in a strange country where food was cooked in dripping, and olive oil was purchased at the pharmacy, she had to learn fairly quickly. She got tips from other ladies from Northeastern Italy that she met here, in migrant camps and through Italian clubs, helped along substantially by the book her brother Fidenzio brought out for her from Italy, Il tesoretto della cucina Italiana. Of course she had that innate knowledge of how to construct a dish and what flavours paired with what; after all she had worked in her family food businesses and “knew” her local cuisine.
Since my father passed away in 2012, her cooking repertoire has decreased substantially. She has only herself to cook for, except on the days when my sister or I or one of the grandchildren visit her. But she sticks to what she knows, and what she is good at and at 89, still makes a killer meat sugo.
I try to see her twice a week, and I love it most when we make a meal together. We chat while we are preparing food, and she tells me the stories from years ago when she lived in Italy with her brothers and sisters. I sometimes make quick notes while she is speaking, if it is a story or character I have never heard of. A few weeks ago she surprised me by telling me about the Carro dei tespi, a travelling Italian theatre company that started around 1930 and (I later found out) was supported by the Fascists to “bring opera to the people”. Mamma remembers the wagon pulling up once a year in front of their osteria and performing for the people. I love thinking of her watching the show, enthralled with the performers and their colourful costumes, seated in the piazza with her siblings.
She also sometimes surprises me with a new dish, usually based on dishes she knows, but with a new twist. Take this peperonata for instance.
Mamma has been making peperonata since I was little, with chunky pieces of pepper (capsicum), zucchini and tomato, usually in equal quantities. We would eat peperonata as a side dish to a polpettone (meatloaf), or a steak, or on potatoes. Her “new” version, that she delighted in telling me about, has the same ingredients, but in different quantities and the red peppers, rather than being cut in chunky strips, are cut thinly with a mandolin. It made the dish more delicate, and sauce-like, perfect for turning into a risotto, which is exactly what mamma did. So I asked her for the recipe, which I have written below, and the only change when I made my version at home, was to add red wine vinegar, just a splash, which seems to balance it all. If you don’t want to turn the peperonata into a risotto you can serve it on pasta, just like that, with a good drizzle of fresh extra virgin olive oil and plenty of grated Grana cheese.
peperonata alla Livia
1 brown onion, finely diced
1 clove garlic, minced
3 large peppers (or 6 small ones), thinly sliced
1 medium-large zucchino (courgette), thinly sliced
1 large tomato (or half a tin), chopped
extra virgin olive oil
1/4-1/3 cup dry white wine
1 tsp red wine vinegar
Heat a good splash of EVOO in a medium to large frypan on low-medium heat. Add the onion and cook about 10 minutes until soft and reduced but still pale.
In the meantime prepare the peppers, slicing them very thinly on a mandolin. Prepare the zucchini the same way, cutting the slices in half as well.
Add the garlic to the onion and cook for a few minutes until fragrant. Turn the heat up to medium high and add the prepared peppers and zucchini. When they are heated through, add the wine and allow that to evaporate a bit. Reduce the heat, add the red wine vinegar, then the tomatoes, stirring well and cover the frypan.
Allow to simmer for about 20-30 minutes, checking every so often and stirring, adding water if it looks a bit dry. When the vegetables have cooked through, add salt and pepper to taste.