Ashley Simmons Parsi-Graciani had wanted to visit Italy since she was a child but she didn't get the opportunity until July.
Two of her friends, Joe and Susanna Lynch, had moved to Vicenza (in northeast Italy), and they had been urging her to visit. Joe Lynch is a former U.S. Army Ranger and Susanna, who grew up in Columbus, was a WRBL-TV 3 reporter.
Parsi-Graciani is the executive chef of Meritage Cafe (and the Deli Cafe and Tapatini's) in Midtown. Her mother, Faye Simmons, has owned the restaurant since 2004.
Parsi-Graciani says her love of cooking didn't come when she was young. In fact, when she was in the Girl Scouts, she had trouble mastering an omelet.
"I failed miserably," she said.
As she got older, Parsi-Graciani, 32, discovered a passion for food and cooking.
She took an apprenticeship with Eric Arceneaux, who was then the executive chef of the Big Eddy Club in Green Island Hills, before joining her mother at Meritage in the fall of 2010.
Parsi-Graciani's current cooking inspiration comes from her recent trip to Italy, which she says "was the most fantastic two weeks of my life."
She spent most of her time in Northern Italy and Rome. While she was there, she picked up several recipes from local chefs, including one for pesto that she shares with her readers on the next page.
"It's a simple, easy recipe that home cooks can do and execute well," she said.
Parsi-Graciania avoided cities and spots that cater to tourists. "I wanted to see the real Italy, eat real food and drink real wine," she said.
Parsi-Graciani is excited to use some of her new Italian cooking tricks in the kitchen at Meritage.
For example, she learned "The pasta is not cut precisely. It's very rustic."
Parsi-Graciani loves discovering new preparation methods.
"I find cooking very gratifying," Parsi-Graciani said. "I absolutely love my job. I don't even consider it a job."
A highlight of the year came July 28, when the Springer Opera House called to see if she could keep the kitchen open for actor Hal Holbrook, who was in town for the theater's gala.
She kept some of her staff and when 11 people came with Holbrook, she was ready.
"This is someone who has eaten all over the world, and when he said, 'This is so flavorful,' it was great. He was here until 1:30 a.m. Sunday!"
2 peeled white potatoes
4 cups potato flour
Kosher salt to taste
1/2 of a beaten egg
Boil the potatoes until tender. (Save some of the water you boiled the potatoes in.) Grind through a food mill. Let cool.
Add the egg.
Slowly incorporate the flour and salt.
If it's too dry, add a little water from the pot you boiled the potatoes in. It should feel like Play-Doh.
Roll into balls. In Italy, it looks just like mozzarella balls.
Saute in a pan with olive oil.
Add the pesto, deglaze with white wine. Garnish with fresh graded Parmesan cheese.
1 bundle of fresh basil. This is the perfect time to hit the Saturday market on Broadway and meet the farmers.
1/2 cup of pine nuts
1/2 cup of olive oil
1/3 cup of Parmesan cheese
Salt (Kosher is preferable) and pepper to taste.
Clean all the basil leaves.
You can either mortor and pestle the leaves and the other ingredients if you want it really authentic or if you're busy, put all the ingredients in a food processor for 10 seconds.
In either method, blend well to make it the consistency of a thick sauce.
Assorted cheeses to your taste (Parsi-Graciani prefers aged Asiago and Parmasan cheeses)
Assorted meats like Salami
Arrange on a bed of arugula
HOW TO DRESS YOUR SALAD LIKE AN ITALIAN COOK
Drizzle your favorite premium oil (She said to "think big" and use white truffle oil or a very good extra virgin olive oil).
Drizzle the Balsamic vinegar glaze or an aged Balsamic vinegar.
Sprinkle sea salt (the bigger the pieces of the salt, the better) and fresh ground pepper on the salad.
TRULY ROMAN SANDWICH
Ciabatta rolls (or white bread and cut off the crust)
Sardines (skinless and boneless in olive oil)
Sliced boiled egg
Build the sandwich, placing the sardines on the spinach. Top with the tomato, sliced Parmasan cheese and sliced boiled egg.
VANILLA PANNA COTTA
1/4 cup cold water
1 envelope powdered gelatin
1 1/2 cup whipping cream
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
Sprinkle gelatin over cold water. Let stand for 15 minutes to let it "bloom"
In a saucepan, combine the whipping cream and sugar over medium heat.
Simmer, stirring constantly until the sugar dissolves.
Remove from heat.
Stir in the vanilla.
Add the gelatin and stir until dissolved.
Pour into 4 ounce ramekins or small glasses.
Refrigerate at least 6 hours until it sets.
Serve with fresh berries.