For many Italians, Summer means outdoor grilling, just as it does for much of the rest of the world. An Italian cookout is more or less like any other, but with some distinctive dishes and approaches. The meats are grilled simply, with minimal rubs and sauces, if any, and there’s always a variety of vegetable side dishes, which are just as important as the meat.
One of my Italian grilling favorites is the grigliata mista, mixed grilled meats. The choice of meats is up to the cook, but it usually includes lamb, pork, chicken and, sometimes, but much less often than in places like the US or Argentina, beef. For this cookout, I made some rib lamb chops, pork chops, chicken, sausage and a T-bone steak, each (except for the sausage) with its own, slightly different marinade for variety: for the lamb chops, rosemary, salt and pepper (a mixture, when finely chopped together, is sometimes referred to as a salamoia toscana) and olive oil; for the pork chops, cumin (not very Italian, I know), salt, pepper and a bit of olive oil; for the chicken, red pepper flakes, salt, pepper, freshly squeezed lemon juice and olive oil, a style known as alla diavola for its spiciness, and usually used to marinate a whole, young butterflied chicken, but in this case I used just the thighs. I rubbed the T-bone with a bit of salt–that was it, as I don’t mess with the pure flavor of good beef!
I grilled all the meats, other than the steak, over a moderate fire until golden brown on both sides and set them all on a large platter.
The steak was grilled over very high flame to seal the outside while leaving the inside quite rare, although not quite as rare as I usually like it, since some of my guests were not hard-core carnivores like myself! Sliced thin on the bias and laid on a bed of arugula leaves, seaonsed with salt and freshly ground black pepper, topped with shards of parmesan, and drizzled with olive oil, the steak is called a tagliata di manzo. Except for a big ‘cowboy ribeye’, this is my favorite way to eat a steak. (See featured picture.)
Of course, no Italian cookout (or any meal for that matter!) would not be complete without some contorni, or side dishes, to round it out. This time I made a ‘home-style’ version of a classic Tuscan bean dish, fagioli al fiasco, potato salad and sauteed swiss chard.
Now a real fagioli al fiasco is made by putting cannellini beans in a wide-bottomed bottle (hence the name, which means “beans in a flask” in Italian) with sage leaves, garlic cloves, black pepper and water to cover. You top with the bottle with a cork and place it by an open fire for about four hours. Not having a proper bottle or four hours to spare, I put the same ingredients in a pressure cooker for about an hour. You then season with salt and allow the beans to sit for while. Serve the beans in a bowl, dressing with abundant, fruity olive and some more black pepper ground on top. (As for all beans, they are best soaked beforehand, either overnight in cold water or, to speed up the process considerably, simply by bringing them just to the boil in enough water to cover them by about 5 cm (2 in), then letting them soak off heat for about an hour).
I prefer my potato salad made without mayo or sour cream. Steam red baby potatoes until just tender, then drain them and let them cool a bit. When just cool enough to handle–warm potatoes will absorb the dressing more readily–cut then into slices or, if you prefer, into wedges. (If they are very young and have thin skins, there is no need to peel them.) Then pour over a vinaigrette made by whisking together olive oil, white wine vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper, into which you add chopped shallots and parsley. Fold the potatoes and vinaigrette together well but gently (a rubber spatula works well here) and let steep for an hour or two to develop flavor, mixing very gently from time to time. Serve topped with un filo d’olio and some more chopped parsley for color.
Last but not least, there was bieta ripassata in padella, sauteed swiss chard. Greens made this way—more often than not with the wild cicoria that grows in the countryside around the city–are a staple of the Roman table. But the same method works well for swiss chard spinach or, for that matter, just about any leafy green. You wilt the washed greens by placing them in a pot and cooking them covered in a pot with just the water that clings to them. (You can also parboil them in salted water, in the French manner, if you prefer.) You then run them under cold water to stop the cooking, allow them to drain in a colander. Chop the greens roughly and saute them in olive oil in which you have lightly browned a few garlic cloves and a hot red pepper (peperoncino) for a few minutes, to allow the greens to absorb the flavors of the seasonings.
After all this, there was little room for dessert. We just had some fresh cherries served in a bowl of ice water—my favorite way to eat them—and after that a caffe’ corretto. And so our Italian cookout was complete, and I was ready for a nap!