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The composition of a classic Italian meal, especially for celebrations, has many moving parts.

At first glance, the courses may look like a challenge in a professional competitive eating contest.

The important thing to remember is that unlike a timed professional eating contest, the Italian dining experience is enjoyed leisurely over multiple hours that include exuberant conversation and generous laughter.

It goes something like this and can be quite the scene to behold.

The Aperitivo begins a meal. Guests typically stand and mingle while enjoying beverages like wine, prosecco, a Bellini, Campari Spritz, vermouth, gingerino or a non alcoholic option. At times, small snacks such as olives, chips, or nuts might be offered. The tradition of aperitivo began in northern Italy.

Next comes the Antipasto. Both hot and cold foods are prepared. A variety of charcuterie, cheeses, finger sandwiches, bruschetta, fresh veggies, and cold sea food are prepared. My favorite antipasti, fritto misto. The antipasto (antipasti) course will be lighter than the following course, the Primi Piatti.

Primi Piatti, the first course, will be composed from a variety of hot foods that are heavier than the antipasti but lighter then the main course, which will follow. Non-meat dishes are the essential choices, such as risotto, pastas, soups, gnocchi, polenta or savory crespelle.

Secondi Piatti, the main course, will include any number of meat, fowl, fish choices or possibly a stew like presentation. Meats may be grilled, roasted, baked, fried, steamed or even barbecued in more recent years.

Contorno. What is this, you ask? Good question, because it’s not a word all of us know when thinking about an Italian menu. This course is my focus today. Contorno is what we’d call a “side dish” and would be served close to or next to the Secondi plate. Unlike our American side dishes, which are typically on the same plate as our main course, the Contorno is served on a separate plate from the meat. Hot or cold vegetables in some form traditionally make up the Contorno. Potatoes would also be a possible Contorno choice.

Some of my favorite Contorno recipes are shared below.

The next course on the menu would be the Insalata (salad). The exception to this rule would be the omission of the green salad if the Contorno consisted of lots of green leafy veggies.

Formaggio e Fruta follows. Local cheeses and fresh seasonal fruits have a complete course dedicated to these regional treasures.

Dolce, dessert, comes next. Regions offer their own specialties, which might include the likes of semi fredo, tiramisu, panna cotta, rhum baba, gelato or a sorbetto, zeppole, cannoli or, in the North, bignoli.

Caffè is a given when the meal is finished. Strong coffee like espresso in small cups and not milk based drink like cappuccino.

Last, but not least, comes the Digestivo. Served after the coffee, Grappa, Limoncello, Fernet Branco, Genepi, Amaro Lucano, Strega and Sambuca all fall into this category. Digestivo’s classically are created from herbs, seeds, roots, barks, berries, spices, flowers, and citrus peels. Drinks are considered moderately bitter and act like a kind of herbal medicine that are truly intended to aid in digestion.

The true secret to enjoying the full array of a classic Italian meal — pace yourself. As good as one course may be, try to remember that there is more to come. A flavorful opportunity to mangia bene.

Green Pea Sformato (Mousse or Flan)

Serves 4

3 oz. peas (if fresh, cook first)

2 eggs

6 oz. heavy cream

2 oz. freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg

salt and pepper to taste

1 Tbs. unsalted butter

Whisk eggs and cream together in medium bowl. Add nutmeg, cheese, salt and pepper to taste. Gently fold in peas.

Butter individual baking forms. If you don’t have individual forms, you can use a large muffin tin.

Fill each form 2/3 full with mixture.

Place forms/tin into shallow baking pan with small amount of water in the bottom. This is called “Bagna Maria”.

Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes or until golden on top. Allow to set 5 minutes before inverting onto warm serving platter or side dishes.

Zucca Sformato

(Pumpkin Mousse)

Serves 6

2 cups pure pumpkin pureé

1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1 egg—lightly beaten

pinch of ground nutmeg

pinch of Sea salt

8 eggs—separated

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Flour

Balsamic

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

Oil and flour individual ramekins or muffin tin.

Stir together pumpkin, Parmesan cheese, egg yolks, and nutmeg.

In separate bowl use a hand or stand mixer with a whisk attachment, whip the egg whites with a pinch of salt. Whisk until the egg whites hold a stiff peak.

Gently fold 1/3 of egg whites into the pumpkin mixture.

Gently fold in the rest of the egg whites until no streaks are present.

Put mixture into the prepared ramekins or cups.

Mixture should come about halfway up the side. Gently smooth out the top.

Place in the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes, turning the oven temperature down to 375 degrees Fahrenheit after 12 minutes. Do not open oven door while the sformato is baking. The top should have a nice crust, with no wet spots.

Remove from the oven, allow to set 5 minutes and invert immediately onto warm side dish. Often this side dish is served over a schmeer of beschamel sauce. Chefs choice.

Drizzle with just a little authentic balsamic.

Fritto cuori di carciofo

(Deep Fried Artichoke Hearts)

Serves 6-8

1- 33-oz. jar artichoke hearts in water

1 large egg

½ tsp. finely minced garlic

½ cup flour

salt and pepper to taste

1 cup unseasoned breadcrumbs

1 tsp. dried thyme

2 Tbs. dried parsley

2 cups Extra Virgin Olive Oil

2 Tbs. freshly grated Pecorino cheese

3 pie pans set side by side

Drain artichoke hearts into a colander. Gently squeeze all liquid from each heart.

Place flour into a pie pan.

In another pie pan, beat egg. Add garlic and pinch of salt and pepper. Mix together to ensure garlic is evenly distributed.

Put breadcrumbs mixed with crumbled dried herbs, salt and pepper to taste, into third pie pan on your assembly line.

Dip each artichoke heart into flour, then egg mixture, and finally breadcrumbs, until all are coated. Set aside in a single layer

Heat the oil in a deep pot (deep fryer if you have one). When oil is hot begin frying the breaded artichoke hearts. Fry until golden brown. For deep frying I suggest you use “California Olive Ranch” Extra Virgin Olive Oil. It meets the qualifications to truly be “Extra Virgin” but is nicely priced for quantity use in deep frying.

Place on paper towels to drain.

Sprinkle with grated cheese while still warm and serve immediately.

Melanzane Casseruola

Serves 4

1 large eggplant

1 large ripe tomato—cut into 8 thin slices

4-oz. smoked Provolone cheese—cut into 8 small pieces

flour

minced garlic to taste

4 leaves fresh basil—torn in half

3 oz. fresh grated Parmesan cheese

½ cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Sea Salt

Fill a large bowl with cold water and a few ice cubes.

Peel and cut ends from eggplant. Slice lengthwise into 12 thin pieces.

Line shallow pan and place eggplant slices in single layer. Sprinkle each piece lightly with sea salt. Set aside for 20 minutes. This step is very important in removing excess liquid from the eggplant.

When ready to complete preparation, rinse eggplant slices and pat dry will with paper towels.

Dip each slice into flour and then quickly in and out of cold water bath.

Immediately drop each piece carefully into hot olive oil in large skillet. Saute one minute each side. Remove slices and place on brown paper or smooth kitchen towel (not terry) to remove excess oil.

Line uncreased individual baking forms with 3 strips of eggplant each. When lining forms make sure the bottom is covered with eggplant and that ends of the eggplant fold out over the edge of the form.

Add thin slice of tomato, tiny pinch garlic, ½ the basil leaf, Provolone and pinch of grated Parmesan. Repeat a second later of tomato, garlic, basil and cheeses. Fold the “flaps” of the eggplant to cover the top and press down lightly.

Place individual baking forms into a small shallow pan before placing into the oven. This will keep the individual forms from tipping over on the oven racks.

Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Allow to cool slightly before inverting onto warm serving dishes.

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Diane De Filipi lives in the Napa Valley and leads cooking tours to Italy and Burgundy, France. Visit letsgocookitalian.com or ila-chateau.com/cook-italian for more information.

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