by Richard L. Nix, Jr.
While it is certainly far fetched to bring the mountains of Northern Italy to Saint Louis, dining “al fresco” on the cuisine of this tasty region is certainly within our reach. Planning a summer picnic should include the freshness and ease that reflects the Italian lifestyle. Simplicity is the key ingredient to your Tuscan style picnic.
Two main ingredients for an al fresco feast are a warm summer day and family and friends willing to share a blanket under a large shady tree. You don’t need a wonderful view, or a sandy beach to enjoy your al fresco meal. Whether you choose your backyard or a local park, being outdoors awakens the senses and makes everything more enjoyable under the open sky. A few simple items are all that is needed to create the décor for an al fresco meal. Italian jacquard napkins, hand crafted ceramic plates, rustic wood platters and olive wood serving utensils all add up to a casual Italian dining setting. The addition of candlelight and a bouquet of fresh garden flowers and herbs complete the feel.
The remaining ingredient to your al fresco meal is a picnic basket brimming with Italian delicacies and beverages. Welcome your picnickers with a light cocktail, or as the Italians say an “aperitif,” such as a Bellini. This classic cocktail, made famous at Harry’s bar in Venice, is equal parts fresh peach puree and champagne. An Italian Pinot Grigio can also be a wonderful start to your al fresco meal. Two examples of great Italian Pinot Grigios that can be purchased for around ten dollars are Franz Haas and Ecco Domani. These cocktails should be served with spiced almonds and cracked Italian olives.
Historically the presence of antipasto on a picnic menu was a sign of prosperity. Lavish your guests with a variety of Italian meats, cheeses and grilled vegetables. Bruschetta is another flavorful picnic pleaser. Bruschetta is simply grilled Italian breads drizzled with olive oil and rubbed with raw garlic, served with a variety of spreads, such as sautéed chopped shrimp with garlic and lemon zest or black olive tapenade.
It wouldn’t be an Italian dining experience without the presence of pasta. Your guests might enjoy farfalle with pesto and tomatoes or penne with broccoli, scallions and mushrooms in a sundried tomato cream sauce. Chicken marinated in extra virgin olive oil, whole garlic, fresh lemons and oregano is a great way to round out the meal.
Dessert, like the rest of our picnic basket is simple, chocolate biscotti and whole fresh strawberries with zabaglione dipping cream. Offering iced coffee or an Italian dessert wine, such as Moscato, is a great way to finish a warm evening dining “al fresco.”
No matter what the location, dining outside has a special appeal for hosts and guests alike; it is the sense that something is different and therefore more intriguing.