Picture this: You and your beloved are walking down a picturesque, winding side street in a small Italian village, totally off the beaten track. You wander into a trattoria, looking forward to a delicious meal. The waiter greets you, “buon giorno,” and hands you a menu. You peruse the list of offerings—and panic. Where are the English translations? How do you know whether you are eating rabbit or goat? Your companion shrugs as if to say, “You’re on your own.” When the waiter reappears you get little help as he attempts to describe one Italian word with another. You close your eyes, point, and hope for the best.
Besides visiting ruins and cathedrals, one of the favorite pastimes in Italy is eating. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to decipher a menu and carry on a basic conversation in Italian while enjoying a meal? You could take a class or buy Rosetta Stone’s Italian kit. A better idea: learn Italian while enjoying incredible Italian food at Alloro, prepared by the owner/chef, Salvatore Corea.
Twice each month at Alloro, Collina Italiana, the Italian Language and Cultural Center, holds Parla Come Mangi, a conversation class and culinary experience. One evening is for beginning speakers, the second for intermediate/advanced. Instructors from Collina Italiana lead the conversation while Corea, his wife, Gina, and their experienced wait staff serve the food.
Several of my friends plan trips to Italy this summer, so this was a good time to gather everyone together for a fun evening at Alloro. While some members of our circle understand a little Italian, only one person is fluent. She promised to hold back so that others could take full advantage of being guided by Laura Caparrotti, our instructor from Collina Italiana.
While we waited for everyone to arrive, we sat at the bar and enjoyed chatting with Gina Corea, who was born in upstate New York and learned Italian when she lived for eight years in Italy. “When you are learning a language, what sticks is what you learn through experience,” she said, explaining that is the rationale behind Parla Come Mangi. “These evenings are two hours of full immersion. The goal is to get everyone speaking Italian.”
Once we were seated in Alloro’s elegant back room, Caparrotti began by having each of us state our name and occupation, “Me chiamo Charlene,” “My name is Charlene,” Io sono giornalista,” “I am a journalist.”
By now, the wait staff had passed out the menus and we had the opportunity to look over the offerings. Surprise! Caparrotti asked us to order in Italian after she gave us some help deciphering the list. I chose for my appetizer, polpettine dello chef ricotta di bufala e pomodoro (small meatballs with buffalo ricotta cheese and tomato sauce). My main course, tonnarelli alla carbonara con guanciale croccante, carciofi e curry, required some help from Salvatore for an accurate description. The tonnarelli alla carbonara was easy enough. Tonnarelli are like spaghetti, but with a square cross-section. Guanciale croccante, essentially translated as crisp or crackling pieces of a bacon-like cut of pork from the cheeks of the animal, the carciofi, artichokes, and the curry, well, curry. My dessert was ricotta di bufala con noci, granita di sedano e chartreuse, pepe nero. This was a wonderful and unexpected combination! Ice shavings flavored with celery with a sweet ricotta sauce flavored with walnuts and a sprinkling of back pepper and chartreuse liquor. (This is one of those dishes where the English translation does not do it justice). We then chose wine, bianco o rosso.
Other diners chose different dishes. One standout was the appetizer pictured above, gamberi al rosmarino (shrimp with rosemary) cannellini al peperoncino (spicy white beans). Caparrotti loved the gamberi dish, explaining to us in Italian that she is from a region of Italy, Calabria, where hot pepper is very popular.
Caparrotti excelled at leading us in conversation, especially because she was working with a beginner group (very beginner for some!) and had to stop frequently to explain, mostly in Italian with a sprinkling of English, what she was saying. We covered all things New York, traveling in Italy, politics in the U.S. and in Italy, and, of course, food. Questions frequently began with, “Come se dice…” How do you say….with Caparrotti helping us to word the question.
By the end of the evening, well sated with food and wine, everyone was chatting, excited to use some of our new words. Are we ready to dine out in Italy? Assolutamente!
For upcoming events at Alloro, including their popular opera nights, go to:
307 East 77th Street, between First and Second Avenues
For events at Collina Italiana, including language classes and movie nights, go to:
135 East 96th Street