A Brief Account of Dinner, Montreal-Italian Style

In the absence of an actual photo, I just googled "Italian family dinner".

In the absence of an actual photo, I just googled “Italian family dinner”.

Last night, we had a dinner of epic proportions and I feel compelled to jot down a few lines about it, lest the pleasant memories be banished forever to the far recesses of my mind.

Being city dwellers, we rarely undertake a solid half hour drive to get anywhere (unless we’re going on an impromptu road trip to New Orleans) – but gladly made an exception to attend the birthday dinner of a dear friend of Riccardo’s parents. We ventured confidently into the land of bakeries and banquet halls known as RDP (Rivière-des-Prairies), the site of my introduction to a real World Cup-related celebration (maybe I’ll write about that another time). Warm greetings and crystal glasses filled with prosecco awaited us, and we nibbled nonchalantly on the pizza that appeared relentlessly from the oven before realizing we really should pace ourselves.

Presently we were invited to sit for dinner, and our host (and the evening’s honoree) advised us gravely that the sight of an empty wine glass displeased him greatly. With hawk-like swiftness, he replaced each bottle on the table the very moment the last drop was poured from it. This attentiveness continued throughout the evening, making for an increasingly festive and exuberant ambiance.

The pasta course was served – a duo of gnocchi. One kind was imported from Italy and tossed with an exceedingly tasty tomato sauce, while the other was homemade by our host’s daughter and consisted of heavenly pillows infused with butternut squash and sage. A blanket of Parmiggiano shavings from the gigantic block completed the dish, and it was sublime. Our weak protestations being futile, Riccardo and I eventually surrendered to our hostess’ insistence that we take second helpings.

Our host’s son had made the main course – a colossal vat of sweet, succulent pulled pork. This dish required some explanation for the older generation at the table – our hostess instructed us to pile it onto the crusty Italian bread (also directly from Italy, and delicious). Riccardo’s mother declared the taste to resemble Indian food – we weren’t so sure about that, and figured that by « Indian » she just meant « not Italian ».

A couple of friends of our host’s son dropped by – one of Calabrese descent, and one whose exact ancestry wasn’t clear to me except that he insisted that he was NOT Napolitano. A lively discussion of Italian regional differences ensued, veering naturally into mild soccer-related controversy. A common thread shared by each of the young men, regardless of regional origin, was the tendency to permeate their speech with “bro”. Our hostess’ mother interrupted her near-constant dish-washing to regale everyone with a cheeky joke along the lines of:

Cosa dice un elefante quando vede un uomo nudo?

Ma come fa’ a bere?!

(Actually, the joke was told in dialetto Veneto, not Italian, but I don’t know how to write it.)

With Lent approaching and the Carnevale di Venezia around the corner, fried desserts were inevitable. Platters of fried dumplings and grostolli (slivers of fried dough dusted with icing sugar made annually by Riccardo’s mother) were passed around, and caffe was served (naturally, with Grappa). Various other bottles of digestivo made the rounds, further contributing to the convivial mood. The girls sipped passito, a sweet, Sicilian ice wine-like drink, while the Hendricks and Jameson flowed on the guys’ end of the table. The extent of the hospitality was such that you had only to mention you enjoyed a particular drink and it appeared. Someone played a couple of old mountain songs from a laptop – lilting accordion and lyrics in dialetto – and the joke-telling nonna sang along.

A photo we took to record the brand of crostini we were eating.

A photo we took in order to remember the brand of crostini we were eating.

As the evening progressed, we realized it was unlikely we’d be getting back to town for the other birthday party we had planned to drop in on – especially when, unbelievably, plates of cheese, sopressa and crostini began appearing. A raw milk cheese made by the father of the non-Napolitano guy was particularly delicious – I adore how so many Montreal Italians find ways to eat traditional foods long after they’ve left Italy behind.

Eventually, the younger set headed downtown to the clubs to meet their future wives (“for the night!”, they added, to the delight of the older generation). I was sure the evening was over, until steaming bowls of spaghetti all’aglio e olio were set before us, whipped up by another son (in case you haven’t guessed, the entire family is culinarily gifted). He declared it to be an infallible hangover remedy, which we can confidently attest to this morning. It had the added advantage of being delicious.

A totally acceptable way to end an evening.

A totally acceptable way to end an evening.

Generous hospitality, lively conversation and delicious and lovingly-prepared food make a blistery February night in Montreal – and life in general – worthwhile.

Have you experienced Italian hospitality of similarly epic proportions? Tell me about it below.

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