The world can never have too many Italian grandmothers. The proof came with Giustina's pasta.
Her sformata di tagliatelle di Ragu was a small tower of golden, made-from-scratch tagliatelle baked in a ring mold with fresh cream and Parmesan cheese, flipped onto an heirloom serving dish and topped with Giustina's Bolognese sauce. This wasn't the typical tomato-laden Bolognese you find in places far from Bologna, but rather a slow-cooked blend of ground beef seasoned with celery, carrots and onions.
At once rich and delicate, the pasta made a second lap around Giustina's dinner table, meticulously laid for six guests with lace tablecloth, linen napkins, antique silver and nick-free porcelain. As I took another generous helping, I sung the dish's praises as "buonissima." Giustina planted a kiss on my forehead. "Mangia! Mangia!"
By the time I'd left her apartment that evening, in a flurry of cheek-pecking arrivedercis, I felt as though I'd found a long-lost aunt who knew the way to my heart via my stomach.
But Giustina is no relation of mine. She is one culinary cog in Home Food, an association of nearly 500 home cooks across Italy. The network's cesarine - an old term of affection for doting Italian matriarchs - open their homes to guests for traditional meals accompanied by local wines at all-inclusive payment of about 40 euros ($55) a person.
Private (or "underground") dining has become a rage - from London to New York to Buenos Aires - as the Internet gives home cooks access to a greater public. Italy's Home Food is the most developed private network: the first to organize, select and promote its offerings at a national level.
"I think it's important for our civilization to have good food and a good experience associated with food," says Egeria Di Nallo, the University of Bologna sociology professor who launched Home Food seven years ago. "For me, that begins with the family." For vacationers in Italy, Home Food means an authentic culinary experience, far from the tourist dining circuit.
Home Food has spread across Italy, from the Piedmont to Puglia and Sicily. The organization, funded partly by the Ministry of Agriculture and other government agencies, is run by volunteers, including a board that evaluates the cooking of prospective cesarine (there are actually about a dozen male cesarini). The cooks, too, are volunteers, reimbursed only for their expenses.
"These are people who love to cook, and to have guests and to share," Di Nallo says. "Cooking and sharing is the same."
Giustina's apartment is one of several in a 14th century brick palazzo on a quiet street just a few blocks from the bustling shopping arcades of downtown Bologna. As the first guest to arrive, I had the privilege of waiting in Giustina's simple kitchen at a table on which she had arranged plates with the components of the evening's meal: a platter of roasted datterini tomatoes (so-called because of their resemblance in shape and sweetness to dates), a bowl of small sweet and sour onions and the thin dough rolled into diamond shapes she was preparing to fry into the local snack of crescentine.
Giustina explained that she has been cooking for Home Food for four years, since the death of her husband.
"I've always loved cooking - ever since I was a little girl," she said.
The doorbell rang, and Giustina disappeared to greet more guests. These included two retired sisters from Canada and their husbands. After we all assembled in the living room, Giustina asked me to pour from a bottle of local chardonnay that we drank with the warm crescentine and local salami.
The Home Food cesarine are not professional restaurateurs, and the experience can have its quirks. Giustina, who spoke little English, often asked me to translate into Italian. Later, as we filed to the dinner table in her upstairs dining room, she called me downstairs to fetch a lamp. By the time the meal was over, I almost felt guilty not helping with the dishes.
After the pasta, Giustina circulated a large serving dish filled with Bolognese-style pork cutlets, accompanied by roast potatoes and the tomatoes and onions I'd seen in the kitchen. The cutlets were as thin as any I'd ever eaten - each topped with a piece of prosciutto and melted Parmesan cheese from Northern Italy's ham and cheese capital, Parma, about an hour west of Bologna.
The main course produced a chorus of appreciative groans as we marveled at the tenderness of the meat. After we'd set down our forks and knives, Giustina explained her tenderizing trick: soaking the cutlets overnight in beaten eggs with a drop of lemon juice.
Giustina hovered throughout the meal, disappointed if anyone failed to take seconds from her generous platters of food and happy to share her recipes and tips. While some cesarine dine with their guests, Giustina busied herself serving a meal that ended with a deliciously rich chocolate pudding made in a ring mold and accompanied by a bowl of creamy, orange-colored zabaione (made from beating egg yolks and Marsala). After that, we retired to her living room to finish out the evening with a round of espressos.
A FAMILY EXPERIENCE
Every Home Food experience is, of course, different.
Mike Jones, a Louisiana investment manager, cycling enthusiast and avid European traveler, learned about Home Food a couple of years ago when his wife watched a Food Network program. Months later, they found themselves in Lucca, eating with a large local family.
"There we were with three generations of Italians, eating in their home, drinking their wine - and grappa - and synthesizing the culture in a way that no one could ever do in a restaurant," Jones says. "We bonded with that family and did not leave till about midnight.
"Yes, you do pay more per person than you probably would in a restaurant," Jones concedes. "But six months or two years later, it will not be the food that you remember. It will be the wonderful opportunity to make a friend, exchange ideas and maybe grow a little as a citizen of this planet."
* Crescentine and passita sausage
* Sformata di tagliatelle di ragu
* Bolognese cutlet
* Potatoes, roast tomatoes, sweet and sour onions
* Chocolate pudding with zabaglione
* Almond croccantini
* Carefully selected regional wines
* Home Food will accommodate dietary restrictions when possible, but there are no menu choices - the meal is the meal.
* Children are welcome, but there are no children's menus. Everyone eats the same food.
* You are entering someone's home. Treat the host as you would an acquaintance who invited you to her home - not as a waitress.
* There is no tipping, and you don't need to bring a gift or flowers.
* The biggest reward you can dispense is appreciation of your host's hospitality and cooking. Let her know you enjoyed it.
If you want to join
Home Food (Via Broccaindosso 41, Bologna) publishes menus and dinner dates at www.homefood.it. Registration is free; the newsletter and listing of upcoming meals comes around the 20th of each month. Meals must be paid in advance via PayPal. A monthly association membership of 3.50 euros (about $5) is charged to each guest.