Vegetables Italian Style

One of the chefs in the kitchen, Alberto, is a gruff old guy who is not comfortable with me in the kitchen because I am a woman. I decided to go to him directly and offer my help. Maybe I could break through that crust. “Che cosa posso aiutarlo oggi?” (What can I help you with today?) I asked. He looked rather surprised and didn’t say anything, but he directed me to slice eggplant, zucchini, fennel (called “anise” in our grocery stores in the states) and red peppers.

Alberto was grilling vegetables to be reheated as the contorno, or vegetable to accompany the evening meal. He brushed them with olive oil and used the indoor grill to put those black hash marks on them. Grigliata Mista di Verdure (Mixed Grilled Vegetables) Fennel (usually mislabeled anise in the produce section of the grocery store) Eggplant Zucchini Red, yellow and green bell peppers Slice, brush with olive oil and roast on the grill. I was glad when the time came to break came for lunch. I think it’s going to take awhile for Alberto to accept me.

In the afternoon I did not go down to the restaurant by the pool. Instead, I remained in the main kitchen and helped Alessandro make several eggplant dishes as we had received a very large delivery of small, Italian eggplants that morning. They would all be refrigerated for use for lunch and dinner services over the next couple of days. I shifted my weight from one foot to the other as I peeled eggplant. I was tired and began to have some doubts about owning my own restaurant some day. It would mean working seven days a week until well after midnight each night. Although I really enjoyed cooking and was certainly learning a lot, I wasn’t sure I liked the long hours and the hectic pace of a restaurant kitchen.

After chopping the eggplant, I tossed it with salt and set it aside in a colander so the moisture drawn out by the salt could drain. Then I took the colander of eggplant over to the deep fryer basket and cooked several batches until they were golden brown. Alessandro was mixing ricotta with very finely diced carrots that had been boiled. He had a worried look on his face as he said, “They do not pay us enough here. I have a baby coming and need bigger place to live, but I cannot afford. I used to be paid €1,800 a month but was not paid in winter when restaurant is closed.” I raised my eyebrows as if to ask why.

“No tourists.” Then he continued, “I told Chef I need to be paid every month and he said okay, but he reduce my salary to €1,200 a month! The rent for our apartment is €650. How can I manage on that?”

“If the restaurant is closed in the winter, what do you do?” I asked with genuine concern.

“Many chefs work on the big ships – how you say, cruise? Or they work on island in Caribbean. I don’t want to leave my wife and child, but I will have to.”

We placed the prepared eggplant casseroles in the refrigerator and began assembling the next dish which was eggplant parmigiano, although it was made differently from the way I always made it at home. Alessandro had me fry the eggplant slices in the deep fryer as he grated the cheeses using the buffalo chopper.

It was rainy and cool when I left the restaurant and I was glad that I had brought an umbrella in my backpack. I decided not to walk down the hill to Amalfi, but rather to try to catch the bus at the hotel bus stop. I knew that it would be crowded with standing room only, but I didn’t feel like walking down in the rain. I climbed up the steps, stamped my bus ticket in the validating machine and squeezed my way down the aisle. It was hard to hang on as we were going around all those hair pin turns. I wondered if the bus drivers drove Italian race cars on their days off. The rain certainly didn’t slow them down!

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