Viola looking to the future! Photo by Janis Lewin

A few things about Viola Buitoni: she’s Italian, she’s a mother, she can cook, she lives in the Mission. Find out how they intersect in her life in this series of articles and videos.

I know it’s been any day now for 2+ millennia, but it seems the date is finally set, just around the corner and conveniently scheduled on a Saturday: May 21st is Judgment Day. I am sure you have all seen the signs…I mean the ones plastered on billboards and buses all over town.

I suppose if I were a better person I would be busy making good with God and man, but the Maker and I have been at odds since my tween years, and the two men with whom I am most interested in making good, my husband and child, already think me faultless.

I did anxiously scramble through and, but neither site features a doomsday kit, and when my emails to their customer service departments went unanswered, I decided there were only two issues left to fret over.

A) WTF does one wear when facing the probability of eternal damnation? And B) What would appear in a suitably memorable last meal?

In my sinning ways, those very same ways that will likely ensure the Lord’s wrath, I have started looking at the impending doomsday as yet another excuse for shopping. I mean, presented with the option of eternal damnation or everlasting rapture, the whole saving for college and old age thing seems a little useless, no? Spending one’s money on the ephemeral strikes me as much wiser.

Food is so intrinsic to the place where one is, I figured the doomsday pantry would be somewhat determined by the bounty of the Mission Community Market, with the addition of taste memories and all-time favorites. More on that later, with recipes….

But the timelessness of a style well-suited to the occasion called for some serious reflection on the characteristics that would define the perfect eternity outfit.

A good dress has always been my favorite go-to item; this one would need to be comfortable, stylish and look good with wings — just in case the whole angels-on-clouds thing learned in Sunday school and fed to my little Ernesto to assuage the sorrow of missing grandparents — turns out to be true.

This dress will be soft and forgiving to my less-than-perfect shape, and it will hit the knee, a length that will never tire me, as I know from 30+ years of sporting it. This gem will be sexy and flirty (I might meet my angel twin soul) but not provocative. After all, why would I want to provoke the all-powerful entity deciding if I make the cut?

And, in the off chance that I do make that cut, I need something to properly catch the illuminations of the Rapture, therefore understatedly colorful and definitely in flowing silk.

Parameters set, I started the prowl, visiting some of my favorite fashion spots in town. Here in the Mission they are WonderlandSF on 24th Street and Dema on Valencia. I also love Two Skirts on Chestnut Street in the Marina, Workshop on Union in Cow Hollow, Ooma on Grant in North Beach, and I am crazy for the new MAC in Dogpatch.

Befitting Horace’s adage that virtue lies in the middle, the chosen garb was discovered in the shopping center of all the above, at another favorite haunt, Dish Boutique in Hayes Valley.

Don’t get me wrong, other lovely garments from many of the aforementioned establishments found their way into my closet during the pilgrimage — this girl needs to look good on the way to doomsday. But the ultimate selection met ALL the criteria I had in mind, and to boot, I had the perfect shoes for it in my closet and complementing earrings hanging from my jewelry tree.

Fashion: check. Now for the food….

I had a dream about my last table early this morning. It brought to mind a meal calling not for hushed, admiring tones but for the laughter of family and friends, a table whose emotions will always remain as unforgettable as its flavors.

Photo by Janis Lewin

By my oneiric last table, where anything could be had to content one’s heart, I smelled the char of steak from my father’s small ranch, which we have by now sold, while finding solace in my mother’s soup with prosciutto bone and fagiolina del Trasimeno — heirloom beans from my part of Italy.

Salad and green beans from my childhood home garden saddled to Dad’s steak, and dessert was a heaping basket of honey-dripping figs and one of my mother’s memorable crostate. Her unmistakable dough often featured lard, graced by a jam of her own making.

And then I woke up and I was in San Francisco, and it was Thursday, market day, and if this is where I am meant to end my days, then what would I want that I can source locally or have easily overnighted? I kept thinking of a table laden with a mix of the familiar and the forbidden, the comfortably granted and the exotically unusual.

I know this will raise eyebrows in our fair city, but if I am to be zapped or raptured, I would have to indulge in a torchon, a gorgeous piece of foie gras that I would ask my favorite chef and dear friend, Amaryll Schwertner of Boulette’s Larder, to cure in salt.

Then there would be pasta, of course, it would be handmade, by my child, then graced by Italian ricotta, the sheep kind made outside Rome, which could be shipped from NY, with shavings of bottarga — pressed and dried fish roe, also hailing from Italy — and finally, to bring it all together, Meyer lemon, best if picked from a friend’s garden.

I first tasted bottarga when I was 7, Ernesto’s age. I remember the intense odor of the rust-colored, heart-shaped mysteries hanging in a wire mesh cabinet in the courtyard of my mother’s favorite fishmonger on the southern Tuscan coast. I can see her hand sliding over them to finally settle on the one she thought worthiest of our tiny palates-in-training.

The spaghetti that night was glistening with olive oil and freckles of rust, and it tasted unlike anything I have tried before or since. It was like the sea, like salt and wind, like the inside of shells I colonized in my dreams, like I imagined Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid to taste if I could eat that tale. To this day, when I eat bottarga, an ingredient that I have by now made thoroughly mine in cooking, I am swept away. The fact that Avedano’s always has it in stock is still an everyday wonder.

As one should probably have one’s life companion to the final dinner, next course would be the Husband’s favorite, pescespada alla Livornese, swordfish gently stewed in tomato, olives and capers. To hell with mercury, it’s the end, anyway, which also makes sustainability redundant.

Using the same deliciously canned tomatoes that are a staple of my pantry, I will also indulge the child with his favorite trippa della mamma, a slightly spicy tripe stew that he loves so much it causes him to sigh in disappointment whenever he tries another and, much to my motherly glee, murmur: “Yours is better, mommy.”

As any verdure sings to me, it would be hard to choose, so I would have to bow to seasonal wealth on this side dish: a beautiful plate of locally-grown, roasted asparagus, green garlic and fava beans topped with shaved ricotta secca and flanked by the amazing buffalo mozzarella and small-production gorgonzola, both from Italy, that Cowgirl Creamery has been carrying. And I might have a panful of sautéed carciofina, as I call those tiny baby artichokes whose tenderness barely needs a cleaning.

Of course I would need a loaf of warm bread from Tartine to fully enjoy it all, and since I would be braving the apocalyptic lines anyway, I would most definitely pick up a passion fruit Bavarian to go with the mounds of Chandler strawberries that found their way into my basket as I was selecting greens from Mission Community Market’s wonderful stalls. Those strawberries, by the way, would have been macerating in rum, lemon juice and sugar overnight.

After a good sleep, I’d get all shellacked in my Doomsday dress and have the savagely perfect starter for my final day: a lyrically humble porchetta sandwich. Trucks owned and manned by old curemasters selling these whole roasted pigs dot the country roads of central Italy year-round, creating devoted fans spanning generations. On the way to the Saturday market, mother would stop us all at the stall of the porchetta di Costano for a gloriously unhealthy breakfast. On this Saturday, I will call on Chris at Avedano’s to once again rescue my taste memories, with his fabulous porchetta.

And after that, I will know that I could never be raptured, but I will still make it through, because the Lord knows that a good spirit and a kind soul can take many shapes, and I like to believe that mine is one of them.

Pasta Fresca con Ricotta e Bottarga
For 4-6 people:
1 lb fresh short pasta
1/2 heart bottarga
1 and 1/4 cup fresh ricotta
1 Meyer lemon
1 pinch grated nutmeg
1 tbsp minced parsley
1/2 cup olive oil
pepper and salt to taste

Set water to boil for the pasta. Grate the bottarga in a bowl, add the grated zest from the lemon and the parsley. Cover with olive oil.
Using a sieve or a strainer, sift the ricotta in what will be your final serving bowl and season it with salt, pepper and nutmeg.
Lower the pasta into the boiling salted water; when the cooking water looks starchy, add 1 cup of it to the ricotta and mix well.
When the pasta is al dente, lift with a spider and transfer into the serving bowl, add the bottarga and mix well.
If the pasta is too dry or caked, add some cooking water. Eat right away.

Pescespada alla Livornese
For 6-8 people:
2 lbs swordfish
1 garlic clove
10-12 leaves basil
2-3 pinches dried oregano
1/2 cup pitted black olives (kalamata, taggiasca, nicoise)
1/4 cup capers in salt
1 can peeled tomatoes
1/4 cup olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Cut the swordfish in smallish cubes, smash the garlic clove, cut the olives in half and rinse them well in cold water to remove the brine flavor. Rinse and then soak the capers to remove the salt. Slice the basil in thin ribbons. Drain the tomatoes and crush them with your hands.
In a shallow casserole, heat the olive oil with the garlic clove. Remove the garlic clove. Add the cubed fish and let it turn color just on the outside; it should take about 2-3 minutes. Remove the fish with a slotted spoon and set aside.
Add the crushed tomatoes, oregano and half the basil to the casserole. Let the tomatoes stew brightly on medium heat for about 15-20 minutes, then adjust salt and pepper. You are looking for a vivacious, somewhat raw tomato taste, but not watery.
Add the olives and capers and cook for another 5 minutes. Add the fish and turn the heat off.
Transfer to a bowl, sprinkle with the remaining basil and serve.

Trippa della mamma
For 6-8 people:
2 lbs tripe
1 can peeled tomatoes
2 small onions
2 stalks celery
3 carrots
4 cloves
5-6 peppercorns
2 bay leaves
2-3 sprigs of marjoram
1 lemon slice
1 cup of vinegar
1 splash dry white wine
pinch of hot pepper (optional)
salt and pepper to taste

Soak the tripe with half the vinegar for a couple of hours. Rinse well and place in a pot. Cover with cold water and add the rest of the vinegar. Bring to a boil, turn the heat down and simmer for an hour. Drain and rinse well.
Place the tripe in a clean pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, turn the heat down and simmer for an hour. Drain and rinse well.
Place the tripe in a clean pot and cover with cold water. Add one of the onions, peeled and spiked with the cloves, one of the carrots, one of the celery stalks, and the bay leaves, lemon slice and peppercorns. Bring to a boil, turn the heat down and let simmer for about an hour. Drain and rinse well.
During the last simmer, prepare the rest of the ingredients. Clean and chop the remaining onion, celery and carrots. Remove the marjoram leaves from the sprigs and chop them finely. Drain the tomatoes, place them in a bowl and crush them with your hands.
Drain the tripe and let cool. Cut horizontally in wide strips, then slice each strip quite thinly.
In a casserole, place the olive oil, chopped aromatics, marjoram and hot pepper, if using it. Let them soften. Add the tripe and sauté for 3-4 minutes, deglaze with the wine.
When you no longer smell the wine, adjust salt and pepper, then add the tomatoes. As soon as it boils, turn down the heat to medium low and let stew for about 30 minutes.
Serve warm to hot, sprinkled with parmigiano and accompanied by thick slices of toasted country bread.

Crostata della Mamma
Dough for a 9” tart pan
270 grams flour
115 grams casters sugar
90 grams butter, diced and at room temperature
45 grams lard
4 egg yolks
Grated zest of one orange (or lemon)
Pinch of salt
1 jar of your favorite jam or marmalade

To prepare the dough — called pasta frolla in Italian — place all ingredients in the mixer with a paddle attachment and work on medium to high speed until they start coming together. Empty on top of a piece of plastic wrap and press together with the tip of your fingers, then form a flat round ball with the palm of your hands. Wrap tightly with plastic and place in the refrigerator to rest for at least 30 minutes.
If using a food processor, pulse until the ingredients start coming together, then proceed as above.
Line a tart pan with parchment paper.
When the dough has rested, roll it to about 1/2” thickness and arrange it on the tart pan. Spread your favorite jam or marmalade over it and bake at 350-375 for 20-25 minutes.
Note: You can use 135 grams of butter, if you prefer not to use lard

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A native Italian, US-based professional with 30 years of multifaceted experience in the field of Italian food, Viola transitioned to teaching 10 years ago, with the goal of getting home cooks to gather daily around the stove and table. She believes that from our kitchens, we can make the world a better place. By cooking good food at the intersection of Italian table culture and local agriculture, she teaches people to enjoy and value good food, and understand its critical role to the overall well being of our communities. For more details on registering for Viola’s classes and other food-related activities go to her website.
For more details on registering for Viola’s classes and other food-related activities click here.

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  1. What a rapturous send-off menu! Although I’m sure i would be too stuffed to make it to heaven.

  2. I’m not going at all. I want to stay here and that’s that. But I do think your send off meal is amazing and I may even try to replicate it myself. As a Native San Franciscan, and a Mexican woman, I will make my own substitutions as might be more available to me. But I do have a Meyer’s lemon tree in my yard, so I may be closer than you think.

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