My heart sank to the floor. I refused to believe the words that had just left Federica’s mouth; it was some of the worst news I could possibly receive on my first night in Siena. “No chicken parmigiana? Are you sure?” I asked. “Si,” she replied, “I do not think this dish is Italian. I have never heard of it.”
Not Italian? She had to be mistaken. Growing up in New England, I had come to know chicken parmigiana as one of the staples of Italian cuisine. It could be found on every Italian restaurant’s menu from the Boston North End up through the coast of Maine. It also happens to be my all-time favorite dish. Chicken parm and pasta, chicken parm subs, sandwiches, calzones… I love it all. So, I was devastated when Federica, one of the Italian roommates CET paired us with this semester, told me that chicken parmigiana was not common in this region of Italy, and especially not in Siena. “But Tim, the food in Italy… it is amazing. You will be amazed at what you find.”
While I was certainly disappointed about the apparent lack of chicken parmigiana in Siena, Federica was absolutely correct. Even within the first few days of living in Siena, I was amazed by how easy it was to find incredible food on almost any street in the city. However, what I was even more surprised by was how easy it was to eat some incredible meals made in the comfort of my own apartment. My Italian roommate Leonardo, upon hearing how distressed I was about not being able to indulge in my favorite Italian dish, offered to cook up a meal for me and our other roommate Grey. I was hesitant at first. All I saw prepped on the counter was some chicken breast, two tomatoes, a scallion, a bag of pasta, and some pepper and olive oil. I had a hard time believing whatever dish Leo was about to prepare would satisfy my chicken parm craving. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
He moved with precision and intention in the kitchen. The swift dicing of the scallion, the perfectly sized pinch of salt into the pot of boiling water, Leonardo was a seasoned veteran. Using a single pan, Leo fried up the chicken with some olive oil and scallions, and then added the tomatoes and a splash of white wine. The aromas emanating from that pan were unlike anything I’ve ever smelled before. I was entranced. Within a few minutes, the vegetables and chicken had simmered down into what looked like a salsa, and Leo got to work on the pasta. “Al dente?” he asked, nodding in my direction. I’m no expert when it comes to cooking pasta; a microwaved bowl of Kraft mac and cheese is a ten out of ten in my book. So, I just nodded back at Leo and responded, “Si” as if that was the obvious answer.
After draining the pasta in a strainer following a few minutes of boiling, Leo then got to work on preparing the individual plates for the three of us. With three swift scoops, Leo perfectly portioned out the pasta into three bowls and then added the mixture of chicken and veggies on top. Then he took out a large slice of cheese from the fridge, gave it a whiff, a quick nod of approval, and then grated it on top. “Okay, time to eat,” he said, motioning towards the table.
“Do you like it?” Leo asked. Grey and I nodded and gave him an enthusiastic thumbs up, our mouths too full of delicious pasta to offer a verbal response. Every part of the dish worked in harmony. “What is the name of this recipe?” I asked Leo. “There is no name,” he responded, “I just made what was in the fridge.” I couldn’t believe it. Using just spare ingredients in our fridge and his instincts, Leonardo singlehandedly made the best bowl of pasta I had ever had in my life. Suddenly, the scarcity of chicken parmigiana in Siena didn’t bother me as much.
One of my favorite parts about studying in Siena through the CET program is the daily cultural immersion that comes from living with an Italian roommate. I was incredibly grateful to Leo for being willing to cook a meal for us. I look forward to experiencing more Italian food that he prepares and showing him some of our favorite staples in America. Luckily, some of my fellow American students in the CET program are great chefs that I can call on to give me some tips whenever I decide to make a meal for Leo and Grey.
One student in particular that comes to mind is Nick, a Bostonian who has a knack for cooking up some truly awesome food. At the end of our first week in Siena, Nick called Grey and I to invite us over for some dinner that he prepared. The main course? Chicken Parmigiana. I practically sprinted to his apartment, eager to try Chef Nick’s creation. It did not disappoint, and I was thoroughly impressed with Nick’s cooking skills. I was also immensely grateful to Nick for offering a little taste of home while we were adjusting to living on a new continent for the semester. Getting to share meals with my Italian roommate and the other American students in the CET program is already one of my favorite parts of this study abroad experience so far. I look forward to trying more incredible cuisine with this fantastic group while out in Siena and maybe even in our apartment using my own cooking skills.
Ciao (Goodbye) for now!