Special Dinners Past and Future at Capitol Grille

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I had the privilege (well, I paid for the privilege) to attend a dinner last month at the Capitol Grille where noted food critic John Mariani gave a presentation based on his new book "How Italian Food Conquered the World." Mariani has been Esquire Magazine's food and travel correspondent for years and has recently started his own Virtual Gourmet newsletter along with his son, Christopher. His latest issue includes a paen to Nashville.

I had heard of Mariani's reputation as a stickler, the kind of guy who has the recipe for his favorite cocktail, the original daiquiri, printed on the back of his business card to hand to bartenders to ensure they make his drink to his satisfaction. But in actuality, I found him to be a warm, personable fellow. and the Mariani-recipe daiquiris we enjoyed during the predinner reception were delicious. He turned out to be quite a fan of Nashville, and as an amateur guitar and mandolin picker, admitted a bit of an obsession with Gruhn's Guitars and the Station Inn. The author mingled with the crowd and signed copies of his book until it was time to be seated in the ballroom for his presentation.

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Since it was still early and Mariani told us that 7 p.m. "is when children eat dinner," he took us on an entertaining Powerpoint tour of Italian cuisine and its relatively recent ascendance to global domination.

What many consider to be traditional Italian food, pastas slathered in red sauce and pepperoni pizzas are actually a fairly recent development. Mariani acknowledged the New World's contribution to food around the world in the form of ingredients that weren't available until Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Picture Thai food without spicy chilis or Ireland without potatoes, not to mention no tubers for the Russians to make vodka with. That's what the culinary landscape was like before Europeans and Asians began to import these foodstuffs from the Americas.

And no Italian had ever heard of a tomato, much less cooked with one before the 16th century. Heck, there wasn't really even an Italy to speak of before the unification of 1861. Before that, Italy was "a plate of soup surrounded by too many spoons," where city states constantly attacked and defended each other rather than developing a national cuisine.

Thirty years after unification, Pellegrino Artusi created the first Italian cookbook by bringing together cuisines from all over the boot. His book sold an astounding 220,000 copies and as a side effect popularized his Tuscan dialect as the national language of Italy, since his book was the first book to be widely read across the country.

Getting back to tomatoes, initially nobody in Europe ate them because of the rumor that they were poisonous. Yummy, yummy poison. Luckily, by the late 1800s, a chef named Rafaele Eposito developed a version of the traditional street food of Naples as a tribute to a visit by Queen Margherita.

To show off his patriotic spirit, Eposito covered a flat bread with ingredients the colors of the italian flag: red tomatoes, green basil and white mozzarella. The resulting acclaim for pizza alla margerita still reaches all the way to the Kroger freezer case.

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Mariani's presentation was full of these fun little anecdotes, and the book expands on the importance of Italian food and how it is represented in popular culture. Why is it socially acceptable, for example, to have a pizza chain called Godfather's Pizza?

The show then was turned over to Capitol Grille chef Tyler Brown and his staff to present their interpretation of modern Italian cuisine. I'm no paisano, but the results were spectacular in my opinion.

Keep your hands off my panna cotta, Mariani!
  • Keep your hands off my panna cotta, Mariani!
After appetizers of flash-fried stuffed squash blossoms from the Capitol Grille's farm at Glen Leven and a parsnip insalata, we tucked into a wonderful carpaccio made from beef tenderloin raised at Glen Leven, Sarveccio Sartori, basil and focaccia. It was so tender you could cut it with a tongue depressor — and full of rich flavors.

The main course was a Sunburst Farms Trout served over a ricotta ravioli with ramps, morels and preserved Meyer lemon.

We finished the meal with a Cruze Dairy Buttermilk Panna Cotta made by party chef Megan Williams. We had the good fortune of having a lactose-intolerant diner at our table, so everyone else got an extra spoonful of dessert. The wine parings were very appropriate, interesting Italian whites and reds and proved the perfect complement to a memorable meal.

If you're kicking yourself because you missed this great evening, fear not because another opportunity is coming up soon. On July 31, Chef Brown will host "A Tasteful Pursuit — Chefs on Tour for Childhood Hunger," a benefit for the Share our Strength organization. This dinner has quite a talented crew of chefs contributing.


A Tasteful Pursuit — Chefs on Tour for Childhood Hunger

The Hermitage Hotel
The Grand Ballroom
231 Sixth Ave. N.
Nashville
6 p.m.— Cocktail reception
7 p.m.— Multicourse seated dinner with wine pairings

HOST CHEF
Tyler Brown, executive chef, The Capitol Grille at The Hermitage Hotel, Nashville

GUEST CHEFS
Ashley Christensen, Poole’s, Raleigh, N.C.
John Currence, City Grocery Restaurants, Oxford, Miss.
Hal Holden-Bache, Eastland Cafe, Nashville
Anne Quatrano, Bacchanalia, Quinones, Floataway Cafe, Star Provisions, Abattoir, Atlanta
Megan Williams, pastry chef, The Capitol Grille at The Hermitage Hotel, Nashville
Tandy Wilson, City House, Nashville

Contact Andrea Agalloco at aagalloco@strength.org or 202-478-6528 with any questions.
RSVP required, space is limited.

I've been lucky enough to dine on food prepared by each one of these chefs and I guarantee that it will be a spectacular evening Hope to see you there!

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