Eileen Dunne Crescenzi: Setting the Italian table

Restaurateur Eileen Dunne Crescenzi’s love affair with Italy began when she left Dublin as a teenager, bound for art school in Rome and a new life in the city with her three aunts


Italian cuisine is a cultural and social art form that has developed over hundreds of years, revered by most and misrepresented by many. In my new cookbook, Festa: A Year of Italian Celebrations, I have portrayed my life in Italy through the culture of food.

I abandoned a culture with the belief that the family who prays together stays together and enthusiastically adopted one that believes the family who eats together stays together. In Italy, eating translates into saporous feasts, merriment and chat, and all guilt-free. I had travelled from purgatory to heaven.

I have grown to love the Italian culture. And yet, in response to my almost daily outbursts eulogising everything Italian, a comment by a regular and impeccably dressed customer, supporter and precious critic of our Dunne and Crescenzi restaurant, the honourable Mr Stanford Kingston, tends to stop me in my tracks: “Eileen, you are not Italian. Can I just remind you of that?”

It all started with one of my mother’s youngest sisters, who was both brilliant and bold. I can still hear my grandmother saying in her smoky, husky voice: “She’s too smart for her own good.” She procured herself a good position with the UN in Rome, and shortly afterwards my grandfather remarried. My remaining unmarried aunts weren’t happy sharing the house with the new arrival, so off they went to Rome too.

When I finished secondary school the threesome, who were always looking out for me, their eldest niece, suggested I apply to art college in Rome. That done, I joined the newfound Irish colony and was properly pampered. Jean weaned me on to Italian food, Pauline taught me how to maintain a house and dress fittingly, and Sheila schooled me in Italian culture. It was the taming of Eliza Doolittle all’ Italiana. Needless to say, my sisters came too, followed by nieces, neighbours and friends – but no men.

When I think of Italian food, the first thing that comes to mind is setting the table. It is a ritual carried out with great attention in all Italian homes. The table must be properly set for every meal, whether it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner, and this applies irrespective of a person’s economic circumstances. A well-set table conveys the feeling that all is well with the world.

I have the sweetest memories of my daughter Aislinn subscribing to this philosophy when she was about two years of age. Accustomed to the routine at her creche, every Saturday and Sunday, precisely at midday, I would find her waiting patiently at the table, having carefully arranged her table mat and napkin for lunch.

Every evening, the Italian table is set with a nice crisp tablecloth, upon which is set the delph, cutlery, wine glasses, water glasses and napkins. Baskets of fresh bread, jugs of water and carafes of wine take centre stage.

On special occasions, including Sundays, the best tablecloths are brought out, along with more elaborate delph, glasses and candelabra, creating an ostentatious table which marks out that day as distinct. “Tutti a tavola” (“everyone to the table”) is the invitation to come take your place.

Tablecloths are part of a family’s DNA and are passed down from generation to generation, washed, starched and ironed with true love and care. Tablecloths are not simply bought in a shop.

Lengths of fabric are carefully chosen for design, quality and function (everyday or special occasion), a task that might involve several family members. After this, the lace is selected and expertly matched to the fabric. Then both are sent off to the sarta (tailor) to be made into a tablecloth.

Our family buys the fabric from a beautiful, tiny, traditional shop, Buschi, in Grottazzolina in the Marche, which has stunning views out over the Sibillini Hills. Signor Buschi, against the backdrop of a severe black-and-white portrait of his father, the founder of the shop, rolls out huge bolts of fabric on his ancient wooden counter. After much deliberation, when we have chosen our favourites, he takes an enormous scissors and cuts through the fabric with an engineer’s precision.

Now it’s time to choose the lace. Buschi unfurls great big balls of cotton lace and latticed lace on the counter, and the deliberations start all over again. Should it be wide or narrow, simple or intricate, beige, white or pastel? Buschi is consulted at great length, and gladly lends a hand in making the final decisions.

Finally, the chosen fabrics and lace are parcelled together and sent to Anna, the town sarta. Buschi will eventually post them to Ireland, and it’s so exhilarating to receive those lovely brown paper parcels, tied with twine, showcasing Buschi’s particular handwriting.

Buschi calls us every Christmas Eve to send us his best wishes. He is now in his 80s, and lately I have come across him smoking two cigarettes at a time.

When my husband Stefano’s grandmother, Nonna Valentina, was alive, she painstakingly embroidered elaborate tablecloths for all of her children and grandchildren, and crocheted fine cotton lace trim with the tiniest well-worn crochet hook.

Each design was selected with a particular child or grandchild in mind. She undertook this work each evening after dinner while she watched her favourite chatshows on TV, finished crosswords, munched on forbidden caramels hidden in her apron, and talked incessantly. So now you can understand when I say that tablecloths are part of a family’s heritage.

Exclusive offer for Irish Times readers Get Eileen Dunne Crescenzi’s new cookbook Festa: A year of Italian Celebrations in Recipes and Recollections (Gill and Macmillan) for €20, plus free p&p within Ireland. Usual Price €24.99.

To order call 01-500 9570 and quote ITGM15 or visit readeroffers.irishtimes.com

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