Last week we had the joy of throwing a surprise 70th birthday party for my father-in-law. Yes, it was a month early, but since my in-laws are out in San Diego right now, we really wanted to get the chance to celebrate together.
As some of you know, my father-in-law is from Sicily, so when we planned out the menu for his big birthday celebration, we wanted to try and create a dinner that would include all of his favorite dishes. After a bit of planning, we decided on a seven course menu, which seemed very fitting and became the theme for the dinner, “sette per settanta” (7 for 70).
As the day approached, the hubby and I were both teeming with excitement, especially because literally no one else knew about the party for fear the surprise would slip out. We shopped, cooked and baked our little buns off…and then finally we were ready.
In order for my father-in-law to know that it was a celebration of his birthday, we decided to hang a birthday sign on our front door. I planned to quietly wait behind the door while he read the sign and then I would jump out and yell, “surprise!” (The hubby was already with them because he had picked them up.)
Surprise out of the way, it was time to get the party started. Or maybe I should say it was time to get the eating started. Since we had planned seven courses and didn’t want the dinner to feel rushed in any way, we started fairly early (4 p.m.), and planned on stretching the dinner through the night.
The first course was panelle with shaved pecorino cheese. Panelle, hmmmm…how do I describe them? I think that the best comparison that I can make is that they are almost like a french fry, except they are made out of chickpea flour and are out of this world better. Essentially you cook chickpea flour with water and roll the mixture out into a pan, let it cool, then cut and fry. But all you really need to know is that they are delicious. Really, really delicious. And paired with a nice crisp Sicilian white wine? It was a great starter for a hot day. We sat on the patio, chomped down panelle and toasted to my father-in-law.
For the second course we moved inside, as we were actually feeling a little roasty toasty on the patio (we had a bit of a heat wave last week), where we feasted on involtini di pesce spada. Thinly pounded swordfish (thanks to Grandmother’s rolling pin), stuffed with a mixture of breadcrumbs, cheese, golden raisins, parsley and olive oil, then rolled up and baked. And since we are all a little crazy for fresh lemon (but especially my father-in-law), I grilled up a couple of lemon halves to juice over the top.
You know what’s completely funny about this dish? First bite in, I was like, “wow, these are really good.” And then it hit me and I laughed out loud hysterically. I had actually never had this dish, nor made it…so thankfully it turned out well (although using the relatives recipe definitely helped too!).
I was hoping that the third course was going to be a success, because I knew that it was a huge food memory for Pino. Anellini al forno – tiny ring shaped pasta coated in a meat and pea ragu with fresh mozzarella chunks, baked in breadcrumbs until crispy and gooey. My father-in-law has talked about remembering having this dish at a wedding in Sicily – and he always commented on how they were like tiny little baskets. So as tiny as I could go, I did. My husband diligently buttered and bread-crumbed our muffin tray and I stuffed the pasta in, in hopes that it would turn out well.
To say that it was a success is an understatement, they truly could not have turned out better. My father-in-law was in heaven. And for me, that was the greatest success all night.
Post pasta-high, it was going to be tough to do anything that could be more exciting or impressive. But luckily, I had a little trick up my sleeve, I bought (an almost 3 lb) bone in rib eye steak to grill. (As close to bistecca alla fiorentina as we can get in the States.)
We poured some wine and headed up to the big grills that our building has to make sure that we really got a good crust on our steak. As the sun set, we laughed, talked, drank some delicious Sicilian red wine, and anxiously awaited the bistecca. (Anxious on my part, as I wanted to make sure that I cooked it just right!)
Cooking done, we brought it back down to our apartment. While the steak rested, I finished baking off the bread and prepared my father-in-law’s favorite tomato salad. (Fresh heirloom tomatoes, thinly sliced onions, e.v.o.o. and a splash of balsamic vinegar- super simple and soooo delicious!)
I sliced up the steak, and we were all seriously ready to tuck in. And the result? Unbelievable. It was so good. Juicy, flavorful, and perfectly cooked to boot. It will never be exactly the same as the bistecca (as that is actually its own type of cow), but this was pretty darn close.
Post steak, we all needed a little food break. And so it really seemed like the perfect opportunity to play, “pin the gold on the Sicilian donkey.” Yes, you heard me correctly, pin the gold on the Sicilian donkey. One, because my father-in-law loves gold, and two, because he is Sicilian and had a donkey growing up. Plus, who doesn’t love a good party game?
It was a hoot. We laughed. A lot. And although my husband immediately exclaimed that he was the winner, the winner is always the birthday boy! And if you know me, there was a prize for the winner. A Sicilian donkey piñata filled with gold. Yep, we used our entire life savings to fill that piñata with gold coins and ingots. (I’m only kidding of course, they were gold chocolates. But my father-in-law had just about the same amount of excitement as if it were real gold.)
Savory courses done, it was time for the dessert courses. (Yes, we still had three more courses to go.) First up was a sort-of palette cleanser, creamy tart lemon sorbet. Which thankfully was delicious. (I say this because it took me 4 tries to get the recipe just right.)
Post palette cleanser was Pino’s Sicilian style birthday cake, cannoli (of course filled with sheep’s milk ricotta – that is a must for all Sicilians.) Freshly whipped ricotta, stuffed à la minute into the cannoli shells – either extra cheesy (for my father-in-law) or with a little shaved dark chocolate (for the rest of us).
And with this course we brought out a special dessert wine that we had been saving just for a night like this, a 2006 Moscato di Noto. Pino is a huge dessert wine lover, so this was really a no brainer, we knew he would love it. Cannolis and dessert wine? Yep, we were all in dessert heaven.
But wait, the night was not over, there was still one more course! Hard to believe, right? Well, yep, there it was, course seven. Homemade almond biscotti and freshly picked nespoli. I picked this course, first, because biscotti dunked in dessert wine is amazing, and second, because every meal in Sicily I have ever had ends with fruit. (Plus my father-in-law is nuts for nespoli!)
My father-in-law was really in his element – he was beaming. We could both feel how much he really loved everything, and that was such a treat for us to get to treat him. In the end, nothing is better than a great meal shared with family. I know that we will all remember how special the night was, and I am just so happy that we got to toast to my father-in-law’s birthday together. Happy 70th Birthday Pino! Cheers to many more beautiful years!