BY KATHY GIBBONS
TRAVERSE CITY — Around a year ago, several men from Italy were on their way to Cherry Capital Airport to catch a flight home to Parma when they noticed the sign for Spaghetti Jim's on South Airport Road.
With a little time to spare, they stopped in for a meal. After, said owner Jim Abfalter, "They just remarked on how our pasta was the best they'd had in America."
The men are a crew sent from a company in Italy to install and work on equipment in a local fruit processing plant. Upon returning again in late December, they stopped back at Spaghetti Jim's — several times, in fact.
One of them, engineer Emanuele Raimondi, loves to cook. He said he learned observing his mother, and enjoys creating meals back home. Staying in a hotel wasn't offering much opportunity for that here, though, and so he asked Abfalter if he might be able to cook at the restaurant sometime.
"I told him to come in about closing time, we'll sit down in the kitchen and have some fun," Abfalter said.
Last week, Raimondi came by one night with the other three men in the crew and whipped up a steaming dish of risotto with porcini mushrooms and sausage.
Abfalter said he was interested to observe and learn about the regional influences in Raimondi's cooking. Parma is known for its Parmigiano Reggiano cheese as well as Prosciutto di Parma (Parma ham).
"The sausage was definitely a new twist on risotto," Abfalter said. "And he said they actually add peas to their Bolognese sauce.
"There are huge regional differences. Nobody in any other region (of Italy) knows how to quite make it like you do. Whichever region you're from, yours is the best."
When the risotto was ready, Raimondi and his co-workers joined Abfalter, his wife, Ann, and the staff around the restaurant's communal kitchen table to enjoy the meal together.
"I like cooking," Raimondi said. "I like also eating."
Mushroom Risotto with Sausage
2 T. olive oil
½ onion, diced
¼ lb. loose Italian sausage
1 ½ c. Arborio rice
½ c. pinot grigio
3 c. chicken broth
3 c. water
4 oz. dried porcini mushrooms
3 T. grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese plus more for topping
Chopped Italian parsley for garnish
To reconstitute mushrooms, place them in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Let sit at least 20 minutes.
In a saucepan, mix broth and water together and warm over low heat.
In soup pot or Dutch oven, saute onion in olive oil. Add rice and sausage, and continue to cook, stirring, until rice turns translucent. Add wine and stir, cooking until the wine is almost absorbed. Add a cup of the broth/water mixture, stirring until liquid is about half absorbed. Add another cup of liquid, stir until half absorbed, and continue doing this until all of the broth/water is used and the rice is cooked through but not soggy. You don't want it to end up dry, so if needed add additional broth/water. Drain mushrooms and stir into the risotto. Stir in 3 T. grated cheese.
Transfer risotto to serving bowl and top with chopped parsley and more grated cheese. Serve with grated cheese on the table. Makes about 4 servings.