Late August is my favorite time of year: just cool enough to eat outside without dripping sweat into your food, but still the season for excellent produce. It's like all those tender stalks of asparagus, juicy tomatoes, and bunches of fresh herbs are just begging you to make a totally killer Italian dinner and eat it in a cool evening breeze. And let's be real: why wouldn't you say yes? Here's how it's gonna go.
Let's start off with something refreshing and bracing: the Negroni. Over the last decade, Negronis have taken the States by storm, and the once obscure Italian aperitivo seems like it's definitely here to stay. All I can say is hells yes, because the bittersweet combo of Campari, gin, and sweet vermouth is the perfect summery, appetite-whetting drink that also happens to be almost impossible to screw up (seriously, just equal parts everything). Throw in a piece of orange peel and you're good to go.
Really can't stand the bitterness? Swap your cocktail for a glass of one of our favorite bottles of Lambrusco: we love the effervescent red best when it's young, dry, just a little fruity, and tart.
Anitpasto: Caprese Salad
Making a great caprese salad all boils down to getting your hands on the very best ingredients—it's such a simple dish that each component deserves to shine. Luckily, it's the perfect time of year for fresh, local, tart-sweet tomatoes and bright leaves of basil. The rest is just a matter of getting your hands on the highest quality olive oil and fresh mozzarella you can find (we recommend heading to your local dairy for the latter if you've got one). Finish it off with coarsely ground black pepper and flaky salt, and you're good to go. And no, we didn't forget the balsamic: it just doesn't belong.
Primo: Ricotta Gnocchi With Asparagus and Prosciutto
This may look and sound like a complicated dish, but ricotta gnocchi couldn't be faster or easier. Seriously, you can whip this bad boy up in less time than it takes to boil a box of spaghetti, give or take a little practice. The gnocchi themselves are a bare-bones combo of ricotta, Parmesan, flour, and egg. Stir 'em together, roll the dough into a log, and sliced into individual nubs. They cook for about three minutes before they're finished in a quick sauté of asparagus, prosciutto, and a glug of heavy cream. On your marks, get set...go!
Secondo: Shrimp Scampi
Buttery, garlicky shrimp scampi is an inherently simple dish, but that doesn't mean we don't have a few tricks up our sleeve. For starters, put down the bottle of white wine and grab the vermouth: it makes a killer pan sauce when mixed with butter and fresh herbs. And speaking of those herbs, we don't just stop at the traditional parsley—our recipe calls for tarragon and chives to round things out. And when it comes to the shrimp itself, we give them a sprinkle of baking soda before sautéing them, for meaty shellfish that stays moist and tender even when cooked over high heat.
Not a big fan of shrimp? Might I recommend a juicy hanger steak in a punchy bagna cauda sauce, instead?
Dolce: Ricotta Gelato
Smooth, creamy, mild ricotta forms the base of this light but satisfying gelato. It also happens to be a great way to use up any extra ricotta left over from your gnocchi. And unlike more labor-intensive recipes, this one's entirely no-cook: just mix together ricotta, milk, sugar, corn syrup for smoothness, and a pinch of salt, and you can have freshly churned gelato-style ice cream in under an hour. Once you've got it, scoop it onto a summery fruit pie or just enjoy it plain. Or celebrate ricotta's versatility and pair it with mix-ins like lemon zest, cocoa nibs, dark chocolate, chopped nuts, or honey.