Novelist Meredith Mileti of Mt. Lebanon has her plate full
Meredith Mileti of Mt. Lebanon prepares an appetizer of aged Asiago with peaches and basil wrapped in prosciutto.
Appetizers including blanched carrot and beet salad, roasted peppers with capers, broccoli rabe with hot pepper and assorted olives prepared by Meredith Mileti of Mt. Lebanon.
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Like many talented home cooks, Meredith Mileti of Mt. Lebanon has imagined what it would be like to open a restaurant -- to spend her days thinking about fresh pasta and prosciutto, make salads for 100 instead of five -- rewarded at night's end with the sight of well-fed customers, not just family and friends.
Rather than cashing in her retirement savings, Ms. Mileti found a more satisfying way to live out her culinary fantasy: She wrote a book about it.
"Aftertaste: A Novel in Five Courses" (Kensington Books, $15) is the story of Mira Rinaldi, a successful New York chef and restaurateur, struggling to raise a daughter, hold on to her Italian restaurant and control her anger at the husband and culinary partner who betrayed her.
Ms. Mileti wrote the book and tested the recipes that accompany it in her home, which she shares with her husband, David Cohen, and sometimes with some of her mostly grown children. She invited me to dinner to discuss her book, Italian cooking and Pittsburgh food.
Ms. Mileti's kitchen rambles through her house, extending into a living area and out into the backyard, where a substantial grill sees heavy use during warmer months.
Inside, visitors can sit at a glass table or get cozy on a couch just outside the main cooking area. There's ample counter space, some of which is filled by two wooden knife blocks and four ceramic crocks filled with more spoons and spatulas than most restaurant kitchens. A cookbook was perched on a plastic stand, and a large pasta pot simmered over a powerful flame.
When I arrived, the whole house smelled like basil, growing in pots and window boxes around the house. This summer's varieties include Genovese, Thai, Cinnamon, Lemon, Dark Opal and Spicy Globe, along with thyme, rosemary and, a recent acquisition, a fig tree.
Ms. Mileti learned to cook from her father and grandfather -- the Italian side of the family. Unsurprisingly, it's her "comfort food" and what she cooks most frequently. That evening, the meal began with a platter of antipasti: marinated olives, juicy roasted red peppers, garlic-laced broccoli rabe, and a carrot and beet salad, her grandfather's recipe. There was a plate of cheeses and sliced soppressata along with a loaf of freshly baked bread -- Jim Lahey's no-knead recipe.
As a photographer snapped away and I peppered her with questions, Ms. Mileti sliced fresh peaches and Asiago cheese, added a basil leaf and neatly packed the trio in Parma prosciutto from Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. -- the summer antipasti from the short collection of Ms. Mileti's recipes included in "Aftertaste."
Antipasti was followed by a pasta course, fussiloni with a fresh, colorful tomato sauce, garlic and purple basil and the rich flavor of taleggio cheese, melting from the heat of the pasta and a splash of starchy pasta water. Then came grilled swordfish with summer squash and a snappy salsa verde with anchovy and garlic. Salad ("always after the meal") was passed in a big wooden bowl, the mix of lettuces dressed in Ms. Mileti's simple lemony vinaigrette, which she makes every day. For dessert, a polenta cake made by daughter Amanda and topped off with her mother's lemon-mascarpone gelato and blackberry sauce, tart and refreshing. Ms. Mileti may not have her character Mira's resume, but she certainly can cook.
Her passion for food and writing started young. "My first book I wrote in the eighth grade," she recalled. "It was called 'Cassandra's Journey' -- a baker's daughter lost her family in [the volcanic eruption at] Pompeii and she had to make her way to Greece with a loaf of bread."
She loved to read and write, but her father wanted her to be a doctor, and she went so far as to declare a chemistry major at Hamilton College in upstate New York before switching to English. Graduate school, first in art history and then in developmental psychology, brought her to the University of Pittsburgh. She worked as a paralegal at K&L Gates, where she met her husband.
One summer, he offered to take over the cooking while Ms. Mileti finished up her dissertation. She took him up on the offer, but not without regrets. Her dissertation was dry and full of statistics, and she missed the creative outlet. On the side, she began work on a short story about a woman who worked as a chef in New York. She finished what would become the first chapter of "Aftertaste," then put it in a drawer for three years.
About five years ago, she returned to that chapter. She wrote one day a week, always busy with teaching and research and life's other distractions. It took her another three years to finish her first draft, followed by a year of revisions after she found an agent.
Suddenly writing full time, Ms. Mileti fueled her work with Darjeeling tea and McVitie's biscuits. She always took the time to make lunch, Italian dishes such as ribollita or papa pomodoro soups, bruschetta, or a big salad in the summertime.
Now that her first novel is about to make its debut, Ms. Mileti doesn't plan to wait so long for further books to follow. While she's superstitious about discussing her next project, she said her follow-up book would be historical fiction inspired by her Italian ancestors, six sculptors who moved to New York from Carrara, Italy, in the 1880s, and became the "exclusive marble carvers" for American sculptor Daniel Chester French.
"Aftertaste" has already garnered some positive reviews, and Pittsburgh doesn't come off too badly, either. The book's heroine grew up in Squirrel Hill, and the novel includes references to local food icons, from the Smiley cookie to shopping at Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. One such review from the New York Journal of Books notes that Ms. Mileti's descriptions of local foodstuffs are "enough to make you want to hop on the next plane to Pittsburgh."
She's getting used to the other aspects of the writing life: reviews, interviews and the essential chore of self-promotion. She tweets about food and books at @winsomechef, blogs at her website meredithmileti.com and is preparing for a multicity book tour.
Once it's over, she's looking forward to returning to her new routine as a professional writer.
"I've done a lot of different things in my life, and writing is by far the best fit," she said, spatula in hand, standing in front of her grill. "It is the thing I most want to do."
And, of course, there will always be dinner.
First Published August 21, 2011 12:00 am