Local Musician Is a One-Woman Food and Live Music Show
Dinner With Giulia brings authentic Italian home cooking and original performances to your kitchen
A family-taught cook, Giulia Millanta's skills rival many professionals in town, and her dinner party series is bringing groups of Austinites together to celebrate authentic Italian home cooking. While the communal experience is fueled by her food, Millanta, guitar in tow, also performs her original songs live at each gathering, because her first love is music.
"I'm a songwriter. I've been a musician pretty much my whole adult life, even though technically I'm an M.D. – I got a degree in medicine, but it's a really long story. Mostly, I just had to do it, and so I did, but I realized it wasn't going to make me happy, so I quit everything and became a full-time musician," she said. Millanta grew up in Florence, Italy, and music brought her to Austin after she released her first record in 2008. "I came to visit, I loved it. I came back, I loved it more. At some point, I decided to spend a little more time here, and then I decided to give it a real try. Here I am seven years later."
Thanks to regular gigs around town and tours around the States and Europe, it was her music career that, by happy accident, sparked the idea for her dinner party series. "I was hanging out with a friend of mine who's a producer here in town, and we were working on some songs. He's sort of a lonely man out in the country, so I started cooking for him. I'd do the grocery shopping, and just show up and cook. One day he's like, 'Giulia, you need to do this – give a house concert and make dinner and just call it Dinner With Giulia.' I said, 'But I'm not a chef – I didn't go to school for this! I cook because that's what we do. In Italy that's just what we do!'"
Not yet sold on the idea of branching into the food world, Millanta was hesitant despite growing up watching her large family – often with 30 people around the dinner table – cook homemade feasts. "Then last year, I started having more and more [bookings] without advertising, just simply word of mouth. People would come to my shows – I had little fliers – and invite me over and then more people would call me to do it. It started to become a thing where they were feeding each other: my shows and my cooking shows. I did a couple of cooking shows at Central Market and Lake Austin Spa Resort, and now I enjoy it. It's been very successful this last year."
As a child, Millanta would watch her nannies and other members of the family – mainly women – gather in the kitchen to cook all day. She borrows not only the recipes but the communal feeling of the dinner experience. "The most magical thing that happens during these events is people want to hang out with me in the kitchen – they want to help [and I let them]. I mean, certain things, like, they can chop or clean dishes so I can have all the space I need. People like to hang out in the kitchen with me and ask all sorts of questions, so I tell them stories about my crazy family – [they] really like to know the stories behind the scenes. It re-creates that thing that we do with my family where in this big house in the countryside, everyone is in the kitchen. Just crammed!"
Millanta sources her organic ingredients locally whenever possible and makes all of her pastas and breads and ice cream from scratch. "What I make is very simple. [My] ragù – you guys call it a Bolognese – [is] literally my grandmother's recipe. She used to make it all the time and she gave it to me. I think the strength of this whole thing is that this is pretty much how I cook for myself. If you come to my mom's place in Florence, this is how you're going to eat."
In advance of a dinner party, she'll make pastas and breads in advance and cook the rest in the host's home during the party. Her menu offerings, agreed upon between Millanta and the host, are on her website, and she changes it up every now and again. Customizable, the dinner menu includes four courses – appetizer, main dish(es), and dessert – and she tries to accommodate different portion sizes and dietary restrictions. "One night I had some meat-eaters, some vegetarians, and one vegan. I said, 'OK, you have to understand that I'm not a restaurant,' but it was OK. I made her special vegan cookies – I like to make people happy and to give people an experience."
She serves that ragù with handmade tagliatelle, and she makes other hearty main courses like her family's spaghetti puttanesca and lasagne recipes, and Farfalle alla Boscaiola, with handmade farfalle pasta, mushrooms, and speck from Northern Italy. Start with a bruschetta al pomodoro or maybe crostini Toscani, an authentic Tuscan chicken liver paté on toasted bread. She also makes wonderful saltimbocca: "It means they jump in your mouth, and they are one of my favorite things. These are pork because some people have a problem with veal, and I understand that, but there are two options on the menu." Other menu options include an oven-cooked chicken with olives, capers, and herbs served with cauliflower gratin, and her signature dessert: the "berry misù," a tiramisù with mixed berries served like a lovely parfait in a champagne flute.
"Many Italian restaurants are great, but they're not authentic. They are Americanized to meet the audience, which is fine. What I offer is very simple, with real ingredients. You can see them, you know? It's all in the little details. This is about me sharing my music and my food in a very intimate way. And it works because it's intimate. I usually have 10-12 people, 14 tops. When I do the music, more people can come and sit and enjoy wine, but the dinner party needs to be more intimate.
"One other thing is, I don't come to your house to take requests. 'Will you play that song by the Beatles?' No. It's really all about sharing a special experience together."
For more information, check out www.giuliamillanta.com/dinner-with-giulia.