This past week, I had the privilege of constructing a birthday menu for my fabulous friend Jen, over at A Modern Hypatia. She’s turning 35 (happy birthday, Jen!), and wanted a party menu inspired by the Divine Comedy. Specifically, she was looking at the beginning of the Divine Comedy, in which we are introduced to Dante, who has found himself lost in the “gloomy woods” on his thirty-fifth birthday.

I love this concept! What can I say? We’re both medieval/Renaissance geeks. (; But aside from that, I love the vast potential in the image — that there are many paths you can take out of the gloomy woods, some good, some not so good, but there is always guidance to lead you.

She also requested that the menu contain bread (Jen makes fabulous bread) and tasty things to put on bread, and that if I could, to choose dishes from Tuscany and Emilia-Romana. Already planned were olives, ossi dei morti (“bones of the dead” cookies) and a chocolate dessert. Fortunately, my handy-dandy La Cucina (as previously discussed) kindly lists the region each recipe comes from, so constructing with regional preferences in mind was actually pretty easy. The party will be between 10 and 20 people, and there were some limitations on kitchen space and stove/oven access.

I put together two menus, so she’d have a choice, or could mix-and-match between the two as she saw fit, eliminating dishes that would be too difficult or time-consuming to prepare under her constraints, and to give her a wide variety to suit her guests. Here are the two menus:

Dante’s Woods 1:

And up the sun was mounting with those stars


Spiced Olives

Pickled Mushrooms

Dried Fruit (pears, prunes, and apricots)


Prosciutto Cotto Mousse

(ham, cream, eggs – Emilia Romagna)

Spicy Tomato Sauce

(tomatoes, garlic, hot chile – Puglia)

Spicy Cheese Spread

(ricotta, capers, onion, caraway, chives, mustard, butter, anchovy, paprika – Friuli-Venezia Giulia)


Bitter Greens Salad with Warm Bacon Dressing

(radicchio, speck or pancetta – Alto Adige)

Vegetable Tart

(zucchini, eggs, onions – Toscana)

Secondi Piatti

served with bread

Fish Soup Ravenna-Style

(mixed fish, white wine, garlic, tomatoes – Emilia Romagna . Note: according to La Cucina, this was one of Dante’s favorite dishes)

Pan-Cooked Rabbit

(rabbit, white wine, bay and rosemary, meat broth – Toscana)

Layered Polenta with Sausage and Mushrooms

(sausage, polenta, dried mushrooms, tomatoes, pecorino – Toscana)


Ossi dei Morti

Coffee and Chocolate Pie

(almonds, chocolate, coffee, eggs – Emilia Romagna)

I went for a lighter theme with the first menu, trying to select foods that were golden, light, and bright — a warmer and more cheery woods, perhaps a late summer. For the second menu, I went for a darker feel, with heartier, more autumnal foods. And yes, I know that gnocchi is typically a primo piatto, not a secondo piatto, but I wanted the menu to fit on one page! (:

Dante’s Woods 2:

I found myself within a forest dark


Assorted Olives and Cheeses

Gorgonzola-Stuffed Celery

(celery, gorgonzola, mascarpone – Piemonte)


Al Mirto

(butter, myrtle berries, garlic – Toscana)

Funghi Con Pomodori

(mushrooms, tomatoes, onion, hot chile, basil – Calabria)


(honey butter and prosciutto – Valle d’Aosta)


Marinated Lettuce

(crisp lettuce, garlic, hot chile or olives – Calabria)

Grilled Radicchio, Treviso Style

(radicchio, olive oil – Veneto)

Secondi Piatti

Chestnut-Flour Gnocchi

(chestnut flour, wheat flour, olive oil, pecorino – Toscana)

Trout in Red Wine

(trout, butter, onion, sage, rosemary, red wine – Valle d’Aosta)

Scottiglia – Mixed Braised Meats

(chicken, duck, rabbit, lamb, tomatoes, onions, basil, red wine – Toscana. May be served over bread)


Ossi dei Morti

Chocolate Salami with Frutti di Bosco Puree

(chocolate, crisp cookies, egg, pureed berries)

In the end, she decided to go with a wide range of antipasti and crostini, the scottiglia, and the torta nera. And I got a good chance to read through the 2000+ recipes in my book, plus some other books, and pick out some dishes that looked absolutely amazing. I’m looking forward to making some that I haven’t made myself, as well. It was a lot of fun to do!