A Midday Meal, Pop-Up Style
These ladies who (make) lunch embrace an Italian pace and richness of ingredients in their monthly Pranzo Pop-Ups
Taking a longer-than-usual lunch break on a recent Thursday felt slightly scandalous because 1. I typically eat at my desk, shoveling food into my mouth with one hand while the other hunts and pecks its way around my keyboard, and 2. It was the end of shipping week, the busiest time in the magazine’s cycle. But this was for a story so I granted myself permission to attend a Pranzo (which means lunch in Italian) Pop-Up hosted—and catered—by Phoebe von Reis (standing right) and Jora Vess (sitting right). I showed up an hour early to get (and savor) every detail.
Phoebe and Jora met through mutual friends a couple of years ago when they were both going to live abroad in Italy—Phoebe for the second time and Jora for the first. Though they were more than a two-hour drive away from each other (Phoebe and her family lived in Padua; Jora and her crew in Florence), they met up for Thanksgiving dinner and sometimes for long, leisurely Italian lunches. Among other commonalities, they both have three children and share a love of cooking, so it was easy for them to forge a bonding friendship.
“When we [both] moved back in 2016, it was like reverse culture shock in the food realm,” Phoebe explains. “We missed the amazing ingredients and the pace. No one’s rushing to turn tables in Europe.”
The women started scheming: They didn’t know of any other pop-up-lunch concepts in San Diego, and the timing (during the school day) was perfect since neither wanted to disrupt their full-time mom responsibilities.
“We just decided to do it last March,” Jora says. “We planned the menu for a two-hour lunch, created an Instagram account, filled all eight seats and it’s been popular ever since.”
Now, the friends host two per month, on the first Thursday and Friday, but they’ve kept the seating to eight. “We’ve found that eight’s sort of the magic number,” Jora says. “It’s hard for good conversation beyond that.” The menu changes monthly, inspired by what’s in season and by what Jora and Phoebe make for their own families, like the chocolate pot de crème that Phoebe used to make with her dad and Jora’s husband’s favorite cucumber gazpacho soup. Menus are sophisticated (duck confit and egg soufflé were previous hits), four courses and kept secret until you arrive.
A Temporary Escape
The two-hour break in my busy day provides me with a reminder to relax and think of this gourmet meal as some serious self-care.
I park in front of Jora’s amazing midcentury-modern home, which happens to have been San Diego Home/Garden Lifestyles 2009 Homes of the Year grand-prize winner. I walk inside to the tunes of Billie Holiday playing and Pickles, the family cat, purring at my feet.
The table is simply and beautifully set. A white tablecloth and candles allow a colorful trio of fresh floral bouquets to take center stage. A single floral stem and a stylish printed menu top each linen napkin at every place setting.
“With the exception of the artichokes, which I bought at Chino Farms, the centerpiece blooms are all collected from Jora’s yard, my yard and my neighborhood (with permission),” Phoebe says. Hence the floral arrangements are basically cost-free and just one example of the pair’s devotion to in-season goods.
Before dining, however, guests are encouraged to mingle. Though there are some repeat diners, there are also a few first-timers (besides me) in today’s group. Deviled eggs—from Jora’s chickens—and homemade fermented passionfruit soda, made with the fruit from one of Phoebe’s friend’s trees, sit on the counter; guests take one of each and stand around introducing themselves.
I’m starving so I dive in. The egg is deliciously creamy, and the capers that dress them give the eggs a nice salty crunch. The soda provides a tart and slightly bubbly complement that’s full of probiotics, I’m told. (Recipes below.)
“This is real-life entertaining,” Jora says, as she starts cooking the main course while her guests talk. “We want people to come in casually and take some time to get to know each other. Each meal is different and imperfect, but it’s authentic.” And so incredibly welcoming.
“I’m a feeder,” Phoebe says. “I’ve known for a long time that the way I express love is through food. I love to feed people. I’ve been doing it since college.”
Jora, too, enjoys the process of cooking for and feeding others. And both women are obsessive about the ingredients they use—high-quality, organic everything and clean, pastured meats. Herbs, vegetables and edible flowers often come from Phoebe and Jora’s gardens, and some things still come from Italy, like the olive oil, capers and cheeses they sometimes use. From there, they make everything from scratch—from the mayonnaise in today’s deviled eggs to the vinaigrettes, sauerkraut, pastas and sauces they’ve made for other lunches.
Besides the eggs and soda, today’s springtime menu features asparagus soup, which is warm, thick and delicious; and lamb chops served with a pistachio tapenade and a quinoa salad. Each plate gets a drizzling of the olive oil Jora gets from Italy before being served. The ladies don’t eat with their guests but pull up chairs during the main course to join in the conversation.
Then it’s back to the kitchen to prep the dessert course: strawberry shortcake with whipped cream and espresso for the takers at the table. There’s also a boxed takeaway treat. The coconut-lemon-date ball and piece of toffee I’m handed as I leave isn’t necessarily meant to be eaten in the car, but because everything else was so good, I don’t even make it out of the neighborhood before finishing both.
The art of the Italian slow meal in four parts
Each course is meant to be savored and enjoyed as is the conversation and the company. Here are the basics:
Antipasti: The equivalent of the American appetizer, it’s a small portion to snack on before the first course arrives.
Primo: The meal’s first course is heavier than the appetizer and typically consists of a pasta or risotto.
Secondo: Much like our main dishes here, the second course often includes meat or fish and a small side.
Dolce: The final course may include coffees, dessert treats and/or digestive drinks such as amaretto.
Want to score one of the eight coveted seats to one of these events?
Follow Phoebe von Reis and Jora Vess on Instagram @pranzopopup and DM them to request a spot (or get placed on the waitlist). The price is $50 per person. They also offer private pranzos for special celebrations such as birthdays. Contact them for details.
Fermented Passionfruit Soda
2 cups passionfruit puree
6 cups filtered water
3/4 cup raw honey
Combine ingredients in a large pitcher and stir to dissolve honey. Cover with a cloth (any kind is fine) and store on your countertop. Stir twice a day for approximately three days or longer until you see small bubbles form.
Taste for sweetness, adding more honey if desired.
Strain through a cheesecloth or a fine-mesh strainer using a funnel into twist-top jars or bottles. Seal tightly and leave out for another day or two until you see bubbles rising again.
Chill and serve.
6 eggs, hard-boiled
1/4 cup mayonnaise (recipe follows)
1 Tbsp. prepared Dijon or grain mustard
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
3 Tbsp. fried capers for (fry them in 2 Tbsp. hot olive oil until crisped)
1/4 tsp. paprika
Slice eggs in half lengthwise. Remove yolks and place in a bowl.
Using a fork, mash the yolks. Add mayonnaise, mustard, salt and pepper, and mix until smooth.
Fill each egg-white half with equal amounts of yolk mixture.
Garnish each egg with a sprinkling of capers, paprika and fennel fronds. Refrigerate covered until ready to serve.
1 large egg at room temperature
1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
1 Tbsp. red- or white-wine vinegar
1/4 tsp. kosher salt, or more to taste
1 cup (240 ml) neutral-flavored oil, such as grapeseed, sunflower or mild olive oil
1 tsp. fresh lemon juice (optional)
Add egg, mustard, vinegar and salt to the bowl of a food processor and process for 20 seconds. Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl, turn the food processor back on, and begin to slowly add the oil in a very thin stream to emulsify.
When all of the oil has been added, stop the processor, scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl, then process for an additional 10 seconds.
Taste mayonnaise for seasoning then add salt, lemon juice or extra vinegar to taste.
Note: If the mayo seems too thin, slowly stream in more oil with the processor running until thick.
1 leek, sliced
3 Tbsp. unsalted butter, divided use
2 pounds asparagus, woody ends removed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
Salt and pepper to taste
5 to 6 cups chicken broth (preferably homemade)
1/2 cup crème fraîche or heavy cream
Fresh lemon juice, plus zest
Cook the leeks in 2 tablespoons butter in a 4-quart heavy pot over moderately low heat, stirring, until softened. Add the asparagus pieces and salt and pepper to taste, then cook, stirring, 5 minutes.
Add 5 cups broth and simmer, covered, until asparagus is very tender, 15 to 20 minutes.
Puree the soup in batches in a blender until smooth, and return to the pot. Stir in crème fraîche, then add more broth to thin soup to desired consistency. Taste. Season with salt and pepper if needed.
Bring soup to a boil and whisk in remaining tablespoon of butter and lemon juice to taste.
Top with a swirl of crème fraiche and lemon zest.
TIP: Pretty nasturtium blooms dress up this asparagus soup and are edible too.
Lamb Chops with Pistachio Tapenade
1/2 cup pistachios, shelled and toasted
1/2 cup pitted green olives
2 Tbsp. capers
1 clove garlic, smashed
1 Tbsp. fresh oregano leaves, chopped
2 Tbsp. fresh parsley leaves, chopped
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 lemon, zested
6-8 lamb rib chops
Freshly ground black pepper
Make the pistachio tapenade first. In a food processor combine the pistachios, olives, capers, garlic and herbs, and puree. While the machine is running, slowly drizzle in olive oil until the mixture becomes a paste. Add the zest and pulse one more time, drizzling in more oil if necessary. Reserve until ready to use.
Season lamb chops generously on either side with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Allow them to sit for 10 to 15 minutes before cooking.
Preheat oven to 425°F. Coat a large sauté pan generously with olive oil and bring to medium-high heat. When the oil is hot but not smoking, add the lamb chops and cook for about 2 minutes on each side to brown. If the pan begins to smoke, lower the heat. The chops should be beautifully caramelized on both sides.
Remove the chops to a sheet pan and schmear generously with the pistachio tapenade. Place the pan in the preheated oven and cook another 4 to 5 minutes for medium rare. Remove the chops from the oven and let rest for at least 5 minutes before serving.
Quinoa Salad with Sherry-Lemon Vinaigrette
2 cups quinoa, rinsed
1 fennel bulb
1 bunch radishes
2 Persian cucumbers
1/4 cup dried apricots
1/4 cup parsley
4 ounces feta cheese
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
2 Tbsp. sherry vinegar
1-2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper to taste
Thinly slice or shave the fennel and radishes with a mandolin. Slice the cucumbers into thin rounds. Chop the apricots. Finely chop the parsley and crumble the feta.
Add above ingredients to quinoa.
To make the vinaigrette, whisk all the ingredients together.
Pour over the quinoa salad and toss to serve.
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. salt
6 Tbsp. sugar
1 1/2 sticks (12 Tbsp.) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 1/2 cups cold heavy cream
Center a rack in the oven, and preheat the oven to 425°F.
Line 2 baking sheets with parchment.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. Add the butter and, using your fingers, toss to coat with flour.
Working quickly with your fingertips, pinch and rub the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture is crumbly and about the size of peas.
Pour the cream over the dry ingredients, and toss with a fork until you’ve got a very soft, sticky dough.
Cut the dough into 10 roughly equal portions and space them on each baking sheet, leaving some space between them. Pat each portion down until it’s about 1 inch high.
Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, until the shortcakes are puffed and give just a little when poked with a fingertip. Transfer shortcakes to a cooling rack.
To serve, gently cut each cake in half horizontally. Put the bottom halves on plates, top with sweetened berries and unsweetened whipped cream, and then cap with the top halves.