Monthly Archives: October 2011

Italian Food Rule – Do Not Eat or Drink While Walking

Although I’ve learned to never say never – Italians never eat while they’re walking or standing. They have no culture of snacking on the types of food that Americans are frequently noshing on as they hurry from place to place – no Big Gulps, Grande Lattes with extra foam, bags of Cool Ranch Doritos, Walking Tacos , Big Macs, or even, a panino con mortadella. (Yes, there are Big Macs in Italy, but they are being eaten – slowly – while at the table provided, not on the run.)

No one looks good eating or drinking while walking
No one looks good eating or drinking while walking

This aversion to eating and drinking while walking (“Che schifo!” says Florentine Francesca) is ingrained from a young age, perhaps by a mother who values spotless clothes on her off-spring. More likely, by a mother who wants her family at the table on time and hungry, not missing in action or stuffed with chips before the meal even begins.

Che schifo!
Che schifo!

But more to the point, eating is still very closely linked to the national heritage of consuming good food for pleasure. Even in today’s busy world, over 70 per cent of Italians eat meals they have prepared at home; the favorite place to eat both lunch and dinner is in the home, with almost 70 per cent eating at the family table. In the U.S., by contrast, we eat our meals (a) standing up in our kitchens, (b) in front of Jersey Shore, CSI or the PBS NewsHour, (c) at our desk while catching up on emails, (d) in our cars, or (e) walking down a city block between appointments.

Major violation of an Italian Food Rule
Major violation of an Italian Food Rule

Whereas the Italians wish to spend up to two hours over lunch, we bolt down our food in the time it would take them to savor a crostino spread with duck liver. The Italian secret to avoiding obesity is to sit down with friends or family for a meal, and to eat three times a day at regular intervals; eating slowly, enjoying both the food and the company.

In Italy, a meal is a very particular moment, in which you share pleasure, the food as well as the conversation. From an American point of view, food is usually just fuel to give energy and drink is to add the caffeinated turbo-charge.

Of course, Italian food is real food – prepared in the kitchen, with time taken to choose, buy and prepare meals. In other words, there is space for food in the daily routine. Eating in Italy is a social activity. There are several courses, but they are small with plenty of time between dishes for the physiological feedback to kick in as the brain tells the stomach enough is enough.

Gotta stand? Use the shelves for your drink.
Gotta stand? Use the shelves for your drink.

Even when Italians are forced to stand while eating, like at my favorite panino place, I Due Fratellini, a small hole in the wall (literally) where the best sandwiches in Florence are made, it is done with style. There are two sets of numbered shelves so you can set your glass of wine down as you take the six bites that will finish the minimalist panino made with a maximum of three of the finest ingredients inside a warm crunchy bread roll.

Only in your dreams
Only in your dreams

So what about gelato? Yes, it is an exception to the Italian Food Rule – No eating while walking. Italians walk while licking a small (2.50 € or less) cone – a cone, not a cup – of gelato. If you order a medium or large cone you are not Italian. If you are eating gelato out of a cup, you should be sitting in the gelateria or on a nearby bench. It’s complicated.

In conclusion, while Americans are speed-eating, gulping down a 550 calorie lunch solely consisting of a Starbucks Venti Dulce de Leche Blended Creme Frappuccino (“Che esagerazione!” says Francesca) before the light turns green and it’s okay to cross, the Italians are taking small mouthfuls, resting their cutlery between bites, discussing the food – because it is worthy of discussion.

Mangia! Mangia! – Marco Stabile Cooks an Egg

Francesca gave me a sorpresa one rainy day in September. She had gotten reservations for Chef Marco Stabile’s presentation at the Wine Town kitchen in the upper level of the Mercato Centrale of San Lorenzo.

Wine Town is an annual event in Florence
Wine Town is an annual event in Florence

Marco Stabile is my favorite chef in Florence. I wrote about lunch at Ora d’Aria and Frank Bruni recently remembered a dinner that included a deconstructed panzanella con coniglio affumicato (bread salad with smoked rabbit) in the New York Times.

Chef Marco Stabile presents at Wine Town
Chef Marco Stabile presents at Wine Town

But that day in September, Chef Stabile was cooking an egg – or, at least, that was the most interesting part for me – to be paired with a duck liver paté, herring caviar, breast meat of a free-range hen, brodo of the same hen, and crunchy buttery bread crumbs.

Paolo Paris and his egg from PaoloParisi.it
Paolo Paris and his egg from PaoloParisi.it

Now back to the egg. The egg had been laid by one of Paolo Parisi’s hens just days before. These Livornesi hens are famous partially for laying the most expensive eggs in Italy. I’ve eaten them in Chef Stabile’s version of green eggs and ham (egg, purée of broccoli, and pancetta) and, more recently, topping a purée of porcini mushrooms, garnished with a crispy fried slice of the same mushroom.

The Parisi egg becomes a egg packet ready for boiling water
The Parisi egg becomes a egg packet ready for boiling water

Chef Sabile prepares the egg by first brushing a large piece of plastic wrap with extra virgin olive oil. He cracks one egg in the center of the oiled sheet and gathers it into a little sack without breaking the yoke. Slowly he tightens the sack around the egg, forcing all of the air out. Finally, he ties a knot in the plastic.

Stabile's dish before the broth and bread crumbs are added
Stabile's dish before the broth and bread crumbs are added

The egg is the last step of this fairly complicated dish – the paté of duck liver takes much longer to make and must cool for hours – waiting until all of the other ingredients are ready before it is dunked in boiling water for exactly 4 minutes. Each ingredient gets a place on the plate and the dish is brought to the table with a small pitcher of hot chicken broth (brodo).

At the Wine Town event, each member of the audience got a plate with the brodo already poured ,which disturbed the presentation a bit, but not too much.

Fabulous food inspired by Marco Stabile
Fabulous food inspired by Marco Stabile

My friend Lynette once gave me a lesson in the perfect dish at the Fog City Diner in San Francisco. We were eating a Garlic Flan. The perfect dish, Lynette said, has a pleasing color palette, a diverse texture combination (crunchy, liquid, creamy, chewy, etc.), and a variety of tastes (sweet, salty, sour, etc.). Marco Stabile’s creation of egg, paté, bread crumb, herring egg, chicken breast and broth had all of that – the perfect dish. And delicious, too.

The top of the 1865 Central Market
The top of the 1865 Central Market

Italian Food Rules – Bread Is Not Better With Butter

“Where’s the butter for the bread?” asks a tourist from Chicago. “Can we get some butter out here?” asks a lady from Atlanta. “Perché?” queries the waiter.

Perché? indeed. In Italy, bread is not better with butter.

Butter from Reggio Emilia rarely found on the table
Butter from Reggio Emilia rarely found on the table

Butter never meets bread in Italy. except for a breakfast of a slice of toast with butter and marmellata or an after-school snack of bread and butter and Nutella.

At lunch or dinner, Italians wouldn’t think of slathering butter on the bread from the basket on the table. (They don’t dunk it in oil either, but that is the subject of a separate Food Rule.)

In fact, bread is served with the meal solely for the purpose of acting as the scarpetta – the little shoe – “fare la scarpetta” or use a little shoe of bread to scoop up the lasts remnents of sauce on the plate. A comprehensive discussion of “Scarpetta si, scarpetta no …” can be found on the Dellano website, saving you from the pitfalls of proper and polite public bread use.

Not Table-Ready
Not Table-Ready

To ask for butter in a restaurant, or many family homes, puts the host in a quandary. The kitchen may have a quarter kilo or more of butter, but it isn’t table-worthy. No cute pats or butter dishes.

Marcella Hazen adds a historical note: “Olive oil is all around the Appenine and at the heel of the boot so it is used all over but much more in the south because they don’t have cows so they don’t have milk, butter, and cream.”

Burrini or Butirro - Butter as a hidden surprise
Burrino or Butirro - Butter as a hidden surprise

Hazen may have forgotten about burrino (aka butirro) a cheese from the southern regions of Basilicata and Calabria that has a core of butter, served as a first dish with warm bread. The butter was historically stored in the cheese to preserve it before refrigeration.

Ginger at allrecipes.com sort of got the idea when she submitted a recipe for “Italian Butter”, but then she broke about five Food Rules with her ingredients: red pepper flakes, black pepper, oregano, rosemary, basil, parsley, garlic powder, minced garlic, salt, and extr virgin olive oil. One of Ginger’s reviewers, Ashlie H., broke a few more rules: “An incredible recipe! I mix it with olive oil and balsamic vinegar over finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese. We eat it until our bread is gone!”

Italian Butter
Italian Butter

And then there was the “Murder by Butter” case from Sicily, reported in Corriere della Sera, last February. Maybe this is why butter is not found on most tables in Italy.

When you visit Italy, give up bread and butter for the duration of your stay – you and your waistline will appreciate it – and think how good it will taste when you get home.