Monthly Archives: July 2012

Italian Food Rule – Wine or Water, Nothing Else

In thousands of kitchens across America there is a person standing in front of the open fridge calling out to those gathered around the dinner table: “I’ve got white wine, red wine, mango juice, beer, milk, Pellegrino, ice tea, Coke, 7-Up, a bottle of Bacardi Breezer Lemon, and, of course, cold tap water. What does each of you want to drink?”

Let’s ignore the fact that there is a bottle of red wine in the fridge and get right to the Italian Food Rule: Wine or Water, Nothing Else.

In the homes and good restaurants of Italy the only beverages served during lunch or dinner are wine (red, white, rosé or Prosecco) and water (frizzante (carbonated) or naturale (still/no gas). And remember that ice water (or iced wine) is a violation of another Italian Food Rule.

A bit of wine and a lot of sparkling water
A bit of wine and a lot of sparkling water

It does not matter how young or old an Italian is: it’s wine or water, only. Children sometimes have a splash of wine in their fizzy water. Even adults, on a hot day, might opt for this refreshing combo using an inexpensive Chianti and a glass of ice-free acqua frizzante. This is not the sweet wine cooler found on picnic tables on the 4th of July. It is a sugar-free slightly flavored glass of water. (I still wince a bit when I remember watching an American woman at a wine tasting in Tuscany adding Sprite to her glass of Chianti Classico Riserva.)

Water with gas and no ice
Water with gas and no ice

For children and adults, alike, milk is not an option (see the Italian Food Rule on drinks such as caffelatte and cappuccino). Any Italian mother can tell you how milk interferes with a person’s digestion.

Italians never drink coffee with food during a meal. It is sipped from tiny espresso cups after the last bite is swallowed. Don’t try to tempt an Italian with an extra morsel after the espresso is served. (It’s sort of the same as offering an American a cookie after they’ve brushed their teeth.) Also, coffee is never drunk throughout the meal in Italy because it too interferes with digestion – in an acidic way, rather than a curdling way – any Italian grandmother will tell you. However, the same nonna will also tell you that that shot of espresso at the end of the meal aids in digestion.

Juices, sodas, cocktails, and even sugarless ice tea all interfere with the flavor of the food. To savor the true taste of each ingredient is of utmost importance to Italians as well as those who truly love Italian cooking. The only beverages that compliment Italian cuisine are wine and water.

A half liter of wine is perfect for two
A half liter of wine is perfect for two

“But what about beer?” you might ask. Until recently, Italy did not have a rich beer tradition, but Peroni and Moretti have been around since the middle of the 1800s. Italians drink beer with pizza. This does not violate the Italian Food Rule: Wine or Water, Nothing Else, because pizza is not a meal. Pizza is … well … pizza. Neither wine nor water compliment pizza as well as beer does. Kids and teenagers celebrate the lifting of the “no sodas” ban on pizza nights.

Then the next day it’s back to wine or water, nothing else.

Italian Food Rules: The BookItalian Food Rules by Ann Reavis is available now. You can buy Italian Food Rules by using these links:

Amazon. com (U.S.) eBook for Kindle & Kindle Apps

Amazon. com (U.S.) paperback

Amazon.co.uk (United Kingdom)

Amazon.it (Italy)

Amazon.de (Germany)

Amazon.fr (France)

Barnes & Noble (U.S.) eBook for Nook

Italian Food Rule – Don’t Dip Bread in Olive Oil

It was at least twenty years ago when I first broke the Italian Food Rule: Don’t Dip Bread in Olive Oil.

Or, to clarify: Don’t serve bread with a bowl of olive oil with a swirl of balsamic vinegar as an appetizer (or any other part of the meal).

Back to my first experience: I was so enchanted by the new food presentation, I never forgot the moment.

Farallon Restaurant in San Francisco - where I first broke the Rule
Farallon Restaurant in San Francisco – where I first broke the Rule

It was my first dinner at Farallon, that fantasmagorical Paul Kuleto restaurant in San Francisco. Sitting under the jellyfish chandelier, I watched with curiosity as our waiter presented with a flourish a thin sliced baguette of warm sourdough bread and a bowl of deep green extra virgin olive oil. But he didn’t stop there. With some sleight of hand he produced a small bottle of balsamic vinegar and created a floating purplish S on the surface of the oil.

It is a true talent to be able to swirl
It is a true talent to be able to swirl

Noting our bemused expressions, he explained that the proper procedure was to dip a bite of torn bread into the oil, catching a smidgen of the aceto balsamico (I can’t remember if he actually said “aceto balsamico”) and pop it into one’s mouth. I caught on immediately and for the next ten years or so I savored bread dipped in olive oil throughout the fine restaurants of San Francisco and across the United States.

I always thought the idea was conceived at Farallon, but others claimed the genesis was at some Little Italy restaurant in San Francisco, and still others thought that Il Fornaio was the first. Certainly San Francisco was the first city to break the Italian Food Rule: Don’t Dip Bread in Olive Oil. (If anyone has evidence of the practice pre-1990 in another location, let me know.)

In 1998, I arrived in Italy and it was immediately apparent that there was absolutely no practice of setting bowls of olive oil on the table so customers could munch on bread before the antipasti arrived. In fact, then and now, there may not be bread on the table until the main course is served, but that is a story for another day (Italian Food Rule: Don’t Eat Bread with Pasta).

However, by the turn of the millennium, most Americans, including those from places like Iowa and Vermont, were hooked on olive oil and bread. They arrived in droves on Italian shores expecting to be served olive oil, bread and even that squiggle of balsamic vinegar in the trattorias and fine restaurants across Italy.

What usually happens if you don't practice your S design
Extra virgin olive oil & balsamic vinegar – (photo credit summertomato.com)

In the beginning, Italian waiters (and restaurant owners) were simply confused – why all of this demand for olive oil when there was no food on which to put it? – but then they swiftly moved from being perplexed to being appalled.

Why appalled, you ask? Certainly Americans (and other tourists) have broken Italian Food Rules before, especially the ones regarding cappuccino, pizza, and ice cubes. But those infractions paled in comparison with what happened when Americans, olive oil, and bread were combined. It was a catastrophe: A tourist asks for bread. The waiter complies, sneering a bit because he knows that eating bread before a meal ruins the appetite and leads to fat. Then the tourist throws the waiter an impatient look and asks for the olive oil.

What do you see? A laughing baby? A beach babe? Old olive oil?
What do you see? A laughing baby? A beach babe? Old olive oil?

Now the waiter quits sneering and either says that there is no olive oil for the dining room (salads are dressed in the kitchen, pasta and veggies get their last splash from the chef; same with the main courses) or he brings a large bottle of olive oil – from the kitchen or the waiters’ service stand – to the table.

You say you still don’t understand the problem? Imagine the table in our hypothetical trattoria. Now there is a basket of bread and a bottle of olive oil in the center by the small candle or tiny floral centerpiece. There are four paper placemats, each topped with a knife and fork and a napkin. What do the Americans do? They have stretched to ask for pane and olio, using the right words. They have no further language resources or patience for piattino, ciotolina (or piccola ciotola), or any other tableware word, and frankly they are a bit miffed that the olive oil didn’t come served in a bowl.

So they take a slice of bread, place it on their paper placemat, and gingerly aim the spout of the large olive oil bottle at the center of the slice, trying desperately not to run over the crusty edges. Of course, olive oil, poured by even the most careful person, soaks through the light Italian bread, onto the placemat or napkin underneath.

The tourist is upset and embarrassed and the waiter is appalled and apoplectic. Now, add a hypothetical cotton tablecloth under our hypothetical paper placemats and you can see how the problem escalates. I do not exaggerate here for effect – I have seen both situations with my own eyes.

Olive Oil, Balsamic Vinegar and Rosemary Twigs - Too Much Stuff
Olive oil, balsamic vinegar and rosemary twigs – too much stuff

There are a few good reasons for the Italian Food Rule: Don’t Dip Bread in Olive Oil. Fine Italian extra virgin olive oil – the only type to eat with bread – is expensive. To place a bowl of olive oil on the table in front of Italians guarantees the waste of excess oil because Italians don’t eat bread before they start their meal. (Some might argue that Americans will wipe the bowl clean, but remember Italian Food Rules were not created with Americans in mind.) Italians aren’t given to eating out of a communal bowl (dipping a hunk of bread in olive oil, taking a bite and then dipping it back in the same oil would cause Italian to go pale with visions of bacteria, viruses, etc.). There is the possibility of drips – Italians avoid potential messes. This list probably just skims the surface of reasons behind the Rule.

A waste of two expensive ingredients
A waste of two expensive ingredients

As for that S of aceto balsamico floating on the oil… There is probably an extra penalty for adding that to the crime. Italians do not put balsamic vinegar on bread. Italians do not make a salad dressing with balsamic vinegar and olive oil (red wine vinegar only). Traditional aceto balsamico is wildly expensive, exquisitely good and should never be wasted or drowned in olive oil.

But if oil and bread together is so good, why don’t the Italians give in? Well, Italians do eat bread with extra virgin olive oil on top. The dish is called fettunta from fetta (slice) and unta (oily) – an “oily slice”. The bread is not dipped in oil. A slice of bread is toasted (preferably over a flame), rubbed while still warm with a halved clove of fresh garlic, and placed on a plate. Fresh extra virgin olive oil is poured over the slice of bread and salt is added to taste. It is difficult to find this dish in a restaurant because it is considered simple home food, not worthy of a dining experience and difficult to price since it is basically a slice of bread with a splash of olive oil.

Fettunta - No dipping needed. No violation of the Italian Food Rule.
Fettunta – No dipping needed. No violation of the Italian Food Rule.

When in Italy, save the dipping of bread in olive oil for a formal tasting of the year’s new oil in December and January when the purpose is not to eat a lot of bread, but just to taste a variety of fabulous just pressed extra virgin olive oils. Keep the practice out of your restaurant experience while touring Italy and perhaps, give it up at home to avoid violating the Italian Food Rule: Don’t Dip Bread in Olive Oil.

 

Italian Food Rules by Ann Reavis is available now. You can buy Italian Food Rules by using these links:

Italian Food Rules: The Book

Amazon. com (U.S.) eBook for Kindle & Kindle Apps

Amazon. com (U.S.) paperback

Amazon.co.uk (United Kingdom)

Amazon.it (Italy)

Amazon.de (Germany)

Amazon.fr (France)

Barnes & Noble (U.S.) eBook for Nook

Italian Food Rule – Don’t Touch the Fruits and Vegetables

What is it about the fruit and vegetable stands found in markets and along the streets of every town and city in Italy that make foreigners want to fondle the merchandise?

Italian Food Rule: Don’t Touch The Fruits And Vegetables.

In the US everyone feels free to poke, prod, squeeze, thump and sniff the fruits and vegetables whether they plan to buy anything or not. At a produce stand in Italy that will garner you a withering look and a command to unhand the eggplant: Non tocchi le melanzane, per favore!

Don't Touch the Fruit, Please! at the Florence Mercato Centrale
Don’t Touch the Fruit, Please! at the Florence Mercato Centrale

One of the pleasures of Italy is the taste of vine-ripened (or tree-ripened) fruits and vegetables. It is the major reason Italian food is so good – fresh local ingredients at the perfect level of ripeness. They are a feast for eye as well as the stomach. This also makes the produce delicate to the touch, even if you don’t have the outsized fear of germs that most Italians have.

The Italian Food Rule – Don’t Touch the Fruits and Vegetables – has its basis in both the protection of the produce and the desire to reduce the spread of disease.

Following the Food Rule

The proper procedure is to approach a shopkeeper and say “buongiorno” followed by saying exactly what you’d like to buy. You’ll have to deal with weights and/or numbers. “Un chilo di fagiolini, per favore” – a kilo (2.2 pounds) of green beans, please; “Tre cipolle, per favore” – three onions, please; or harder still for the metrically-challenged: “Due etti di zucchine, per favore” – two hectograms (200 grams) of zucchini.

Careful handling and hygiene are the reasons for the Food Rule
Careful handling and hygiene are the reasons for the Food Rule

It’s considered rude to tell the fruttivendola exactly which fruit she should put in your bag. She’s the expert. Locals will tell a vendor when they plan to eat their fruit and she’ll use her expertise to pick those at the appropriate stage of ripeness, especially for repeat customers she wants to keep happy. If you want ripe fruit to eat today, add clarification, “da mangiare oggi, per favore” – to eat today, please.

If you don’t know the language, you can always point to the bin and use hand signals. Be aware that they’re different in Italy than they are in many places around the world. “One” is signified by raising the thumb, as if you were hitchhiking. The number “two” uses the thumb and index finger. Then you just add fingers. (Try doing 4 on one hand using your thumb as 1. Maybe it works better with 2 thumbs and 2 index fingers or, better yet, learn to say numbers in Italian.)

Vine-ripened datterini tomatoes - just like candy!
Vine-ripened tomatoes – just like candy!

Sometimes a vendor will tell you to just go ahead and pick your own, or you can request permission by asking “Posso?” – may I? – and wait for a nod or the passing of a plastic or paper sack for your use. But just because you have permission to select your own potatoes, doesn’t mean they want to see you rooting through the bin tossing your rejects hither and yon. You’re expected to carefully select and touch only those items you wish to buy, unless there’s obviously something wrong with them. It’s all about hygiene.

You may have the luck to find the one or two produce vendors in Italy who love foreigners and take pride in providing all of their customers, new and old, with the very best fruit and vegetables they have to offer. Do not feel bad if this is not the case on the day you are shopping for figs and plums. Your fruttivendolo may not have your best interests at heart. It most likely has less to do with the fact that you don’t speak Italian with the local accent as it has to do with you are not a regular customer and he has produce he need to offload.

The Perils of the Food Rule

My most memorable experience was the day I wanted to buy three large fresh porcini mushrooms. I went to a stand in Florence’s Mercato Centrale where the vendor only sold mushrooms – the expert. There was even an example of his high quality ‘shrooms split in half exposing its firm white worm-free center. I followed the Italian Food Rule – Don’t Touch the Produce. I asked for three large porcini with stems and caps. He selected three fine looking specimens and placed them carefully in a paper bag. I trudged home with my sacks of shopping, unloaded them on the table and discovered that one of my fine mushrooms had a toothpick holding the cap to the stem and was turning slightly brown at the center. But there were no worms.

And act of faith to buy porcini without feeling the firmness
And act of faith to buy porcini without feeling the firmness

Also, in the Mercato Centrale is a lady that has the largest, most beautiful stand of fruits and vegetables. Years ago I bought a bag of apricots from her. Before she had finished giving me change the bottom of the bag was soaked with juice. I showed her the bag and ask for another selection because clearly at least one apricot was over-ripe, spoiled or damaged. She proceeded to yell at me and refused to replace the fruit. For the next five years I brought my touring clients to her stand and explained that it was a Kodak moment, but that they should never consider buying her produce that was beautiful to the eye but rotten to the core.

Beautiful to the eye but over ripe most of the time
Beautiful to the eye, but overripe most of the time

Florentine Francesca does not get a free pass to produce perfection. She has been the recipient of blue mold on lemons, rock-hard plums (“mature e perfette,” said the vendor), limp green beans, and worms in porcini mushrooms (though at this Francesca declared it was a protein bonus).

Following the Food Rule at the Supermarket

Buying groceries at an Italian supermarket is easier. You get to touch the produce. But not with your bare hands. At Coop or Esselunga or Conad, it won’t be the vendor upholding the Italian Food Rule: Don’t Touch the Fruits and Vegetables. It will be Italian housewives, young to very old, enforcing a subset of the rule – Don’t touch the produce without a plastic glove. A withering look from an Italian grandmother is just scary. A sarcastic comment is even more frightening.

Glove up before selecting produce at an Italian supermarket
Glove up before selecting produce at an Italian supermarket

You’ll find plastic gloves near the plastic bags in the section with the fruits and vegetables, and you’re expected to use them. Although this goes beyond the applicable Italian Food Rule, I offer here the procedure for buying loose vegetables and fruits in a supermarket:

1) Find a plastic glove; 2) Put it on; 3) Get a plastic bag for each of your desired fruits or vegetables; 4) Select your produce from the bins; 5) Look for and remember the code on the bin’s label; 6) Place your bag on the nearby scale and push the button that corresponds to the code; and 7) Wait for a printed sticker to exit the scale and paste it on outside of the bag.

If you don’t follow this procedure, the checker will have to do it for you when you check out (or worse, will send you back to do it), much to the displeasure of the people in the line behind you.

Making Friends at the Market

One of the pleasures of living in Italy is shopping at the food markets. The produce is necessarily fresher than at the supermarket that stocks in massive quantities. The ideas that come to mind when discovering what looks best at the market on a given day enlivens your dinner menu. Savoring the perfect cherry, peach or fig can almost transport you out of the crowded city to a sunny orchard.

Finding a trusted purveyor of produce is a long term project
Finding a trusted purveyor of produce is a long term project

But to enjoy all of this and follow the Italian Food Rule: Don’t Touch the Fruits and Vegetables, you must by trial and error, with good humor, find an ortolana who treats you right and then get to know her, asking her advice about what to buy and how to cook it, greeting her even when not shopping for produce. It is a relationship that can last seemingly a lifetime and can save you from finding toothpicks in your porcini.

Italian Food Rules by Ann Reavis is available now. You can buy Italian Food Rules by using these links:

Italian Food Rules: The Book

Amazon. com (U.S.) eBook for Kindle & Kindle Apps

Amazon. com (U.S.) paperback

Amazon.co.uk (United Kingdom)

Amazon.it (Italy)

Amazon.de (Germany)

Amazon.fr (France)

Barnes & Noble (U.S.) eBook for Nook