Category Archives: Mangia! Mangia!

food and wine in Italy

Mangia! Mangia! – Dante Would Have Loved the Prato Bread Festival

Tourist are frequently surprised when they first taste traditional Tuscan bread that is always made without salt. Tuscans, especially those from Florence and Prato, would not eat it any other way.

The best bread in Tuscany
The best bread in Tuscany

Dante agreed. “Tu proverai si come sa di sale Lo pane altrui, e comè duro calle Lo scendere e il salir per l’altrui scale.” In these lines from the Paradiso of ”The Divine Comedy,” Dante learns of his exile from Florence and is given some idea of the difficulties he will face. ”You shall learn how salty is the taste of another’s bread, and how hard a path the descending and the climbing another’s stairs,” he is told.

Some say the best Tuscan bread is made in Prato. Pane di Prato is justifiably famous throughout the region. There are Florentines who virtually refuse to eat any other bread than Pane di Prato, even if their regard for the rival Pratesi is of a somewhat lesser degree. The bread of Prato was already being sold in the Florentine markets of the 16th century as a prestigious brand. It is said that the Medici served only Pane di Prato at their villa at Poggio a Caiano.

Official Website

Last weekend was the first, and hopefully not the last, annual Festival del Pane di Prato. All of the bread bakeries were showing off their best breads, including the famous bozza, a small quickly rounded loaf with a rustic crunchy crust. The soft middle part of the loaf is honeycombed in appearance and somewhat elastic. When you squeeze a bozza, it springs back into shape. The taste is salt-free, yeasty and slightly acidic.

Hot schiacciata cut up and served to the festival crowds
Hot schiacciata cut up and served to the festival crowds

The Festival served up hot schiacciata for all attendees. Street performers celebrated the bakery theme. Despite the unseasonable rain nobody could be depressed when there is the unlimited supply of yeasty bread.

Making schiacciata with fresh Tuscan olive oil
Making schiacciata with extra virgin Tuscan olive oil

The bread is baked in the pre-dawn hours in a variety of forms that adapt themselves to every need: the cazzottino (‘a small fist”) is for breakfasts and snacks, perfect with a few slices of Pratese mortadella; the filone seems made to be sliced and slathered with flavorful marmalades, or drizzled in local olive oil and sprinkled with salt — the pan con l’olio used for snacks for kids and just about anyone else – or to make the traditional fettunta (toasted, rubbed with garlic and seasoned with olive oil, salt and pepper) reserved for the dinner table. But the best is the bozza, which goes well with everything and when it is stale and hard as a rock, it becomes the prime ingredient for panzanella, ribollita, pappa al pomodoro and other tasty dishes.

Bread bakers take rolling pins to the streets of Prato
Bread bakers take rolling pins to the streets of Prato

The Pisans get all the blame from some pundits for the salt-less bread made in Prato. Supposedly, they attempted to force Florence to surrender in one of their endless battles against each other by blockading the salt that arrived at the Pisan port, preventing it from reaching Florence via the Arno River. Prato, as Florence’s nearest neighbor, was caught in the fight.

Bread of all kinds at the Festival of the Bread of Prato
Bread of all kinds at the Festival of the Bread of Prato

Others claim that the wide spread poverty in the Middle Ages is to blame – that salt was too costly for the Tuscans to use in bread-making. (It’s hard to credit this story because poor Italian peasants in other regions couldn’t afford salt, but didn’t give up making salted bread.)

I like to think it was the pope’s fault. During the 14th to 16th centuries, it is said, the popes, who controlled much of the Italian peninsula (known as the Vatican States), levied a tax on salt. Pope Paul III raised the tax in 1539 and the Perugians and the Tuscans refused to pay it. The government of Perugia even went to war over the issue – the Salt War of 1540. The Perugians lost the war, but some say the citizens then refused to buy the salt, thus forcing the fornai (bread bakeries) to produce salt-free bread. (Tuscan bread is one of the few that remains salt-free today, but there are many historical references to bread made without salt in other parts of Italy.)

The perfect Pane di Prato
The perfect Pane di Prato

During the 16th century in Tuscany, the Tuscan Medici dukes controlled all of the resources, including salt, for Tuscan towns such as Prato. When they needed cash (for a war or for building a new villa) they raised the price on salt and other commodities. Thus, pane toscano (Tuscan bread) became bread famous throughout Italy for being sciocco, from the word in the Tuscan dialect for “insipid” (to Tuscans “sciocco” also means “stupid”, but that doesn’t fit this situation because they think salt-less bread is anything, but stupid). Those who are not Tuscan make fun of the bread of the region, but Tuscans, like Dante, mourn it when it is not available.

Salt-less Tuscan bread is not intended for eating on its own. It’s usually served along with the main meal and is meant for sopping up thick, rich, spicy sauces. The bread doesn’t compete with the flavors in the dish, both are enhanced.

 

Prato bakers also produce a great wheat bread
Prato bakers also produce a great wheat bread

The Bread of Prato’s lack of salt helps keep it fresh for several days. Since it has no salt to hold in water, it does not form mold – it just becomes hard as a rock when it is stale – thus making it the basis of many of the tasty dishes that are renowned in Tuscan cuisine.

Bread baking and the arts celebrated in the streets of Prato
Bread baking and the arts celebrated in the streets of Prato

The following Italian dishes are made with stale salt-free Pane di Prato:

Ribollita – a twice-boiled thick vegetable soup (ribollita means ‘re-boiled’), made of black and white cabbage, white beans and other vegetables, made thick with crumbled stale Tuscan bread or poured over toasted Tuscan bread.

Pappa al pomodoro – a bread-based thick tomato soup in which stale Tuscan bread is rehydrated and crumbled; then cooked with the tomatoes, basil and garlic to make a tasty pappa.

Panzanella – a summer salad dish. Stale Tuscan bread is soaked in water, squeezed into a damp mass, crumbled into a big salad bowl and cucumber, raw onion, fresh diced tomato and fresh basil leaves are added. The ingredients are tossed thoroughly with some extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper.

 

Cacciucco – a fish chowder from Livorno made of fish, mollusks and crustaceans. The Livornese claim that the recipe should contain at least five types of fish to match the number of ‘c’s in the word cacciucco. Once cooked, the cacciucco is served on a bed of toasted Tuscan bread that has been rubbed with a clove of fresh garlic.

Fettunta – “garlic toast” made with slices of hot toasted Tuscan bread, rubbed with a clove of fresh garlic, splashed with fresh extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with salt. Don’t try to cut into a completely stale loaf of Tuscan bread to make this; it’s too hard to cut. Use slightly stale bread – too dry to eat untoasted, but perfect for fettunta.

(Tuscan Traveler will go anywhere for great bread. Matera bread is a a past and present favorite. While in Prato Tuscan Traveler, of course, stopped at Mattei for a kilo of brutti ma buoni cookies.)

Italian Food Rules: The BookItalian Life Rules (the book) is coming in Summer 2014. Italian 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

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Mangia! Mangia! – That’s Amaro, Italy Loves Its Digestivos

The smoothly running digestive system is crucial to an Italian’s health and happiness. This concern is the basis of so many of the Italian Food Rules. You already know that you do not add uncooked milk to a full stomach (cappuccino, caffelatte, gelato); you do not eat “cold” melon without the “heat” of prosciutto or salt or peperoncino; you do not eat leftovers; and you do not overeat. Having eaten well, however, an Italian may partake of an herbal digestive drink after dinner.

Cynar is an amaro made from artichokes
Cynar is an amaro made from artichokes

The first attempts to aid digestion using aromatic herbs and seeds steeped in liquids were made by the Greeks and Romans. Yet today, no country can match Italy for the sheer variety of digestive remedies available. They traveled from the pharmacies of the 1800s, intended as palliatives to counter all sorts of ailments and physical imbalances, to restaurants, bars and the dinner table in the 20th century. They are bitter – that’s amaro.

These homemade restoratives, generally bitter herbs, plants and other botanicals blended into an alcohol base, live on commercially today in the form of digestives. Digestives are not the usual after-dinner drinks, like brandies, grappas and other distilled products that are meant to add a pleasant intoxicating after-note to a meal, or the sweet high-alcohol wines, like Vin Santo, which give you a final sweet taste, but not the fullness of a three-layer cake.

These digestives, or digestivi, are known collectively as amari. The word refers to the bitterness that unifies this disparate group of liqueurs. Dozens of amari are produced in Italy. Each has a proprietary formula made by distilling a wide variety of herbs and spices and tempered in barrels or bottles. Amari have been touted in Italy to cure overeating, flatulence, hangovers, gas pains, cramps of all kids, baby colic and cholera. One theory is that bitterness, typically associated with poison, cues the body to accelerate the production of saliva and digestive juices.

Amaro from Puglia
Amaro from Puglia

No two amari shares the same makeup or ingredients.  For example: Amaro Averna from Sicily is comprised of citrus, herbs, roots, and caramel; Cynar is an amaro made from 13 herbs and artichokes (Cynara scolymus), from which the drink derives its name; Nocino, is a digestivo made from green walnuts; Unicum, formerly a Hungarian amaro, contains 40 herbs and is aged in oak casks (the Zwak family, holder of the secret Unicum recipe, emigrated to Italy after WWII); Vecchio Amaro del Capo, a herbal and minty amaro is made in Calabria; and Fernet-Branca, probably the most world-famous amaro, is made from a secret recipe of 27 herbs obtained from five continents.

Fernet-Branca was created by a self-taught herbalist in Milan in 1845. The secret recipe for this digestive, first sold in pharmacies, includes aloe from South Africa, rhubarb from China, gentian from France, galangal from India or Sri Lanka, chamomile from Italy and Argentina, saffron, red cinchona bark, myrrh from Madagascar (yes, that’s right – myrrh), and elderflower. The brew is aged in oak barrels for twelve months. It is about 40% alcohol. Fernet Branca is considered by some as a perfect cure for a hangover, but Italians drink it as a digestivo after a long meal.

Frenet-Branca is the most internationally renown Italian amaro
Fernet-Branca is the most internationally renowned Italian amaro

Nocino is an amaro that can be found in most restaurants and ordered as a digestivo. But it is also the most popular amaro for the home-made digestivo, probably because of the ease of its recipe. Its main ingredient is green walnuts picked long before they are ready to eat.

The regions of Campania and Emilia-Romagna are the largest producers of walnuts in Italy. Traditionally, the walnuts are picked by a woman (there is a bit of the pagan about this concoction) on the eve of June 24th, the Festa di San Giovanni (St. John the Baptist’s saint day), the recipe is made the next day, after the noci have rested over night, and then the brew is put away until Ognissanti (All Saints Day), November 1st, when it is drunk to honor the dead. Thereafter, it is sipped as a digestivo after the big December holiday meals.

To make Nocino, the walnuts (noci) are cleaned and quartered, put into round glass bottles with a mixture of alcohol, sugar, cinnamon, and cloves and allowed to rest in a warm sunny place. The liquid seeps into the nuts and turns dark brown.  More sugar and spices are added and, if the liquid has become too strong, a little water is added.

Nocino can be made at home from green walnuts picked on St John's Day
Nocino can be made at home from green walnuts picked on St John’s Day

Pellegrino Artusi (1820-1911), the father of modern Italian cooking, reportedly suffered from a “delicate stomach” and noted in his seminal cookbook that the digestive and tonic powers of this dark and sweet liqueur were the perfect end to those heavier meals later on in the year when the cooler months arrive. Artusi’s Nocino contained  unripe walnuts, alcohol (95%), white sugar, ground cinnamon, whole cloves,  water, and the rind of one lemon. Sealed tightly in a large glass vessel, stored in a warm place, shaken “every now and then”, the concoction was ready in forty days or so. A couple of days before November 1st he would have a little taste. If it was too “spiritoso” (too high in alcohol), Artusi advised adding a cup or two of water. Then, when the liqueur is ready, strain it first through a cloth, and then to clarify it, again through a finer cloth or paper, such as a modern coffee filter, before bottling.

Artusi also recommended an amaro he called “Cinchona Elixir” made with “bruised Peruvian cinchona bark” and “bruised dried bitter orange peel.”

Don’t succumb to the distasteful practice of doing Frent-Branca shots at your local bar in Los Angeles or New York in an effort to be cool. Sip a small glass after a four-course dinner at you favorite restaurant in Torino or Milan.

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

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Mangia! Mangia! – Prosciutto & Melon Go Together

One of the most famous Italian food pairing is prosciutto and melon. Prosciutto, pink sapid and dry, is the perfect wrap for the orange, sweet juicy cantaloupe.

Serve the melon peeled and sliced in long crescents with one slice of prosciutto wrapped around each piece to be eaten with a knife and fork. Or wrap a small cube or ball of melon in a tiny sack of prosciutto for perfect finger food.

Melon & Prosciutto - a perfect food pairing
Melon & Prosciutto – a perfect food pairing

The melon must be in season and as sweet as can be.  Prosciutto is always available and it is a matter of taste whether the famous Prosciutto di Parma is selected or the saltier Tuscan variety from the Cinta Sinese pork is desired.

As with all Italian ingredient pairings, no substitutes will do. Don’t wrap a slice of baked Virginia ham or of roasted prosciutto di Praga around a spear of watermelon or a piece of green honeydew melon. The taste will be wrong. The texture will be wrong and the color combination will not delight the Italian eye.

Eating melons without the prosciutto is considered somewhat dangerous to Italians. It comes down to an issue of digestion, as many things do in regard to the Italian Food Rules. If a “cold” food, like melon, is eaten without a “hot” balancing food, like a salty meat or spicy chili peppers, the body is “chilled”, which leads to the dreaded congestione, or at least, indigestion.

There is historical proof for this claim. In July 1471, Pope Paul II died after a dinner consisting of three cantaloupes. The melons were to blame. In 1602, Giacomo della Porta, the architect for another pope, died after reportedly eating too much cantaloupe and watermelon, causing fatal indigestion when his organs became chilled.

The lesson learned from centuries of Italian trial and error: Eat melon with prosciutto for a happy and healthy day.

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)

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

Mangia! Mangia! – Horsemeat on the Menu and in the Market

The headlines are full of the “horsemeat scandal” raging throughout a number of countries in Europe. But not in Italy. Or, at least, not yet. It is important to keep in mind the scandal is about mislabeling, not about eating horsemeat, per se. Someone is making money from selling a less expensive meat as something it is not. People who eat the mystery meat found in frozen lasagna, rather than making their own with ground meat from a trusted butcher, are waking up to the fact that there is fraud in the food production pipeline that stretches from Eastern Europe to France, Britain, Switzerland, Ireland and Sweden – so far. But that doesn’t mean that people in those countries don’t choose to eat horsemeat.

Frozen lasagna sold by Coop of Switzerland contained horsemeat
Frozen lasagna sold by Coop of Switzerland contained horsemeat

In Europe and Japan, it is a staple and in Sweden horsemeat out-sells mutton and lamb combined. Residents of Austria, Belgium, Canada, Chile, China, France, Germany, Iceland, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Malta, Mongolia, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Slovenia, and Switzerland all consume horsemeat. But Italy surpasses all other countries in the European Union in horsemeat consumption.

The meat itself is similar to beef, although many say it is slightly sweeter in taste (somewhere between beef and venison) and has a less complex flavor. That said, many Italians argue that it is a more healthy option than beef, being both lower in fat and  having a higher content of  protein, iron, Omega-3, Vitamin B-12 and glycogen.

It is an inexpensive meat and used to be the red meat for the poor, but now is consumed by all economic classes. One reason for the increased consumption came about 10 years ago with the fears of BSE (mad cow disease) in beef – the disease is not found in horses.

Various kinds of salmi made with horsemeat.
Various kinds of salmi made with horsemeat.

Don’t worry if you are afraid that you might not recognize the difference between horse and beef in the market. In 1928, Italian legislation was passed to prohibit the sale of horsemeat together with other meats in the same stores. In the big food markets, horse meat is sold at a specialty stand by specialist horse butchers. The Roman Catholic Church prohibited eating horsemeat in the 8th century, and the taboo still remains, but is not followed by many catholic Italians. On a menu, keep an eye out for the words cavallo or equino, and in Sardinia the dialect word for horse is cuaddu.

Horsemeat is used in a variety of Italian recipes: as a stew called pastissada (typical of Verona), served as steaks, as carpaccio (raw), or made into bresaola (cured). Even classic Italian mortadella sausage can be had in a horsemeat variety. Minute shredded strips of salted, dried and smoked horsemeat called sfilacci are popular in the Veneto region. A long-cooked stew called pezzetti di cavallo combines cubed horse meat with tomato sauce, onions, carrots and celery. Horsemeat sausages (salsiccia di equino) and salamis are traditional in northern Italy. In Sardinia, sa petza ‘e cuaddu is one of the most popular meats and sometimes is sold in typical kiosks with bread. Donkey is also cooked, for example as a stew called stracotto d’asino and as meat for sausages e.g. mortadella d’asino. The cuisine of Parma features a horsemeat tartare, called pesto di cavallo, marinated in lemon juice with fresh garlic and chopped parsley.

Horsemeat prepared by a specialty butcher is often served raw.
Horsemeat prepared by a specialty butcher is often served raw.

Today, in Tuscany, consumption of horsemeat is rare, although there is one stand in the Mercato Centrale of Florence where specialty horse butcher, Nicola Ricci, has sold a wide variety of products for decades; as did his father before him. In the 1960s there was a total of five horsemeat stands in the huge Florence market.

Florence has one restaurant, Piazza del Vino, that offers a horse steak. In Lucca, the trattoria Da Giulio, regularly has marinated raw cavallo alla tartara on the menu. Visitors to the north and south of Italy have many more chances to try horsemeat, if they are so inclined. It’s a regional Italian food with a tradition that stretches back through the centuries.

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)

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

Mangia! Mangia! – Baccalà Binds and Divides Italy

In the U.S. you can count on finding a burger at every truck stop, small town or major city. In the U.K. the same could be said about fish and chips. In Italy, it’s baccalà (salt cod). In the case of hamburgers or fish and chips, the recipe never varies much, but the recipe for salt cod changes drastically from region to region in Italy. Don’t ask for baccalà alla Livornese in Venice or baccalà mantecato in Puglia.

Salt cod can be fried for the Italian version of fish and chips
Salt cod can be fried (served with patate fritte) for the Italian version of fish and chips

It’s not hard to imagine why salt cod became the go-to food around the Italian boot. In times before trucks and refrigeration, the transport of fresh fish was impossible. Despite this fact, the Roman Catholic Church mandated days of abstinence when meat could not be eaten. Salted or dried fish became a Friday and Lenten favorite. It had the added benefit of being very inexpensive and was a protein staple for the poor. Cod boasts remarkable nutritional properties: it contains over 18% protein, which once dried rises to almost 80%.

Salt cod came to the ports of Livorno, Genoa and Naples in the 11th century, brought by Basque sailors, who ventured into the waters of the northern Atlantic, hunting the whales that passed through the Bay of Biscay. They came into contact with the Viking sailors, who dried the fresh-caught cod in the cold dry North Sea winds and then broke it into pieces and chewed it like a biscuit. In the 13th century, the Portuguese, realizing the commercial value of the easily-stored dried fish, cornered the market, sending their ships as far as Greenland. They added salt to dry the fish faster, giving rise to bacalhau (derived from the Latin, meaning “baculus” or stick). They traded salt cod along the western coast of the Italian peninsula.

Fried salt cod simmering in a spicy tomato sauce
Fried salt cod simmering in a spicy tomato sauce

The history of baccalà in Venice only dates back to 1431 when a Venetian ship, laden with spices and 800 barrels of Malvasia wine, departed from the island of Crete under the command of the sea captain Piero Querini, and headed for the North Sea and Flanders. When the ship reached the English Channel, the route was disrupted by a violent storm that, after breaking the rudder, blew the ship north for many days. Boarding lifeboats, the crew (only 14 of 68 survived) landed on the uninhabited rock of Sandoy, in Norway’s northern Lofoten Islands.

For four months, the Venetians lived with the Norwegian fishermen, and learnt the art of preserving cod. Norway’s unique climatic conditions of low temperatures, dry air and a low amount of precipitation were (and still are) perfect for air-drying cod in open tents. Cod preserved in this way can last for years. Captain Querini returned home with sixty dried stockfish. He told the ruling Doges how the Norwegians dried the fish in the wind until it became as hard and then they beat it and spiced it turning it into a soft and tasty mix. The recipe was known by the Spanish words baccalà mantecato (creamed codfish). Querini went back to Norway many times, becoming a major trader in dried and salted codfish.

There are two forms of dried codfish – stockfish and salt cod. Stockfish or stoccafisso is made using the smaller cod, dried on sticks in the cold dry air of Scandinavia, creating a very light, easily transported stick fish, thus the name. Salt cod or baccalà is created from cod, three to six feet long, split, and salted on wood planks for about ten days, thus only partially drying them. Today, all of the stoccafisso and baccalà eaten in Italy comes from Norway.

Salt cod has many of the characteristics of fresh cod, large, soft flakes of succulent, opaque flesh with slightly chewy firm texture from the salting, and not at all fishy in flavor. To prepare it, the cook rinses the salt off it and soaks it in cold water for 12 or more hours, depending upon its thickness, changing the water 2-3 times daily. (Stockfish takes a couple of extra days to rehydrate.) Once it has soaked it is skinned, deboned, and ready to be made into the local recipe.

Bacala alla Livornese ready to serve in Tuscany
Baccalà alla Livornese ready to serve in Tuscany

In Veneto, baccalà is considered a real delicacy: Baccalà alla Vicentina (slowly braised with onions, anchovies and milk) and Baccalà Mantecato (an mashed preparation with extra virgin olive oil, lemon and parsley) are always served with polenta. Some other popular recipes are Baccalà alla Livornese (with tomatoes, garlic, parsley and basil), cooked throughout Tuscany. When in Rome you will find Baccalà Fritto (salt cod chunks fried in a simple egg and flour batter)and Baccalà all’Agro Dolce (with tomatoes, cooked in wine, flavored with red pepper, pine nuts and sultana raisins).

Baccalà alla Pizzaiola (salt cod covered with tomatoes, breadcrumbs, capers, plenty of oregano and baked in the oven) and Baccalà alla Napoletana (the baccalà is fried and then placed in a simmering tomato sauce, with olives, capers and pine nuts), are recipes from Naples. The Neapolitans, even today, boasts the highest consumption of both stockfish and dried salted cod. They claim there are 365 different ways to eat baccalà – one for every day of the year.

As you travel around Italy, ask for baccalà at least once at each stop to taste the true regionalism of  the country.

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)

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Italian Food Rules – Italians Only Drink Tea When They Are Sick

Tea drinkers of the U.K. and the U.S. might as well give up the idea of a good “cuppa” in Italy. Italians only drink tea when they are sick – at home.

You can ask for, and receive, hot tea in a coffee bar. First, the barista will give you a searching glance from a distance to see if you are obviously infectious. Then, he will run some hot water out of the coffee machine into a cappuccino-cup. The water will be unfiltered tap water, which may taste great, but in Florence, for example, is highly mineralized, a taste hidden easily by coffee, but not by tea. And, having passed through the coffee machine, the water will have the odor, if not the taste, of stale coffee.

The water may or may not be of sufficient temperature to brew tea from the generic tea bag (or, perhaps, Liptons in an upscale bar), still wrapped in its paper cover, resting in the saucer of the rapidly cooling cup of water.

Bring your favorite tea cup and tea with you to Italy
Bring your favorite tea cup and tea with you to Italy

If you go out to dinner at the home of an Italian friend, carry your own tea bags. Their cupboards will only contain chamomile tea bags or tisane della salute. Also, be prepared for the sympathetic look and an inquiry about how long you have been feeling “under the weather.” Finally, they may not have cups for tea, only tiny cups for espresso. A water glass can substitute for a teacup, but don’t fill it too full; only the top edge will stay cool enough to touch.

As for your own vacation rental in Italy: plan to bring an electric kettle, a Brita pitcher with filters, and your favorite tea. In cities, specialty grocery stores will carry good tea, but at high prices.

You can buy a beautiful Tuscan ceramic tea cup to take home
You can buy a beautiful Tuscan ceramic tea cup to take home

To avoid those sympathetic looks and the defensive self-doubt that will grow each time an Italian asks “Prendiamo un caffè?”, think up a snappy reply.  As a foreigner, you will be given a pass. Imagine a tea-loving, coffee-hating Italian – his life would be like being a vegetarian at a Texas barbecue … every single day of the year.

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)

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

Italian Food Rules – No Ice Cubes in Beverages

Florentine Francesca and I are in a New York restaurant where “Hi! I’m Sam, your waiter” is assisting us to have the best lunch experience possible. This includes large glasses of iced water that arrive immediately on the table with a large basket of warm bread. Francesca immediately starts scooping out the cubes into the empty wine glass. “Hi! I’m Sam” arrives to take our order and notices her he half full glass of iceless water. He leaves and returns with the water pitcher, which he turns sideways so that it dispenses the maximum amount of ice and a lesser amount of water. Duty done, he grins, “Now, what sounds good to you ladies, today?”

ice-cubes-floating-in-a-glass-of-water_medium

Confession: I have more ice cube trays in my freezer in Florence than anyone else in town. When May rolls around, I put away the hot tea and declare ice tea season officially open. I go through two trays a day. For over ten years I have felt ice-deprived in the restaurants and at the family tables of Italy.

http://purplecook.blogspot.it/Why?

Italian Food Rule: No ice cubes in beverages.

Ice in Italy is to keep fresh fish fresh. Full stop.

The most common reason Florentines (including Francesca) give me for the rule is that icy cold liquids are bad for your digestion. They can even cause the dreaded congestione – an abdominal cramp – that can kill you. (Florentines worry a lot about digestion.)

The next frequently cited reason is a fear of the tap water used for making ice. Despite the fact that Italy has very safe tap water – not always the best tasting, but safe to drink in any form – the consumption of bottled water (at room temperature) in Italy is one of the highest in Europe.

Mayor Renzi has joined other mayors in Tuscany in trying to cut down on the glass and plastic garbage and energy costs of bottled water by offer free acqua del sindaco, the mayor’s water, at various water stations (with both fizzy and still water) around the city. (Check behind Neptune’s tush on the side of the Palazzo Vecchio.) Of course, Mayor Renzi is not promoting the use of free tap water for making ice because I am sure he agrees with the Italian Food Rule: No ice cubes in beverages.

http://www.vibranth2o.com/restaurant-applications

No hotel in Italy will have an ice machine in the hall and few will bring ice to the room. This may be for the reasons stated above or because ice machine suck a lot of very expensive electricity and are breeding grounds of all sorts of molds, fungi, and bacteria – all, unfortunately, good and verifiable reasons to follow the Italian Food Rule: No ice cubes in beverages.

Italy is a land of simple drinks – wine, beer and water (frizzante or naturale) – all which are drunk just fine without ice. There is not a big cocktail tradition, but in a bow to the rest of the world you will frequently find three tiny cubes of ice floating in your Negroni, never four, of course.

When visiting Italy in July and August, try following the Italian Food Rule: No ice cubes in beverages. You may find that you can actually taste what you are drinking. You may also find that you will be forced to take a break from those sugary sodas that taste disgusting without ice and you will embrace the entire Mediterranean diet, even the beverages.

But don’t look at me for a good example of how to “live Italian” by following all of the Italian Food Rules. I have more ice cube trays in my freezer than anyone else in Florence.

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 Rules – No Cheese on Fish

Filet o' Fish with Cheese
Filet o’ Fish with Cheese

Except for ordering a cappuccino or a caffellatte after your dinner, nothing is more likely to raise the ire of your Italian waiter than to ask for some grated parmesan to go on your spaghetti alle vongole or pasta al baccala’.

So, as you drive down Interstate 5 munching on your Filet o’ Fish with extra cheese, remember the Italian Food Rule: No Cheese On Fish.

The reasons for the rule are: logic, location, and tradition. But can there be change on the horizon?

Logic

Except for salt cod (baccala’), canned tuna, cured sardines and anchovies (acciughe), Italians believe fish should be eaten fresh, as close to the place and time that it is caught. Fish from the seas and rivers of Italy is mild tasting, delicate and needs to be treated with a light touch when it comes to seasoning. The milky saltiness of cheese will overwhelm the flavor of the fish. And fishy cheese is just hard to contemplate, much less swallow.

Hard to imagine but the lunch of choice in a combo of fish sticks and cheese
Hard to imagine, but the lunch of choice is a combo of fish sticks and cheese

But, you might argue, what about all of those strong flavors that are acceptable when cooking fish: capers, lemon, tomato, rosemary, fennel, olive, garlic, etc.?

Location

On top of Fish Pasta all covered with cheese ...
On top of Fish Pasta all covered with cheese …

Italian cheese producing regions tends to be inland and landlocked: parmesan in the north, pecorino in the hills of Tuscany, and buffalo mozzarella to the east and south of Naples. Famed for fish are the Ligurian, Sicilian, Adriatic and Tuscan coastal towns. Italians have been living the Slow Food, zero kilometer lifestyle for centuries, not decades. The recipes celebrate the location and  availability of fresh ingredients: where there is fish there isn’t cheese and visa versa.

Tradition

Location and tradition meet in the recipes passed down for generations. Italians don’t move far from their places of birth and those places were city-states just 150 years ago. In Livorno, they argue over the types of shellfish and saltwater fish that should go into cacciucco (cheese never enters the discussion). As far as I know, in Bologna everyone is comfortable with adding more cheese on top of a cheesy sauce covering ravioli stuffed with cheese, but no one thinks of filling their ravioli with fish.

Fish swimming in cheese
Fish swimming in cheese

Also, for centuries, tradition dictated that meat and dairy products were forbidden on Friday for religious reasons. Fish was the symbolic and nutritional replacement, but heaven forbade a topping of cheese.

Say It Ain’t So

The Italian Food Rule – No Cheese on Fish – sparks lively debates in the U.S.  Da Silvano, a famous NYC restaurant has printed on the menu, “No cheese served on fish at any time.”  A couple of years ago, competing chef Chuck Hughes was criticized on Iron Chef America when he combined lobster with cheese curds in a poutine (of course, that’s a French dish and what do they know?).

But then there is the guy on the Thinking With Your Stomach blog who came up with a tuna and melted cheese grilled sandwich.

The only acceptable combo of fish and cheese
The only acceptable combo of fish and cheese

Last year, in Bra, Italy, home of the Slow Food movement, at their Cheese 2011 conference one of my favorite seafood chefs, Luciano Zazzeri of La Pineta (on a Tuscan seaside beach) presented a class on matching cheese with fish.

The wry Robert Trachtenberg, writing Just Grate in the NY Times, found the oldest surviving “Sicilian recipe — from around 400 B.C. — for fish: ‘Gut. Discard the head, rinse, slice; add cheese and oil.’”  He also browbeat famous chefs in Rome and Venice until they admitted to serving fish pastas with cheese added in the kitchen.

Trachtenberg quotes the famed cookbook author Nancy Harmon Jenkins, who speaks the truth when she said, “‘One of the great things about Italy is they love making rules. And they obey very few.’”

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 – No Doggy Bags, 2nd Serving

This is how I learned about the Italian Food Rule: No Doggy Bags!

Years ago, I was a regular at La Maremma on Via Verdi in Florence. I loved their penne pasta with mushroom and truffle sauce. I adored their fruit tiramisu. In fact, I don’t think I ever had a dish I didn’t like there. Everything was cooked to order, the service was fantastic, and the ambience with its slanting floor was warm and comfortable. (Since then, the restaurant has been renovated, but the high quality of the food is still getting rave reviews.)

La Maremma on Via Verdi
La Maremma on Via Verdi

One evening, I ordered my favorite pasta and then saw ostrich (filetto di struzzo con salsa di vino rosso) on the menu. The owner, Enzo Ragazzini, explained that the ostrich was grown in Italy and urged me to try “un piatto speciale e buono.” I agreed, forgetting to ask for a half-portion of the pasta.

After some shared crostini, my large plate of penne con funghi e tartufi arrived, steaming, fragrant, and oh so scrumptious. I just had to eat the whole thing, sharing only a bite or two with my two dinner companions.

Almost full, my eyes popped when a beautifully presented filet of ostrich – round, about two inches high and four inches in diameter, like a classic filet mignon at a good steakhouse in the U.S. – with a deep purple-brown wine sauce and a sprig of fresh rosemary, was placed in front of me.

Ristorante La Maremma
Ristorante La Maremma

The filetto was perfect, pink, tender, complemented in every way by the accompanying sauce. But it was huge. I could not do it justice in one sitting. Not after that pasta (and crostini and wine). I could have shared it with my friends, but as luck would have it I was eating with two vegetarians.

I vaguely understood the Italian Food Rule: No Doggy Bags! At least, I had never seen a container – bag, carton, foil, etc. – being offered in any of the many restaurants I had patronized (I am no cook, except for chocolate chip cookies and pancakes, so I ate out a lot.) in Florence. But I couldn’t let half a filet of ostrich, my first ostrich dish, go to waste. And I did not want the chef to get the wrong idea – I loved every bite.

So I asked Enzo in my almost non-existent Italian, if there was any way he could wrap the half filet up so I could take it back to my apartment. This conversation took a while. He even resorted to some English to clarify my desire. After I finally came up with “per portare via, per favore,” a phrase more suited to a pastry shop than a restaurant, he left with the plate, shaking his head. I was regretting the request.

La Maremma doesn't know about aluminum swans...or ostriches
La Maremma doesn't know about aluminum swans...or ostriches

Enzo returned in a bit and showed me a small used, but clean, plastic bag with a warm aluminum-wrapped half filet of ostrich. I reach for it to put it quickly in my shopping satchel, out of sight. He wouldn’t let it go. He sat down at the table and in a mix of Italian and English proceeded to give me the recipe (did I mention that I do not cook?) for the red wine sauce that graced the filet on the original plate.

As I hypothesized in explaining the Italian Food Rule: No Doggy Bags, one of the reasons Italians don’t believe in taking home leftover food is that the dish is to be eaten immediately, as the chef envisioned, not recycled into another form at another temperature.

Italian Food Rule: No Doggy Bags!
Italian Food Rule: No Doggy Bags!

The friendly owner of La Maremma could not imagine that I would want to slice this tender filet of ostrich up with a little mustard and mayo in a panino, or tossed into a microwave oven to warm it up to go on a plate beside a similarly zapped potato (my kind of cooking). No, I was instructed on how to make the exact same wine sauce as the chef. I took notes.

And I swore that I would never request a doggy bag again in Italy.