Tag Archives: Italian Food Rules

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:

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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)

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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 Rules – Only Dip Biscotti in Vin Santo, Not in Coffee

Italians are very particular about what they dip their biscotti into. Pretty much it is a list of one – Vin Santo. The Italian Food Rule — Only Dip Biscotti in Vin Santo, Not in Coffee.

The perfect glass of Vin Santo for dipping biscotti
The perfect glass of Vin Santo for dipping biscotti

There is nothing more satisfying for dessert at the end of a long Italian meal than a couple of  almond -studded biscotti and a small glass of Vin Santo. The hard biscotti become sweetly moist after a few seconds dipped in the sweet late-harvest wine. Not too filling. Just a sweet note to the perfect repast. All that’s needed is a shot of espresso to send you on your way. But don’t make the mistake of dipping one extra biscotto into the coffee.

The subtly sweet, crisp almond cookies, loved throughout the world, have their origin in Italy. The word biscotti is the plural form of biscotto, which originates from the ancient Latin word biscoctus, meaning “twice-baked.”

Since they are very dry and can be stored for long periods of time, biscotti became a common food for long journeys, warring armies and sea voyages. Pliny the Elder boasted that such goods would be edible for centuries. They were a staple food of the Roman Legions and it is said Christopher Columbus carried these cookies on his voyages because they were so sturdy, and their dryness prevented the problem of spoilage.

While the word can refer to any crunchy cookie, it usually is used to describe the twice-baked almond cookies known as cantucci or cantuccini in Tuscany. In the Florence, they’re known as Biscotti di Prato because the most famous version of this cookie comes from the historic bakery Mattei in Prato, founded in 1858. Antonio Mattei was a friend of Pellegrino Artusi, who included some of  Mattei’s recipes in The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well (1891). Mattei’s Biscotti di Prato are rich with eggs, almonds and pine nuts, no artificial flavors. The first documented recipe for the biscuit is a centuries-old manuscript, now preserved in Prato, found by the eighteenth-century scholar Amadio Baldanzi. In this document, the biscuits are called Biscotti of Genoa.

By baking them twice, they lose any excess moisture, which ensures a crisp, dry cookie perfect for dipping. In Vin Santo.

Dip for a count of five for the best note.
Dip for a count of five for the best note.

Vin Santo or Vino Santo (holy wine) is a style of Italian dessert wine. Traditional in Tuscany, these wines are often made from white grape varieties such as Trebbiano and Malvasia. After the late-harvested grapes destined for Vin Santo are picked, they are hung in warm, well-ventilated rooms that allow the moisture in the grape to evaporate. This process allows the sugars in the grape to be more concentrated. The longer the grapes are allowed to dry , the higher the resulting residual sugar levels will be in the wine.

Depending on the style of wine desired, the grapes may be crushed and the fermentation process started after a few weeks or not until late March (the association with Easter is a possible reason for the name). Producers may use a starter culture of yeast known as a madre that includes a small amount of finished Vin Santo from previous years production. It is believed that this older wine can help jump start the fermentation process and also add complexity to the wine.

After fermentation the grapes are then aged in small oak barrels. In many DOC regions, the wines are required to age for at least 3 years though it is not uncommon for producers to age their wines for 5 to 10 years. Traditionally the barrels were made of chestnut instead of oak, which contributed high amounts of wood tannins and was very porous, which promoted  evaporation from the barrel. Under this same traditional style of winemaking, a large air space will emerge in the barrel and oxidation takes place. The high sugar content prevents the wine from turning to vinegar.

Although the style of making wine from dried grapes has been around almost as long as wine has been made, there are many theories on how the particular name Vin Santo or “holy wine” came to be associated with this style of wine in Italy. The most likely origin was the wine’s historic use in religious Mass, where sweet wine was often preferred. One of the earliest references to a ‘vinsanto’ wine come from the Renaissance era sales logs of Florentine wine merchants.

Biscotti and Coffe is a violation of the Italian Food Rule
Biscotti and Coffee is a violation of the Italian Food Rule

So if, after dinner, you start reaching for the biscotti on the plate in the middle of the table to dip into your coffee, stop and think of the number of Italian Food Rules you are about to break – eating after coffee, allowing crumbs to adulterate the coffee, and perhaps, drinking cappuccino after 10am because of course it’s hard to dip a biscotto into an espresso cup so you succumb to the urge to order cappuccino after dinner.

First, Italians consider coffee as both a palate cleanser and a digestivo. Biscotti (cantuccini) and Vin Santo, together, are dessert and made for each other. Cantuccini by themselves will put your teeth in peril. Dipping them in Vin Santo is the perfect solution. The flavors match perfectly and the best sip is the last with all of the delicious biscotti crumbs.

This is the biscotti that is perfect for dipping in cappuccino
These biscotti are perfect for dipping in cappuccino

Caveat: Technically biscotti refer to all crunchy biscuits and cookies. Therefore, biscotti are eaten and dunked in cappuccino for breakfast. But this is the biscotti della salute, a less dense, less sweet biscuit that is only a breakfast food and would never be eaten with coffe after lunch or dinner.

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

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

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.