Posted by: 4initalia | December 2, 2009

Reality Bites

Taglietelle, Modena. During this meal, Andy obsessed about the Chinese economy. China who??

I have so far resisted talking about Italian food. Americans who go to Italy all write about the amazing cuisine. It’s impossible to read about Italian food without getting viciously hungry. Unless you are in a restaurant in Italy, you cannot have what they’re having, so to describe what it is like to live this food is cruel.

In an American pantry, it’s hard to find freshly made, hand-stuffed pumpkin ravioli in fresh butter and basil. So if you read about great food you have to satisfy yourself with what is readily available. Then you and a bag of Cheetos get sucked into a downward shame spiral from which you emerge with very orange fingers and very tight pants. I can’t buy new pants; I know how important it is to maintain one’s clothing size. So for your sake, I’m trying to keep you from making a beeline for the salty snack aisle. (All right, go, but at least buy a small bag.)

I love the food here, but I don’t feel like writing about it. Because 87% of my time here is spent cooking, cleaning up, washing clothes with food on them, trudging to the store to buy groceries, and dodging traffic to carry it home. When you live with a teenage boy who is growing exponentially and eats his weight at every meal, writing about food is like an inmate writing about cell door design: Why wallow?

Writing about Italian food makes me tired; eating it makes me cry. The first time I had pizza here, tears ran onto the perfectly crisp crust. I’m a vegetarian, so vegetables rule. Pizza here offers toppings from all over the produce aisle: artichoke, eggplant, peppers, zucchini and onions, spinach. And a variety of cheeses: gorgonzola, parmigiano, different types of mozzarella (fior di latte is made from cow’s milk, fior di latte di bufala from water buffalo milk), provolone. Pizza dough cooks very quickly, so if you use fresh vegetables, the toppings are crunchy and can be bitter. Here the veggies are marinated in olive oil, gently roasted, then seared into melted cheese.

Pizza is a revelation, but there is so much else to eat, even for a vegetarian. When I first tried tortelloni in butter and basil, I understood why butter should be served fresh. Fresh melted butter is a handful of sunshine splashed across the plate. Ligurian trofie with plump green beans and pesto is comfort food made magnificent. Why bother with the expense and fuss of prison, when Italian waiters could keep felons on their best behavior just by handing them a menu? It’s worth a try.

Just like Olive Garden! NOT!!

My relationship with Italy is sadly dysfunctional, because of the food. When postal employees refuse to sell me stamps because they. must.weigh each. letter. of. each. word. before I seal the envelope, I am enraged. But all it takes is a cup of cappuccino, and I love them again. A cloud of milk, sprinkled with sugar, and swirled into perfectly roasted coffee makes every cup a short but memorable visit to heaven. Why be mad? When I can’t buy a cell phone without providing seven forms of identification, just a single scoop of gelato and I’m completely snockered again. So help me, I’m Whitney Houston and Italy is my Bobby Brown.

The produce, even the hack produce at the supermarket, is fresher than the crates of styrofoam sold at Costco. Slice into an Italian carrot, and the blade is slick with juice. Garlic cloves bead with moisture when cut. Mushrooms are packed just as they’re harvested, with balls of soil clinging to the rounded bottoms. The fruit is heavy and sweet. Blood oranges, plump with intense flavor, are an explosion of fireworks to satisfy all of your senses. Grapes have both a tang and the mellowness of good rain and steady sunshine.

Food here is sold locally; I’m probably eating grapes from vines I can see from the train. Produce is sold in season, so in the grocery store, there are no brussels sprouts in the spring, no broccoli until the fall. Produce isn’t covered with wax or preservatives, so it goes bad quickly. Peppers last four days at most, green beans dry out, broccoli yellows in three days. So you cook it fresh, eat it fresh, and smile.

Even snack food here brushes greatness. Classica potato chips are thick, crunchy, not greasy. Cheese puffs aren’t neon orange and metallic with chemicals, they shed flakes of real parmesan.

And the cheese – oh my, the cheese. American provolone tastes like a rubber eraser, but here, provolone is nutty, mellow. Provolone piccante (sharp, not spicy) is a transformative experience. Fresh grated parmesan adds shards of brilliance to anything it falls on. But I have to take the stairs, so the cheese doesn’t transform my thighs into mozzarella.

I’m trying to learn to cook Italian. No more bottled lemon juice, now I buy a bag of fresh lemons and squeeze them over everything. It’s easy: try brussels sprouts roasted in the oven with olive oil, garlic and the juice of one whole lemon. I remember the frozen olive wads my mom boiled and plopped in a bowl; the citizens of Brussels should demand reparations for what Americans did to their good name.

Here in Italy every dish awakes your senses. Salad starts with fresh greens with all of the aroma of newly-cut grass. I add sliced carrot, fresh tomatoes, olive oil. And balsamic vinegar, which is made in Modena in a loving, patient process that takes a minimum of twelve to twenty-five years. American balsamic vinegar is painfully acidic, but aging makes balsalmics sweet. A great bottle of old Modena aceto costs 180 euros, and you eat it from a spoon. But after only twelve summers in a wooden cask, traditional aceto pools on the lettuce and flirts with the olive oil; every bite tells you why those two have stayed together all these years.

I have no idea how real Italians cook. But in a huge humanitarian gesture, my  landlady Giovanna taught me to make risotto from scratch. It’s not as hard as I thought: you saute rice in olive oil, add broth (I save the broth from broccoli for that), and wine, Parmigiano Reggiano, a pinch of saffron, and you own a pot of molten gold. It’s easy to make lasagna when the local supermarket sells sheets of soft pasta. You layer it with balls of mozzarella, (getting those out of the bag always makes me laugh) sauce, vegetables, and more cheese. I make another pan and layer the vegetables with pesto. Or I love new potatoes, with slivers of fresh onion, drizzled with olive oil, and sprinkled with rosemary.

You can buy tiny jars of pasta sauce, but that’s really expensive. So here you buy a bottle of tomato puree, and make it your own. But even the spices are stronger here – the first time I used Italian black pepper, the same amount I’d use at home, the sauce growled. The best tomato sauce? I used to load it up with basil, oregano, and garlic. But Andy made the best sauce I’ve ever had, and it’s simple: saute onions and mushrooms in butter. Add pureed tomato, and simmer. If you want to add spices, go ahead. But you don’t need them, and now I don’t like the heaviness of more complicated sauce.

Soup is good: Roasted vegetables, cabbage sautéed in butter, with vegetable stock, and some beans. Mmmmn. Or creamy potato soup, with fresh grated parmesan, and cheese toast.

We never have leftovers, so my favorite lunch is fresh pugliese bread, provolone piccante, salad greens, tomatoes, and sweet balsamic vinegar. With Classica chips. It’s best eaten overlooking the rooftops of Modena. And I’ll miss our Friday night supper: takeout from Pizzeria Ragno, around the corner. For months I was hooked on Verdure: eggplant, onions, and zucchini, but I just discovered Arcadia: eggplant, mozzarella, provolone, and parmigiano. So many flavors, all found in nature.

Told ya so. You shouldn’t read this, because now you’re hungry. I’m hungry, and I used up all our reserves cooking last night: mussels sautéed in garlic and butter with the juice of two lemons, artichoke ravioli, mushroom tortellini, sliced fruit, and hearty pugliese bread for the broth.

Most nights, I go into the little blue-tiled kitchen, take up a sharp knife, and slice and saute and stir, and listen to Pavarotti. I chop and stir and saute until my arm stops working, and only then have I made enough to tide Alex over until dessert. Only if Andy is here to help cook, is it physically possible to make too much for Alex to consume. So I chop and I stir, and Pavarotti and I look out my little window onto the roofs of Modena, and I don’t feel like talking about food, I’m too busy living it.

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Responses

  1. From 5 in the USA: Ho fame!! I am getting hungry!! Great description!!
    Ciao from Linda

    • Thanks, Linda. I’m going to Modena for a visit …on Tuesday….aaaaah. Where are you living now? And what would you bring to friends in Italy from the US?

  2. OMG! Andrea – your descriptions of the spices, oils and vinegars make me want to pack my bags tonight, hop the red-eye and land somewhere, anywhere, in Italy just to taste such foods! Thank you!

    • Terese –

      I’ll be glad to go with you! And it’s all truuuuuuue!


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