by Paul Goldfield
My brother Paul and I have lived in Italy since 1961 and he is particularly fascinated with the Italian obsession over food. Here is an excerpt from a letter he sent to his friends and although the places he describes are not in the Sannio (he lives in Rome), it strikes a cord, because it correctly describes the shopping habits of Italians all over the country.
Delving into the relationship between Italians and food is like trying to explain why Americans over-consume or the Germans love beer; it’s a convoluted and never-ending process. Opera, painting…food; Mamma, home…food; summer, beach…food; grandma, ancestral home… food. The Italian passion for food is even greater than their love of soccer and an inordinate amount of time is spent shopping for it, cooking it, talking about it and, of course, eating it.
And it always comes out so good! Why? Here are a few reasons I’ve come up with:
First of all, a great deal of effort is put into getting the best raw ingredients. If you’ve ever eaten in Italy and wondered why Italian food back home doesn’t make the grade, this is the long and the short of it. I doubt whether Mario Batali’s ragù can hold a flame to that of my neighbor’s Mrs. Fusarpoli (who comes from Naples) simply because he doesn’t have the same climate, soil and sunshine that produces the oil, tomatoes and basil.
In Italy good food plays a pivotal role in society: it is the cement that keeps families together and friendships alive. Interactions happen around the table: families celebrate baptisms, confirmations and weddings which all have an important food component. Even normal dinners become an occasion when the whole family is in tune with the seasonal offerings and can look forward to the recipes of their favorite casseroles, fruits and vegetables.
Cooking is competitive. Food is rooted in traditions that are passed down from generation to generation and recipes for the same dish vary from town to town. Every Italian is convinced that their mother’s recipe is the best as is the frantoio (olive press) in their home town where they buy their oil in 5 liter cans; and will discuss the minutest details for hours!
For men and women, the love of food and wine runs deep. They pay attention to detail and understand what goes into any given recipe, which is probably why I have never been served a French dish or a German concoction in an Italian home. But just try putting garlic in an Amatriciana sauce and see what happens!
Which reminds me, I’ve got to go make lunch…
…Mmm, that was good!
The other day I asked myself why there were seven restaurants on my tiny street (all Italian, of course). I’ve eaten at all of them, but one’s got to be best, right? Not really, because after some reflection I came to the conclusion that Sergio makes the best seafood antipasto but Silvio is cheaper and has GREAT tomato sauce, whereas Angelo makes terrific polenta and has a better selection of wines…. See what I mean?
So, if the trick to cooking Italian is shopping, this is what I have learnt:
Buy as little as possible from a supermarket. The last time I shopped at one was at Christmas when my wife and I spent the holidays with my sister-in-law in Louisiana. (Wait! There is a supermarket in my neighborhood that I go to, but mostly to listen to Aldo, who is a walking encyclopedia of cheeses.)
Nowadays, mass distribution systems require that fruits and vegetables be picked before they’re fully ripened in order to clean, process and ship them to the supermarkets. Unfortunately the end result doesn’t have very much flavor. If you put an Italian tomato next to an American tomato and take a bite out of each you’ll know what I mean. The Italian tomato, which has ripened lazily on the vine, explodes with flavor in your mouth. The American tomato seems only vaguely ‘tomato-like’ by comparison.
Americans also want shopping to be convenient: one store with mega-parking where they’ll find everything. Here’s my normal shopping regime. It starts with my wife telling me what she needs; lets say, fruit and vegetables.
If I’m starved for time, I go to the fruit stand up the street run by two Pakistani brothers. The fresh produce isn’t great, but it’s open 365 days a year. On Saturday mornings however, I go to the market at Piazza Vittorio. To get there I take my wheelie on the subway and then walk back. Total distance, about 5 kilometers. Inconvenient? You bet, but this is where an Italian gathers inspiration as well as supplies. Once I get it home everything has to be unpacked and put away. None of it is in pre-wrapped so there’s hardly any packaging to throw away when I’m done.
This is an enclosed international market that has everything -and I mean everything- from Italian produce to green groceries from Thailand and Africa, all fresh, all sold by individual venders.
For the best quality possible I head straight for Alberto’s stand off Via delle Coppelle because he grows much of what is on display and the rest is the best he can find at the central markets. His lettuce still has the roots attached.
And the rest of my shopping?
For cheeses I go to Aldo at the supermarket on Via Cavour; but if I need something special I go to the store at Piazza Sallustio. Walking into this place is like entering into a church. Everything is set out in special display cases and the fellows behind the counter talk about cheese in smooth, almost devotional voices. “Una mozzarella? Certo! From Battipaglia, Caserta or Terracina?” Their expertise extends to British and French cheeses as well. Stilton? They have three kinds. Cheddar? Ditto. The cheese you had in Verona last summer on vacation? If you can describe it, they’ll take a moment, look upwards momentarily as if requesting a favor from above, then smile angelically and point, “Ah si, Fossa di Sogliano del Rubicone, how much would you like? ”
For fish I go to the Antica Pescheria Galluzzi where it’s so good strangers will congratulate you if they see you carrying one of their bags!
If I’m in the center of town I’ll stop for meat at Feroci’s, but we’re lucky to have one of the best butchers right here in the neighborhood. Macelleria Steccotti supplies the kitchen of the Quirinale (the Italian equivalent of the White House). You’re probably imagining some large, beautiful, pristine store with butchers lined up behind the counter but it’s nothing like that all. The store is tiny with a huge, walk-in refrigerator from which Piero Steccotti issues forth with thick bistecche alla Fiorentina or silky veal roasts. He’s even been written up in The New York Times!
But the most time-consuming thing of all is talking to so many people. If your green grocer starts gossiping, do you interrupt him with “Sorry pal, but I’m in a hurry today…” and look pointedly at your watch? Do you even know his name? His wife’s name or his children’s and what about his uncle who lives in Pittsburgh? No? Well I know all of this and more about Alberto; when I go to buy bread at Claudio’s he pulls out the letters he’s received from his niece in England and asks me to translate them; Piero the butcher is a diehard Dixieland fanatic and we always talk about music when I come in. If I order meat, he doesn’t bother to label it with my name anymore, but just marks it “JAZZ”. Rosanna tells me about her cats while her husband Luigi complains about his aches and pains. The last time I went to Piazza Sallustio they asked me what Velveeta Cheese was!
All of this, I am certain, has added five years to my life expectancy. The incredible quality of the food and the fact that I have to walk miles to buy it, then stop to talk to these incredible people has made my life better in so many ways. You see, I’ve learned that Italian food is not only for eating. It’s a common denominator, a passion that binds us all together.
I’d like to add one final note. Federico and I went shopping yesterday and spent a quarter of an hour in the pasta aisle, discussing what we would be cooking this week and which pasta would be best-suited to the recipes So there you have it. Buon appetito a tutti!