Ferragosto: August Staycation with Mamma
For the two weeks before and after the holiday of Ferragosto on August 15th, it seems as if all of Italy goes on vacation crowding the beaches and mountain resorts and leaving the cities virtually deserted. As with all other Italian holidays, food is the main attraction whether prepared for a festive picnic or stay-at-home summer lunch.
"Il Pranzo di Ferragosto"/"A Mid-August Lunch" is a delightful cult film that is a glimpse into the life of a middle aged bachelor living with his octogenarian mother over the long holiday weekend in Rome. Food, appetite, and the need for community are prominent themes along with an intimate peak into the complicated dynamics that exist between Italian men and their mothers.
This week's menu highlights some of the food served in the movie as well as other dishes that could be found at a mid-August lunch whether for a vacation picnic or at home for a staycation lunch with Mamma.
Anyone who has traveled to Italy in August knows about “Ferragosto.” If they hadn’t heard of it before arrival, they certainly realized something was amiss when they found stores, offices, public transportation and entire cities closed up tight for the two weeks before and after August 15th. Seemingly the entire country goes on vacation. “Ferragosto” is considered a national and religious holiday, celebrating the culmination of summer vacation and the Virgin Mary’s Assumption into heaven.
During the fascist regime, cheap promotional tours were organized for the less well-off classes as an opportunity to travel and visit other parts of the country. Hence the tradition of packing a picnic lunch and of preparing simple foods that can easily be consumed cold. If people decide to stay in town for the holiday, they spend time with their families with food being the center of their celebration (of course!)
About 10 years ago, the short Italian film, “Il Pranzo di Ferragosto”/”A Mid-Summer Lunch” opened to great critical and popular acclaim. It is set in deserted Rome over the August 15th weekend and is a glimpse into the simple life of a middle-aged bachelor who lives with his octogenarian mother. It is a film about community, love, the past, and celebration, with food playing a major role. The underlying theme is one well-known to Italians – the complicated dynamic Italian men have with their mothers.
Seven out of ten unmarried men still live at home. This sense of family is an integral part of Italian culture. The result is almost all men are taken care of by their mothers until they marry. These domestic princes are commonly known as “mammoni” or mamma’s boys. The chronic dependence on “mamma” is on the rise primarily due to diminishing employment opportunities in Italy. Living at home saves money. Add to the situation the fact that most Italian mothers are very attached to their sons and are only too willing to continue talking care of them.
This week’s menu showcases some of the food served in the movie as well as other dishes that could be found at a mid-August lunch. Pasta al Forno, or Baked Pasta, and its preparation, is central to the story. So much so, in fact, that the recipe is included with the DVD. Ours is prepared with penne pasta tossed in a quick tomato meat sauce, layered with ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan cheeses and then finished in the oven.
One of the things I first noticed when invited to dinner at friends’ homes during the very hot Florentine summer months is that, inevitably, the food was prepared earlier in the day to avoid using the stove and heating up the house while guests were present. (Remember, most Italian homes are not air conditioned.) These flavorful dishes were designed to be eaten at room temperature. One of my favorites has always been stuffed zucchini – Zucchini Ripieni. The hollowed out zucchini “boats” are filled with finely chopped turkey, mortadella and parmesan and “gratinati” in the oven. Almost any vegetable can be prepared this way and the stuffing can be easily altered to a fish or vegetarian version. Here we also grilled a medley of summer vegetables brushed with olive oil and herbs – again, designed to be served cold.
Back by popular demand, and a perfect light accompaniment to our summer menu, is our Misticanza Romana, or Roman Salad, using a combination of eleven different lettuces and fresh herbs, tossed with my special lemon vinaigrette.
Panna Cotta is the perfect dessert for a hot August day. We prepare it with honey instead of sugar, adding a richer flavor profile. Lightly stewed fresh summer peaches and chopped almonds add a touch of seasonal flavors.
The city of Orvieto is only about an hour northeast of Rome and produces a renowned classic white wine that pairs perfectly with our mid-August menu. Drinking this wine gives a sense of being at the sea with its salty minerality. An August staycation experience in a bottle!
This year, tourism is back in full force. Word is Italy is packed, both with international tourists and Italians flooding seaside resorts. But a staycation for those who don't want to fight the crowds is always a great alternative. We can all assume the Italian mammas will love having their families home.