LOVE LETTER TO ITALY – Let me count the ways…
Chef's Travel Notes
This affair has lasted well over fifty years. My love has never waned, in fact, it has grown stronger with time. Italy is my happy place. Nostalgia for better times has rekindled fond memories and COVID isolation has led me to reminisce about this extraordinary country. It is not easy to “count the ways” I love her because much of the person I AM today is because of time I spent with her and because of the life experiences I lived and learned there. Switzerland may have been voted 2020 Best Country in the World (four years in a row) by US News Report, but oh how I beg to differ! The more I learn about her, the more I am convinced that there is no contest.
For the last 99 weeks of our Food Club, we have visited 19 of Italy’s 20 regions. From the industrial and fashionable North to the warm and rustic South, it is a delightful mélange of contrasting energy. It is slightly smaller than the state of California, but it delivers a range of landscapes, cuisines, customs, and cultural heritage that is hard to match anywhere else in the world. If I had to use one word to describe her, it would be "bellezza", beauty. Italians are surrounded by beauty everywhere - in nature, in their cities, in their relationships, in art, and in their food. They have an innate sense of beauty and history that dictates how they view the world. The surrounding beauty spurs creativity and pride that can be felt in every Italian no matter what their formal education or station in life.
The thing that first attracted me to Italy was her people. Italians have a warm and welcoming reputation. It is hard not to feel at home... and in fact, I did, immediately. The people I met were kind, friendly and courteous. The Ricchi family immediately welcomed me as did the townspeople and all the trattoria's regular customers. The love and consideration they felt for each other was no more apparent than in their custom of "lo sconto", bartering - something that was quite foreign to this Americana. But once I understood this love language of mutual respect, I embraced it full force and looked forward to it. We would cross out the final total of a customer's bill and reduce it by a token amount and they would do the same when we went to their stores or businesses. Our daily morning ritual of shopping for supplies and ingredients was unforgettable. We would see Paolo the butcher, Italo the barber, Renzo the mechanic, Alessi for specialty food items, Barroncini for dairy, the fruit and vegetable merchant, the poultry and egg man and the list goes on. They were all like family.
This familial sense of community was evidenced everywhere from the men playing cards in the piazza to the heated, but friendly discussions at the local bar. There were animated hand gestures and a lot of cursing, which by the way, were some of the most colorful and sacrilegious you could ever hear, mostly inspired by religion, mothers and a lot of pigs!
The list becomes very long when just walking down a street in any city or small town becomes an aesthetic experience. Architecture, art, music, literature, fashion, nature and food are all extraordinary everywhere you go. To celebrate Italy's culinary diversity, this week our menu takes from the entire peninsula, from north to south and the islands.
Insalata di Prosciutto & Aceto Balsamico features three important ingredients from the region of Emilia-Romagna, known as the heartland of northern Italian cooking. Prosciutto, parmigiano and balsamic vinegar together with bitter winter greens and pine nuts are the protagonists.
Bigoli alla Salsiccie Luganega is a typical pasta from the Veneto. Bigoli is an artisan pasta pushed through an ancient extruder to create long, thick strands of pasta. Luganega sausage is made in one long strand, not links, and is usually sold by the meter in Italy. Combine it with fresh tomatoes and parmesan and it is a very satisfying dish for a cold winter's dinner.
Melanzane alla Parmigiana may not sound like it would come from Calabria, but that is where it originated. In fact, this dish can be found throughout the entire south or "mezzogiorno" of Italy. The eggplants grown there in the sun and warmth are the most flavorful. We lightly flour the slices of eggplant, pan fry them, and layer with tomato, fior di latte mozzarella and basil. (A request from a customer to repeat.)
Cannoli originated in Sicily and were made traditionally at this time of year to celebrate Carnevale. Needless to say, they are so good that you can find them everywhere at all times. We have added a modern twist by offering them in the form of chips to dip in the usual sweeten ricotta cream.
The list of what I love about Italy could go on for pages. Even San Valentino, the patron saint of love and he who inspired the upcoming Valentine's Day, was from Italy. It is easy to understand why everyone falls in love as soon as they get there. I hope that these weeks of menus and stories might inspire a visit to Italy or a reason to return, once we can. Afterall, so much of Italy, its past and its future depends on the support of all the citizens of the world.
Italia, ti voglio tanto bene,