Every country I visit has its share of amazing local food: fantastic fromage and charcuterie in France, fresh vegetables and layered spices in Vietnam, super fresh, still nearly breathing sushi in Japan, overflowing plates of tasty mezze in Greece and Turkey. And then there’s the comforting food of Italy.
Perhaps it’s because, as Americans, it is one of the foreign foods that we barely consider foreign. Who didn’t grow up in the United States eating pizza, lasagna, baked ziti, spaghetti Bolognese (pasta with meat sauce) or veal parmigiana? It seems no matter what your background was, mom always made some kind of Italian meal at least once a week. And if you grew up in or near New York like me, local, first and second generation Italian pizzerias and pasta joints were more common than McDonald’s. My spot of choice was Frank’s Pizza just a few doors down from my high school job at the local, family-owned (and second generation Italian) video rental store, Image Photo & Video. I could always pop in for lunch for a slice of yummy mushroom or prosciutto pizza. Or maybe some Eggplant parmigiana.
So, as I journeyed my way down the bountiful boot of Italy, I devoured the foods I’ve always eaten, but here with a bit more robust flavors, oftentimes fresher ingredients, and of course, the backdrop of centuries old piazzas (squares) all adding to the experience.
Italy’s fourth largest city had a major facelift recently thanks to the Winter Olympic Games that were hosted here in 2006. This capital of the Piedmont Region has had many food innovations, not to mention it’s the home of the ‘little Italian car that could’ – the Fiat (lovingly said to stand for “Fix it Again, Tony”).
Turin is the home of Lavazza Coffee and one of my favorite things on the planet – Nutella. This jar of chocolaty goodness is available at just about every supermarket around the world – and why wouldn’t it be? Who can deny the rich flavors of chocolate and hazelnuts spread on a slice of bread, cracker, or just simply licked off a finger. If you haven’t ever tried it yet then run, don’t walk, to your nearest grocer and buy several jars, because I promise, one won’t be enough.
Turin is also the home of a big culinary movement that is growing fast – Slow Food. In the US, for decades we have wanted nearly everything done fast – our commutes, our meetings, and our meals. Often times, we scarf down some kind of mystery meat on a bun at our desk at lunch… all the while keeping our eyes on the computer screen and one hand placed upon a not so hygienic mouse. Gradually, it seems we are more enjoying the art of dining out with friends and making it last. When was the last time you savored a meal – slowly masticating each tender morsel and taking the time to enjoy the flavors and think about what you are eating? Maybe that’s part of our problem we don’t even think about what we shove down our gullets and five minutes later the meal is over and we go about our business.
In 1987, McDonalds began its inevitable expansion into Italy. A few Italian foodies got together to make sure this was not the end as they knew it to the fabulous Italian sit down meal. Carlo Petrinim and some of his foodie friends (neoforchettoni or ‘big forks’) wrote a manifesto which was published in the Italian foodie Culinary Magazine, Gambero Rosso. They declared that a meal should not be measured by its speed, but by its pure pleasure.
From this they founded the soon-to-be world famous Slow Food organization. Its mission was to reconnect artisanal producers with interested consumers. And it’s working. Slow food has grown fast. Their membership is close to 100,000 in 50 countries worldwide. And their message of biodiversity, sustainability, and shared food resources is traveling around the world at lightening speed. Just as they had hoped, the Slow Food movement is growing faster than McDonald’s expansion – at least in the Piedmont Region. There are now about 30 of Ronald’s burger joints, but at least twice as many acclaimed Slow Food restaurants plus the fabulously chic and well-stocked new slow food superstore, Eately. Catchy name, eh?
I visited this Whole Foods crossed with an Italian food-lover’s paradise and drooled over the enormous selection of cheeses, meats, breads, pastas, fish, chocolate, and olive oils. Stark white shelves heave with perfectly aligned jars of oily, salty anchovies, a plethora of pestos, tasty tapenades, freshly made pastas, and so much more. But luckily there are cafes sprinkled throughout the store where you can sit down and chow on some of the delights right before your eyes. And for dessert, of course, there is a gelato stand where part of the proceeds goes to charity.
This lovely provincial town may be one of the most expensive and richest in all of Italy. Why? Two words: prosciutto and parmigiano.
High in the hills of Parma in the Emilia-Romagna Province of Italy amidst the evergreens and snowy mountaintops, live a few hundred producers of what is possibly the world’s most famous ham: prosciutto di Parma.
I got a ‘behind the scenes’ tour of one of the local producers, San Nicola, one of the first in Parma to go from a small artisanal family practice to a more industrialized shop trotting out 100,000 legs of prosciutto each year. But don’t let the word “industrialized” fool you, San Nicola is still a family-owned operation employing just 13 folks. It is among all the other hundreds of shops in the area who together ultimately produce 10 million legs of prosciutto each year – 450,000 of which are exported to the USA. That’s a lot of ham.
What is prosciutto exactly? Isn’t it simply some cured ham? Well kind of yes… and kind of no. If you ask Luca Baratta, the Manager of Production at San Nicola, he will tell you it is much, much more than that. It is a centuries old tradition that is now regulated by the government in which nearly every aspect of this ham production is regulated and approved. His factory for the most part feels like a library… a library of meat.
Rows and rows of metal shelves with quiet hanging pink legs just waiting, relaxing, and aging in peace. It is super clean and quiet with a handful of workers only seen at the beginning of the assembly line where the fresh legs come in from the local pig farmer. Here they are checked for quality, sorted and stamped with metal seals of approval. From here they are salted, then rinsed and eventually hung to age for anywhere from 16 to 30 months.
For ham to actually be given the regal moniker of Prosciotto di parma it must follow strict guidelines established by the government in 1970 under what is called the D.O.P. – the Denominazione di Origine Protetta (or Parma Ham Consortium). In a country that takes its food very seriously, this is kind of like the food police and you don’t want to mess with them.
The guidelines pertain to many criteria including where the pigs come from, how they are raised, what they eat, how they are slaughtered, and of course the actual salting and curing processes. Every step of the way is checked, monitored, and given a stamp of approval. In fact, in today’s over-marketed world where nearly everything is “new and improved,” “genuine,” and “premium” it is nice to know that the prosciutto governing body forbids these qualifications and others like it. The only words allowed to be used are “boneless” and “sliced,” if that is in fact the case.
Some of the not-so-secret secrets of good prosciutto are the length of time it’s aged and having a thicker layer of fat encasing the meat. Some may see this as unhealthy, but in the aging process it’s this fat that locks in the moisture and flavor making ham magic happen and ultimately creating some of the best prosciutto I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting – tender, melt in your mouth deliciousness. Luca says through the process, this food product is actually better and healthier than when it first started. Perhaps he’s right because it tastes like heaven.
No my friends this is not the home of that odd and bland American invention, Baloney. Nor is it home to the U.S. version of spaghetti bolognese. But it is the home of…
alla bolognese — the real deal meat-based sauce with actually very little tomato and never served over spaghetti (a Naples invention), but with the local egg pastas tagliatelle or lasagne. The recipe, issued in 1982 by the Bolognese delegation of Accademia Italiana della Cucina, confines the ingredients to beef, pancetta, onions, carrots, celery, tomato paste, broth, red wine, and (optionally) milk or cream.
The original chocolate kiss, the Baci is from here. These hazelnut, chocolate morsels are made by internationally imported chocolatier – Perugina, one of the most successful confectioners in Italy. The company was introduced to the U.S. at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, and have since become known for fine chocolate around the world. And, of course, in this time of mergers and big business, Perugina is now a division of the Swiss Nestlé corporation.
I could go on and on about the specialties from each region: the rich more robust sauces of Calabria and Sicily, the Napolitano Pizza, the secretly sniffed-out truffles of Umbria and so on. But perhaps like me, you are now hungry… so get down to your local farmer’s market for some fresh produce, hit your local Italian market for some fresh pasta (or better yet, learn to make your own), grab some extra virgin olive oil and mangia!