Marzia Bellotti Molatore from Bella Cibo introduces her first cookbook titled Cooking with Mamma Marzia – Authentic Italian Recipes for the Whole Family.
In the episode, Marzia describes how much this cookbook means to her and the importance of creating family traditions in the kitchen. In the second part, Marzia talks about a few of the recipes featured in the book: Casatiello Napoletano (savory stuffed bread), polenta Taragna (buckwheat polenta with cheese), pizzoccheri, pesce all’acqua pazza (“crazy water” poached fish), vitello tonnato (veal with tuna sauce), and crostoli (fried sweets)!
Andrew Cotto is an award-winning American writer of Italian descent. His latest novel titled Cucina Tipica tells the fascinating adventure of a young American who falls in love with Tuscany and with the culture of its people. Naturally, food and wine end up setting the pace and become deeply entrenched in the story.
I was humbled to be contacted by Mr. Cotto who sent me a copy of the book for consideration as he thought it would fit with the theme of the podcast. After reading it, I couldn’t agree more! Please join us in this episode where we discuss the novel in its many aspects–from the significance of food in the Italian culture to the chemistry of taste, from culture shock and relocation to speaking a foreign language and what it does to interactions and introspection.
As an “appetizer” for the book, Andrew sent me a recap in the form of a Food and Wine Plot Menu with 24 tastes each corresponding to a food scene in the novel. Enjoy!
Cucina Tipica: An Italian Adventure A Novel by Andrew Cotto
Food & Wine Plot Menu
Novel Overview: Cucina Tipica is the story of a disheartened American who arrives in Italy on holiday and decides he never wants to leave. What follows is a wine-soaked, food-filled travel adventure about one man’s quest for an antiquated existence in the modern world.
Characters: Jacoby Pines – a forlorn young American with a “golden palate” and hopes of redemption in Italy Claire – a travel writer and Jacoby’s fiancee Bill – a septuagenarian ex-pat from Texas and Jacoby’s wingman in the “adventure” Paolo – Jacoby and Claire’s neighbor and landlord in the hills south of Florence near the village of Antella Dolores – Claire’s “outrageous” English cousin and “Chiantishire” resident Helen – An Aussie/English ex-pat and Florence museum guide
1st Taste: Who: Jacoby and Claire Where: Excelsior Palace Hotel – Rapallo, Italy Food: Prosciutto, cheese, olives, dried lemons, fresh figs Wine: Prosecco Additional Notes: They ate with their hands and drank from the bottle, leaving stains and crumbs on the bed sheets, which Claire attempted to clear before removing her bikini bottom…
2nd Taste: Who: Jacoby and Claire Where: A “hole-in-the-wall” seafood osteria in Rapallo Food: a basket of lightly fried calamari, shrimp, bream and whole anchovy seasoned with salt and lemon; pureed and garlicky fish soup; steamed prawns dipped in aioli; grilled sardines; plates of pasta with pesto and plates of pasta with clams Wine: Carafes of Vermentino Additional Notes: They shared the meal of seafood by the seaside in the Rapallo back alley as completely as possible, holding hands under and above the table, kissing frequently, filling each other’s glasses, and laughing throughout the two hours of slow and utter indulgence.
3rd Taste: Who: Jacoby and Paolo Where: The terrace behind Paolo’s villa featuring a wood-burning oven Food: Handmade pizza with olives, anchovy fillets, and fresh basil; “Misto Arrosto” – a mixed roast of lamb, sausage, rabbit, liver in caul fat, guinea hen, halved-potatoes, heads of garlic, caramelized carrot and fennel. Wine: “Local Chianti” – DOCG Colli Fiorentini, Grappa Additional Notes: Jacoby felt as peaceful and inspired as he had in months. Maybe ever. The best two meals of his life had been had over the first two days in Italy. The country itself was more beautiful than pictures could capture. The people spoke a lovely language and wore elegant clothes. It was all good. And he wanted in.
4th Taste: Who: Jacoby and Claire Where: Comune di Norcia (Umbria) Food: Porchetta sandwich for Jacoby; salad of wilted wild mushrooms atop bitter local greens for Claire Drinks: Soft
5th Taste: Who: Jacoby and Claire Where: An elegant agriturismo in Le Marche Food: Charcuterie plate of house-cured meats; silky thick noodles topped with black truffles; lamb roast; Pecorino cheese drizzled with honey Wine: Rosso Piceno Additional Notes: After dinner, they roamed the silent grounds and made love on a pool-side chaise lounge after skinny dipping in the cool water that rippled with shards of silver moonlight.
6th Taste: Who: Jacoby and Claire Where: The tiny piazza in Panzano-in-Chianti Wine: Brunello di Montalcino Additional Notes: Claire tucked into Jacoby’s side and put a foot up on the bench against the back of her leg. They silently swirled the wine and took small sips, staring at the valley beyond the village that burned gold with smoldering sunshine of a fading afternoon. Jacoby savored the apple smell of Claire’s radiant hair and the feel of her lithe body pressed into his. He thought that they, in that still pose, would make a great statue, like a modern Apollo and Daphne, frozen in marble so that their love would always last.
7th Taste: Who: Jacoby, Claire, Dolores Where: Restaurant in Panzano owned by a young butcher (inspired by the auspices of Dario Cecchini) Food: Bistecca Fiorentina, uccellini in brodo (white beans with tomatoes in broth) Wine: Vecchie Terre di Montefili – Chianti Classico Additional Notes: The flavor of the beef was as profound and complex as any Jacoby had ever tasted. Steak in the States was bland, in need of sauce, but this simply-prepared choice cut was perfectly grilled – seared on the outside, rare and warm internally – helped by hints of lemon and rosemary and coarse salt while letting the flavor of the meat itself dominate. Amazing. Transcendental. Good f****** lord.
8th Taste: Who: Jacoby, Claire, Dolores Where: Terrace behind the barn where they lived on Paolo’s property Food: Eggs with prosciutto and sage, bread Wine: Prosecco Additional Notes: Jacoby loved cooking for people, then sharing the meal and the mutual pleasure of being together. Eating the same food; drinking the same wine; everyone on the same stage. It was like sex when sex was good and mutual. What people called “making love.”
10th Taste: Who: Jacoby and Bill Where: Hotel Floria-Zanobini, Antella Food: Sausage and eggs with stewed tomatoes Drink: Espresso Additional Notes: “I’ve been an ex-pat for 35 years, and the only thing I miss about America is breakfast,” – Bill
11th Taste: Who: Jacoby and Bill Where: Hotel Floria-Zanobini Food: Spring Minestrone (generous with pieces of artichoke, asparagus and carrots in a broth of pureed onions and leeks with a snap of garlic); fresh fettuccine with fava beans and Pecorino; rabbit loin wrapped in pancetta over polenta dotted with green olives Drinks: Negroni, Chianti Colli Fiorentini, Grappa Additional Notes: Bill and Jacoby ate and drank and spoke of their looming adventure into Florence proper, in search of a matriarch holed up in a palace marked by a cat statue. They laughed at their dim prospects, which were soothed by the magnificent meal and flowing wine.
12th Taste: Who: Jacoby and Bill Where: Florence, food stand near the Sant’Ambrogio market Food: Lampredotto sandwiches Wine: Chianti in plastic cups Additional Notes: The aroma out of the stand was pungent; the sandwich warm in his hand, of tomato infused broth and hearty filling tucked between the bread. The taste was super savory to the bite, ample aromatics and a soft texture from the holy trinity of bread and filling and broth.
13th Taste: Who: Jacoby, Bill, Helen Where: Florence, a gazebo in Piazza Signoria Wine: Prosecco Additional Notes: “Why, yes. Yes, I would,” Helen said. “There’s few things I prefer more than a glass of Prosecco.”
14th Taste: Who: Jacoby, Bill, Helen Where: Florence, Il Teatro del Sale Food: Gurguglione; artichoke sformato; polpettini; fried rabbit; zucchini stuffed with ground pork; roasted chicken & sausage with potatoes, flourless chocolate cake Wine: House red, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Additional Notes: There was nowhere else in the world Jacoby wished to be. This was his Grand Canyon. His Hawaii. Mount Everest or Disney World. His paradise was a theater-cafeteria-commissary, sharing a table with two people he hardly knew but liked immensely, full of possibilities, in a room full of shamelessly happy people.
15th Taste: Who: Jacoby, Bill, Helen Where: Florence, club Sriracha Drinks: Negronis (many)
16th Taste: Who: Jacoby Where: The barn Food: Steak & eggs Additional Notes: Tears fell down Jacoby’s face as he continued to chew enough to swallow safely. The salt from the tears entering his mouth brightened the flavor, making it more clear what was happening even before Claire descended the stairs in the same clothes she wore before, a suitcase thumping beside her.
17th Taste: Who: Jacoby Where: Al fresco table at the cafe in Antella Food: Ceci and bread Wine: Chianti Colli Fiorentini Additional Notes: “Ciao,” Jacoby called before tucking into his plate of oven-baked chickpeas that tasted as flavorful as anything he’d ever eaten, washing the legumes and bread down with the local red wine as he sat in the cool shadows of his own private dining terrace on a Friday night in a silent village as twilight settled upon him in what felt like the most important place in all of the world.
18th Taste: Who: Jacoby Where: Osteria in Pienza Food: Pici with porcini; pappardelle with wild rabbit ragu Wine: Argiano Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Additional Notes: In a shaded osteria at the end of town, Jacoby couldn’t decide between two pastas… so he ordered both, taking the mushroom plate first, followed by the gamy second course, both washed down with separate, massive goblets of Vino Nobile, which he swirled and sipped with great delight.
19th Taste: Who: Jacoby Where: Enoteca la Fortezza, Montalcino Food: A plate of Pecorino in three varieties Wine: Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino (2007) Additional Notes: When it was over, Jacoby felt a thread of sadness which he hoped to dash through the purchase of a case of the very wine he just drank.
20th Taste: Who: Jacoby and Bill Where: A cantinetta near Antella Food: mixed antipasti; tagliatelle with porcini; roasted pork ribs; cantuccini… Wine: Colli Fiorentini Riserva, …Vin Santo Additional Notes: “That was incredible” Jacoby said. Bill made a face of modest expression and flicked a wrist in the air. “Cucina tipica,” he said.
21st Taste: Who: Jacoby and Helen Where: Lo Sprone Vinaino, Santo Spirito, Florence Food: Cacio e Pepe; charred octopus & potatoes; roasted pigeon Wine: Martinis (in the piazza out front), white wine (unnamed)
22nd Taste: Who: Jacoby Where: Hotel Floria-Zanobini Food: Cinghiale ragu over polenta Wine: Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino Additional Notes: The meat was as tender as it was flavorful, filling his mouth with silky decadence buttressed by layers of flavor only attainable through days of preparation that precedes slow, slow cooking.
23rd Taste: Who: Claire & Dolores Where: Hotel Floria-Zanobini Food: Cinghiale ragu over polenta Wine: Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino Additional Notes: “My f****** God!” Dolores’ voice shot from the kitchen. “This is the best thing I’ve ever tasted in my life!” Jacoby and Claire cracked up and parted their hug. “Bring it in here,” Jacoby called. “No f****** way!” Dolores called back.
24th Taste (in absentia): Who: Jacoby, Claire, Dolores, Bill Where: The cantinetta near Antella Food: To be determined Wine: To be determined (lots guaranteed) Additional Notes: “How’s the food?” Dolores asked Jacoby. “Decent?” “Oh, it’s way better than decent,” Jacoby said. “More like typical.”
During my last Italy trip, I got a chance to document the making of a dish that has become a staple in my family: potato-crusted sea bream. Based on a quick search, it appears to be quite popular in Italy and it has started to be featured internationally on restaurant menus.
Quite possibly, the diffusion of this preparation follows the increased popularity of Orata (Gilt-head sea bream) and Branzino (European seabass), two kinds of marine white fish that are delicately flavored and low in fat, but still moist and tender.
This is my mother’s take on the dish, a festive second course that showcases its simple but noble ingredients.
Potato Crusted Sea Bream (Orata in Crosta di Patate)
Yield: 3 servings
Total Time: 1 hour
Prep Time: 25 minutes
Cook Time: 35 minutes
3 sea bream fillets, skin on, can also use seabass
3 yellow potatoes, sliced 3-4 mm (1/8 inch) thick
3-4 rosemary twigs, needles detached and finely chopped
salt & white pepper
Mince the rosemary needles, we used a 'mezzaluna' knife, but a chef knife will do.
Peel and wash the potatoes.
Slice the potatoes. We used a food processor with a slicing blade, but a mandoline slicer works too. It's important that the slices are not too thin and not too thick, therefore slicing them by hand is not advisable.
Allow the slices to rest on a towel and pat them dry with some paper towel.
Line the bottom and sides of a large bowl with potato slices and dress with a sprinkle of olive oil, salt, pepper, chopped rosemary.
Then add another layer of potato slices and repeat the seasoning. Continue until you've used all potato slices, then gently slide them around in the bowl to complete the seasoning. Preheat the oven at 200 C.
Put the fish fillets, skin down, on lightly oiled parchment paper, season them with salt, pepper, and rosemary.
Cover each fillet with partially overlapped potato slices.
Side dishes have an important role in Italian cuisine. These, often vegetarian, preparations are meant as an accompaniment to a second course, whether it’s meat or fish, a piatto freddo (literally, cold dish) of cheese and/or cold cuts, or a vegetarian preparation. To have a side of braised fennel was common in my family while growing up, and I now make it regularly.
Fennel is known for its aromatic seeds and as a vegetable consisting of the lower part of its stalks, which form an enlarged bulb-shaped bundle(1). As the stalks separate, they become fibrous and are discarded in cooking. Fennel belongs to the umbellifers family along with celery (which it visually resembles), carrots, parsnip, parsley, cilantro, dill, anise, and other plants which tend to produce flowers in umbrella-shaped clusters.
Fennel has a strong anise aroma due to the presence of anethole, an organic compound also found in anise seeds. Some say that fennel tastes like licorice, but this is really because many licorice candies are flavored with anise.
Nutritionally, fennel is a good source of vitamins (e.g.: C, A), minerals (e.g.: potassium, manganese), as well as carbohydrates in the form of dietary fiber (non-digestible) and sugar (3.9% in weight).
Fennel is consumed raw (e.g.: thinly sliced and added to salads) or cooked (e.g.: roasted, braised, or au gratin). In this recipe:
I sliced the fennel perpendicularly to its fibers to tenderize it.
I pan roasted it in olive oil and butter to caramelize the sugars and develop flavor through browning.
Then, I added salt to enhance the flavor and to extract some water (via osmosis).
Allowed the fennel to braise in its own juice covered with a lid at a low temperature.
Interrupted the cooking after 15-20 minutes or when the fennel was cooked through but still had a slightly fibrous texture.
Yield: 2 servings
Total Time: 25 minutes
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
2 fennel bulbs
1/2 Tbsp butter
1/2 Tbsp olive oil
Slice the fennel perpendicularly to its fibers, discarding the stalks.
In a non-stick pan, warm up olive oil and butter, then add the fennel.
Roast the fennel at a high temperature, tossing and flipping it frequently.
Add a pinch of salt, lower the temperature, cover with a lid, and allow the fennel to braise.
Cook for 15-20 minutes, stirring from time to time, just until the fennel is cooked through.
Even though Italian food is prominent in North America as well as other English speaking countries, restaurant menus often use Italian words in ways that are not even remotely close to what would sound natural to a native Italian. And it isn’t just because of spelling mistakes, the grammatical and logical use of Italian words is also frequently incorrect.
This post started as a chat with two Twitter friends, Cecilia Razelli (@cocci_ge) and Carlo Settembrini (@csettembrini.) Cecilia found it amusing that I titled one of my articles “Formaggio Cheese,” given that she had noted a similar trend with constructs like “salsiccia sausage” and “prosciutto ham” (if you don’t see why Italians can find this amusing, keep reading!) Then Carlo joined the conversation, expanding to other types of mistakes that English speaking people make when using Italian words. We kept chatting on Twitter for a bit, then we moved the conversation to a shared Google Document, which eventually became the outline for this article. I would like to thank Cecilia and Carlo for engaging in this collaboration – literally, this post wouldn’t have happened without you!
To help illustrate the variety of errors that are commonly made when non-experienced Italian speakers use the Italian language, we grouped the mistakes according to their nature into six distinct families. So, let’s get started!
When native Italians look for authentic Italian restaurants abroad, they often assess their authenticity merely on the number of spelling mistakes they can spot on the menus. Since the Italian language is mostly phonetic (i.e. written as pronounced,) there are no spelling competitions in Italy – spelling is generally not an issue over there(1)! This is why spelling mistakes stand out even more to the Italians.
Some spelling mistakes seem to reflect the way Italian words tend to be pronounced by English natives. Take ‘focaccia’ as an example: its misspelled counterpart ‘foccacia’ is gaining popularity because it’s closer to how it sounds in English. At other times, alternate English spellings appear to reflect the dialect of the first Italian-Americans. Words like ‘Cappicolla’ and ‘Macaroni,’ for instance, bear clear signs of a southern Italian heritage as opposed to their national counterparts: ‘Capicollo’ and ‘Maccheroni.’ Other words, like ‘linguini’ and ‘zucchini,’ reflect a combination of causes: their dialectal origin and the way the correctly spelled ‘linguine’ and ‘zucchine’ sound when read with an English accent.
To a native Italian, it’s bad enough to hear a misspelled word, but things get even worse when the alternate spelling has a different meaning in Italian. For instance, ‘panini’ is sometimes misspelled as ‘pannini.’ Now, while ‘panini’ is a diminutive of “pane,” which means ‘bread,’ the word ‘pannini’ is a diminutive of ‘panni,’ which is equivalent to “items of clothing” or “rags.” So now you know why a native Italian may get a giggle when they read that the chef’s special is the “house pannini.”
2. Plural vs. singular
Even when spelled correctly, Italian words may be misused in the context of a sentence because of an incorrect “grammatical number.” A classic example of this mistake is using the word ‘panini’ (which is the plural of ‘panino’) to refer to a single sandwich. It’s not clear why the plural ‘panini’ entered the English language instead of the singular ‘panino,’ although one theory is that ‘panini’ is assonant with other Italian-sounding words like ‘linguini’ and ‘zucchini.’ Regardless, a sentence like “I’d like a panini” sounds to a native Italian as wrong as “I’d like a sandwiches.” And it goes without saying that the word “paninis” doesn’t make any sense to a native Italian since it’s a double-plural. The same mistake occurs when ‘biscotti’ is used to refer to a single cookie (in Italian it’s the plural of ‘biscotto.’) The word ‘gelati’ instead is often used interchangeably with the word ‘gelato,’ when in reality it’s its plural form and should be used when referring to two or more Italian ice creams.
When using the English language, however, nobody is expected to use Italian grammar. Therefore, words like ‘paninos,’ ‘gelatos,’ and ‘pizzas’ are perfectly acceptable. In fact, Italians do the same with English words: they adopt the singular form and use it interchangeably both as singular and as plural (“un computer, due computer” = ‘one computer, two computers.’)
3. Feminine vs. masculine
In the Italian language, nouns have gender. Moreover, articles and adjectives must match the gender of the nouns they are used with. Because of this, besides knowing if nouns are plural or singular, in order to write proper Italian one must know the gender of nouns. Luckily, most of the times it’s easy to tell if a word is masculine or feminine: if it ends in ‘a’ it’s feminine; if it ends in ‘o’ it’s masculine (this for singular words, for plural words it’s ‘e’ for feminine, ‘i’ for masculine.) So, for example, because ‘pizza’ is feminine, one should say ‘pizza classica,’ not ‘pizza classico.’ And it’s ‘pasta ai gamberi,’ not ‘pasta alle gamberi.’ Consistency is important!
4. Adjective vs. noun
Many Italian dishes bear colorful names also thanks to the use of descriptive adjectives. As an example, ‘Bolognese’ means “from the city of Bologna.” When native Italians use words like ‘bolognese’ to refer to the famous kind of ragù (a generic word for meat sauce), they say “alla bolognese,” meaning “in the style of the city of Bologna.” Although it’s acceptable to say “Bolognese sauce” (“salsa bolognese,”) it doesn’t make sense to say: “I’ve had pasta with Bolognese” (leaving out the noun.) The sentence: “I’ve had Bolognese pasta” is also likely incorrect since it means “I’ve had pasta from the city of Bologna” with no reference to its sauce. Worse yet, if you order “a Bolognese” in a restaurant, it will sound like you are ordering a person from Bologna – that would be a very dubious kind of meat sauce!
Similarly, ‘Parmigiano’ or ‘Parmigiana’ means “from the city of Parma” (referred to a masculine/feminine subject respectively.) As for the famous eggplant dish, however, it’s equally correct to say “melanzane alla parmigiana” (“parmesan eggplants”) or “parmigiana di melanzane” (“parmesan of eggplants,”) the latter using ‘parmigiana’ as a noun.
And to conclude this category of mistakes, let’s not forget that the word ‘balsamic’ is an adjective, and it means “curative,” or “having the same properties of a conditioner” (‘conditioner’ = ‘balsamo’ in Italian.) It makes no sense to an Italian to use ‘balsamico’ without a noun or a pronoun. So, you can’t have anything like “I’ll have balsamic on my salad.” Balsamic what?
5. Generic vs. specific
‘Formaggio cheese,’ ‘salsiccia sausage,’ ‘prosciutto ham’ don’t make sense to a native Italian because they are redundant. ‘Formaggio’ is Italian for cheese, ‘salsiccia’ is Italian for sausage, ‘prosciutto (cotto(2))’ is Italian for ham. So, in Italy, all you are saying when you say ‘salsiccia sausage’ is “sausage sausage,” or “‘ham ham,” “cheese cheese.” We know the prospect of Italian food is exciting, but just one term will do!
As for the origin of this construct, it may come from the North American practice to use generic product names combined with specific adjectives. For instance, people say “cheddar cheese,” or “tuna fish,” when really ‘cheddar’ or ‘tuna’ can’t be anything other than ‘cheese’ and ‘fish’ respectively.
Interestingly, however, ‘gelato ice cream’ is technically correct since gelato is not exactly Italian for ice cream: it’s a particular kind of ice cream (denser, less sweet, and less fat.) Because of this, it may be justifiable to use ‘gelato ice cream’ as a marketing strategy to indicate a specialty product (likely to be sold at a higher price.)
Also technically correct is ‘espresso coffee’ since ‘espresso’ is indeed descriptive of a distinct kind of coffee extraction. In Italian coffee bars, however, people just call it ‘espresso,’ or even simply ‘coffee’ since the coffee sold in coffee bars is almost exclusively espresso. When ordering a coffee, Italians also often shorten the name when they order an espresso variation, which comes with its own descriptive adjective. Examples are ‘corto’ (short), ‘macchiato’ (stained or spotted with steamed milk,) ‘corretto’ (corrected with liquors or spirits,) etc. Sometimes they even leave out the noun altogether and order directly a ‘macchiato,’ which ironically also happens in North America.
The construct: ‘ricotta cheese,’ instead, is completely wrong since ricotta is technically not even cheese (being it made from whey, and therefore considered just a dairy product, or ‘latticino’ in Italian.)
In the Italian language, the following are generic names as well:
‘Panino’ is the generic name for ‘bread roll’ or ‘sandwich,’ whether grilled or not.
‘Biscotto’ is the generic name for ‘cookie,’ though Italian cookies tend to be crunchy, rather than chewy.
‘Antipasto’ is the generic translation of ‘appetizer.’ Not a particular kind of appetizer made of pickled vegetables, olives, and often tuna, or (worse) this “invention” from Kraft.
‘Latte’ is the generic name for milk, cold milk to be precise – which is what you would get if you ordered a ‘latte’ in Italy. The proper name for the espresso-based drink is ‘latte macchiato’ (steamed milk stained or spotted with coffee.)
6. Food vs. preparation
To end the list of mistake families, we can’t leave out one of the most mysterious ones exemplified by the Italian-American dish called Shrimp Scampi. Scampi, plural of scampo, is a crustacean similar to a small lobster. For some reason, it also became the name of a preparation (based on tomato, garlic, and white wine) that is generally used for shrimp and other crustaceans. But if “Shrimp Scampi” makes no sense to a native Italian because it’s essentially “Shrimp Shrimp,” Olive Garden’s Chicken Scampi makes even less sense, since it’s like saying “Chicken Shrimp.”
Sometimes Shrimp Scampi is instead used to refer to a crustacean, possibly just to make a dish sound more mysterious, or “elevated,” and definitely more “Italian.” Dishes like “Linguine with Shrimp Scampi” from “Barefoot Contessa” Ina Garten are a clear indication of how mainstream this misconception has gone. It goes without saying that actual Scampi are nowhere in the ingredients.
To make matters worse, dictionaries such as the Merriam-Webster define ‘scampi’ as “a usually large shrimp; also: a large shrimp prepared with a garlic-flavored sauce,” also reporting ‘scampi’ as a singular noun with an invariant plural form. Fortunately, heroic bloggers like my friend Frank Fariello set the record straight by correctly explaining the naming issue behind this dish.
To end the category and this article, ‘Calamari’ is another example where non-native Italians may confuse an ingredient with its preparation. Whereas in Italian it generically means ‘squid,’ outside of Italy, and especially in North America, it refers to its deep-fried ring-shaped slices.
(1) In some regions of Italy, Italians make certain kinds of spelling mistakes due to how words sound in their dialects. As an example, those who speak a Venetian dialect tend to drop double consonants. In southern Italy, instead, double consonants tend to be added where they don’t belong (e.g. Carabbinieri instead of Carabinieri.)
(2) In Italy, there are two kinds of prosciutto: ‘cotto’ (“cooked” similar to ham) and ‘crudo’ (“raw, cured.”)
~~~ This article is available in narrated version. Check it out! ~~~
Every year, when I go back to Italy to see my family, I manage to squeeze in a visit to a mercato. As you may have guessed, the word “mercato” means “market”, but what’s a mercato (plural: mercati) to the Italians? I asked several friends from various parts of Italy to help me define it – the article you’re reading includes their collective observations.
The mercati are traditional neighborhood street markets that take place in most Italian municipalities and are as ancient as the cities themselves. Small towns tend to have a weekly mercato (on alternating weekdays among bordering towns) in a designated street or square (often called “Piazza Mercato“). Bigger cities instead tend to have several neighborhood mercati, some of which may occur daily (on weekdays and Saturdays) and take place in permanent structures that are either partially or fully covered (mercati coperti).
In the mercati, street vendors set up their movable shops to cover a complete range of needs: from food, to clothes, to household items. The stores are generally open from early morning until early afternoon, but in big cities or for special occasions (e.g. patron saint feasts or Christmas celebrations) they may remain open until late. The mercati feature products for all budgets, from affordable consumables to high-quality designer items. Bargaining is acceptable though not as common as it was in the past, with the newer generations of customers being more used to posted prices.
“At the regular neighborhood market, you can buy all sorts of things, bargain, and you can also find prestigious brands and products, such as leather boots.[…] In Turin, there’s the biggest open market in Europe:Porta Palazzowhich has a covered area for meat, pasta, and fish.” Lucia
“Bologna has a covered market in the city center (The Herbs Market – Mercato delle Erbe), some permanent markets in the style of Alger’s kasbah (via Pescherie’s market […], Aldovrandi’s square’s market) and some temporary markets […], plus a number of neighborhood markets all over the city.” Nando
“In the past, all cities had covered markets. Now in the Emilia region, the only famous market left is Modena’s – a spectacular market with a lot of high-quality foods […] [which are] also sought after by tourists.” Ilaria from Ilaria’s Perfect Recipes
Even though supermarkets have become the main source of supplies, the mercati remain popular in Italy. One reason for their appeal is the reliable quality and competitive prices of their fresh produce. Italians are very demanding when it comes to food and select vendors based on an expectation of high quality and fair value. Since in the mercato vendors strive to form long-term relationships with their customers, they must honor such expectations.
Another reason for the popularity of the mercati is that small towns may otherwise not have enough stores to supply the local demand. This phenomenon has become even more significant in recent years since many small businesses closed due to the financial downturn and competition from out-of-town commercial centers and department stores.
Aside from the merchandise itself, however, a big part of the appeal of the mercati lies in their social function of being outdoor gathering places where people can meet. Those who visit a mercato are greeted by a cheerful atmosphere derived from the variety of merchandise and the excitement of bargaining. In small towns where the mercato only occurs weekly, the infrequency of the event intensifies the excitement.
There are mercati that specialize in a certain genre of merchandise, such as the famous “mercati del pesce” (fish markets) that are commonly seen in coastal cities, or the “ortomercati“, which are dedicated to fruit and vegetables. But the multipurpose mercati are the most common. In those, vendors are loosely grouped together by type, with fresh fruit and vegetables stands taking on the most prominent section.
In most mercati, the space next to the produce is reserved for bakeries and deli trucks (selling fresh pasta, cheese, cold cuts, olives and other preserves, roasted chickens, and pre-made dishes). A few butchers and some fish trucks are also commonly seen in that area. As we move away from the core, the merchandise switches to clothes, including pajamas and underwear, as well as shoes and accessories such as belts and wallets. Then, it’s the turn of household items, including linens, curtains, mats, as well as hardware, tools, and cleaning products. Sometimes plants, seeds, and even birds, and other small pets can be found as well. Finally, in recent years, “coffee trucks” have been making an appearance even in small mercati, offering espresso and cappuccino, as well as croissants, pastries, sandwiches, and pizza by the slice. Some even feature a dedicated seating area.
Even though the produce sold in the mercati is often local, vendors may rely on nationwide distribution chains, and as such the mercati cannot be considered as farmers’ markets. In some big Italian cities, however, actual farmers’ markets have started to appear as stand-alone venues or as distinct sections in regular mercati. Just like in North America, farmers’ markets are associated with smaller production volumes, organic farming (agricoltura biologica), fair trade, and consequently higher retail prices. In Italy, however, farmers’ markets are still relatively uncommon, possibly because the majority of the Italians consider regular produce to be just as healthy.
“In Milan, the first farmers’ market, organized by Coldiretti [a national agricultural organization] opened in 2008 in the headquarters of the farmers’ cooperative (Consorzio agrario) of Milan and Lodi. The number of farmers’ markets reached 120 in Lombardy in early 2013.” Simona from Briciole
It has to be mentioned that mercati sell new merchandise and should not be confused with flea markets (mercati delle pulci) and other second-hand markets (mercatini dell’usato), or with antique markets (mercati dell’antiquariato). Most major cities do have such specialty markets as unique venues, though generally only monthly or seasonally.
“As for second-hand/antiques, in the area of Porta Palazzo there’s the Balon market, which has some rare pieces. The “Gran Balon”, takes place the second Sunday of every month, and there you really have the chance to find treasures.” Lucia
“Then there’s the «small» antique market of Santo Stefano’s square in Bologna [the second Sunday of each month, and the preceding Saturday].” Nando
In order to occupy a spot in the mercato, vendors need to apply for a permit with the city. During each mercato day, the municipal police go through the aisles to check that every vendor has paid their occupancy fees. They also check that there are no unauthorized salesmen offering merchandise of dubious origin (brand name imitations) or simply items of little value and high return margins such as lighters, string bracelets, plastic sunglasses.
In recent years, Italy has seen a sharp influx of immigrants. This new multiculturalism affects the mercati by more imported items being sold, and new vendors taking over some of the businesses. Some of those long-term relationships with the familiar vendors have been lost, and until new ones are established the mercati in some towns must wait to regain their neighborhood identity.
Some markets, however, have strongly maintained their traditions. This is the case, for instance, in the yearly fairs that many towns hold to honor their patron saints. Years ago, these town fairs were often the setting of small cattle shows (fiere del bestiame). Nowadays, instead, they are essentially big mercati, but with an emphasis on delectable and extravagant products such as cheeses and salumi from the various regions of Italy, marzipan fruits, torrone (nougat), croccante alle mandorle (almond brittle). You can also find an abundance of ornaments, toys, and even the latest kitchen gadgets! Some yearly fairs may also host traveling funfairs (giostre), with elaborate carnival rides.
Other yearly fairs, instead, celebrate a seasonal harvest and are sometimes called “sagre” (festivals). The products that are showcased may be sampled in dedicated food tasting stands (which are sometimes equipped like full restaurants) and are generally available for purchase at wholesale prices. For instance, the world-famous white truffle fair is held every fall in Alba, near Turin.
“[There are] also fairs that are centered on seasonal products. For instance, near Turin in October there’s the pumpkin fair.” Marta“They have fairs dedicated to some specific local food and its gastronomic specialties for each area. […] These are more like restaurant-style gastronomical stands (e.g. the truffle festival – “sagra del tartufo”, the garlic festival, the festival of the pear, of the asparagus, of the cappellaccio [a pumpkin-filled dumpling characteristic of the town of Ferrara], etc. […] You order food to be cooked by locals (renowned for their traditional cooking knowledge) and you sit at communal tables to eat.”Ilaria from Ilaria’s Perfect Recipes
Finally, a different kind of seasonal market is, of course, the one that is held in many towns during the Christmas period. Mercatini di Natale (Christmas small markets) are especially dear to the Italians, in part for their whimsical atmosphere. Like other winter markets, they often feature warm treats including roasted chestnuts and mulled wine (vin brule). Naturally, they also focus on giftable items such as fine foods, clothes, accessories, and crafts.
“There is the Christmas market under the Portico dei Servi (which lasts from Santa Lucia, – December 8, but it opens on December 6th -, until January 6th) and the market of independent artisans [called] «Decomelart» in via San Giuseppe and one of sweets and random gadgets in via Altabella.”Nando
This dish is a summer classic featuring an incredible flavor combination: roasted zucchini, shrimp and saffron, in a creamy wine sauce.
Like other crustaceans, shrimp tend to spoil quickly and are often frozen at sea or even sold cooked. Whole shrimp deteriorates even quicker because the cephalothorax (the “head”) contains the midgut gland (corresponding to the liver), which contains digestive enzymes. This gland, however, also happens to be the most flavorful part of the shrimp*. For best results, choose the freshest whole shrimp – when the recipe calls for just tails (like in this case), use the heads to make a tasty fish broth.
*Harold McGee. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. 2nd edition (2004).
Shrimp, Zucchini and Saffron Linguine
Yield: 2 servings
Total Time: 25 minutes
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
5 oz (140 g) shrimp tails, peeled
1/2 cup (120 ml) cream (~30% fat)
1/8 cup (30 ml) white wine
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 zucchini, sliced into sticks
1 pouch powdered saffron (0.15 g)
1 small bunch flat-leaf parsley, finely minced
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
140 g linguine (or your other favorite dried pasta)
salt and pepper
Start bringing a large pot of salted water to a boil (1 Tablespoon of coarse salt every 2 liters of water).
Cook the shallot for 2 minutes in olive oil, then add the zucchini.
Roast at high heat for 5-10 minutes tossing gently to prevent sticking.
At this point, start cooking the pasta for the time indicated on the box.
Add the shrimp, roast them on one side for 30 seconds, then flip them for another 30 seconds with a splash of wine.
Remove the shrimp from the pan and set them aside in a bowl, making sure you collect their juices.
Add the saffron and the cream.
Allow the sauce to reduce for 5 minutes at max heat. Adjust salt and pepper.
When the pasta is just about ready, add the shrimp you had set aside along with their juices.
Then, rapidly drain the pasta and toss it into the sauce.
Mix gently for a minute or two until the pasta is uniformly coated.
Dish out the pasta with the help of tongs, then pour any remaining sauce onto the dishes.
Sprinkle with parsley and serve immediately. Enjoy with a glass of white wine!
Everyone who has visited Italy agrees – Italian tomatoes are much more than a condiment for burgers or a colorful decoration! They are indisputably full of flavor, a fundamental part of the diet of the Italians, and a defining ingredient in their cuisine.
Originally domesticated in Mexico and only brought to Europe by the Spanish traders in the 1700’s, similar tomato varieties are found in both North America and Italy. Why is the flavor so much different then? The composition of the soil and the exposure to sunlight are certainly involved, but the determining factor in the difference of flavor is that most tomatoes found in North America have been cut while still green to facilitate distribution. In Italy, instead, they are generally grown locally and allowed to ripen on the vine. Note that tomatoes sold “on the vine” in North America may still have been separated from the plant well before ripening.
For the fruit and vegetable industry, the advantage of unripe distribution is enormous. Green produce is easier to handle – it doesn’t bruise as easily and doesn’t need to be delivered as promptly. However, only climacteric fruits(1) (of which tomatoes are part) have the ability to ripen after they have been cut. During their development, climacteric fruits store sugar in the form of starch. When they are fully grown, the plant starts producing ethylene, a colorless gas that operates as a phytohormone in organizing the ripening process. When exposed to ethylene, fruits increase their respiration and the accumulated starch is converted back into sugar. During this process, the fruits themselves start producing ethylene, which in turn creates a ripening cycle that affects the entire plant and the ones nearby.
Ethylene can also be artificially supplied to picked unripe produce with a similar ripening effect. This allows the fruit distributors to maintain the produce green until it’s about to reach the shelves, and then gas it to cause it to ripen. Unfortunately, despite their mature appearance, fruits that have been cut too early severely lack flavor. Moreover, these fruits tend to have a shorter shelf life than their naturally ripened counterparts.
Among climacteric fruits, bananas, avocados, kiwis, and pears can fully ripen after being picked – there is no particular advantage to allow these fruits to ripen on their trees. On the other hand, tomatoes, apples, apricots, peaches, plums, mangoes, figs, cantaloupe, and nectarines keep on improving the longer they stay attached to their plants.
Non-climacteric fruits like citrus, pineapples, strawberries, and melons don’t store sugars in the form of starch and, when cut off their vines, they arrest their development and only start to degrade, rather than ripen(2).
Tomatoes had a very slow diffusion in Italy. In addition to their late introduction, they encountered a strong resistance due to their resemblance to the botanically related and highly poisonous nightshade. It took until the beginning of the 20th century for tomatoes to become popular. At that point, however, they became so deeply intertwined with Italian cuisine, that they changed it forever. They brought a depth of flavor that never before was found in a vegetable, and it’s nowadays impossible to imagine Italian food without tomatoes.
The remarkable complexity of tomatoes is well represented by their distinct parts, each contributing in different ways to the flavor.
Most of the tomato flavor lies in the outer wall (the sweetest part) and in the cuticle (the thin and resistant skin). The jelly and juice surrounding the seeds are instead acidic. As a result, seeded and peeled tomatoes lack flavor and acidity. In cooking, it’s recommended to keep all parts of the tomato fruit together(2), and then strain the resulting product to eliminate any unwanted seeds and skins.
The proportions of skin, walls, jelly, and seeds vary across the different cultivars. Therefore, each of them has different culinary uses. Here are some of the most common Italian preparations that are normally associated with the main tomato varieties. To be noted that tomato juice as a drink is not listed since it isn’t popular in Italy.
Standard globe tomatoes
(Round, smooth, and flattened at the top and bottom. Generally 4-celled, with plenty of juice and seeds.)
Tomatoes are healthy, both raw and cooked. While raw tomatoes contain higher levels of Vitamin C, the antioxidant lycopene (the carotenoid responsible for the red coloring) is boosted by the cooking process and protects the human body from the cell and tissue damage caused by free radicals.
Partly or barely ripe globe tomatoes are used in salads, either by themselves, cut into slices or wedges, or with other veggies (e.g.; cucumbers and bell peppers). Salt, vinegar, and oil are normally used as a dressing. Globe tomatoes are also excellent when paired up with fresh cheese, such as mozzarella, bocconcini, fior di latte, cottage cheese, or burrata. Caprese salad, for instance, consists of tomato and mozzarella, with olive oil and optional basil or oregano. Green globe tomatoes are pickled in vinegar and oil and had as a side.
Coeur de Boeuf (or Beefsteak)
(Big and irregularly shaped, wider than tall. Multi-celled, moderately rich in juice and seeds.)
The stupendously flavorful coeur the boeuf is used in big slices in salads or in sandwiches.
Cherry or Campari tomatoes
(Small and 2-celled.)
Also used in salads, whole or halved, fully ripe Campari or cherry tomatoes are added to meat or fish stews.
Plum tomatoes, e.g.: Roma or San Marzano
(Oblong and smooth, more “mealy” and with fewer seed compartments.)
Strained raw plum tomatoes are used on pizza. Their mealy texture makes them not as appealing to be eaten raw, but they are the preferred choice for all tomato sauces, generally flavored with onion, or with garlic (as in ‘marinara’), or with chili pepper (as in ‘ arrabbiata’, which also has garlic). Plum tomatoes are also best for canning, either strained, chopped or whole (usually peeled, as in the typical “pelati”). In the south of Italy, where in the summer the production of tomatoes often exceeds the consumption needs, canning of strained tomatoes (“passata”) is a common family activity.
(Small plum tomatoes, the size of cherry tomatoes but oblong and mealier.)
Grape tomatoes are generally used in salads, usually whole.
(1) Tomatoes are fruits, being the development of the flowers’ ovaries and containing the plant’s seeds.
(2) Harold McGee. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. 2nd edition (2004).
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