In this new episode of Thoughts on the Table, Eva from Electric Blue Food is back to help me break down a massive topic: What makes a dish Italian?
To non-Italians, Italian food may be what appears on the menus of Italian restaurants or anything tagged as Italian that goes viral on social networks, like Carbonara, Amatriciana, Neapolitan Pizza, egg-yolk ravioli. To the Italians, Italian food is what they naturally cook at home, and maybe the only thing they are able and equipped to cook. These are potentially two very different things!
With many cuisines, we see a set of iconic dishes that become famous around the world through some kind of selection (like Pad Thai, Chicken Vindaloo, Salmon Teriyaki). Despite helping to make those cuisines accessible to many, these dishes are really just a small sample of the foods originating in their native regions. Eva and I argue that the (often ill-formed) quest for “the original” or “the authentic” version of these recipes may contribute to weeding out all variations of those dishes except for their dominant ones. This is probably why abroad there tends to be only one kind of Tiramisu (the coffee/cocoa one), whereas in Italy important spin-offs happily co-exist.
Finally, Eva describes her experience with the Polish cuisine of her grandmother and her encounter with Blueberry Pierogi, a sweet variation of the iconic potato dumpling that is equally unexpected outside of Poland.
This article is about basil pesto, the second most famous Italian pasta sauce, of course after tomato sauce.
However, this is not about the traditional way to make “Pesto Genovese” – using a mortar; there are plenty of good resources on that (as greatly summarized on Food Lover’s Odyssey). This article is about the more modern way to make pesto – using a blender, a method which is quite common also in Italy.
Technically the word “pesto” comes from the Italian ‘pestare’, to pound. Therefore, the purists would argue that this sauce should be called differently when made in a blender.
Aside from how it should be called, does the pesto made in a blender taste the same as the traditional one? Absolutely not. But it does get close, and it’s much better than any pesto that I could ever buy in a jar.
But before we start throwing basil leaves into the blender, it’s important to know that chopped basil is prone to oxidation – it turns dark and deteriorates in flavor when in contact with the oxygen in the air. Luckily oxidation can be countered by allowing the basil leaves to dry completely before blending them so that the oil can create a seal around the chopped leaves, keeping the oxygen away.
Basil also deteriorates and changes flavor when heated too much. To help counter this, the blender must be activated in pulses in order to limit the overall blending time and the corresponding friction produced by the blades. It also helps to chill the blender bowl and blade in the freezer before use.
Pesto sauce is traditionally used on trenette, trofie (pictured below), but also on linguini, spaghetti (as in this post’s feature image), and even gnocchi.
Making Basil Pesto in a Blender
Yield: 4 servings as pasta sauce
Total Time: 15 minutes
Prep Time: 15 minutes
100 g fresh basil leaves (if you can find it, prefer the Genovese kind)
50 g Parmigiano (or a mix of Parmigiano & Pecorino cheese)
25 g pine nuts (possibly, from the Mediterranean)
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon of coarse salt
1 clove of garlic (optional)
Gently wash the basil under cold running water and then lay it on a towel and let it dry completely (fig. 1). Do not bend or crush the leaves.
Meanwhile, put the blender's bowl and blade in the freezer for at least 10 minutes (fig. 2a).
Pour all of the oil in the blender, then add the crushed garlic (if using it) and the basil. Give it a few pulses until the leaves are roughly chopped up (fig. 2b).
Add the cheese, grated or cut in small bits, and the salt (fig. 2c). Give it a few more spins.
Add the whole pine nuts (fig. 2d).
Give a few last spins and extract from the blender (fig. 3).
If the sauce is not used immediately, it can be preserved in the fridge for up to two to three days. Store it in a tall and narrow container (e.g.: a glass) and top it up with an extra tablespoon of olive oil. Before using it, leave the sauce out of the fridge an hour - don't warm it up, or you'll cause the cheese to lump together and separate from the oil. Pesto can also be frozen, in that case some recommend not to add the cheese until the sauce is thawed.
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.”
For the first time in this blog, I have the pleasure to feature a guest post. This article is by enologist, writer, and photographer Melinda King. To know more about Melinda, check out The Premise of Italian Cuisine podcast.
Italian culture is special in ways that are delicately combined, tangible and intangible. It would be impossible to disconnect Italian culture from the topic of Italian food, and the entire nation is formed by connections of things grown and eaten. Eating evokes emotional, memory, sensory, spiritual, and gustatory reactions, which are born from chemistry and imagination. This is a proud food system made from thousands of years of place-specific combinations; exceptional raw ingredients, combined and shared at tables, are traded in markets and perfected with love. Italian flavors are a stunning collection of colorful stories that grow from field to city, within regions—after all, the country was a collection of nation-states until unification in 1861. The subject of authenticity is constant to hungry Italians, who does it best, according to the way it is supposed to be done. Although they are talented innovators, tradition is the mark of excellence and respect. Thus, we are left to wonder: what is Italian food? What is Italian? Now, the country that has been a historical crossroads is asking serious questions about identity. Thoughts on the Table is the brilliant work of a worldly Italian (Paolo Rigiroli) who is brave enough to explore these themes. What Italians eat (and how), he reminds us, is every bit who they are.
And it is the Italians who have the hardest time answering these queries. The food is a source of incredible comfort and passion, and it is very difficult to reach conclusions. In an effort to distill one singular definition for the entirety of “Italian food,” one might say it is agriculture. This reminds us that the cuisine is an honorable and humble form of hard work. It is the superlative expression of microclimate, microbiology, and sunshine. It is the Italian people, respecting the gifts of their land, who proceed to turn wheat fields into toothsome vermicelli, lemons to acrid limoncello, winter cabbage into soothing ribollita, and 140-kg pigs into rose-leather prosciutto. Wine is further example of Italian agricultural genius.
How is it possible to organize such an enormous, magnificent topic? Taking into consideration so many places, dialects, seasons, and details, what is Italian food, and where does it come from? Are we being too precious about what we eat? Does place truly matter? And how can an entire nation be world-known such a thing as flavor?
Recently, a friend of mine traveled to Rome, and wanted to buy a bottle of “authentic” Italian olive oil, to take with him back to Sweden. He found a large store, and assumed it would be a simple purchase. He tells me that it took forty minutes for him to decide on a single bottle, after asking three employees for help and making various searches on his cell phone. “There were so many bottles!” he exclaimed. “So many oils, from so many places, and so many different prices! Why do they do this?” In the end, he bought the smallest one, and left. Italy is very proud of its products, and olive oil is an incredibly critical topic. I imagine my friend saw bottles from Puglia, Veneto, Sicilia, Toscana, and Umbria, at the least, as each claims its olives to be the best. There are then the categories of oils (virgin, extra virgin, cold press, organic, biodynamic, gold label, etc.) and sizes (1 oz. flavored with pepperoncini or truffle) to 5 kg. The oils are sacred to the places they come from, and one would use local oil for local dishes. Moreover, every Italian olive has different compounds (peppery, golden, green, honey, smoky, juniper), that is tied to the environment it was grown and processed in. Hundreds of such compounds have been identified which contribute to the distinctive organoleptic characteristics that make Italian olive oil so exceptional.
Added to that, there are currently some issues in the worldwide olive oil industry, as origin is not easy to certify. Olives may be grown in Tunisia, and bottled in Spain. California olive oils companies used to quietly fly their products to southern Italy, where the plane would touch down and fill with gas, only to return to California for sale. This meant the oil bottles could be labeled with the words “From Italy.” Confusion is rampant in the marketplace, considering the brand of Italian foods.
How can Italian food protect and promote itself, and guarantee quality? This is important, more than ever, with the increasing global economy—and with new technologies (it is easier to mass produce foods, or copy ones already existing). What about Italian traditions? The individual state governments of Europe have, for the past few decades, been dealing with these issues within their own cultures. How to protect the integrity of Bulgarian cheeses, Greek wine, or German blood sausage? Italy was the second country, after France, to take action on certifying its natural food products. It was both a post-war reaction to economic and land issues, as well as a way to acknowledge the most important pieces of lifestyle. European states have since cooperated under the umbrella of the European Union, recognizing one another’s specialized products. Italy has been a tremendous example in this movement, to certify traditions in and out of its borders.
This does not mean that Italy published a list of official foods. Protected status does not cover lasagna and tiramisu. The topic is Geographical Indications (GI), and means that certain food products are trademarked as Italian, and cannot be impersonated or misrepresented. To be certified, the item must have a specific place of origin, a historically documented meaning, and production methods that adhere to exact steps and standards. They are the ingredients (animal products, herbs, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and dairy products) that make Italian food “Italian,” that they are raised in Italy, by Italians, where taste represents what cannot be verbalized. It is also a way to maintain identity, while earning a decent income. This applies to small-time producers, as well as the entire industries.
Geographical indications (GIs) is a legal status, represented with a visual package or label symbol, that identify a food as having originated from a specific place where a given attribute, reputation, or other characteristic of that good is attributable to its geographical home. GIs act like a trademark–once established, they confer certain exclusive rights to the owner. Unlike other intellectual property rights (patents, trademarks, copyrights), GIs are owned collectively by all producers in a region, rather than by an individual or a single company.
Note: there are Geographical indications are over the world (China, India, Sweden, Australia, South Africa, etc.). The United States is currently trying to garner support for their own system of GI (Georgia peaches, Idaho potatoes, California avocados), but the reputations of such products, and a strong system of capitalism, prevents the need for place/product protection. This article seeks to concentrate on the Italian context.
France was the first to certify national butter, cheese, and wine products (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, AOC). Roquefort cheese was regulated by a parliamentary decree in the year 1411; the modern system was reinstated in France in 1919. Italians followed with their own GI organization, post-war, as a way of naming and protecting cultural property within a delicate economic structure. Geographical indications were created by the European Union with Regulation 2081/921, seeking to solve communication problems between and within countries, for consumers and producers, while promoting rural development. Italian GI goods earned €15.2 million in production value in 2018, contributing 18% of the national agricultural economy.
There are 550 Sicilian growers certified for Sicilian arancia rossa (blood red oranges, IGP); each farm cultivates the same three arancia rossa varieties (there are three) according to the same rules, and is overseen and organized by a central ruling body called a consorzio. Each consorzio reports to the Ministero delle Politiche Agricole Alimentari, Forestali e del Turismo (MIPAAF), (Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies). These fruits are monitored by the Italian government, and have protection within the European Union.
The GI system has broad and precise stated objectives:
To promote foods, beverages, and wines with specific characteristics, particularly those coming from less-known or rural areas;
To improve the income of farmers who make “genuine effort to improve quality”;
Sustaining populations in rural areas;
Providing clear and “not-misleading” information to consumers regarding product origin;
Preserving cultural and historical identity.
Place-defined products connect value between food and territory, thus guaranteeing the quality for which a consumer pays a premium. The idea is to further prevent unwanted third parties from using terms, tactics, and marketing that mislead and misrepresent. Italian pride and livelihoods remain in the balance.
There are currently three European Union schemes for geographic preservation:
Protected Designation of Origin (PDO, red symbol): the entire product must be traditionally and entirely manufactured (prepared, processed and produced) within the specific region.
Protected Geographical Indication (PGI, blue symbol): the entire product must be traditionally and at least partially manufactured (prepared, processed or produced) within the specific region.
Traditional Specialties Guaranteed (TSG): food must be of “specific character” and either the raw materials, production method, or processing must be done in exact area (consistent for a minimum of 30 years).
Protected Italian Foods
Many of the GI items are known to anyone interested in Italian eating. The names of these items are synonymous with the places they come from, and the name alone acts as an Italian ambassador. Some of the expected items on the list: PDO Chianti Classico olive oil, PDO Lago di Garda olive oil, PDO Mortadella, Asiago cheese, PDO Basilico Genovese (think pesto), PDO Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, IGP Nocciola Piemonte (hazelnuts famed for chocolates).
Still, most of the items may be called peculiar or even uninteresting to those outside the places they are made. Some unexpected items: IGP Acciughe sotto sale del Mar Ligure (anchovies), IGP Carota dell’Altopiano del Fucino (“A carrot? That’s not sexy!”), Pane di Matera (specialized bread loaves from the Sassi cave town), three kinds of saffron, IGP Bresaola della Valtellina (dried horse meat is highly esteemed), four kinds of asparagus (Bassano, especially), five kinds of lemons, eight kinds of chestnuts, Bergamotto di Reggio Calabria essential oil, Kiwi Latina (an Italian kiwi? Yes, and it is magnificent!). Of course, this country is always surprising.
It is quite common to see the PDO or IGP acronym in a restaurant or gelateria, where the pride of place ingredients is translated to the consumer, as a promise of something real and delicious to be had. And with the force of 0 KM eating, Slow Foods, Bio, Organic, and artisanal products, GI label status is not only economic, but “cool.”
Italian wines have an exceptional portion of Geographical Indications to endorsement. GI wines are a vital element, though controversial, in the business and character of Italian winemaking. Autochthonous (native) grapes represent distinctive zones and methods of viticulture, each with unique climactic features. Nerello Mascaelese is a grape that only grows on Mount Etna, in Sicily; this grape is authorized as one of the grapes to be used in the Etna DOC red wine. Nerello Mascalese has been growing in this place for centuries. Popular international varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Syrah need no protection–nor do they have such a significant history, cultivation, or sensory connection to Italian soil.
In 1964, Italy established a series of laws to safeguard the brilliance and authenticity of their wines. The directives define wines by characteristics such as: type of grape(s) used, alcohol content, bottling, labeling, how long the wine is aged, how and when to harvest, who can work the fields, machinery and tools, irrigation, naming, and sales promotions. In the last decades, several modifications and changes have been made to original legislation, as the numbers of wines and regions grow to the list. The last addition, made in 2010, established four basic categories that read consistent with concurrent European Union wine regulations (2008-2009) — Italian wines GIs are categorized as:
Vini (also known as ‘generic/table wines’): wines can be produced anywhere in the territory of the EU, label includes no certain indication of place origin (of grape varieties used or vintage); only the wine color is required to be listed on the bottle label (“Tavernello” often ‘house wine’). In some cases, however, table wines can have very high quality and be sought by connoisseurs that don’t need any official certifications (‘Super Tuscans’).
Vini Varietali (Varietal Wines): generic wines that derive mostly (at least 85%) from one kind of certified ‘international (grown in many places)’ grape variety (Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah) or entirely from two or more of them; grape used or vintage may be shown on the label (e.g. “Merlot-Raboso” blend from Veneto).
IGP (‘Protected Geographical Indication’ also known as IGT: ‘Typical Geographical Indication’): wines produced in a specific territory within Italy that follow precise regulations on allowed varieties, growing and vinification practices, organoleptic and chemical/physical characteristics, labeling instructions, among others (e.g. “Toscana IGT”).
DOP (‘Protected Designation of Origin’) which includes two classes:
DOC (Controlled Designation of Origin) These wines must have been IGP wines for at least 5 years, and generally come from smaller regions within a certain IGP territory; far stricter regulations and focus on territorial personalities; a DOC wine can be promoted to DOCG after 10 years.
DOCG (Controlled and Guaranteed Designation of Origin) In addition to fulfilling DOC requisites, DOCG wines meet tighter analyses before going to market; they must also demonstrate a superior commercial value, and are linked with historical development.
Currently, there exist 332 DOCs (e.g. “Aleatico di Gradoli DOC”) and 73 DOCGs (e.g. “Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG”) bringing total to 405 DOPs. The financial aspects of the wine GI are momentous; a single bottle of DOCG Brunello di Montalcino can sell for up to $550. A scandal shook the Brunello consorzio in 2008 (known as “Brunellopoli”), where select winemakers were suspect for mixing lower quality wine grapes from other regions with local Sangiovese. Vineyards were quarantined and hundreds of thousands of bottles seized by authorities, facing millions of dollars in fines and years in prison. The issue was potential violation of GI purity rules, written by the Brunello Consorzio ruling body, and approved by the Italian Agricultural Ministry. Charges were ultimately dropped, and agreements to reinforce production principles were made between the Consorzio and winemakers.
I spent a number of years working in a wine business in California. When customers asked about Italian wines, they asked for wines by company or grape. Furthermore, their purchase decisions were generally based on price; customers were fascinated anytime I gave them a back story to the makers of the wine, the place it was made, or the types of grapes used. A wine was Chianti or Prosecco, but they did not know why. I would point to the labeling below the cork, when appropriate—if the bottle had the DOC or DOCG certification. “So the government says this wine is the best?” they would ask. No, I would shake my head and give a brief description of what GI represents. “Oh,” they would continue, “so the Italian government says this wine is the best?” they would repeat. Every time.
No, the government has no sensory opinion on the wines being made. This is a label that a company pays for, in a group with other companies in the same place, in order to show you, the consumer, that they mean business. The bottle of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano comes from vineyard lands that were budding vines hundreds of years before the pilgrims even built their boat. That is what the GI system would like us to remember. Currently, I am working in a vineyard/winery on Mount Etna, in Sicily. The DOC here is exceedingly proud of its work, and place (terra) is the language spoken in every glass. The soil changes from sandy to limestone, then lava rock, within a few meters, and vines stand fierce tests of weather and volcano. Add the salt of the sea and the shine of the sun, and it makes for an extraordinary natural beverage. The GI labels struggle to describe these things to an American wine shopper: philosophy of terra in an island borough founded by Greek settlers in 734 B.C.E.
Although GIs may promote a food or wine’s reputation, the level of quality is not guaranteed above similar food items. The perception of GIs is a matter of personal consumer taste and company/brand marketing, and this is an important concept to understand. For example, there may be six options of lemons at the local market. Two are certified GI status, from Siracusa (Sicilia) and Sorrento (Campania), and one from Spain. The other three, local fruits, do not list variety, but are stamped with the farm and city of origin. The GI status lemons cost twice as many Euros per kilo. Would you choose a locally made lemon, a higher priced GI, or the least expensive Spanish one?
How much sway does GI play, in the eyes of a shopper? Does it shift our priorities–taste preference, price, or place of being picked? Would you scrimp on lemons but splurge on cheese? How is this any different from brand name luxury Italian Gucci, Ferrari, or Armani? Normal people buy according to experience and reputation. If it works, they buy again. Italy, itself, has become a brand. The Italian GI is represented on the food or drink label with a small circular symbol (red and yellow or blue and yellow, depending on legal status), so we see as we buy. But these certifications are very expensive, and they require a long and thorough vetting process.
The symbol on the food (package, container, box, fruit seal, or wine label) will tell the buyer that it was made in according to the tradition of the area, by people who live there, with local or regional resources, in Italy by Italians. It will taste the way it is supposed to taste, according to history of the place, made flavorful by unique environmental conditions that only that place can provide. Terra, confirms that balsamic vinegar from Modena can only come from Modena. In this case, the Balsamic Vinegar Consorzio is a nearly secret society of older gentlemen who speak very little and carry out regular chemical “alchemical” analysis with small glass pipets and sensorial tastings. They meet in quiet rooms, and keep careful records. But they are extremely exclusive, and there is worry that the Modena vinegar community will soon disappear. It is not easy to pass on the legacy, or attract much excitement, as the work is difficult and unattractive to outsiders. This kind of work must be psychologically understood. But this is a common problem today, in Italy, with gentrification, separating family structures, and move towards tech jobs and city life.
The taste of Sicilian Pachinotomatoes cannot be reproduced. Heart-shaped Marostica cherries, from Veneto, are blessed by cool mountain breeze and warm sunshine. There is a cherry festival to honor the local fruits, as well as a famous chess game played with real-life human pawns in the Piazza degli Scacchi. The game dates back to 1454 when it was organized to settle a courtly duel between two noble lords competing for the hand of a lady. The history, the climate, and the science of place convene to create, in legal status, a true Italian flavor. Travelers can go to the game, enjoy the festival, and feel the life behind the GI, every September.
Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is a prime example of a Geographical Indication, demonstrating food as an art form. Outside Italy, “Parmesan” (originally a term from France to refer to Italian hard cheeses) is used as a generic name to identify a product (cheese-like, but not always cheese), that has a flavor reminiscent of the famed nutty bite that we know from true Parmigiano Reggiano. However, this copy food lacks the origin, and artisan producers. Parmigiano Reggiano has a singular history, taste, and identity that is unmistakably Italian. The Consorzio for Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese was formed in 1934; in 1996, Parmigiano Reggiano earned complete legal status in the EU. The Consorzio states that “the secret of its goodness originates in the place of origin, in the natural feed, our types of milk cows, the wind, the incline of our hills and goodness of grass, and in the high-quality milk with no additives.” The term “Parmesan” comes from geographical origin and means “of or from Parma.”
Parmigiano Reggiano is not only a good cheese, but also healthy and nutritious (named the official food of the International Space Station). After creation, the cheese wheels are subjected to a maturation period of at least twelve months (twenty-four for the most common version, thirty-six months and more for finer stravecchio), allowing Parmigiano Reggiano to gain its characteristic granular structure. It is made from raw cow’s milk (not pasteurized; there are 245,000 cows in the production area registered to make Parmigiano Reggiano) only grass and hay, not silage. After primary creation, the cheese is put into a brine bath of Mediterranean sea salt for about 22 days and then aged. At twelve months, each cheese is inspected by an expert grader who uses a hammer to tap the cheese and by sound detect undesirable cracks and voids. Cheeses that pass inspection are branded on the rind with an inspector logo. To guarantee each cheese and catalogue quality, each cheese wheel (40 kg) is stenciled by hand with:
The Parmigiano Reggiano DOP acronym and consorzio seal;
Identification number of dairy (there are 363 certified Parmigiano Reggiano dairies);
Production month and year;
An alphanumeric code identifying every single wheel.
Every cheese is inspected by the consorzio, to verify if they are worthy of the Parmigiano Reggiano title, then fire branded when PDO standards are satisfied. There is a well-documented 800-year history of production, as it was first made by Benedictine monks in the same hilly areas. The processes are fiercely controlled by the consorzio, and every cheese is crafted with care, for excellence.
The cultural meaning for this cheese is also economic: in 2018, 149,000 tons (3.65 million wheels) of it was made by 50,000 Italians in Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Mantua (to the right of the Po river), and Bologna to the left of the Reno river). In the same year, the cheese had a €2.2 billion estimated turnover at consumption (51,900 tons of it being exported). This is a meaningful cheese! It is easy to understand how such powerful food would have imitators. The name, alone, is sacred to the Italian people.
In 2003, the EU responded to a complaint filed by the Parmigiano Reggiano consorzio concerning the improper use by certain German companies of the name “Parmesan” as a generic name, on cheeses that neither exhibited the peculiarities of Parmigiano-Reggiano PDO, nor came from the area of origin—thus manipulating consumers and damaging reputation. German authorities refused to intervene, and thus the case was taken before the European Court of Justice. However, the case was ultimately dismissed, as the EU court did not have enough evidence to demonstrate German misuse of the generic name.
However, problems arise when deciding which phrases to protect as GIs. For example, although “Parmigiano Reggiano” is a protected GI under U.S. law (in an agreement made with Italian authorities and the cheese consorzio), the name “parmesan” is not protected—and this term is ubiquitous in American grocery markets on products that Italians would find abhorrent and embarrassing. Shoppers might even see Parmesan Reggianito, a hard Argentinean cheese invented by Italian immigrants who left Italy for South America after the Wars. They wanted to make something that would remind them of their native Parmigiano Reggiano.
Every few years, the Italian Parmigiano Reggiano consorzio tries to file legal action against a company in North America, regarding “Parmesan,” but an outright purge of all such cheese products would be impossible, and expensive. The issue comes down to labeling, but mostly, quality.
In 2012, American FDA agents investigated a cheese factory in Pennsylvania, called “Castle Cheese.” They were making goods sold as “100% real Parmesan” across the country; the cheese was found to contain cut-rate substitutes, chemicals, and fillers, such as wood pulp and cellulose. The Castle Cheese president pled guilty and was spent one year in prison, with a fine of one hundred thousand dollars, but the case was made on health standards—not Parmigiano Reggiano GI name protection. Kraft, America’s well-known mass pasteurized cheese mass brand, has argued that their parmesan cheeses actually promote and encourage the Parmigiano Reggiano product, rather than compete with or mock it.
This is why a podcast like “Thoughts on the Table” is so important: there is a tremendous need for a cross-cultural conversation about Italian food, by Italians and non-Italians, in the name of taste, access, affordability, and integrity. I can only imagine what it was like for Paolo, experiencing his first visit to a Canadian grocery store. It would be like showing him a roller skate and trying to convince him it was a car. Food is passionate and evocative; what happens when it is reduced to a transaction? We want to talk about grandmother’s soothing pasta dishes, not packaging standards.
Food is grown, traded, prepared, and shared according to geographical context. What you eat, for most of human history, depends on where you live. This is a field of study known as the GEOGRAPHY OF FOOD, which includes complex patterns and relationships between “space” and “place.” Taste transforms during stages of preparation. Quality means safe and wholesome ingredients, and consistency. This is where Italy excels. It has a vast range of topography, proximity to water, varieties of microclimates, and brilliant, creative farmers and chefs. As one of my friends reminds me, “our government is terrible, jobs are hard to get, and our soccer team fails in the World Cup, but we have the best eating in the entire world to console these pains.” The Mediterranean hits the Alpine ranges, and leave centuries of collaboration, giving this nation gastronomical and agricultural superiority. Science proves this, as well as our own opinions. And while so many things did not “originate” in this country, they are respected and perfected here: tomatoes, wines, pastas, coffee, and chocolate.
Place does matter—very much. In terms of food and wine, terra is the philosophical combination of physical and spiritual “place” that gives flavor. By flavor, I mean “memory,” the kind of meal we remember years after the dishes have been washed.
Geographic Indication is a legally recognized certification of quality for place-driven taste. It happens by tradition–meaning what is produced, how, and by whom. The Italian government is very serious about protection and recognition. History is, in my opinion, based in agriculture, and agriculture reveals identity. GI status strives to keep identity, while preserving the taste of memory.
In the name of authenticity, GI hopes to maintain marketplace clarity. Every protected food is traced, tracked, and guaranteed. There are major efforts by law enforcement agencies to uphold the legitimacy of food products. Olive oil, wine, balsamic vinegar, cheese, and prosciutto are some of the Italian products that are most copied and sold by fraud, or produced in sub-standard ways. Livestock are RFID tagged, and documented from conception to market shelf, and full records of genetic breeding are kept by the consorzio. A vegetable, a cheese, or a grape can be tracked by DNA testing, to assure the place it has come from. Italy has 822 registered GI products, more than any other nation, of the worldwide total 3,036 (2018 ISMEA). “Made in Italy” is very big business.
Of course, the Geographical Indications are quite general, and work with ideals. It is basically a package of economic safeguards—copyright schemes made in a non-capitalistic system. The European Union oversees each country’s regulations, and promotes communication across the board. Italy does not always enjoy being a part of the Union, though it gains considerably from the Geographical Indication projects. Aside from the spiritual and cultural lauds from economic protection, the PDO and PGI symbols are basically there to pay people to make good raw materials (beans, sardines, and kiwis). Italy must also realize that certification means Italians competing with Italians, long before the rest of the world. As Italians are hungry for creative and economic innovation, they are, more than ever, hungry to strengthen the core of their traditions.
Nostalgia is everything to an Italian palate. So are relationships. Although larger food chains and grocery stores are trending, there is still a strong and regular desire to shop locally. How do GI products interact with everyday eating? How can we trust that the story behind the label is true? Some Italians do not support the GI system; there are many barriers to entry (certification costs, registration, legal oversight, documentation, North versus South quarrels) that prevent many from participating. Others detest the European Union. In a conversation with my elderly neighbors, Don Donato and his wife, Luciana, I asked their view on Italian Geographical Indications. Don Donato was quick to answer: “We do it because France did it, and we always have to compete with France. We have Italian food in a French system. Even the supermarkets are from France (Carrefour, Auchan in Veneto)… the problem is that Italians are very bad organizers. We have the good food, and the government doesn’t trust us with it.”
His wife does the food shopping, and said she never really noticed the food labels until last year, when she read about it in the paper. She generally keeps to the butcher, bakery, and produce shop in our small village, but goes to the shopping centers once or twice every month with her children’s families. Two things regularly astonish her: the amounts of products in the aisles, and the prices. Having choices, she told me, is very expensive. “If I want lentils from Umbria, we will go there. I am not about to pay so much for a bag of lentils. These are things that are made very well in my own area.” She told me that food is only as good as the person making it, and she can make any lentil taste Italian.
Can you taste the difference between a GI product and a non-GI product When it is late in the evening, and someone has prepared a beautiful Italian meal, simple and warm—what is the role of Geographical Indications for regional foods?
If my Swedish friend had known, at the least, to look for red and blue symbols on olive oil labels, his search would have been much simplified. He was looking for the best representation of an Italian olive oil, and those certification marks would have spoken for the people, processes, and places that make the oil authentic—as so the label would ideally have us believe. Later, I curiously asked which bottle he had selected from the large Roman grocery store. He laughed when he told me, “I don’t remember the name, but I bought an expensive one.” He continued, “But when I got home, I went to use it and saw, written right there on the backside: 100% California Olives.”
These contradictions make Italian food fascinating. The conversation continues…
Top 15 highest value (by production numbers) Italian Geographical Indications, 2018 (source: ISMEA—Qualivita)
http://www.aicig.it/ – Aicig (Associazione Italiana Consorzi Indicazioni Geografiche, Italian Association Geographic Indication Consortia) is a non-profit association between the various Consorzi that are recognized by the Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies. It represents 95% of Italian GI producers.
“Brunellopoli: A wine scandal under the Tuscan sun” – Tourism Review International 15(3):253-267 · July 2012 by Alessio Cavicchi (University of Macerata) and Cristina Santini (University San Raffaele, Roma).
NOTE: This article’s featured image is a view of Govone, Cuneo, from its castle. [Photo by Paolo Rigiroli].
Mark Preston is a food writer, a blogger, and the author of California Mission Cookery, a cookbook on the early cuisine of the Californio population, which he discovered while working as an archivist for the UCLA library.
Last October, he got in touch to tell me about his research on ragù, the Italian meat sauce; he wanted the opinion of an Italian on what he had found. This is how we started collaborating!
In this episode, Mark talks about his encounters with Italian cuisine while growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, and how this experience prompted him to travel to Europe, as he says, “just to go to Italy to eat!”
He also analyzes how the popularization of the Mediterranean diet may have caused a shift in preference from Thai to Italian in Los Angeles, where he now lives.
Finally, he reveals his thoughts on what, in the fifties, caused the Americans to go crazy for pizza! A trend which of course goes strong today.
Another year has elapsed – this blog just turned six!! As usual, I’d like to stop for a moment and look back at the last twelve months of blogging and podcasting. Before I do that, I would like to thank all who have been supporting me by reading, by listening, and especially by sharing their thoughts via personal messages and comments. It means a lot to me, please keep sending your feedback!
Finally, I’d like to add a note on a technical detail. Last October, this blog was migrated to WordPress! I can’t say it was a trivial task, but the process was much smoother than I initially thought – a testament to the platform and its amazing community. I hope you are enjoying the new layout and functionality.
All in all, year six has been a great year, with lots of new connections and ideas. I am very much looking forward to year seven with the same enthusiasm as when I started in 2010!
Domenica Marchetti is an American food writer and cookbook author of Italian heritage. In 2012, I gave her a much deserved Cannolo Award, and I’ve been following her since. I knew she was busy working on her next book, so I was very happy she found time and kindly accepted to be in the podcast. After our extensive chat, I must say that Domenica is exactly how I imagined her – she is approachable and funny, genuinely passionate about Italian food, and very knowledgeable on the topic.
In this episode-interview, Domenica talks about her Italian origins and her relationship with food, as well as how her former career as a journalist led her to becoming a cookbook author. Domenica also brings her authoritative contribution on various themes with plenty of examples and colorful stories. For instance, we discuss the existence of the Italian palate, the importance of technique as well as ingredients in Italian cuisine, and the role of tradition as the necessary base for innovation.
During the podcast, Domenica mentions the following resources:
I’m from northern Italy – only been to Sicily once – and I only had heard about this dish before moving to Canada. Thanks to my friends food-bloggers, however, this dish tickled my attention, I starting making it, and I think it has already become part of my repertoire! What I love about Pesto alla Trapanese is how fresh it tastes, and that it can be prepared quickly (as the pasta cooks) and pretty much all year-round (unlike Pesto alla Genovese which requires large amounts of fresh basil, which is best in the summer).
Since I’m far from an authority on this dish, I’m presenting a variation over Frank Fariello‘s rendition. Similarly, it makes use of uncooked cherry tomatoes that are mixed in with other ingredients in a blender – a method quite common these days, as opposed to using mortar and pestle (which is traditional and at the origins of the name “pesto”). Aside from the blending technique, I substituted Pecorino for the milder (though geographically incorrect!) Parmigiano, and increased the amount of almonds for a grittier and drier sauce.
Pesto alla Trapanese, with almonds and fresh tomatoes
Yield: 2 servings
Total Time: 15 minutes
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes
6-8 (140 g, 5 oz in weight) cherry or strawberry tomatoes
1 garlic clove, minced
8 basil leaves
40 g (1 ½ oz) almonds, blanched (chopped or whole)
40 g (1 ½ oz) Parmigiano, coarsely grated
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
140 g (5 oz) spaghetti, linguine, or even short pasta like farfalle or fusilli
coarse salt (1/2 Tbsp per liter, 2 Tbsp per gallon of boiling water)
Bring a big pot of water to a boil.
Toast the almonds in a pan at high heat for a couple of minutes until they get some color, but before they turn dark.
Core the tomatoes and score their skin (see illustration on the side).
Boil the tomatoes for 20 seconds, then dip them in cold water to stop the cooking. Keep the water boiling, you’re going to use it to cook the pasta.
Salt the water and cook the pasta according to the instructions on the box.
As the pasta cooks, peel the tomatoes and squeeze them to remove seeds and excessive liquid.
In a blender, mix all ingredients so that they turn creamy, but still a bit coarse. I used an immersion blender and it worked very well.
When the pasta is cooked, drain it and put it back in the pot along with the pesto. Mix gently and serve immediately.
Back in March 2014, I had the pleasure of having Frank Fariello (Memorie di Angelina) on a podcast. In the episode, we discussed the differences between Italian-American cooking and the food of Italy, a topic on which Frank is remarkably insightful, being a third generation Italian-American who lived in Rome for 10 years.
This post presents the same interview in textual form as an enjoyable read, and as a searchable reference.
Hello, and welcome to the audioblog. Paolo here again for another episode. Today I have a special guest with me, Frank Fariello from the fantastic blog, Memorie di Angelina. Hi, Frank. Good morning.
Hey Paolo, how are you doing?
Good. Thanks so much for accepting to connect with me. It’s an honor.
Oh, it’s my pleasure.
Frank accepted to be interviewed, and I have prepared a lot of questions. I’m sure, like me, you’ll be very interested to know his answers. We want to know a lot more about you, Frank.
So let’s start from, of course, from you. Do you want to introduce yourself to our listeners?
Sure, why not? My name is Frank, as you know. I’ve got an Italian last name, Fariello. I am from New York originally. I was born in New York City actually, but lived in the suburban part of New York for most of my childhood. I am a lawyer by training and by profession, and still continue to practice law, but I’ve spent a great deal of my adult life outside of the United States. I actually took some time off [from the profession]. I was thinking about leaving the law at a certain point in my life. I had about ten years under my belt as a corporate lawyer in New York and was kind of tired of the rat race.
So I took some time off. I was thinking about becoming a professional chef. Cooking has always been my passion. I went and lived for a few years in Paris. There are great hotel schools, as you probably know, in Switzerland, in the French speaking part of the country. So my plan was to go to France, perfect my French, and then go on to [the Hotel School in] Lausanne. As you know, that was [where] one of the great Italian chefs of the time… a Milanese, named Gualtiero Marchesi [had been trained].
Oh yeah, of course. Super famous.
Do remember him? Very famous. A little bit controversial, I understand, among some Italians. They called him “Il Francese” because he had a certain different way of approaching Italian cooking, but I had studied his work and found him quite inspiring. I knew that he had gone to Lausanne, to the [hotel] school there and wanted to kind of follow in his footsteps.
In any event, [I never made it to Lausanne.] I was [in Paris] for a couple years, then lived in Vienna for a couple more years. At that point, I had returned to the practice of law. Some old colleagues from New York had convinced me to get back into the profession, and they were based in Vienna and Moscow, so I was doing some work there. Then, in about 1995, so this is going back a few years, I saw an ad in the paper for an international organization based on Rome. Of course, I’m an international lawyer by trade, [but my practice had been in private international law]. I had always been interested in [practicing public international law] in an international organization. I applied [for the job] and “only” 9 months later, I was hired. I went down there and spent 10 years living in Rome.
In Rome, in the city.
Yeah. That was a fantastic thing. I had always kind of wanted to… It sounds like a cliché of course, but wanted to sort of discover my roots. Actually, my roots are not in Rome, they’re farther south in Campania and Puglia. But still, it was a great opportunity. So I took it.
Very interesting that you were at one point pursuing the career of becoming a chef, and considered changing [job] entirely. You know, it takes a lot of courage to do that. I’m not surprised that you were pulled back…
Yeah, well it takes a lot of courage, and maybe that’s why I didn’t do it ultimately!
Yeah, but you did do something else. You started writing this blog that has become the most popular blog about Italian food today. So it is a fantastic achievement, and it obviously speaks to the quality of your work. I’m not surprised to see that your interest went as far as to bring you to Paris. So that really makes a lot of sense now.
Yeah. Thanks. Yeah, it is a great… That’s one of the great things about the blog. It allows me to enjoy the [culinary] world without, of course, the back breaking work and the horrendous hours of actually being a restaurateur.
I see. Well, I’m sure it takes up a lot of time anyway, but certainly it is a different activity. Yes, I can see that. So when did you start Memorie di Angelina?
Well, it actually started out when I joined Facebook.
I didn’t set out to be a blogger, to be honest. I joined Facebook and, like a lot of people on Facebook, I started discovering old friends from high school and college and law school and all the rest of it. I decided I wanted to share some recipes with my friends, so I started posting recipes to my profile. That was a lot of fun and people were enjoying the recipes, but I was frustrated by the platform. It wasn’t really as flexible as I wanted it to be, so I cast around [for ideas] and decided to start a blog. Just for my friends, initially. That was the only ambition I had was to continue sharing those recipes, but to do it in a way that was easier to get the point across. And… the rest is history. The blog got some attention and, next thing I know, 5 years later I’m still blogging!
Yes, and thank you for that. It’s a great resource for me as a cook, and of course a great point of reference (that I often quote) to talk about what I talk about, which is authenticity and Italian food of Italy today, which is something that has become sort of my battle – so to speak – to try and fix Italian food in North America. As you know, my battle is against the type of Italian-American food that is not advertised as such. I have respect for Italian-American cuisine, but I really think it should be called for what it is. I’m all for certification as well to try and, whenever possible, certify Italian food – continental Italian food of Italy today – as such. And I applaud any kind of certification like Pizza Verace, which is a great association based in Naples that certifies around the world, and Tuscanicious, which by the way you were just recently awarded. Congratulations.
Yes. Well thank you. That was a tremendous honor for me. It’s a great validation of the work I’m doing… My blog is about Italian cooking of all kinds, not really focused on Tuscan cooking in particular, so the award was, in a sense, a surprise. But a wonderful one.
Yeah, it is a great honor, and you deserve so much. So yeah, authenticity is important, but I also find that many of those self-proclaimed Italian restaurants simply serve food that is just plain bad food. That is really sad to me. I really think that there is such thing as good food and bad food in general, and in fact a lot of my friends who actually have been to Italy told me that they really liked the real Italian food so much better. Which may signify that there is an absolute value to flavor. I don’t know how you feel about that.
I certainly agree. All kinds of cooking can be good, and I enjoy all different kinds of cooking. But I firmly believe there is such a thing as good food and bad food. Even as a kid, I remember comparing the Italian food that you might have in a restaurant with the food that my grandmother made, and I knew liked my grandmother’s food a lot better! To some extent, Italian food is a victim of its own popularity. And unfortunately restaurateurs-some of them who should know better, others who perhaps don’t-take advantage of that popularity to frankly make a buck on the cheap. I hate to put it that harshly, but I think in some cases that’s what it is.
Following a popular trend. When you say “Italian,” it seems to sell more. Right now they’re starting to say “Tuscan” or you know, “Sicilian,” trying to go down to the region which makes it [sound] even more authentic.
Yes, indeed. I don’t know if you know Nicoletta Tavella – she’s a fellow blogger. She also has a cooking school in Amsterdam, and I heard an interview with her with an Italian radio or TV… I can’t remember which. She was talking about some of the funny products that they sell in Holland, like “Tuscan pesto”, whatever that might be! So this is not just North America where this kind of thing happens. As you say, “Tuscan” has that caché. Never mind that there is no such thing as Tuscan pesto. But anyway…
So Frank, speaking of authentic food, I would like to go back a little bit to your grandmother. Because you’re a third generation Italian-American, but yet you seem to have such a precise image of Italian food. Yours is not distorted at all. I’m Italian born and raised there. I spent my first 30 years there. I read you… I really cannot detect any difference in how I would describe it. You just describe it better than I would. It’s true.
That’s very kind of you to say. I think I have two advantages maybe over other Americans or other foreigners who are pursuing [the study of Italian cuisine]. One is I actually grew up with Italian cooking. My grandmother is the reason why my blog is called the way it is. It’s a tribute to her, because she really imprinted those flavors on my palate, if I can put it that way.
That’s a good way [to put it].
At a very tender age, it’s so natural. She was special because she did not [compromise on authenticity]. Of course, she was first generation, and there’s a big difference as the generations proceed, in terms of assimilation and adaptation. She made her dishes just as she learned them growing up in Italy, in that small town in Campania. I verified that when I went to Italy and ate those same dishes, some of which I didn’t realize existed outside of my grandmother’s kitchen, by the way. I was almost shocked to see them on menus, in store windows. I remember once, it was around Christmas time, and we went down to the Amalfi coast for a vacation to get away from Rome for a bit, and I looked in a pastry shop window and found my grandmother’s honey balls: Truffoli! I had no idea they actually existed other than as an invention my grandmother had made. But she recreated all of those things, and quite well, I think, given what she had to work with. Of course she had to make some compromises, because not all ingredients were available in the US, especially back in those days. The other thing, of course, is that I spent 10 years living in Italy. That’s irreplaceable, too.
You know, getting to know Italian cooking, especially Rome because that’s where I was. But I liked to travel a lot, all throughout the country. And being a foodie, the first thing I wanted to do was try the local dishes. I used to ask people, “What should I try?” and “How do you make this?” And I’m an avid collector of cookbooks.
Oh, I see.
Anywhere I went, I always bought a little local cookbook to find out what the local dishes were and try to recreate them when I get home and all of that.
Yeah, and I love how you put these cookbooks as reference in your blog posts whenever you can, because… you can quote them, and use the collective knowledge that they accumulated into themselves. So we were talking about adaptation and the fact that Italian food sometimes, as generations go by, changes. Evolves. Why do you think this is happening? Is it a matter of adapting to the local palate, or is it more the fact that the ingredients are not available, or that the ingredients are different?
That’s a good question. I think originally, of course, it was about availability of ingredients. I think if you look at first generation, Italian Americans in particular, that was a big thing. [And then some differences reflect an expression of the diaspora community.] I sometimes talk about Italian American cooking as a sort of celebration of plenty. This is immigrant cooking, so it was made by people who came from very humble backgrounds. Certainly in my family that was the case. [They celebrated] the fact that they now could afford to have meat any time they wanted. So Sunday dinners were often kind of “meat fests”: We’d have the pasta dish, dressed with Neapolitan ragu`, with sausages and beef and all these other things… And then yet another meat course would come after that, usually roast chicken or something of this kind. So it’s a lot about just kind of enjoying the fact you can afford to have all of this food that perhaps back home you couldn’t. That’s of course the first generation.
I think the second generation is a bit different. And I saw this also, by the way, in reverse when I was living in Italy. Children of immigrants put a huge premium on fitting in and assimilating, and feeling that they were part of the country they were born in. Sometimes even almost in opposition to their parents’ generation.
You’ve seen this probably–
I have seen this. I know a lot of Italians. They have Italian last names so I approach them in the workplace, and often they actually… reject their origins. They don’t speak Italian, pretty much by choice. Yeah. It’s strange, but in a way, it’s assimilation. It is forcing yourself to stop being typecast, because I suppose it happens.
Absolutely. I think that that goes for the cooking as well, and eating habits and the rest. You kind of, you want to be kind of more American than the Americans.
Of course, when you try to go back and recreate the dishes, that’s going to have an influence. And then there’s the third generation… I’m third generation – I think there’s a bifurcation here, because there’s some, like myself, who kind of want to recapture something.
Then there are others who just kind of keep on going and proceed with further Americanization, to the point where basically, other than the name, they are more or less indistinguishable from any other Americans.
Yeah, absolutely. The problem is that some of them own a restaurant…
Yeah. Yes. That’s when things go awry!
I saw this thing just yesterday. We were in this Italian café, I’m not going to say the name, and they had “Italian burgers”, okay? (You don’t see Frank, but he’s shocked!) With a side of pasta, of course (!) And I really like the place, actually. I go back there because they make really good omelettes, actually. They cook something that is not really an Italian dish, but they do it really well, and I really like them. But then they do these things… Just because they call themselves Italian, I think.
Yeah, that’s the marketing thing again. You sprinkle a little oregano on top of it or a little melted mozzarella or whatever, and suddenly it’s Italian this or that.
Yeah, I know. What’s even worse is when you throw in ingredients that totally don’t fit in with a dish. You just posted today your carbonara, and you talk about cream as a common addition in North America, into carbonara. Obviously, that does not belong in the dish. It’s totally unnecessary, it changes it entirely. You know, in this case, the addition of ingredients is done in the attempt to… I don’t know, make the dish more rich. To make it more flavorful. I don’t know. What do you think?
Well… I think that’s often very true, and I agree about the cream. I think it actually, if anything, takes flavor away. But yeah, it’s probably meant to make the dish richer and more [appealing]. Again, this celebration of plenty that I talk about, and it can go a bit too far. It becomes almost an overdoing- extravagant. That’s true for example, in the use of herbs and spices and so on, which in fact is, as of course you know very well, not at all typical of good Italian cooking. Just the opposite. It’s all about discretion and balance.
And balance. And I think, you know, the problem probably is that the fewer ingredients you have, the more they have to be right. They have to be flavorful, and they have to have the correct flavor. So maybe I’m thinking it could be that sometimes one adds more ingredients to try and compensate for the lack of flavor of local produce, which… wasn’t grown in the same sunny lands of Italy. I’m thinking tomatoes, as an example.
That’s the classic example, of course. It’s the bane of any Italians I talk to who come to the States, and I’m sure Canada is the same way… They always ask me: “Where are the good tomatoes?” It’s an endless search. Of course, you can find them if you go to a farmer’s market, but you have to really make an effort. The great thing about Italy is any old supermarket will offer you wonderful produce. Of course, it’s even better if you’re growing your own… I was very lucky because although I spent most of my stay in downtown Rome, for the last three years, we lived outside of town.
In a kind of a rural area. I grew my own vegetables, my own tomatoes, my own zucchine. We even had hens, a hen house, and we got the eggs. If you’ve ever eaten eggs right from the hen, it’s just something incredible.
And I have. My grandmother had eggs from her chickens. You’re right. It was incredible.
And we had peach trees, too. The peaches off the tree were something else. Of course, if you have a peach like that that’s dripping and sweet and lovely, you don’t need sugar on it. You don’t need anything on it. It’s just beautiful the way it is. I think you’re quite correct about how best quality ingredients makes lots of different extraneous flavors unnecessary. But if you don’t have that kind of quality ingredients, then of course, the temptation is to make up for it in other ways.
Yeah. I can see that. Frank, I wanted to also talk a little more about you as a food blogger and the food blogging activity itself, and becoming as popular as you have become. The question that I have for you is, did popularity change you? Do you feel the pressure of having so many viewers to keep up and produce always more interesting [posts] and continue the volume of production?
Well, yes and no. I do try to blog once a week, [although lately I’ve been so busy it’s been more like once every two weeks]. I try to keep to that rhythm and not go beyond it, in part because I don’t want to raise expectations of people. In the middle of the week, or on off weeks, I will post old posts on my Facebook page. The great thing about cooking is, of course, nothing goes out of date. You can take a post from two years ago and send it out there, and people who haven’t seen it before will enjoy it. This posting schedule is realistic for me. I have a day job, like many bloggers. I kind of envy those who are dedicated full-time to the food business. That would be fantastic, but I’m not, so this is kind of a hobby for me. But I do try to stick to this schedule because I know that there are people who occasionally, if I slip, will send me messages like, “What happened? Where is this week’s installment?” Of course, I feel awfully guilty about that!
I’m hungry. What happens?
Yeah. Right? But I try to keep it realistic. So you know, once a week is a realistic level [of commitment] for me.
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Do you get a lot of requests? Do people ask you for a certain dish?
Yes. Yes. I do get requests from time to time. I try to put them on my list but I have a blog plan, so it can be a while until I get around to them. I’m trying to hit all the major dishes in the various regions. The vision I have for Memorie di Angelina is, more than a blog, as kind of an online cookbook.
So I am trying to be, if not comprehensive-because that’s practically impossible when you’re talking about a subject as vast as this one-but as complete as I can make it over time. So I do have a plan that I’m following, and if a request falls well within the plan, I’ll do it. Occasionally, it’ll be a request for something that’s actually Italian-American rather than Italian. That’s the other thing.
I keep those requests on the “back burner”, because once in a while, usually on Columbus Day, I do like to feature an Italian-American dish.
So you have a plan. Do you think you can just go on forever, just because it’s such a vast world?
Yes. Well, forever, perhaps not. But I won’t live forever, either, unfortunately. I think it’ll be a while until I run out of [dishes to write about]. I don’t really need “ideas” in the sense that, unlike other bloggers, I don’t really try to do creative things too much. But occasionally, I’ll feature my own take on a classic dish. Dishes generally have lots of variations, especially the more famous ones, so I’ll express my preference.
I bring that much of my own personality to the dish, but I try to be faithful to the classic recipes. That makes it easy in a way. I don’t feel the need to invent things.
I see, I see, I see.
Of course the repertoire of Italian dishes is so enormous that it’ll be awhile until I run out of recipes.
Which is really fantastic. I guess there are also many other ways to present your work. I saw you have a Flipboard, I think it’s called, now.
Yes. Yes, my Memorie di Angelina Flipboard has become quite popular. It’s really taken off, and I’m pleasantly surprised. It was kind of a lark. We had a snow day once, and I said, “Let me put one together.” And the response has been excellent.
Fantastic. I saw it. It’s really nice. It’s like a digital cookbook, a recipe book. I love the format. It’s awesome. Yeah.
I’m quite pleased with it.
Have you ever thought about publishing an actual book?
I get that question quite a bit. I guess my answer is I’d love to, but when would I possibly find the time? This is the thing. Again, having a day job makes it difficult. But if I ever feel like I can take a couple months off, sabbatical, maybe. Why not?
Why not? Looking forward to that. I just want to end this interview – thanks so much, Frank, it was amazing, of course – with one last question about your time spent in Italy.
If I were to ask you now, you’ve been back for a few years now, what do you miss the most?
Wow. That’s an interesting question. I guess, I mean… the food, I guess, would be one big thing. Probably the biggest, I mean, from the point of view of someone who is so obsessed with eating and food as I am. As we were talking about, the excellent quality of the raw ingredients you have to work with. It makes cooking so… In a way, almost too easy. You know?
I know. I do know.
There’s so little you have to do to those ingredients to make them taste good. It’s fantastic. And beyond the food, of course the beauty of the country. And the warmth of the people. That’s a cliché, but I think it’s true. Well, Romans can be rough, too. But they’re always honest. I think the thing is that they may not always be polite, but they’re always themselves, and I appreciate that.
Fantastic. Thanks, Frank. It was a great pleasure having you here. Well, we’ll keep in touch, and–
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