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.
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].
When I started Thoughts on the Table, I never would have thought that it’d reach its 67th episode, that it would feature so many amazing guests, and that it would have allowed me to approach Italian food and food culture from so many different angles! This episode’s guest is Melinda King, an established writer and editor who has worked in the food industry and who has an extensive background in science and history. In our chat, Melinda introduces herself and then shares her view on what Italian food really is, with what I think of as one of the most insightful analysis I have ever encountered!
During the episode, Melinda mentions the book by Alberto Capatti and Massimo Montanari titled Italian Cuisine – A Cultural History, a wonderful read for anyone interested in understanding where modern Italian food comes from and in the premises of its very identity.
If you want to know more about Melinda, please check out her bio below. To get in touch with her, please leave a comment or contact her at setteveli21 AT gmail DOT com.
Melinda “Mindy” King is a writer and editor finishing her graduate thesis at the Università degli Studi di Padova in Agricultural Sciences and Italian Food and Wine, currently living in the Veneto countryside tending vines, animals, and a cornfield. With ten years in publishing management, research, freelance writing and illustration (having ghostwritten over 320 books), she earned degrees in European History (emphasis Medieval and Renaissance Studies—science and medicine), Anthropology, and Environmental Sciences having studied at Chapman University, Universidad de Monterrey, The British Institute, and Università di Firenze. With a background in wine studies (Sommelier, distribution, sensory analysis, and retail) she now applies herself to land management and training techniques. A lifetime of restaurant management and cooking (Colombian-Spanish and Swedish chef-family of wine and paella fiends), she has an eye to quality and tracking, as well as a sense of humor. Meanwhile, she has been a teacher and translator having traveled and worked in over seventy countries. Born in Santa Ana, California, spending much of her childhood in Mexico, Mindy moved to Italy in college to study, and finally found her home. Melding history and science, her focus on viticulture and vinification emphasizes vini autoctoni d’Italia (native grapes). The importance of this topic, she believes, is in the manner the grapes are cared for, and the people who do the work. The theme of her life is “inviting people to share their stories,” and Italian grapes have much to say. Investigating vines in the Etna volcano region (specifically Nerello Mascalese) in Sicily, she is further inspired on the beautiful connections between time, tradition, and soil. Her obsession is Italian “terroir,” and the historical meaning behind what “tastes good.” She is grateful to have parents with deep curiosity and dynamic appetites. Science is the study of energy. Taste is the observation of culture. Italian food are these things, in perfect practice.
An unusual interview today on Thoughts on the Table! Yvette from Crazy Italians restaurant in Memphis found my page while looking for references on authentic Italian food. We started chatting and I discovered that not only did she and her husband Giampaolo open a successful restaurant, for over a year they have been producing amazing short videos featuring their daughters Azzurra and Lucrezia to help introduce continental Italian food to North America. Since I know you’re curious, here are a few of my favorite episodes: Bruschetta, Who is Alfredo, Carbonara, Pomodoro, Salad dressing.
In the podcast, Yvette, Giampaolo, and 9-year old Azzurra share their story and describe the laborious process of video production which involves the entire family, including some funny behind the scenes!
Yvette, it was great to get to know you and your family – thanks again for your fantastic contribution in letting the world know about the real food of Italy. And for this, please accept the Cannolo Award!
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.”)
Join me to meet restaurant owner, and Italian food ambassador, Simon Pagotto. During the episode, Simon talks about his Italian roots, his deeply Australian upbringing, and how his discovery of traditional Italian food led him to embrace authenticity in his trattoria, even against the general expectations of his patrons.
In our exchange, we touch on several hot topics including:
I came to Vancouver in 2001, right after getting my Electronic Engineering degree. I had a six-month contract as a software engineer, joining an Italo-Canadian development team. Naturally, I was very excited for the professional experience that awaited me, but I was even more excited for the opportunity to discover a big new city in an enormous new continent – along with its language, its culture, and its food!
During my first few weeks, I trusted my Italian coworkers for food recommendations. They had been living in Vancouver for over a year already and had developed a liking for a pool of Asian and south Asian restaurants, but also for some Ethiopian and Greek establishments. I always loved discovering new cuisines, so I was happy to follow my coworkers around (also because I didn’t quite miss Italian food yet). During those days I learned how to use chopsticks and got to try a whole range of new dishes, including sushi – still one of my favorites.
When on my own, despite trying to expand my horizons to North American food, I kept going back to foreign food. Thinking of it, this is probably because “ethnic” restaurants were meant for foreigners – there, I could order my meal simply by pointing at a picture on the menu, or by reading the number next to it. In North American restaurants, instead, my Caucasian physiognomy was probably deceiving with regards to my language challenges – people expected me to speak English and therefore adjusted my words to their closest logical interpretation. This sometimes resulted in a different dish being brought to me instead of the one I ordered, like that time I was served a Caesar salad instead of a sesame salad, simply because I didn’t know the final ‘e’ in sesame is not silent.
Eventually, through trial and error, I learned how to order food. But I wasn’t totally immune to misadventure. One day, being quite desperate for something a bit more familiar, I stumbled into a McDonald’s and I distractedly ordered: “One cheeseburger and a beer.” In Italy every McDonald’s sells beer, so I mechanically assumed it would be an option in Vancouver as well. The guy at the till probably thought I skipped a word and gave me a burger and some kind of pop. Even though I realized quickly that it wasn’t beer (the fact that it came with a straw gave it away), I wasn’t really in a position to complain, as you can imagine. As I was eating my burger, I gulped down this strange soda. At first, I didn’t mind it, then I started experiencing the horrible feeling of having swallowed a cup of mouthwash! It took me months to realize that that day I had my first root beer. As of today, that root beer was my last!
I then moved from the hotel where I was staying into a small apartment. The kitchen wasn’t fully operative, but it had a microwave oven, so I thought I could try to cook some food for myself. Wandering around in a Superstore, I came across these large frozen “ravioli” filled with potatoes and cheese (the bag probably had the word ‘perogies’ written on it, but it didn’t register with me). The instructions on the package said that these dumplings could be cooked in the microwave, so I was hopeful they would be OK. I was completely wrong! These big, puffy semicircles were made of a thick, chewy dough which, despite having followed the cooking instructions, was definitely way undercooked and tasted quite funny. I ended up squeezing out the filling and eating it like mashed potatoes*.
While at the Superstore, something else caught my attention. I noticed some big blocks of orange cheese, which I recognized as the same cheese that McDonald’s puts in its cheeseburgers. I had never seen the “real thing” in block-form before, and I was especially fascinated by the “marbled” one in which bright orange and pale orange cheese are twirled together. So, after the perogies disaster, I went to the fridge hoping to improve my meal by finishing it with a piece of cheese. Well, that night I realized that this crustless, rubbery orange product is not something you want to just eat with bread like you would for a piece of Fontina or Scamorza… it’s so dry that it’s almost impossible to swallow, and it really tastes quite bland.
After a few months of sushi, dim sum, moussaka, chicken korma, and unsatisfying cheese, my excitement for new foods was starting to wear off. One day, I suddenly craved pasta. Luckily, I happened to walk past a restaurant chain called: The Old Spaghetti Factory. Of course, I didn’t expect to find my mom’s pasta there, but I also didn’t expect it to be too different from it. After all, a pasta dish is a pasta dish, right? Not at all. I had found a completely different kind of Italian food. I was outraged! Spaghetti and Meatballs, Chicken Pesto Penne, Linguini Alfredo… I had never heard of any of these dishes when I was living in Italy. I had discovered a parallel universe!
A pretty unappetizing one as well… the portions were too big, the pasta was either drowning in sauce or looked pale and overcooked, and the sauces looked overly rich. I ordered something which seemed a bit more familiar to me, clam linguini, but even that dish didn’t compare at all with the one I knew. I thought that maybe I had ended up in a strange “fusion” restaurant, but the more I looked around for other Italian restaurants, the more I became aware that they all served the same kind of unfamiliar dishes.
Looking more closely at some of these self-proclaimed Italian restaurants, I was particularly surprised to find a slew of spelling mistakes printed on their menus, which I actually found quite offensive. Don’t they know that we have spell checkers in Italy? Don’t they know that Italians very rarely make spelling mistakes? It’s a phonetic language! In a few cases, I almost offered to correct the menus myself, but then I realized that maybe these errors were for the best after all, since they acted like unintentional warnings to native Italians, hopefully sending them off to the Chinese restaurant next door, perhaps with an equally misspelled menu, but that they would have never been able to call out.
Meanwhile, my first work contract had ended and I was offered a full-time job, which I actually still hold now, 15 years later. During the following years I kept running into distorted Italian food, and somehow Italian food was becoming even more popular in Vancouver. In 2010, I decided to have some fun and start a pretentious blog aimed at fixing Italian food in North America. In my opening post, I wrote: “I will say the proper ways to write the names of Italian dishes. And, from what I know, I will also try to say how the dish should look and taste… for sure I will say how the dish most definitely *shouldn’t* look or taste!”
This was just the beginning, though, and as I continued blogging my initial rant turned into something a bit more useful. I started investigating the root differences between the food of Italy and the food of North America, which are as much in the ingredients as in the culinary culture. I also learned that Italian-American food is a cuisine in its own right, historically rooted and not less authentic than the cuisine of Milan. However, I think that Italian-American food should be labeled as such, and I hope that going forward more restaurants and chefs will celebrate it by calling it out on their menus instead of labeling it as generically “Italian.”
Since I started the blog, however, things have begun to change. I am not sure I can take credit for it, but it’s indisputable that thanks to YouTube and true Italian food blogs people can get accurate descriptions of all kinds of cuisines directly from the people who grew up eating them. In this changing landscape, more and more Italian restaurateurs are discovering that they can be successful outside of Italy without compromising by adapting their menus to local expectations. As a result, the Italians abroad can more easily find the Italian food they’re familiar with.
I think that the new global awareness is also reflected in an increased availability of ingredients. Naturally, North America’s produce is still very different from the Italian because of climate and composition of the soil, but, at least in big cities, it is now easier to find Italian grocery stores and to cook traditional continental Italian without having to substitute any key ingredients. Overall, I don’t see this as globalization, but quite as the opposite – it’s a phenomenon which validates local realities and traditional cuisines, ultimately preserving them in their immense richness and protecting them from accidentally merging into one another. Cross pollination and fusion cuisine will of course still happen, but, hopefully, they will become more deliberate than they have been in the past. _____ * It took me years, but I eventually came across properly cooked east European perogies and discovered that they are actually delicious.↑
I chose this recipe because I wanted to recreate the gnudi I tasted in a restaurant in Florence during a recent Italian trip, which also happen to have been the first gnudi I ever tasted! Florence is a mere 300 kilometres from my hometown, but regional specialties often remain confined to their native areas.
As pointed out by Domenica, “nudi” (or “gnudi” in Tuscan dialect) means naked. This is because essentially they are “naked” ravioli, i.e. ravioli filling without the pasta wrapper. The use of ricotta makes them light and fluffy, unlike potato gnocchi, which are much denser. It’s important to note that gnudi are used in first courses instead of pasta or gnocchi, they’re not meant to be served with pasta like some kind of vegetarian meatballs!
Gnudi can be prepared in several different ways. The version chosen by Domenica (and which I recreated) sees the addition of spinach and chard (“bietola” in Italian) for a “green” dough that is delicate and smooth, and which pairs well with plain tomato sauce (described here). The process of rolling the gnudi into shape is relatively easy, but it requires time and some patience. The result is spectacular – gnudi are a great first course which can set the tone for a very special meal.
Chard and Spinach Gnudi, the Naked Ravioli
Yield: 2-3 servings
Total Time: 1 hour
Prep Time: 40 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
8 oz (225 g) green chard* leaves, ripped (*a.k.a. Swiss chard)
4 oz (115 g) fresh spinach leaves
6 oz (170 g) cow ricotta, well drained
1/2 cup (50 g) Parmigiano, grated
1/8 cup (15 g) white flour, plus 1/4 cup (30 g) to coat the gnudi
Wash the green chard, coarsely rip the leaves and place them, still damp, into a large pot. Cover with a lid and cook for 10 minutes at a medium heat until wilted, stirring occasionally. They will reduce their volume considerably.
Meanwhile, wash the spinach leaves and cook them in the same way as the chard, but only for 5 minutes.
Remove the greens from the heat and place them in a colander to cool. When cold enough to handle, squeeze them vigorously with your hands or by wrapping them into a clean tea towel. As Domenica predicted, these quantities yielded about ½ cup of squeezed, cooked greens. Place the greens on a cutting board and chop them finely.
In a mixing bowl, combine the chopped greens, the ricotta, the yolk, Parmigiano (keeping 1 tablespoon aside), flour, nutmeg, salt, and pepper. Mix thoroughly.
As you bring a large pot of salted water to a gentle boil, start forming the gnudi. Prepare one bowl filled with flour, next to a plate coated in parchment paper. Using your hands, make balls of dough of about 1 inch (2.5 cm) in diameter. Roll them in the flour until uniformly coated, then place them on the parchment paper.
Boil the gnudi a batch at a time making sure not to overcrowd them (so that they don’t stick to one another, and to ensure the water remains boiling). Gently place them into the simmering water and allow them to cook undisturbed for 6-8 minutes. About half-way through the cooking, they will start floating.
Gently remove the gnudi from the water using a perforated ladle, and place them into a colander. Keep them warm as you cook the next batch.
Have the tomato sauce ready and kept warm in a skillet. Place 2-3 tablespoons of tomato sauce in preheated bowls. Roll the gnudi into the skillet with the sauce until coated, then gently place them into the bowls. Sprinkle with grated Parmigiano, serve immediately.
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