MY DOLCE VITA, Week 9

Carinissimi,

Cibi. That's Italian for food. And it's the topic of this week's newsletter, at long last.

For those who don’t know, I was an avowed foodie before moving to Rome. My ex-boyfriend gave me a Kitchen Aid mixer (the deluxe model INCLUDING the
dough hook and detachable splatter shield) and I nearly agreed to marriage.

Moving to Italy has only exacerbated the situation. I’ve learned three key things:

First, do not eat ANYTHING out of season. A strawberry, reaching Italian soil before May, will be left to die a slow and painful death worthy of St. Jerome.

Next, do not shop in grocery stores. For meat, go to a butcher. For fruit and veg, it’s the neighborhood frutteria or an outdoor market, like the Campo de’ Fiori, just steps from my flat.

Finally, understand that food purchase and prep, like everything else in this country is a communal experience. EVERYBODY has an opinion about what you’re making, how you’re making it, how you SHOULD be making it, how Mamma makes it, etc.

I awoke Friday morning yearning to flex my culinary muscles. I invited a Tuscan friend over to join me. Tuscans are SERIOUS foodies; it’s in their blood.

We’d begin with a simple antipasti of Salviata, or Sage Pudding. It’s an ancient Tuscan dish, certain to impress. We would then have a small primi piatti of
pasta: orrecchiete (the little ears) with a salsa of spicy Sicilian sausage, fresh basil, cream and a touch of mustard. We would move on to lemon Polpette (meatballs) cooked slowly and dreamily in white wine and bay leaves. A side of Finocchi al Latte, or Fennel Braised in Milk. A salad of blood oranges, capers and radicchio. A simple vin santo with some biscotti for dessert.

So here’s what happened. First, I started at the Campo. There’s an older woman --- let’s call her Signora Verdura (Mrs. Veg) --- from whom I like to buy my produce; I headed her way. Noticing I was buying more than usual, she gave a wide, toothless grin.

S. Verdura: “So many goodies today. (She examines me closely.) You are glowing! You are more beautiful than yesterday!”

(Author’s note: This is how people talk in this country. It’s normal. They hand out compliments the way New Yorkers hand out breath mints.)

Me: “I’m cooking. For a friend.”

S. Verdura (smiling): “This ‘friend.’ Is a he, no?”

Me: “Si.”

S. Verdura (smiling more broadly): “And is Italian, no?”

Me: “Si. From Tuscany.”

S. Verdura: (motioning to a small horde of elderly
Italians, calling them over to the stall): “The Americana is in love. She’s cooking for her future husband! He’s TUSCAN!!!!!”

Me: “No, no…no…he’s just a…seriously…“(Sincere protests)

Sound drowned out.

(Small, loud army descends upon the vegetable stand. Amidst the chaos and swelling tide of noise, a voice emerges.)

S. Verdura: “Tell us, cara. What are you cooking for this Jupiter?”

I reveal the menu. There is much to-ing and fro-ing.People I have never met before begin bestowing extraordinary advice:

“Never cook with salvia (sage) on the first date. Eees bad luck. No babies first five years.”

“Go easy on the pepper. Bad for kissing.”

“Polpette! Don’t overcook or you’ll never see this man’s ass.”

(I MEAN IT. I REALLY MEAN IT. THIS ALL HAPPENED. No matter how much I explain that this man is really just a friend and NOT Super Mario, there is no escaping the words of wisdom about how to cook for my future husband.)

From there, I proceed to the store for olive oil. I know exactly what I want: a first press, extra virgin Sicilian. But this is not possible, says Signore Olio, as I call him. No, if I’m making polpette I must use Tuscan oil.

I resist. Signore Olio calls in the Pretorian Guard: a fairly fierce group of macho Italian guys in aprons (I DO recognize the irony of that statement, but this is a country in which a real man wields pasta tongs). There is much discussion, some of it intelligible and all of it at once. There is shouting, there are hand gestures.

FINALLY, the Pretorians smile and announce that it has been decided: I will buy the gorgeous Tuscan because it is the best oil you can buy. And I will also buy
the Sicilian because it’s beautiful, too. Love only comes around once, they tell me. Buy both.

I should explain something here. Unlike New York, where the bait and switch is the order of the day (an officious, odious creep working at Dean & DeLuca stands in his Dolce & Gabana shoes assessing your clothing in order to calculate your previous year’s taxable income, snickers at the oils priced below 200 bucks and “encourages” you through derision and peer pressure to go for the Ravida --- it’s the only one John Malkovich will consider using, he says, as if this piece of information is of any interest or culinary value whatsoever), this is not about making a sale. This is about FOOD. (See also RELIGION.)

Finally, the basil. Known as basilico, basil is a king among herbs. In fact, the word basilica (church) comes from the Greek for the king’s herb, Basilico. Go figure.

Back at the Campo, however, I cannot simply buy a bunch of basil. First, il Signore must smell the basilico. He closes his eyes. He breathes deeply and
sighs. Then he holds out the basilico for me to smell. I do. And, in spite of myself, I, too, am carried away by the utter magnificence of that aroma. It’s the
green, grassy, delicious scent of spring: that heady fragrance that makes us remember why we persevere all winter and hints at what awaits us in the weeks ahead. It’s a promise.

That’s when I know I’m becoming Italian. (I am waiting for the other attendant signs: small bum, great nose, driving record worthy of Mario Andretti.)

I return home to my lovely flat and stare at all that Cibi. How beautiful it is. How lucky I am. How marvelous it is to be alive in a universe that gives us basilico, Tuscan olive oil, properly cooked polpette.


Now, as luck would have it, my friend cancelled at the last minute. Yes, it’s true. I had a table full of marvelous Italian food and no one with whom to share it. It wasn’t so bad, though. I nibbled through the weekend and made some notes on how to make a few small improvements.

When I saw Signora Verdura this morning, she was full of questions about my culinary adventure. I smiled and told her she was right: great things happen if you don’t overcook the polpette.

S. Verdura: “Ha! I told you! (Grinning wickedly and showing off her prized tooth) Were yours cooked to perfection?”

Me: (smiling): “Si, to perfection.”

I winked. She laughed.

S. Verdura: “L’amore, cara. It’s what makes life worth
living!”

Isn’t Italy marvelous? One of the only places in the world where love is celebrated in everything we do.

With cibi. And with a coupla dozen strangers who have very definite ideas about exactly how things should go. Including what to serve if you want children within the first five years…And let us remember this is a country where 65-year old women are bearing children. I'm practically a young mother....

Ciao.

x A.

 

© Copyright Amy Selwyn 2004