Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Eating our way across Italy (La Prima Parte)

A year ago, Vicki and I were madly getting ourselves ready to depart for eighteen days in Italy, and this past weekend over radish sandwiches, we were remembering very fondly all the great food we ate – mostly prepared by me (since our trip was entirely done renting apartments for our accommodations) or meals we enjoyed the few times we dined out.

Renting apartments is a splendid way to really feel as if you’re living somewhere, even if for a few day. Since I, especially, enjoy cooking, it’s not a problem to visit a market, or search out food in small shops (and a few big ones, just to see what they were like).

I had my beautiful and talented editorial assistant on hand (Vicki), who astoundingly became fluent in Italian in nine short months, and she led our shopping expeditions, from the small salumeri (“deli” will suffice for North Americans) down the block in Rome, through the Marcato Centrale in Florence (where, I swear, one vendor had a large tray of various livestock penis’s for sale) to an old ship moored in a canal in Venice that sold fruit and vegetables to the neighborhood where we “lived” for four days. I took to calling her my “Little Linguini” because of her skill with the language. She talked us out of some tight corners…

As you might expect, the tomatoes, even in June, were uniformly wonderful. It became clear pretty early on that Italians won’t tolerate food that isn’t at its very best – especially tomatoes. I cannot imagine what they would say if they were served the appalling things North Americans call tomatoes during the “off-season”. From what we were told, June tomatoes come mostly from Sicily or the southernmost regions of the country where it gets warm early. Even small fruttivendolos had great tomatoes.

After a long day of sightseeing (and research, since I was contemplating setting my next novel in Italy), we’d stop for a few plum or San Marzano tomatoes, a panini roll and a sprig or two of fresh basil. With a can of fantastic olive oil we’d bought on our first day in Rome, I’d whip together some bruschetta. Vicki would uncork yet another terrific bottle of inexpensive but tasty wine, and we’d put up our tired feet for a few minutes.

Later on, I’d boil some pasta with maybe a fresh sauce of some kind accompanied by a salad of lettuce and more tomatoes. Maybe we’d stopped for fresh fish or some sort of chops. For dessert we’d have whatever fruit looked good that day, and maybe we’d stroll out for a bit of gelato later on in the evening. Our mobile larder always included a few cans of tomatoes, a hunk of guanciale (which I bought down the street from our apartment in Rome – and fantastic stuff it was), freshly-grated parmesan, a head of garlic, an onion or two, various kinds of pasta, some salami and proscuitto and a few of the amazing peaches or cherries that were in season. We also had our stash of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper, red pepper flakes and a few other herbs. My suitcase still smells faintly of basil almost a year later.

And I almost forgot the melons! Italian cantaloupes are smaller than ours but ultra sweet. We shamelessly gorged on those every morning for our breakfast. All our fruit and vegetables were bought per oggi, meaning that the fruttivendolo knew we wanted to eat it that day. No matter where we stopped, none of them ever let us down.

Bread was another matter, surprisingly. We bought some really appalling bread in a few places – even from bakers. It was like eating dry cotton fluff. Whole grain bread (pane integrale) seemed to be in short supply as well. The best we found was in the Marcato Centrale in Florence, a marvelous round loaf called “pane panda”. We snatched up two and should have bought more, it stayed fresh for so long.

Anyway, there will be more parts on this topic as the summer goes on, so please stay tuned!

I’d like to leave you with the recipe we used for bruschetta. I asked a number of people in Italy about it, and most gave me the same ingredients and preparation instructions. You’ll notice that it’s quite simple: few ingredients, everything fresh, and possible to prep in about 5 minutes. Now, that’s a perfect recipe to my mind.

One note: Just about the very first thing we did on arriving in Italy was to purchase a small can of the best olive oil we could find. It was pressed from green olives and had a sharp spicy taste that was perfect foil to the tomatoes and basil. When that ran out, we bought a can of oil pressed from mature olives and it made a surprising difference to our bruschetta, more than I would have expected, smooth-tasting and almost “creamy”, if I can use that word to describe the flavor of olive oil. Most of the best Italian olive oil never makes it out of the country. When you do find it, you’ll likely pay through the nose. Do it. Bruschetta without the best olive oil you can find really doesn’t cut it.

Serves 4

3 meaty and perfectly ripe plum or San Marzano tomatoes
1 large fresh panini roll sliced diagonally, slices about 1/2-inch thick (or you can use a baguette)
1 clove garlic, peeled and sliced in half
8 large fresh basil leaves
sea salt and pepper

1. Core the tomatoes, then chop into a 1/4-inch dice. If there are a lot of seeds, remove most of them, along with the pulp surrounding them. If there aren’t a lot, I usually don’t bother. Stack the basil leaves, roll them up widthwise and then thinly slice them.

2. Brush each bread slice on one side with olive oil. (I simply use my finger for this. It works well.)

3. Toast the bread on both sides on a grill outside, or if you’re inside, I suggest pan toasting rather than using your broiler. Suit yourself. Outside definitely gives you additional flavor, though, and it’s the traditional way to do it.

4.  Now rub both sides of each slice well with one of the garlic halves. You don’t want to be overcome with garlic taste. You just want it to be there.

5. Mound on the tomatoes, sprinkle with basil shreds, a grinding of pepper, a very slight pinch of salt, and a few additional drops of olive oil.

You can enjoy this with a chilled bottle of white wine, or red wine if you prefer. Either one works just fine. They can be a bit sloppy to eat (especially if you don’t chop the tomatoes finely enough). We feel that adding onion, sliced olives, or melting cheese on it, etc. really does nothing to improve this simple, rustic dish.

Shockingly, I can’t find a single photo of any of the bruschetta I prepared on our trip! The photo above is a generic one, since this year’s crop of tomatoes is at least six weeks off.

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