■ Feb 28, 09:15 AM by James Martin
Ah, you’ve always wondered how plumbers get around in Florence, Italy, didn’t you? Well, there’s more to it than the bicicletta of the Trombaio.
According to The Florentine:
Outside of Florence no one has the slightest idea what it (Trombaio) means and it is natural to associate it with a word to describe a sexual act . . . so be careful with this one!
(Tuscans and those of us pretending to be Tuscan use the word idraulico to describe the guy who comes to your house and diddles with your pipes for a huge sum of money.)
It’s amazing how many words and mispronunciations in Italian also associate with sexual terms—from sweeping to Menabrea beer. With many words, slightly mispronounce them and you’ll be met with guffaws of a rather nervous laughter, as if the boys at the bar knew it was coming and feel guilty that they encouraged you to say it. So just point to the beer, especially in Liguria, where the local dialect has a very juicy word quite similar to Menabrea I’ve heard.
Italy Travel Toolbox
- All About Italy Rail Passes
- How to Ride Italian Trains (video)
- Italy Maps
- Italy Cities Climate and Weather
- Italy Autostrada Map
- Cinque Terre Hiking Map
■ Jan 9, 04:32 PM by James Martin
Today, the internet has mounted an assault on my Italian food desires. Some days are like that. You’re thinking of those seasonal eats that Italians get and wham, suddenly the web is awash in people talking about such delectables as Puntarella and bollito misto.
This is the time for that Roman favorite puntarella—a type of chicory, a bitter green that sprouts in cold weather. It’s the harbinger of spring, a winter salad dressed with anchovies, spiky tastes the Romans relish.
Puntarella is the perfect foil for a bollito misto like the one Kyle Phillips reminded us exists at Trattoria la Baracchina, which I’ve spoken of before and put in the Tuscany for Foodies mobile app. Bollito Misto is one of those dishes that are deceptively simple. It seems you just toss in a great variety of meats and vegetables into a pot of simmering water. Not nobile meats either, the old hen and some cuts of beef that have to cook forever to be palatable. But timing is everything. It’s when you slide that particular meat into the simmering broth that’s important. A dish of a certain genius…
And the great thing is that when you go into a restaurant with your family and friends and an entourage of waiters ferries out this enormous wheeled cart atop which sits a silver pot with all this richness of flavor, these cuts of meat set like jewels in steaming broth, and the head waiter starts cutting pieces, and everyone is calling out what they want, what they lust after, and what the waiter doesn’t have to bother putting on the plate. You are witnessing the Italian contradiction, these throw-away meats in a deceptively simple peasant concoction served expertly with a flourish from a gleaming silver vessel by a waiter who’s been doing this forever and with pride. A grand richness from low off the hog. A social occasion calling for celebration; a dish you’d feel silly ordering alone.
I’m really hungry now. I wish there was an Italian bus from California to Italy. It would be fast and cheap. But when you wanted to take it, the drivers would be on strike.
The Italian contradiction. You gotta love it.
■ Dec 22, 10:10 AM by James Martin
The Genius of a Place is a film in progress. It’s about the rapid rate of change possible in our industrial times, change that inevitably drives out a town’s substance, turning it into kitsch in the blink of an eye. It’s about Cortona, but it could be about any “cute” little Tuscan “gem”. Heck, it could be about Carmel, California:
Today the town overflows with visitors, eateries and boutiques. Artisans have disappeared and so have most stores that served local residents. Population in the town center is dwindling as locals sell to foreigners willing to pay high prices for a vacation home. Residents feel disenfranchised and no longer collectively care for their community the way they did in the past. It risks becoming a no-man’s land, with no one looking out for its long-term interests.
I haven’t seen the movie, which isn’t made yet. But the question is, “how do you stop it?”
The answer always seem to involve brute force. You just step in and demand that “progress” stop on a dime, demanding that folks go back to making their own food and raising their own barnyard animals instead of living well off the 40,000 Euro house they sold to a tourist for 500,000.
Good luck with that.
But I can’t help feeling the queasiness that comes with thinking I know the hard answer. I see the problem being centered around the influx of moneyed and clueless folks who “fall in love” with a place at the drop of a hat. When you experience an instant crush on a thing you know only peripherally, you accept its faults while hedging your bet by living selfishly. You’re likely to “love” your little city of clustered little houses as it is, but you need to knock out that wall so you can have that 2000 square foot bathroom you’ve seen in some Tuscan designer magazine, no? Nothing you do can hurt anything, can it? Well, it does.
In short, my answer to the problem is to encourage politically incorrect behavior.
Take the celebrated butcher of Panzano, Dario Cecchini. If you go to his shop, you’ll see him as a man justly proud of what he does; he’s funny, engaging, and a perfect spokesman for the good life in Tuscany—which involves eating “cucina povera” made with local ingredients.
Let me tell you though, the average reader is likely to come away appalled at one of the stories about Mr. Cecchini as it appears in Bill Buford’s Heat —in which a group of locals sits down at a local restaurant to peruse the offerings. Dario spots duck on the menu. He goes ballistic. Loudly. The owner rushes out of the kitchen to quell the tirade.
“Look out the window, do you see a duck? No!” Dario’s rant continues. He slams the menu to the floor as folks start running for cover. The owner stands before him, embarrassed. He explains timidly that the tourists want duck, so he has to serve it. Dario does not relent.
The night is ruined. Cecchini has been a hard-ass about eating local, if not a complete ass for ruining the evening.
Appalling behavior—until you examine the facts of the case. Giving in to tourists whose demands are quite likely to make Tuscany into a rural anyplace-else is easy. Teaching them the joys of letting go is hard. Forcing them to do so seems cruel. Sometimes you have to be the hard-ass to get people focused on the enormity of the issue.
Tough love—that’s what is needed here. “Dammit, you’re going to eat the local chow and you’re going to love it or you can take the first train out.”
I know it’s hard. I know folks will have to suffer with that fire-seared Cinta Senese chop or with that cramped little village house and its little terrace open to the piazza and (egads!) without the huge swimming pool. Folks will have to get used to yapping with the locals (there’s no word in Italian for “privacy” you know).
Eventually, in my ideal vision, folks will come to actually enjoy the slow life they found when they first discovered it. Maybe they’ll come to enjoy talking to the neighbors from the terrace. Maybe they’ll try their hands at slaughtering a pig and making salami out of it. Then they can be free to love it, because then, like a good time-traveler, they haven’t changed the cultural landscape, they’ve embraced it—for better or worse.
And isn’t that what love is, in the end?
You can actually contribute to the finishing of this independently produced film, The Genius of Place, over at IndieGoGo by following the link. This behavior is encouraged by the curmudgeon who wrote the above, who has contributed. He’s not Scrooge you know.
You can meet Dario in our video: Inside the Antica Macelleria Cecchini
Popular These Days
■ Dec 13, 08:51 AM by James Martin
The term “sexy food” is trending upwards in Google’s walled garden (we web-and-word-wonks live and die by those trends, unfortunately). Steven Poole, writing in The Guardian, evidently noticed this, too. He doesn’t particularly like the trend.
Nigella Lawson covering her face in caramel is the latest example of the sexualisation of our eating habits. Isn’t it time we abandoned this fetish and put our minds before our mouths? ~ Let’s end our obsession with making food sexy
I have to agree with Steven—despite the fact that I am often seen in restaurants with food running in multicolored rivulets from the corners of my mouth and have yet to notice a single person of either sex swooning in unholy rapture.
The thing is, I find simple, Italian food quite sexy. I yearn for it. I’ve written about Sexy food in Piemonte before. But now I’m wondering, is that pile of shellfish in the Guazzetto actually sexy to anyone but me?
Martha and I recently ate the “Weekly Beast” at the Michelin starred One Market Restaurant. The beast was goat; four courses of it. The main course was “Spit Roasted Goat Leg.” Your mouth waters. Spit is a sexy word, no?
Then it came to the table. Thin slices. Pink. Juicy. A tantalizing hint of smoke.
Are we masturbating yet?
But then there was this dollop of green on top, “ramp salsa verde.” Cheap perfume. Harsh on the tongue. Dollop-trollop.
And those slices? Lying in a puddle of red wine reduction—like the unfortunate characters of today’s murder mysteries (trending up!): pornographically displayed flesh, draining life-blood…
Bottom line: you couldn’t taste the goat.
So I’m thinking age has something to do with it. I mean, the younger folks to the left of us, when they weren’t taking pictures of this colorful assemblage with their cell phones (“Timmy’s never going to believe we’re eating goat!”), were fawningly rapturous over the meal.
Eroticism, sexual and otherwise, changes with maturity, it seems to me. When you’re a boy of 12, any ‘ol (ok, young) trollop with humongous breasts spilling from a too-tight bodice will make your head spin. Body parts, artfully squeezed, colorfully painted and perfumed, are characteristics that make the blood surge. In television as in life. In goats as in humans.
But then—to many—these characteristics become less tantalizing as maturation occurs. Maturation doesn’t look pretty in a mirror, but oh, what you can get out of it if you try! Suddenly you want to taste the real thing. You want to get to the heart of the matter. The end of pretty wrappings is the beginning of a deep relationship with the things that matter. The thing itself. Its unique qualities. Its shimmering perfection.
And the food on your plate, if wild in temperament, if joyously unafraid in its eating habits, if perfect in its succulence—will come to you perfectly unadorned. You will revel in its uniqueness, its character. If you dare. What could be sexier than that?
■ Nov 24, 11:17 AM by James Martin
That’s right. You heard me. Don’t go to Italy. It will corrupt the very fiber of your being.
I know, maybe because my being was very fibrous, but I know it very, very well.
I spend half my time in a country which is preparing to lie to its children by telling them that pizza is a vegetable. Yes, the corporations that have the big machines that spit out nasty industrial pizzas for American school lunches have argued that since the glop they put on top of the cardboard crust consists of “two tablespoons of tomato paste” then these monstrosities should be called “vegetables.” Never mind that the tomato is a fruit, as are most of what Americans call vegetables.
In contrast, Italy protects the very idea of good, artisan pizza from trained people who know how to do it best. Don’t go because you might lust over the best of these.
And here’s something just as interesting. In my country pepper spray, used to burn the eyes of people who dare sit down while protesting the public financing of rich people who’ve crashed the economy and demanded money from the sitters so they can do it again and again, “is a food product, essentially.”
Holy crap, why don’t we just cut circles outta some cardboard boxes that our Black Friday crap came in and spray it with pepper spray and hand the result to our kids and call it pizza? Or maybe pizza puttanesca, a spicy, hot….well, never mind. That plan of action would balance the budget in no time. Fiber. That’s the answer. And there’s plenty in cardboard.
But today is Thanksgiving. Turkey day. Yup, dad comes home with a thirty pound bird nobody would ever think of eating outside this holiday—as if you could declare a “tripe day” and everyone would rush out on a single day to wait in line to exchange their hard earned cash for huge plastic bags bulging with cow stomachs.
On Thanksgiving we become lemmings, which are also good to eat I’ve heard.
I never have turkey for Thanksgiving. Not since industrial scientists have succeeded in “enhancing” the most tasteless part of the turkey by bolstered the titty genes so that those lilly-white breasts grow so large the turkey can’t really walk. Honestly, they drag on the ground. Nobody’s interested in developing a turkey bra because they’d likely become the laughing stock of their country club. So turkeys suffer. And people who like tasty food suffer. I know this because I’ve tasted my Italian neighbor Armando’s turkey. Mmmm. Small breasted, big thighed, running wild in the barnyard Turkey. Out to raise hell Amazon turkeys. The way God intended.
But yes, Americans are big on breasts. Americans, I should say, are allowed to be big on big breasts. As long as they’re on a Turkey.
Listen to this, “A new television commercial for the Fiat 500 Abarth is expected to be banned in both the US and Australia.”
Why? Breasts, here referred to as “cleavage” as one might find between big ‘uns.
The Fiat advertisement opens to a man caught staring at a beautiful woman fixing her shoe. The woman confronts him in Italian, accusing him of undressing her with his eyes. She continues pressing closer to the man, finally dipping her finger in his coffee and letting the foam drop on her cleavage. ~ Fiat 500 Ad too Racy for US and Australia
Yup. Our government doesn’t want you to see seduction, eroticism, cleavage, or a woman who turns into a car that can be driven fast without tipping over. For anyone who thinks Italian government is crazy, look at the one in Washington. Sheesh.
I’m outta here. I got a duck to cook.
The truth about Turkey: Butterball this
■ Sep 28, 01:43 PM by James Martin
I have a very interesting—and embarrassingly limited—comprehension of the Italian language. Yes, I’ve taken classes. I’ve had a tutor. I’ve even attended l’Universita per Stranieri in Perugia for a summer.
It’s not that I don’t know a whole lotta verbs and how to conjugate many of them. It’s that my vocabulary is heavy on food words. Ponderously heavy.
I go to markets. I read the signs. I see where things come from. After a few years of living in Italy my food-word vocabulary has skyrocketed. I didn’t even try to learn. It just happened.
But today I thought of another way to learn the important words in Italian. You can watch TV, of course, but why not watch somebody explain a recipe? I mean, it’s perfect; some guy dressed up like a real chef points to a toe of garlic and spouts, “aglio” and wham! It occurs to you that garlic is aglio in the Italian Language. And you also know not to pronouce that “g” like you would in English.
As far as I’m concerned, the best way to learn nouns is to see a picture and then listen to someone pronounce the word. No English words are slaughtered in such a practice. Your mind is always firmly planted in the Italian space.
You know what got me to thinking about this? ItalianFoodNet. You load the site and—wham!—the recipe of the week starts playing and a guy describes in slow, well-spoken Italiano a dish that looks (and sounds) delicious. If you switch to the English side of the site, the vid will still be in Italian, but there will be subtitles. Try it first without subtitles if you know a little Italian. Following along is easy.
This week’s recipe is for “Italian Hamburgers.” Don’t get me wrong, they look great—but the chef seems to have put a whole lotta stuff on those simple hamburgers. The first time I saw it I’m thinking something along the lines of “gee, when we Americans hear of an Italian pasta sauce, we can’t wait to gussy it up will all manner of new ingredients until that simple recipe turns into something unrecognizably bastardized. Do the Italians do the same with American food icons like the hamburger?”
You want una cialda di parmigiano with that burger, Bud?
■ Aug 30, 09:16 AM by James Martin
Political Americans seem to derive great pleasure from pummeling the soft underbelly of this Italy, pointing out its political and structural “flaws” with a particular delight. Italy’s economy is not growing. Italy is burdened with a bureaucracy that is slow and inefficient. Italians drink a mere ounce of coffee standing up, for god sakes, an empirical measure of the immense poverty of these deluded people—at least compared to a country in which the same amount of coffee is used with 32 ounces of tap water to produce a medium-sized big-gulp cup filled with the dirty water they charge a bundle for.
Expats point to the lack of things like cool-whip and Kraft cheese singles, among other things they can’t seem to stop missing. Italy is a civilization in decline, certainly. Life there is hell, certainly.
The not-so-complimentary invective “Old Europe” has even been known to reverberate through the hallowed halls of American Congress—even as (somebody’s) God lashes out in anger over the deficit that ten years ago mattered naught. It’s been like that forever, or at least since Dick Cheney’s reign.
I was thinking about all this while reading a review of Cheney’s book in the NYT. I perked up considerable at the mention of Italy:
And in the epilogue, Mr. Cheney writes that after undergoing heart surgery in 2010, he was unconscious for weeks. During that period, he wrote, he had a prolonged, vivid dream that he was living in an Italian villa, pacing the stone paths to get coffee and newspapers.
Yes, in the end, the wannabe warriors, imperialists, cooks and accountants all seem to dream of living in this Italy.
Why is that, do you think?
Cheney’s dream is just starting to be analyzed. I like the Freudian one:
Dr. Paula Ellman, director of the Psychoanalytic Training Institute of the New York Freudian Society, agreed with the majority of Kazes’s diagnosis. For her, Cheney’s dream is “lifeless, concrete, [and] devoid of rich symbols.” It might reveal “his desires to have a life of ease, with its ordinary, mundane pleasures.”
You know why I like the analysis? It’s because it focuses on the major elements at play here. No real person cares about the growth of industrial monster Monsanto, or the increasing money accumulated by those of unimaginable wealth.
Nope. Some people—I’ll call them “real” people—are hooked on mundane pleasures. The pleasure of eating a fish fresh from the sea, cooked by people who own the restaurant and care about bringing pleasure to their customers. The sun peeking out from under the storm clouds gloriously. The harmony and pleasure of letting one’s eyes wander over the delicate curves of the southern Baroque expressed in a simple country church in Puglia. The things pictured on this page in other words—those Italian landscapes that always seem to be inhabited by something built by a culture that values and nurtures creative types rather than obscenely large corporations. And when we “real” people get to feeling a bit peckish, we know our plate will soon be brimming with simple food peasants have spent years learning to make glorious.
So why do people never seem to come to grips with the fact that they can bellyache as they damn well please about all these flaws and the simple fact is that it doesn’t matter a bit. Yes, everything they say is true about Italy. Awful place, this Italy, by modern political standards. But the reality confounds them. What they see can’t be real. To real people the incredible awfulness is well hidden; Italy is a very desirable place to spend some quality time. Ask nearly anyone.
So why wait for a near death experience to clear the buffers and make you see that all you want are sparkling days peppered with mundane pleasures?
Why can’t people see this simple fact? The signs are all over the damn place.
(Perhaps, just perhaps, that vile and impenetrable bureaucracy binds Italians not to government services, but to their families and to each other. Just a guess.)
■ Aug 28, 09:15 AM by James Martin
One of the things I like about Italy is the reasonable and quite drinkable wine you can get at a much lower price than in the US. Of course, well-aged, famous wines like Barolo and Brunello will set you back a bundle—yet fresh, crisp, local wines can be had for little, especially if you purchase them in the way many Italians do, as vini sfusi, wines you buy by bulk and take from the store in your own recycled bottles.
It’s easy. You enter the store advertising Vini Sfusi with your bottles, peruse the selection, noting the alcohol and the types of grapes used, and then, if possible, taste what you think you might want to buy. After than you just hand your bottles over and the rest is done by the shopkeeper. Prices in our part of Tuscany range from 1.20 to 2.50 Euros per liter.
You’ll notice that the higher alcohol wines are usually the most expensive. The alcohol level can be an indicator of quality. It’s not that people are looking for the highest alcohol for the best kick, it’s usually because the grapes are harvested a bit earlier than optimal in rural wine regions like ours if rain is on the horizon that might cause the grapes to rot before they’re picked. This can produce low sugar levels, and thus low alcohol and generally astringent wines which are best avoided. Too much alcohol, on the other hand, makes the wine “fat” and less attractive with food.
When we decided to try the vino sfuso in our region, we first brought our own bottles from wine we had purchased previously at the supermarket. When we found that the wine was quite good, especially for the price, we bought a spiffy 6-bottle holder for 3 Euros and 6, 1 liter re-sealable bottles for a Euro each. When they’re filled, we’re all set with at least a week’s worth of wine that won’t set us back more than 15 Euros for 6 liters of grape squeezings.
In the video below we offer a peek at some stores selling vino sfuso in Italy, the first in Piemonte, my favorite wine region in Italy, and the second in my neighborhood in La Lunigiana, a wine shop in the town of Terrarossa, near the castle.
Cantine Lunae in Ortonovo is one of our favorite places for bottled wine and also offers vino sfuso. There is also a new shop in Rometta that offers it.