Dec 29, 2014

Why do Americans love ice so much?

I often get asked why other countries outside of the United States do not use ice as much.

But it's actually the strange ice cube obsession most North Americans seem to carry with them wherever they go that leaves residents of their destination country, Italy included, completely bewildered.

Americans want ice with tea, weak coffee, sodas, juice, liquor and water. I once ate at a restaurant that served ice just to cool down soup. Flying, I've watched people order an extra cup of ice to compensate for the melting cubes in their original drink. For some Americans, ice is a delicacy to chew on (my American father does this).
American waiters, many on autopilot, often have a hard time coping my request for water without ice. Continue Reading ➔

Dec 2, 2014

Sarde a Beccafico 2 ways

Some Italian dishes have the funniest names, and the richest history.

The "beccafico" is a curious winged creature. It's hedonistic nature demands it feed only of ripe figs. Becca– comes from the root beccare, the verb 'to peck', and –fico means 'fig'. Given their diet, the flesh of these fig-pecking birds is therefore fatty and rich. And very tasty.

Sicilian nobility would hunt beccafico and then feast on its prized meats, which were stuffed with their own innards, enjoying the voluptuous flesh, and gamey filling. This dish was sublime, but as a luxury comestible, alas unapproachable by the less fortunate.

The indigent, yet crafty Palermo citizens simply could not give up on this alimentary discrimination, and made do with what was most readily available and affordable to them – sardines – treating them as they would the precious birds. To replicate the sweet tang provided by the bird's original innards filling, low-income and artful Palermo cooks employed a mixture of breadcrumbs, citrus juice and dried fruits and nuts. Geniuses!

This traditional dish, originally born from the desire to replicate an unattainable delicacy, is still made in the "poor man's fashion" and sold in outdoor friggitorie (fryers), like the streetside ones in the beautiful Vucciria market. Other cities in Sicily besides Palermo also make sarde a beccaficu in their own versions, Catania in particular produces my favorite rendition.
According to area, in fact, these stuffed sardines can be either fried or oven-baked.

Since I couldn't make up my mind on which to describe here, I'm sharing the recipe for sarde a beccafico two ways.


Sarde a Beccafico Palermo-style
1 kg (2.2 lbs) sardines
8 tbsp breadcrumbs
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp brown sugar
1 tbsp parsley, minced
70 g (2+ oz) pine nuts
70 g (2+ oz) sultanas, soaked in lukewarm water
Salt and pepper
1/2 glass EVOO + 3 tbsp
Bay leaves, 1 large sprig
Citronette: the juice of 1 lemon, equal amount olive oil, a pinch of salt and black pepper

Preheat oven at 150°C (300°F).

Clean out and butterfly the sardines, that is remove the central bone, heads and tails, leaving you with only the flesh of two attached fillets and no bones. There’s an easy video on how to do this here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/techniques/how_to_clean_and_fillet_sardines

Toast the breadcrumbs and minced garlic in 3 tbps of olive oil, until lightly tanned.

Fold in the sugar, parsley, pine nuts, drained sultanas, and season with salt and pepper.

Add the half glass of olive oil and mix to coat well.

Divvy up the obtained filling on each sardine, and roll lengthwise, like a burrito, fastening each with a toothpick.

Place the stuffed sardines in a greased oven pan, alternating with a bay leaf between each.

Drizzle with the citronette and bake in the oven at moderate heat for about 15 minutes.


Sarde a Beccafico Catania style
In the volcanic city of Catania sarde a beccafico are prepared in a slightly different method.

1 kg (2.2 lbs) sardines
2 glasses of wine vinegar (not balsamic)
8 tbsp breadcrumbs
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp brown sugar
1 tbsp parsley, minced
70 g (2+ oz) pine nuts
70 g (2+ oz) sultanas, soaked in lukewarm water
Salt and pepper
1/2 glass EVOO
50 g (1/4 cup) fresh caciocavallo cheese, finely minced
Flour for dredging
2 eggs, beaten
Vegetable oil for frying

Clean out and prepare the sardines as described in previous preparation, and soak in the vinegar for about 1 hour.

The prep for the filling is the same as described above, with the addition of small nibs of fresh caciocavallo cheese thrown in.

Smear the filling on each butterflied sardine and top with another to form "sandwiches", pressing down with the palm of your hand to glue together.

Dredge each sandwich in flour, dip in the egg wash and fry in hot vegetable oil, in small batches, until golden.

Place on paper towels to absorb grease and scarf piping hot.

Buon appetito!

Nov 9, 2014

To market, to market...

On average, I usually shop at my local farmer's market three times a week. I've also been to virtually every mercato rionale (Rome's neighborhoods are known as "rioni") and often take gourmand visitors on market tours during which I explain seasonal variations and encourage them to taste local goods. Over time, I've become something of a market connoisseur.

Market shopping has little in common with impersonal supermarket hustle. It's a world unto itself with subtle protocols.
For those interested in the ancient art of market shopping, here's a brief collection of insider tips.

Continue Reading ➔

Oct 30, 2014

Italian-American cuisine

About 4 million Italians immigrated to the United States of America between 1880 and 1920. Most came from the poor south, where a bad economy and corrupt politics had generated centuries of impoverishment. The hopeful immigrants carried with them rich cultural baggage and regional Italian culinary tradition that helped forge new dishes which both immigrants and Americans, in time, came to consider as staples. This was the genesis of Italian-American cuisine.

Many immigrants came from Sicily, Calabria, Campania, Abruzzi, Molise, Basilicata, and smaller numbers from northern towns. Large communities settled in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, Boston and San Francisco, cities that would give birth to a cuisine which fused old school Italian priorities, with ingredients native to the "new" lands.

Here is a look at some of the most representative Italo-American dishes, and the original Italian recipes that inspired them.

Continue Reading ➔

Oct 25, 2014

Passion for Provence

If you follow me on Instagram or Twitter, you'll have probably noticed from my updates, that I just got back from travels to Provence.


I had the wonderful opportunity to spend a week with my American family in what may be the most charming area of France. The best part was traveling to and discovering a new place that none in our family had visited before. I also loved unplugging and not checking email for the whole time I was gone. My idea of luxury travel.

Our days were spent sightseeing historical cities, visiting hilltop villages, walking cobbled roads, perusing markets, falling in love with places, all punctuated by eating and drinking local goodness. Most of all, we caught up on over a year of not seeing each other.


Our home base for the first half of the trip was a beautiful 14th century home in the village of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon. Our host told us several cardinals resided in these cloistered walls during the Papal exile from Rome between 1309 and 1377.

We criss-crossed the Rhône River taking day trips to many interesting places. The first was Arles.



Here we understood the full impact of Rome and it's expanding control of the area which lasted more than 500 years. The Roman Empire was among the most powerful economic, cultural, political and military forces in the world of its time. It's no surprise therefore that stadiums, amphitheaters and other facilities were built in southeastern France, where Rome had greatly settled.


The Roman arena built in 90 AD seated 21,000 spectators and housed bloody gladiator fights and hunting scenes for more than 400 years. With the fall of the Empire in the 5th century, the amphitheater became a shelter for the population and was transformed into a fortress. Until 1830, the structure encircled more than 200 houses, becoming a little walled in town, within the city.

That same day we visited the Pont Langlois, which is the subject of four oil paintings, one watercolor and four drawings by Vincent van Gogh, all produced in 1888 when Van Gogh lived in Arles. Today the bridge has been slightly moved from it's original location and renamed Pont Van Gogh.




Our next visit brought us to an even more important Roman settlement, the city of Nîmes.
On the way there, we visited an imposing 3-tier bridge (Pont du Gard) which is part of the 50 km-long (31 mile) aqueducts built by Emperor Augustus in order to service the city.


The major sights we visited in Nîmes were the Arena, the Maison Carrée (below), and the beautiful Quais de la Fontaine, 18th century embankments of the spring that provided water for the city.


The following day we visited St. Remy de Provence in order to live the Provençal market experience. We picked up lavender, salami studded with hazelnuts, caramel butter (which airport security confiscated because I forgot the jar exceeded TSA regulations for hand luggage), and tasted lots of foie gras in between.





One of the most striking things we visited that day however was the Carrières de Lumières, which is an ancient limestone quarry that now hosts multimedia installations that propel viewers in an extraordinary world of art and music. Images of paintings are projected onto the immense walls, pillars and ground of the dark quarry, played to period music.

We then moved to Marseille, to attend the 2014 Marseille Web Fest. The city is amazing, and reminds me so much of another city I love: Naples. The alleys and quiet corners of Le Panier district ooze charm, and beg to slow down and encourage to live the city outdoors.





The View Port (ancient harbor) is buzzing with life, art, rainbow of cultures, music and a fish market on Saturday mornings.


The Norman Foster Pavilion is a stunning thousand-square-meter slab of reflective steel held up by eight unadorned pillars. As I approached it from Rue Rèpublique, the pavillion was nearly invisible, so the harbor – a World Heritage site – deservedly remains the vast area's protagonist. But up close, the hovering mirror both transforms and multiplies the space. It directs pedestrians' gazes back out to the sea, or allow them to admire own reflections overhead, essentially making them part of the landscape. Selfies, here, take on a whole new meaning!



photo © www.fosterandpartners.com
Another wonderful place in the city is the new MuCEM museum complex, located at the Fort Jean end of the harbor. The Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations, inaugurated in 2013, is a cube of 15,000 square meters surrounded by a shell of fibre-reinforced concrete latticework, it houses exhibits on two levels with an underground auditorium seating 400, boasts a magnificent terrace where people can relax on lounge chairs facing the sea, and welcomes gourmands in the 3 Michelin star restaurant La Table, brainchild of Chef Gérald Passédat.


If you visit Marseille, you have to absolutely visit the archipelago of the Ile de Frioul. It's a 2-mile motorboat ride east to a cluster of 4 islands. One of which, If, houses the site of the Château d'If, where the main fictional character in Alexandre Dumas, père's "The Count of Monte Cristo" was imprisoned, one of my favorite historical novels!


On our last day in Marseille, we visited the neo-Byzantine Cathedral of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, which dominates the city and protects its citizens from above. Located at the summit of a 500-foot hill, the Basilica provides a sweeping 360° view over the entire city. It took my breath away.



A trip to Marseille cannot be considered complete without tasting bouillabaisse. So we sought the advice of our local friends who directed us to Chez Michel, a dressy brasserie with a varied clientele of local business men, families celebrating a special occasion, and slightly furtive couples, and THE place, we soon understood, to come for bouillabaisse in Marseille.


Yes, it's expensive. But real bouillabaisse requires a ridiculous amount of local rockfish, gallinella (I've heard it called many names, including Sea Robin, Tub gurnard, Tubfish, Yellow or Grey gurnard) reef mullet and John Dory, which are all costly Mediterranean fish. The service and production that happens around the dish is exquisite: the Maître ladles the "bouillon" in deep bowls kept warm over tea lights, while another waiter (or two depending on the number of customers) cleans the slow cooked fish and arranges it on the plate with potatoes that have been stewed along with the poisson, saffron and tomato.

photo © www.bouillabaisse-marseille.com
Bouillabaisse is eaten in an equally complex way: croutons smeared with "rouille" (a sauce made with the fish broth, garlic, pepper and tomato) have to be dipped into the soup; the filleted fish is instead slathered with copious amounts of aïoli (garlic mayonnaise) and then dipped in the soup too, and eaten with noisy sucking sounds and pleasure moans. Ok, I added that part.


Since a week is not enough to visit the area, and there are many parts of this wonderful part of France that we couldn't fit in this trip, we promised each other we'd return.

So... au revoir Provence!

Sep 12, 2014

Back to School Meals: End of Summer Vegetable Flan


It happened.

My eight year old gourmand child, whom I've raised to appreciate chicken liver crostini and puttanesca, spaghetti with clams and octopus salad – while still ignoring Happy Meals – has freed himself of my apron strings.

Yesterday, faced with yet another bowl of zucchini noodles with basil pesto and a serving of eggplant al funghetto – sautéed with tomato sauce and garlic – he said no. His sophisticated palate is evolving and so is his personality. Normal. But I didn't see it coming.

I had been noticing some recent changes: making his own bold decisions when picking outfits, and becoming more and more prudish and reserved during shower time. OK, these are clear symptoms of growth, independence, character. But shunning my tapenade? Doesn't that happen later?

It's hard to please growing kids at the dinner table, even the more cosmopolitan food snobs. We Italians have an advantage in that sense, because we wean our children off mother's milk with strained vegetable consommé, pureed carrots and potatoes, and the first solid protein we feed them is steamed sole fish drizzled with olive oil. Junk food, sodas and fried fish sticks come into the equation way later, and certainly not in grade school.

I can never forget the handshake I got some years ago from the executive chef at the Monterey Aquarium's own Portola Cafe for ignoring the kids menu and ordering instead salmon fillet, broiled asparagus and abalone on the shell for my toddler. "We're Italian," I replied. "This is how we feed our kids back home."

There are picky eaters and kids who will by default not ingest anything green. I guess I've been lucky because my child was never scared of tasting and experimenting with new flavors. His play date Giulia, one year his junior, still can't fathom eating un-peeled tomatoes and grapes. She may shadow my son and ask to be served some of his minestrone, but will inevitably leave it in the bowl, untouched. My boy instead proudly showing off his alimentary prowess could gorge on all the available langoustines on the Disneyland Paris buffet spread, and wipe his cuttlefish ink risotto plate clean.

But, apparently those days are over.

Zucchini, eggplant, broccoli, Brussell sprouts and all kinds of salad are now officially off the list.
There is a strange aversion to mozzarella, but an ongoing flirtatious relationship with burrata.
He's asked me to please stop serving him hummus.
Or cauliflowers.
And he said I can avoid the trouble of putting dandelion greens in his plate.

So now I'm screwed, because I still want him to eat healthy, local and seasonal food, but his narrowing diet and broadening aversions are making dinner choices slimmer. Soon he'll be asking for a Big Mac, so I have to start finding new and interesting ways to push embargoed food back on his plate.

One of these solutions I found on an Italian website, it's perfect for this end of summer, back to school climate and it employs vegetables and cheese, therefore constituting a balanced but complete vegetarian meal. In my version I used what I had in the house, that is bell peppers, zucchini, potatoes and two kinds of cheese, but these vegetable flans can be made with virtually every vegetal of your choice.

Ingredients
5 medium potatoes
6 zucchini, finely chopped
1 large red bell pepper, finely chopped
1 tbsp triple tomato concentrate
1 egg
100 g (1/2 cup) scamorza, provola or any kind of soft smoked cheese, cubed (same size as vegetable mince)
60 g (+1/4 cup) Parmigiano cheese, grated
Sea salt and cracked black pepper
1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
Butter for greasing the ramekins
3 tbsp breadcrumbs
Extra virgin olive oil

Boil the potatoes with the skins on in lightly salted water until fork soft (about 30-40 minutes). I use a pressure cooker which cuts the cooking time by half.

In the meantime cut the bell pepper and zucchini, chopping them in same size mince. Preheat oven at 200° C (390° F).

Film a large pan with 3 tbsp of olive oil and sauté the bell peppers for 2 minutes, fold in the zucchini and cook for 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, and a tablespoon of triple tomato concentrate diluted in 1 ladle of potato cooking water, simmering over low flame for about 5 minutes. Consider the vegetables must maintain some crunch. Set aside to cool.

Drain the potatoes and force them through a ricer (or a hand-powered food mill, or using the tines of a fork) into a large mixing bowl. The advantage of the ricer is that the skins separate without effort. Add the cubed and grated cheeses and the egg to the riced potatoes, season with salt and pepper, some may want to add a suspicion of grated nutmeg.
Finally fold in the cooled, sautéed vegetables, mixing with a wooden spoon to blend well.

Grease 6 to 8 ramekins with butter, and dredge with the breadcrumbs. Fill each with the mixture to the brim, and top with more breadcrumbs, a pinch more grated cheese and a dribble of olive oil.

Bake for 15-20 minutes or until a golden crust forms on the top. Eating these flans out of small ramekins makes it more fun for the kids, but for convenience sake you can grease and dredge one big baking dish, and thus obtain a "gateau".

I made this tonight. And guess what? My son asked for seconds.








Aug 30, 2014

Where to Eat in Testaccio (minus the offal)

Rome's Testaccio neighborhood has long been associated with so-called quinto quarto dishes, traditional delights made from the leftover parts of grazing animals (including tripe, sweetbreads, lungs, nerves, tail, intestines, and liver).

But it's not all organs in contemporary Rome's working-class wonderland.
Testaccio has grown hipper by the decade and is now home to upbeat nightlife, museums and dance clubs. It also has its share of very good offal-less gourmet destinations.

Here's my shortlist of places to find great Testaccio meals while taking a break from the innards frenzy. Continue Reading ➔

Aug 12, 2014

Featured on Frommer's radio Travel Show


Sunday August 17th between noon and 2pm ET, I am interviewed by Arthur Frommer, founder of the Frommer's guidebooks and his daughter Pauline (publisher of Frommers.com) hosts of the nationally syndicated Travel Show, now heard on radio in over 130 cities across the United States.

You can catch the live streaming, or download the podcast, which is generally available two weeks after broadcast. It will also be available on iTunes.

Ciao!

Aug 1, 2014

Unexplored Amalfi Coast and Sorrento Peninsula

©zingarate.com
Despite more than half-a-century of mass tourism and wildfire exploitation, the Sorrento Peninsula and the Amalfi Coast still possess a few unexplored and approachable places not yet corrupted by impossibly high prices and artificially piped lemon-scents.

Some remain authentically frozen in time, but you have to seek them out.

Here's my shortlist of lesser-known Amalfi Coast destinations that retain some of the dreamlike quality Steinbeck marveled at when he visited after WWII.

Continue Reading ➔

Jul 1, 2014

What to avoid when eating out in Rome

If you dust grated Parmesan onto your seafood risotto while sipping cappuccino, a waiter may grimace. If so, it's not because he doesn't like tourists (he actually loves them) but because you're not leaving your comfort zone. You're eating I-talian as you would at home.

Every city demands you learn a little about its food scene before taking the plunge. Since Rome is quirkier than most, my first advice to food-loving tourists is that they study local habits, customs, and also make an effort to learn a few words of the language. The more prepared you are, the less you're surprised, and prone to paranoia.

That said, here's my shortlist of tips on what to avoid when eating out in Rome. Continue Reading ➔

Jun 7, 2014

Where to eat in EUR

EUR is a curious vision of grandeur interrupted. An acronym for Esposizione Universale Romana, the outlying neighborhood south of the Rome center was first commissioned by Benito Mussolini, eager to celebrate 20 years of Fascist rule by creating a temple to his vision of Roman modernity.

Despite its sleek marble-lined avenues, EUR never established its own food culture. Instead, it was seen as something of culinary wasteland with only a few stylish meeting places and eateries.

But trends change, particularly in food, and Rome's most modern neighborhood, with its cluster of beehive office buildings, is slowly but surely turning into a foodie destination. Here is my shortlist of places worthy of a visit, should you happen in this side of town.

Continue Reading ➔

Apr 29, 2014

Where to Eat in Trastevere

Despite wildfire exploitation, the bohemian "rive gauche" of Rome still retains some of its ancient charm.
Food-wise, Trastevere offers tiny osterias tucked in cobbled streets, established seafood shrines, lesser known pastry shops, and local hangouts only insiders know to put on their maps. But it can be tawdry vortex... 
Here's my shortlist of places for sure-fire authentic Trastevere dining.

Apr 23, 2014

Succulent Cicale di Mare – Mantis Shrimp


The name mantis shrimp is actually a misnomer because despite their appearance, the animals aren't shrimp at all, some actually categorize them in the crab realm. They don't resemble crabs either, but much rather their namesake, the mantis, and are equally ferocious predators.

Mantis shrimps are highly aggressive and solitary crustaceans that capture prey using large, raptorial claws much like those of a praying mantis. Many are beautifully colored in neon shades of red, green and blue. The Italian Adriatic variety is grayish pink and sports a second decoy set of eyes on its frayed tail, to throw off its prey before lobbing it unconscious.

Called "sea locusts", "prawn killers" and "shako", mantis shrimp are sometimes referred to as "thumb splitters" by divers – because of the relative ease the creature has in mutilating small appendages. Italians dub these feisty little creatures a variety of names: pannocchie, cicale di mare, cannocchie, spannocchie, balestrin... whatever the name, they sport powerful claws that they use to attack and kill prey by spearing, stunning, clubbing or dismembering. The "punch" delivered has roughly the acceleration of a .22 caliber bullet. Not joking. Mantis shrimp easily break through shellfish and have been known to crack aquarium glass with a single strike from their lethal weapon.

actual size
But don't let this freak you out, inside that nasty camo armor is a tasty, succulent flesh.

In Mediterranean countries the Squilla mantis is common seafood, especially on Adriatic Sea coasts. Inexpensive and available year round, the best time to eat it – when the crustacean is the plumpest – is between March and November.

This particular Trieste recipe stars our belligerent spearers, locally called canoce.

  • 1 kg (2.2 lbs) mantis shrimp (if you have difficulty finding them, opt for the sweetest shrimp or prawns you can get your claws on)
  • 2 glasses of white wine (one's for drinking while you cook)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • A bunch of flat leaf Italian parsley
  • 1/2 cup breadcrumbs
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt

Cut an incision lengthwise down the shrimp's belly, this will release flavor compounds leaving the flesh safely lodged in the carapace armor plates. Do not remove heads, they add flavor.

Sauté the minced garlic in 2-3 tbsp of olive oil, when the garlic starts to tan, add the breadcrumbs and parsley. Stir a bit and add your shell fiends. Pour in the wine, crank up the heat and boil it to evaporation.

If you have some leftover fish stock, either frozen or standing by, a few drops can add even more flavor. Regain a medium simmer, cover and cook over low heat for no more than 7 minutes. Serve immediately, with plenty bread to sop up the juices.

Now it's your turn to dismember, suck, bite off and give a dignified finale to the bellicose sea warriors. Nutcrackers, lobster picks, chicken shears and a large bib may come in handy.

Apr 19, 2014

Happy Easter!

Buona Pasqua! ~ Happy Easter!


Working on a big project, sorry to have been so silent...

Now rushing to go bake Pastiera for tomorrow's Easter Sunday lunch, but wanted to wish everyone a peaceful spring break.




Mar 29, 2014

Where to Eat Near the Vatican and Prati

Guidebooks often portray the area around the Vatican and the adjacent Prati business district as a culinary wasteland. It's not. But discerning the decent from the dreadful can be hard for the uninitiated, with many visitors too tired to think straight. 

So here's a Vatican and Prati shortlist of dining and drinks places that you can tuck away and count on. 

Continue Reading ➔

Feb 28, 2014

Where to eat in Parioli

Uh-oh, I used the P-word.
Rome's Parioli neighborhood gets a bad rap among working class residents, but it certainly tastes good. 

Some of the city's best restaurants and bars — most of them very much white collar — are in fact located in Parioli. And a few are well worth visiting.

In that spirit, here's my shortlist of favorite 
quartiere stops in the neighborhood Rome loves to hate.

Continue Reading ➔

Jan 28, 2014

Italian Working Lunch

The whole point of this blog is to share my insight on Italian culture starting from what happens in the kitchen and around the dinner table. It's exciting when readers email me asking to develop a topic, so it was with great enthusiasm that I welcomed Joseph's request.


What do people in Italy eat during their work day? This particular subject gives me the chance to explore exactly those Italian eating customs I like to talk about. It's flattering that a reader of my blog would ask me to shed a little insight on how Italians do lunch, asking me to share ideas to apply to daily routine across the pond.

There is often a lot of talk about the gargantuan meals Italians prepare at home on Sundays, or what delights they can devour at restaurants on their time off, but not much information is shared about what gli italiani eat during the work week.

If you've been following my articles – given the recipes I share and my self-indulging habits – you may still be under the assumption that Italians eat 5-course meals twice a day, 7 days a week. We'd be all obese. The Mediterranean diet is healthy and keeps (most of) us Italians fit, but at that rate, anyone ingesting all those carbs, wine, cheese and cured pork would simply explode.

No, during the week, and particularly at work, we Italians exercise measure. Incredible, right?
How people in Italy do that depends on their line of work.

Occupation makes the difference. A white-collar obviously does not follow the same lunch routine as the guy pouring concrete. While the one with the higher paycheck and benefits grabs a quick panino or a salad at the nearby cafe or tavola calda that has an agreement with his firm, providing employees with "buoni pasto" prepaid meal coupons; it is the low-income labor that gets the best grub. Why? Because most hard hats carry home-cooked meals to work. Warm spoonfuls of risotto, heated carbonara; cacciatora chicken legs or yesterday's roast – always complete with a healthy vegetal side – come neatly packed in stacked lunch boxes called "porta-pranzo" or "porta vivande" (la schiscetta in Milanese dialect), tupperware, or other snap-lid containers.



But don't get me wrong, the lunch pail solution is frequently used throughout Italy, and not restricted to the construction site, but in other professional settings during the work week. Commuters, shop owners and full-timers all shut down for the pausa pranzo (lunch break) and may bring lunch from home. Despite leaving a restaurant with a doggy bag is unthinkable in all social statuses, the Italian bento box represents a cultural lens into how working class vs administrative executive positions attribute value to the workday meal.

Of course there's the social aspect, which on occasion is honored. But rarely will a group of colleagues march down the road to the nearby trattoria during their nine-to-five midday break. A classic Italian restaurant lunch means a) waiting too long (how can a respectful establishment feed a table of 4 in under an hour?); b) paying too steeply for food on a daily basis; and c) simply ingesting too much food. Expect to efficiently check the cash flow numbers on a stomach stuffed with amatriciana, involtini and cassata? Inconceivable.

Office employees will occasionally grab lunch at the nearest restaurant that cuts them deals on complete meal dishes, effectively zeroing out on issues a), b) and c). This practice has recently gained the anglophone menu billing "business lunch," or "light lunch." These commonly include a pasta or a main, a vegetable side dish, water, bread and fruit; with prices ranging anything between €9 and €12.

Another option of course is wolfing down a quick tramezzino (soft white bread, crusts removed, lots of mayo and assorted fillings) or a stuffed focaccia at the corner cafe. Panini (plural) come in all variants, sizes and flavors. Some cafes even have a griddle on which hamburger patties are cooked and slid with fixings in a bun. Regular Italian sandwich fillings vary according to season, but the quality of the ingredients does make the difference between acceptable panini and awful ones. My neighborhood bar makes excellent breakfast cappuccinos, and then at lunch produces some of the best sandwiches in the area: I like to occasionally tuck into some of their warm ciabatta filled with silken prosciutto slices and milky mozzarella; or crusty homestyle pane "rustico" slathered with Taleggio and sauteed spinach; or shrimp salad with tomato, or even salami and hard boiled egg... choices are boundless.


Others prefer their lunch seated, twirling a fork in a plate of pasta, followed by un caffè; while others rely more on the unfailing insalatona. Large niçoise-like salads are a constant factor of the Italian work week meal routine. These rather large productions come served undressed and usually sporting a central ball of mozzarella, arugula, radicchio, shredded carrots, 3 scattered cherry tomatoes, occasional pitted olives, and always tuna. Mysterious olive oil, vinegar and a salt shakers containing crystal concretions stand by on special dressings counters to which patrons help themselves.

In the 12 years I worked in the film industry, I learned that lunch on set can be of different sorts, according to the picture's budget. On Hollywood studio films, with stars worth 6 zeros and big crews, the catering service included food trucks that churned Louis XIV banquets virtually non-stop during the 10-hour work day: barbecued fish or steak, several choices in pasta, gnocchi or soup in winter; salads, fruit and crudité in summer; and offerings changed daily. Besides actual meals, it was the substantials that were the best. Substantials are the food served by craft service companies on film productions, three hours into the day, and again three hours after lunch. As their name suggests, these are a "substantial" enough snack to get the crew through the harder hours of work. Smart line producers will have a budget for clever substantials to keep the work force happy. When I worked on these high budget films (usually international pictures) handsome perks were awaited with anticipation during the laziest part of the day: one time it was chili con carne, one day roasted chestnuts hot off the coals, another time homemade gelato, one other time freshly baked cookies and milk. The daily craft table loaded with snacks and down-time nibbles alone could solve troubles in Ethiopia.

On indie movies and Italian small budget flicks, on the other hand, the meals were not as fancy. Nor that abundant. Rarely able to dine at a catered buffet, we'd more commonly lunch on a pre-packed "cestino," a box distributed to each crew member and fitted with a full, heated meal contained in small aluminum tins: one holding 6 forkfuls of non-al dente pasta, another with an entree, some of us chose vegetarian or celiac options, there was usually one or more pieces fruit, sometimes cheese and always wine. Yes! The cine-cestino meatloaf may be yesterday's recycled piccata, but the vino is always present.

Although drinking during work hours isn't acceptable overseas, Italian employers will tolerate the one glass during midday meals because, again, their hired consumers won't exaggerate. So, if after shooting a complex dialogue sequence, or a dynamic 4-camera set up for the car chase, a little wine will not hurt with lunch, on the contrary. If the boxed meal includes fish, white wine; while if the menu lists minestrone and stew, the wine will probably be red. We're not talking biodynamic or fancy, these wines are boxed in 8-fl oz cartons. But it's the chill-effect that counts.
Needless to say the post-lunch cue at the on set double espresso machine hooked up to the genny is always huge.
Pictured below is a typical rush to lunch situation after the Assistant Director yells "Pausa!" through the bullhorn.


Following are some common Italian work-week lunch solutions, either purchased or packed:

Pasta + salad This is a classic Italian work meal. It keeps faith to tradition, without weighing in on the digestive system. Carbs provide fuel, leafy greens lends crisp palate cleansing freshness

Chicken/meat/fish + grilled vegetables Popular mostly among those watching their figure

Frittata + sauteed greens Which can both also be stuffed in a sandwich...

Soup, cheese + fruit salad Vegetarians have it easy in Italy

Big mixed salad I've fallen victim of the insalatona constant myself: lean, reliable and good for clearing fridge of odd leftovers

Panino The sandwich option implies a hasty lunch, usually followed by numerous coffee breaks, and occasional chocolate supplements

Pizza al taglio In Rome as well as in many other parts of Italy, pizza is available in take-away shops which sell pizza al taglio baked with electric ovens in long, rectangular baking pans and relatively thick (1–2 cm), and intended for take out only. Pizza al taglio is available with an infinite amount of rotating different toppings; and portions are cut with scissors and sold by weight. In this range of bakery goods is also a flat, pizza-like bread called pizza bianca, which is topped with olive oil and coarse salt. A typical Roman custom is stuffing this plain pizza bread with mortadella, or prosciutto and figs, the result being known as pizza prosciutto e fichi.


Fritti (portable fried foods) and all Italian street food faithful to local regional tradition applies to lunch

Gelato complete meal summer staple

I hope to have provided Joseph and anyone else interested in adopting the Italian work week lunch habit some useful information with this article. I am open to discussion. And suggestions!

Ciao





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