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!


Jan 6, 2014

The Onion Soup Epiphany

I ate my first onion soup in a French restaurant in Rome called L'Eau Vive, an unusual place run by nuns and missionaries, located in a stunning Renaissance Palazzo.

Image © Whitecap.ca
It happened during a middle school French class field trip, and for some strange reason, the seating arrangement favored me to land at the popular girls' table. They were not cheerleaders, nor sports stars, these were all diplomat family kids, the majority of which well traveled and versed in international cuisine, and with a much broader cultural knowledge than expected of the average American 16-year-old.

These young women were the ones who introduced me nonchalantly to soupe à l'oignon gratinée. And it was during that epiphanic meal – when my spoon first cracked through the bubbled cheese crust, plunging past the toasted bread, and into the supple onion velvet – that I understood this to be a major turning point in my gourmand learning.

Our French class teacher Madame Moraglia, whose idea it was to go visit a restaurant instead of another French cultural establishment, further fueled this cathartic moment by suggesting which vintage Bourgogne paired best with the delight in our plates, teaching us about the textured and creamy wine and how it mirrored the soup's mouthfeel. I remember distinctly seeing her nod at the smiling Congolese Carmelite server, prompting she pour each of us a drop, in order to savor the complete françoise dining experience. All part of education.

This opened my eyes, and allowed a glimpse into what the real pleasures of life ahead were going to be. I will always be thankful to Mme Moraglia, to Allison and the other girls at my table for contributing to my culinary enlightenment.

Every time I wish to replicate the joy of that unique coming-of-age episode, I make onion soup. This is the recipe I have perfected over the years, through trial and error. This dish is uniquely French, so for today, you'll forgive this little non-Italian digression as we will fly past the Alps, and land in baguette territory.

Ingredients for 4
500 g (1.1 lbs) yellow onions, thinly sliced
1/2 stick butter
2-3 tbsp all-purpose flour, sifted
2 tbsp dry sherry
A pinch of salt and freshly cracked black pepper
1 liter (1 quart) boiling hot beef stock (a vegetarian version of this soup can be made with broth made with carrots, leeks, celery, potatoes, pumpkin or squash, etc.)
1 glass of whole milk
8 slices of crusty French bread, toasted
250 g (2 cups) Emmenthal, Gruyère or Swiss cheese, shredded

Preheat oven, setting it on broiler to high.

Cooking brings out the onion's nutty, mellow, often sweet, quality through caramelization. So this will be the first step. Melt 2 tbps of butter in a large pan and gently sautée the onions until translucent and golden. Careful, though: high heat makes onions bitter, so when simmering, always use low heat.

Sift in the flour and stir with a wooden spoon to avoid clumps. Season with a pinch or two of salt and a turn of the pepper mill. Splash in the sherry and deglaze the pot.

Pour in the hot vegetable broth and a glass of whole milk, and cook on low heat for about 30-40 minutes. This gentle, slow cooking will make the onion structure fall apart, but not completely, so if you're uncomfortable with the texture of onions, you can throw the soup in the blender and give it a couple of spins. Keep the soup hot while you assemble the servings. If you see it is too liquid, crank up the heat and absorb a little bit of the broth.

Butter the bottom of individual ovenproof baking crocks or ramekins (my cocottes are earthenware and with 2-inch high rims) and divide the onion soup ladling it in each bowl almost to the brim. Gently float 1 or 2 slices of toasted bread on each, and then sprinkle the surface with enough shredded cheese to cover completely.

Arrange your filled bowls on a cookie sheet, and broil in the oven for 10 minutes (time depends greatly on oven power) or until the surface of is completely au gratin, that is when a golden, bubbly cheese crust forms.

Serve immediately along with goblets in which icy Bourgogne Chitry blanc has been poured. A valid alternative can also be a chilled bottle of Côtes du Rhône blanc.

Bon appétit!