Only in Italy: Parmigiano

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BOLOGNA--In the grassy plain of the Po, between here and Piacenza, a quarter million grass-fed cows on 5,000 dairy farms contribute their milk to 500 artisanal producers of a very specific cheese, Italy's finest: Parmesan for short, Parmigiano-Reggiano to give it its full name.

In batches of 1,100 liters, the combined morning and afternoon milkings (the amount produced by some 40 bovines) is transformed: cream skimmed, casein starter and rennet added, curds cut into rice-sized granules, boiled for 10 minutes in a copper steam kettle under the watchful eye of a master craftsman, then drained, divided in two, wrapped in cheesecloth, formed in traditional, 100-lb. molds, salted for three weeks, aged for a year, inspected and graded, then aged for another year or two. At the end of the process, the cheese emerges as the real deal, genuine, DOP Parmigiano-Reggiano.

The best, stravecchio sells at the dairy for 13 euros a kilo, about $9 per pound. In many restaurants in nearby Parma, the menu gives you the cheese's full pedigree: name of dairy, month of production. The real thing, when you can find it in the States, is around $15. And is it ever worth it. Dense, crumbly, it isn't sliced but stabbed into little pieces.

Nutty, fruity, sweet and despite the salt that helped create it, with a remarkable complexity and depth of flavor, it's a treat on its own (with a dash of balsamic vinegar, perhaps) or grated over pasta (nothing like the packaged soap flakes sold as "Parmesan" by Kraft). Here and only here: the product of its unique place, always hand-made.

Only in Italy: Opening Hours

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BOLOGNA--The winter uniform: puffy down jacket, perfectly knotted scarf, optional cap. In the damp, chilly morning, an exhaled breath hangs in the air. It is 8:15, but the Post office won't open for another five minutes.

The caffès are open, of course, selling espressos, cappuccinos, all manner of cream-filled pastries, cigarettes, and stamps. But the Post Office does more: it's also a savings bank. And a money lender. The coffee shops keep better hours, often from 6 AM until 10 PM, but they don't do credit.

Only in Italy: the Scontrino

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BOLOGNA--Behold the scontrino. It's the register receipt, generated automatically with every transaction, no matter how insignificant, whether cash or credit. Coffee (one euro)? Drinks & dinner (43 euros)? Theater tickets (60 euros)? Ca-ching, ca-ching, ca-ching. The scraps of paper may get left behind, swept onto the floor, or go through the laundry at the bottom of your pockets, but that's hardly the point. It's not about you. Every merchant has an account with the Codice Fiscale, Italy's tax man, and this is the way tabs are kept. Not easy to do off-the-books transactions in Italy any more, with hand-written bills and an old cookie tin that doubled as a cash drawer.

Mind you, nothing about this system interferes with the age-old Italian tradition of asking for a discount (sconto), but most of the time, most of the time, the price is the price, and it includes VAT. A brave new world.

Only in Italy: Mortadella

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Vacuum packed Mortadella.JPG

Mortadella & coldcuts in Bologna.JPGBOLOGNA--You grind the meat twice, then fold in cubes of pork fat, whole pistachios, and peppercorns (maybe some myrtle berries, if they're handy). shape the mix into a chubby loaf, five pounds minimum. Boil or steam; chill, slice very fine. This is the signature sausage of Bologna, known around the world as mortadella, but, thanks to Oscar Mayer, usually referred to in the USA as "Bologna" and pronounced, alas, "baloney."

The recipe has been around since ancient times. The "morta" may refer to a mortaio (mortar), or to the mirto (myrtle) berries used as a flavoring before pepper became available.

In any event, mortadella is everywhere, and (compared to many fine foods) not particularly expensive: about $8 a pound. Prosciutto, for example, is several times that, no doubt because it has to be cured and aged for several years in ideal conditions (the cold, damp hills of the Apennines). Mortadella, made with scraps, takes no time at all. On a plate of cold cuts, or between two slices of bread, it makes a quick meal.

One more thing. In the early 1960s, you couldn't bring mortadella into the US because there had been an outbreak of swine flu in Europe. The ban became the plot device for a silly comedy called "La Mortadella" starring Sophia Loren. Eventually the ban was lifted, Miss Loren went on to a brilliant career, and mortadella was restored to its proper position in the firmanent. Even so, the producers decided no one in American knew from mortadella, so they changed the title to "Lady Liberty." Che vergogna!

Only in Venice: Soggy Carnival

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VENICE--Rain in winter should be no surprise, even to the makers of masks and purveyors of merriment who swamp the Piazza San Marco every pre-Lenten season. The tourists have to decide whether to stay away or to adapt, whether to suffocate inside a 5-euro poncho or put on a bright face and ruin their expensive costumes.

The plan! The plan was for visitors to inspect the Fabrica on the square itself, to see how the artisans of Venice make gondolas, masks, and fabrics. Not happening. Thousands of visitors are hunched in the colonnades, afraid to expose themselves to the elements.

The Venetians themselves seem indifferent. Windows advertise openings for shop assistants able to speak English. The apostles of fashion gather for safety behind the shop windows along the Campo S. Moisè, The deity, Georgio Armani, is missing, but Cardinals Prada and Gucci are present, along with archbishops Ferragamo and Fendi, Msgrs. Valentino and Versaci. Even the harlot, Miu Miu, shows her ruffles. Prada's slacks and sport jacket make an appealing vestment, assuming you have 1,300 euros in the pockets of your shabby jeans; you'll need another 1,300 for shirt, tie, cardigan and shoes. The shop windows have help-wanted signs for sales assistants who speak English.

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Only in Italy: Cappooch

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Bologna Sat Feb 6.jpg

BOLOGNA--If you order a latte, you'll get a glass of milk. If you want espresso with steamed milk, you ask for a cappuccio, short for cappuccino, and further shortened to something that sounds like a sneeze: cappooch!

As always, a shot of dark espresso, no more than an ounce. Meantime the barista hits the milk pitcher (whole milk, of course, none of that wussy two-percent) with a quick blast of steam, and pours some of it over the espresso. "Ecco," he says, handing you the cup; the saucer, spoon and sugar are already on the counter.

A shot of espresso is 1 euro, a cappooch is 1.30 euros. Buck fifty. Want a pastry to go with it? Another euro. Want a Starbucks latte? Wrong country.

Only in Italy: Coffee, suspended

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Sospeso in Bologna.JPG

BOLOGNA--It started in Italy, not surprisingly, where people are by nature kind and generous, having lived together in close quarters through good times and bad. In the country's small towns and crowded neighborhoods, no one's a stranger; everybody's related, and you take care of your own.

In 2010, a group of regional festivals revived the tradition of the caffè sospeso, a "suspended coffee" paid for but not yet consumed, and the following year municipal authorities in Naples proclaimed an official Giornata del Sospeso to coincide with Human Rights Day on December 10th. Here in Bologna, far to the north, we find a receptacle for cash receipts (indicating that the coffee has been paid for) on the counter at a neighborhood bar frequented by international students.

"The caffè sospeso has been identified as a symbol of grassroots social solidarity," its advocates say. A report on NPR claimed there are 500 coffee shops across the US that offer some sort of mechanism for a coffee-buyer to pay it forward. So far, Starbucks is not among them. For shame.

Only in Italy: Campari Soda

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Pouring Campari Soda.JPG

BOLOGNA--Less boozy than a glass of wine, and prepackaged in a unique 10-cl bottle, Campari Soda (with its own nomenclature, "camparisoda") makes a lovely, delicious, and inexpensive aperitivo. Three euros ($3.25) at most bars.

On an earlier trip to Bologna, at the end of 2005, I went in search of full-strength Campari. But the drink itself has changed. They literally took the bugs out in 2006, and the reformulated Campari now tastes (to me, to me) more syrupy and less bitter.

Miss me? Didja?

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Reflection RH in Bologna.JPG

Don't cry for me, the truth is, I never left you. Didn't jump off a building or pull a trigger, just forgot to pay the web hosting bill. (Again.) All good now. Made it safely to Bologna, so plenty of good food stories to come.


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