Thursday, May 16, 2013

Everybody’s Talking about It

By Patricia Winton

A television repairman on my street befriended me soon after I moved here about ten years ago. For some reason, he thought my name was Gabriella and that I came from London. I corrected him many times, but he never remembered. I finally started answering to “Gabriella” when he greeted me. He’d ask me, “Have you been to London?” and I’d say “Yes. It was raining.”

First Courses
Until he closed down recently, he would pop out of his shop as I headed home at mid-day. “What are you eating for lunch?” He really wanted to know my dietary habits. Sometimes, when I faced just a ham sandwich or a carton of yogurt, I invented a menu. “Oh, I’m eating pennette al pomodoro and insalata.” That satisfied him. “Are you eating your fruit?” he’d ask. Another time, a Thursday, he called out, “In Rome we eat gnocchi on Thursday and cod with chickpeas on Friday.” I came to  learn this came from a traditional Roman saying, "gnocchi Thursday, chickpeas and cod Friday, and tripe Saturday. 

He always stood very close to me and shook his finger in my face as he lectured me. Once, he raced out of his shop, waving his hand to stop me, “Gabriella, you must try the new tavola calda (hot table, a type of cafeteria) across from the fire station. They have an excellent lunch menu. For just six euro, you get a first course, a main dish, vegetables and bread. It’s a good value, and you get lots of choices. Delizioso!” I followed his advice, and he was right.

Second Courses
My pal’s conversation mirrors that of many other Italian people. They are known for being a chatty race, and food ranks up there with travel, politics, and football as a favorite topic. At the market, for example, a stall keeper might ask a customer buying a head of escarole, “What are you going to do with it?” The reply would be detailed. “I’m going to sauté some garlic and mash in some anchovies,” she might say, “then add the escarole and sauté a bit more. I’ll serve it with short pasta and lots of Parmesan.” Other customers might kibitz. “Add some hot pepper.” Or, “Use pecorino instead of Parmesan.”

Conversations can become intense. “I love torta di patate (potato cake—not a sweet),” someone might say. Her companion might close her eyes and respond, “Oh, yes. Potatoes, onions, cream.” The first might object, “Oh, no, no onions.” La Mamma is always the ultimate authority. Everybody’s mamma. “My mother always uses ham and no onions.” Depending on how many people are involved, the argument could continue for some time. Should the potatoes be sliced or grated? Should you use béchamel or cream? Opinions are strong and passionately expressed.

People often seek ways to bolster their authority when debating Italian cuisine. In an exercise I often use in my English language classes, a British guy presents a recipe for Ragù Bolognese. It’s a horrible recipe, including tomato ketchup and “any kind of cheese.” The exercise sparks spirited debates among Italians. In one memorable discussion, various members of the class—all men—offered their take on the right way to make this sauce. Finally, one guy said, “My relatives are from Emilia-Romagna (the region where Bologna is located), so I know the best way to make this sauce.” He wasn’t from the region, you understand, but he put his family behind him to reinforce his opinion.

My TV repair friend has gone, and nobody calls me Gabriella any more, but I still listen closely to people talking about food. Where they’ll drive in the fall to get the best olive oil. What private producer makes the best Parmesan. How to cook the squid. When to prepare the walnut cordial. Who makes the best bread in the neighborhood.

 I blog on alternate Thursdays at Italian Intrigues where, next week, I'm writing about the world class chef who's preparing Italian cuisine for the International Space Station. You can read more about me on my website


  1. Patricia, I would love to live in a place where the culture revolves around food and good cooking. What a great way to make connections!

  2. It's amazing! The Italian astronaut who's going to the space station at the end of the month worked in the Italian love for food in an interview at NASA. He was talking about an experiment with emulsions and it's applications in industry, but couldn't resist adding that we use emulsions in cooking.

  3. Now I fully understand why you live in Italy, Patricia. You have to love a country that celebrates food so well! This is a lovely piece.

  4. Thank you Heidi. Visitors to Italy fall in love with the food, because, even in places that cater to tourists, the food is superior to what you often find elsewhere. I recommend that visitors go off the beaten track and go to eateries where there's no English on the menu.