Beyond spaghetti and meatballs (part two)

Further musings on a culinary tour through northern Italy

Roughly 60 kinds of local cheese to choose from at a village grocery store in northern Italy.

Roughly 60 kinds of local cheese to choose from at a village grocery store in northern Italy.

Photo by Tuck Coop

In Italy, food is everywhere. Italians graze, unlike in France and Spain, where food tends to be unobtainable between mealtimes. Every 20 feet there’s a tiny one- or two-person negozio (“shop”) serving food, and how seriously Italians take their eating is conveyed by the number of labels they have for food shops—you can eat at a supermercato, alimentari, portare via (take-out), pasticceria, enoteca, trattoria, ristorante, tavolo caldo, rosticceria, panificio, focacceria, osteria, caffe or cicchetti bar.

Italian shops keep a low profile. A bakery’s “advertising” will consist of one word on the wall, panificio (“bakery”), a trattoria will have just “trattoria” above the door. So when choosing a place to eat, don’t judge a libro by its cover. The best pasticceria (confectionary) in Venice has no sign at all—just a door and a window.

Italian food is cheap. A pizza costs seven euro (a little more than $8), a pasticcino or gelato costs one. Cheese that’s $25/lb in American gourmet shops is $5/lb. There is no tax or tipping. But the cost of a restaurant meal adds up because nothing is free. It costs to sit down or to order water unless you specify acqua del rubinetto (tap water). Ketchup for the fries is extra, and you get charged if you say “yes” when you’re asked if you want Parmesan on your pasta.

The three things northern Italy does splendidly are olive oil, cheese and cured meat, which Italians call salumi (salami is a specific kind of salumi). In every case, the good stuff doesn’t leave the country—doesn’t even leave the region—so you have to go to it. That’s where the joy is. Every village alimentari will stock the local olive oil and upward of 30 kinds of salumi and 60 kinds of cheese, mostly tipico (“local”), much of it unknown to you unless you’ve been there before, all of it wonderful. The cheese is all hard, so don’t look for spreadable cheeses like brie, or even something as soft as Edam. The salumi is predominantly fatty and salty, so be prepared to sacrifice your cholesterol level or look for cotto (“cooked,” not cured) meat.

Surprisingly, Italian bread is mostly poor. Yes, sourdough “French” bread was invented by Italian bakers out of San Francisco, but sourdough is not so prevalent in Italy. Most of the bread there is bland, airy white bread with a barely perceptible crust. But great, robust bread can be found. Seek out bread marked al legno (wood-fired) or the wonderfully named ossi croccanti (“crunchy bones”).

English use runs the gamut, from waiters who speak to you only in English however fluent in Italian you are to those who speak no English at all. Menus are typically bilingual. You could get by with English and pantomime, but that’s no fun—an hour’s practice would give you the four or five phrases that will turn you from an Ugly American into an amico: “il conto, per favore” (“The bill, please”), “siamo tre” (“There are three of us”), and a few others. In southern Europe the bill never comes until you ask for it, by the way.

The only drawback to the food of the Veneto is the drawback to many ethnic cuisines the world over: it’s all the same. There is one kind of pizza, one kind of pasta, one kind of pasta sauce, one kind of salad. After three weeks on the diet, I got back to the U.S. and went on an eating spree: burritos, pot pies, crêpes, pot stickers, pancakes, smoothies, empanadas, barbecue, carrot cake, falafel, jerk chicken, pitas, guacamole! It’s good to be home.