“Uno piccolo coppetta per favor"
18.06.2016 - 08.07.2016
“Wow! I didn’t expect to see you,” I gushed as it brushed past me and went to the other table.
“What are you doing here?” I asked coyly.
“I didn’t know you were from up this way. I mean, I figured you came from somewhere nearby but this is…an unexpected surprise…
…You look good.
…You look really good”, I say, unable to tear my eyes away.
A huge dollop of Genovese basil pesto oozes down from the piece of toasted bruschetta. The fluro green oil is pooling at the bottom and the toasted, oily, garlicy bread is lapping it up.
“You are looking really good. I don’t mean to ramble but I mean it’s just so nice to see you. I have always adored you and now you are here, and its been such an unexpected, serendipitous surprise”.
My God that looks delicious. There were other accompaniments to the dish but I was focussed on that glorious green pesto dollop.
I sit there smiling, overwhelmed with happiness to see my old friend, one of my great loves right in front of me. While this is playing out in my head I realise I am still staring at the people at the table nearby (well their lunch). I don’t mean to, but this is a game changer. I had no idea this handsome little character was going to be on offer.
Delicious fresh basil pesto, one of my reasons for living and as it turns out, which I cannot believe I didn’t research fully up until this point, a regional speciality of Liguria.
It’s no secret that I love food and in particular Italian food. Italian food and the mediterranean diet of fresh, delicious ingredients really is a major drawcard for returning to one of my favourite countries in the world. It has beautiful sights, stunning landscapes, interesting history, friendly people, good weather and delicious food. The best thing about Italy is food is a shared passion, it is expected that you dine out and eat several courses and to talk about your meals. It enriches your travel experience ten fold. In my early 20s it was about the cheap lunch of bread and cheese, then as I got older I visited the occasional restaurant as a treat and sought out regional specialities especially cheap and easy street food. Now I have a steady income, this trip to Italy was going to be even more delicious. This trip was going to have a dusting of truffle salt and a “hell I’ll have an entree as well” attitude because ‘treat yo self’.
I was ready to do Italy. I packed my active wear, which remained the only clean item I returned with, and I packed my snacktive wear, which I put on daily to ensure I was comfortable to take on several courses. Good snacktive wear provides flexibility because sometimes it is imperative to push meals close together so as to not miss a good opportunity so elastic waists or free fall skirts. Obviously you also have to be mindful of keeping the colours dark to avoid a splash of the old pomodoro sauce or an equally disastrous chocolate gelato drip. There’s no time for washing clothes on holidays.
Moments after touching down into Roma, I hit the streets and soon found myself ordering a panino, a Roman street food staple and finding a curb side location looking at the Roman Forum to eat it. I sat at street level because I may have an income now but I am still a gypsy hobo at heart. My sandwich had roasted eggplant and buffalo mozzarella swimming in a tomato sauce. I looked at the hot and sweaty faces of the tourists walking by with their white runners and maps, I gazed on at the relics of ancient Rome and really just took a load off and enjoyed my sandwich. Now this is a travel experience, being ushered around the colosseum in 40 degree heat is worth doing but snacking while taking in the sights and sounds of the city is a much more preferable task.
When I say I love Italian food, really it cannot be categorised so broadly. It is highly regionalised, sure you can go anywhere and get a pizza and pasta but there is a whole world to explore when you get specific about flavours, styles and specialities. Pizza though a Napoli special is found everywhere, they vary in quality but are rarely disappointing. They can be made to about 75cm in diameter and sold by the giant slice or are just your regular family-sized 8 slicer for one. Sharing pizza is only required when you want to order more than one thing (which by the way is always). Getting one pizza as a meal to share is a waste of an eating opportunity and your clean snacktive wear. Small eaters need not apply - holiday elsewhere. Pizza is kept simple with a few combinations of tomato, mozzarella and insert other ingredient (mushroom, meat, eggplant, fresh tomato, a giant dollop of pesto - all are deliciously simple). The dough needs to be light and crunchy, thin enough that it bubbles a little and can be folded and eaten in one go should you be in a hurry to catch a train or get to dessert. I am also partial to a calzone, pizzas less-cute cousin, it’s really just a pizza folded in half to become a giant fun pocket that bursts with steam and shrinks down to size oozing its delicious cheesy innards all over your plate.
Speaking of innards, a Florentine speciality is Lamperetto, a tripe sandwich. I gave that a miss but all good restaurants will serve the regional specialities. If it’s not in season you won’t find it on a good menu, a good italian menu is handwritten and changes all the time. It bugs me to see people sitting at terrible tourist traps in the main piazza, paying top dollar for mediocre food. I guess perhaps its just me not wanting to waste a meal on something not mouth wateringly delicious. Do a little research its always worth it then you can make an educated decision to avoid eating gizzards despite it looking delicious served in a fresh bread roll with tomato sauce like a meatball sub.
My last Italian snackcursion was to Sicily, where desserts and seafood reign supreme. In the North you are in ravioli and risotto country, colder climates require more sustainable food. Minestones and bean soups are all wonderfully delicious and hearty Tuscan specialties. The North is also fungi territory where mushrooms and truffles reign supreme. Adding a little truffle salt to your meal is mind blowing. Obviously i’m more financially stable at the moment but i’m not a millionaire, I can’t be owning €15 salt so I use the free stuff when it is on offer then salt heavily to get the most out of it. Thirsty work, but worth it.
As you move through Italy you can see the pasta preference change from strands of varying thicknesses to odd little twists, blobs and whoziwhatsits. All pasta, all delicious but changing constantly. The street food, or rather, the snack food of choice also changes in each region. While I survived on arancini in Sicily and panino in Rome in Liguria the street snack of choice is a focaccia, something I never realised was anymore than a bastardised Australian thing. I knew they baked the bread but it comes with an array of delicious baked on toppings that you can buy by the slice or the gram like a pizza. Another familiar face popped up on the menus in the North west, my old friend bruschetta. A range of toasted breads with all sorts of fresh toppings, tomato, basil, mozzarella and often a few slivers of anchovies.
In Tuscany you couldn’t go far without snacksidentally consuming meats and cheeses. Italy makes what seems like a million different processed, smoked and cured meat products. Giant legs and salami type things of various colours, shapes and fat content. You can actually just buy slices of lard if that’s your favourite part. Then there are your cheeses to accompany it, usually hard cheeses like pecorino or parmigiano, any quiet, unassuming cheese that is not going to take the focus away from the meat. There’s no room for a showy, decadent soft cheese here. Admire the platter on arrival then dig in, grab a bit of crusty bread or a dried cracker and just pile that bad boy up with a meat, cheese, meat combination of your choosing then just throw it in. Throw it in and chew, chew, chew, don't focus on the strings of fat that are getting stuck in your teeth or the giant speckle of white fat you just ate. Florence loves meat and I love seeing legs of animals hanging from the ceiling, I find it fascinatingly gross yet rather whimsical. The Florentines also favour a focaccia as their daily ‘on the move’ snack. Theirs is made with no salt because a million moons ago because they didn’t want to pay a salt tax to Pisa so it’s deliciously oily instead. Soft but crunchy around the edges. Specialist sandwich shops will slice you some cured meats and make you a delicious sandwich with a variety of sandwich cremes; spreads made from truffle, eggplant, olive or artichoke. Like a delicious tapenade to soak up what part of the bread the oil hasn’t.
There are a million delicious dining options to discuss but the most important piece of advice however with restaurant dining is to ensure you are travelling and dining with a fellow snacker. A person who also thinks a post-siesta, pre dinner salami and cheese platter is a top idea. A good food companion will go on this food adventure with you and won’t order a salad or suggest you just get a pizza to share. You want the type of person who always says yes to an entree and always agrees that if you both order two mutually agreed upon dishes and split them then you get to eat more delicious things and never feel like you are missing out.
Finally, undoubtedly one of the best parts about any European summer holiday is gelato. There’s hundred of flavours, all gloriously piled up in a rainbow of colours. Gelato as I learned is made with more milk than cream which is why is melts faster than you can eat it and it is why proper artesian gelato has a runny, almost sticky consistency that they have to plop onto the cone. This also allows one to claim it healthier than ice-cream and therefore just plain healthy. The best place for gelato is Italy, the home of gelato is generally attributed to Florence but some don’t agree with that. While I would never discriminate, I tend to lean towards a sorbetto, the fruit flavoured gelato usually made with the finest seasonal fruits. As a connoisseur I can share some of the tips of the trade. A good gelateria will keep its product under the counter in little silver canisters like the treasure it is. Hidden away from prying eyes. They will also have rotating flavours and sell out because they will be making what is in season and making it every day. Good gelato will also not be vibrant in colour if they are making it properly because a banana isn’t yellow. While all gelato is delicious, refreshing and cool on what is always a scorching hot day in any Italian city, if you are going to do it, do it properly. You won’t regret seeking out store made, artisan gelato. You may pay a little more for your ‘piccolo coppetta’ but it will always be worth it. Earlier this year I rode my bicycle to work and I said for every time I rode I could have two gelato in Italy. I lied to others and to myself because I had 17 gelato in 17 days and rode my bicycle once. It was imperative that I have a gelato every day because once you start there’s no point being a quitter (that’s for team sports when you realise sitting at home is more fun that sitting on the bench). I tried my best not to repeat a flavour so it could be considered a science, historical and cultural experiment as well a weight-gaining exercise. Limoncello, green apple, pomegranate, apricot and melon were some of my favourites while some of the more unusually delicious flavours I consumed were basil and lemon, chocolate pear, ricotta and Chianti red wine. It is important to remember that if you get a small cone or cup, it’s perfectly legitimate to eat one every day. Haters gonna hate.
Throw in a food tour where I sampled too many different flavours of cantucci (biscotti) then purchased an extra kilo, ate countless pieces of assorted meats and drank wine then did a pizza and gelato making class i’ve ensured everyday in Italy had a delicious melting buffalo mozzarella moment served with a sprig of fresh basil.
With a heavy heart, a croissant with Nutella in one hand and an espresso in the other, I prepared to leave Italy. At immigration I received my certificate for sustaining Italian agriculture and one for my dedication to the consumption of carbohydrates. I lamented how having Nutella croissants is frowned upon as a breakfast item at home as I dipped that puppy into my coffee. Then thought how that also is probably frowned upon.
I guess the detox starts Monday?