“Di là,” rispose il Gatto, girando la zampa destra, “abita un Cappellaio; e di qua,” indicando con l’altra zampa, “abita una Lepre Marzolina. Visita chi vuoi dei due: sono entrambi matti.”
“In that direction,” the Cat said, waving its right paw around, “lives a Hatter: and in that direction,” waving the other paw, “lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.
It’s been 150 years since we followed Alice down the rabbit hole and the enormous influence of Lewis Carroll’s writings on visual art and literature has influenced the world. First published on July 4th 1865 the sentiment of creative chaos and an escape from the ordinary captured the imagination of Italian illustrators like Fulvio Bisca, a graphic and type designer from Torino who created a curiouser and curiouser version of Alice with a series of contemporary illustrations.
Traveling in Italy I’ve eaten my share of meatballs and I’ve seen many recipes. When making meatballs I always follow the advance of mia Nonna. Never crowd your meatballs. Brown in a good olive oil and leave a space between your meatballs when browning and don’t touch them until you see the oil turn a beautiful, burnished golden color. You can probably apply this to life as well. Don’t crowd and clutter and take on more than you can comfortably manage. Surround yourself with simple things that promote your well-being. Don’t manipulate too much and in the end turn a beautiful, burnished gold.
More advice and Italian food lore.
Italians are very fond of a pre-dinner ritual called the aperitivo, a drink and a nibble designed to “open the stomach” and aid in digestion. Traditions and knowledge about the Italian aperitivo say that l’appetito viene mangiando, “appetite comes when you eat.”. Popularizing a small snack and a light drink before dinner seems counterintuitive but a small bit of food before dinner may help you eat less and enjoy your food more. Stopping work at exactly 5:00 o’clock, hopping onto your Vespa and heading out to the nearest aperitivo bar is a social custom that we might benefit from. Here’s to moderation, balance and a Campari and soda.
Italians are well known for a series of both practical and artistic inventions. The piano, violin, ballet, the battery and the botanical garden. The coronary stent, combination lock and espresso machine. The film festival, law school, nuclear reactor and prosciutto. All from the hearts and minds of Italians. But one invention is a word that is universally used on a daily basis by just about everyone on the planet. An etymological reference attributed to a popular 16th century character from Italy’s Commedia dell’Arte named Pantalone, a farcical old Venetian who wore tight-fitting trousers, for which he was ridiculed. That word is “pants”.
Although Italians did not “invent” trousers (that is attributed to the 6th century horse-riding peoples of Eastern and Central Asia) the word “pants” as we know it can be etymologically connected to this comedic Italian character whose funny pants eventually caught on in France in the form of pantaloons, and elsewhere was shortened to “pants”. Today the cut, features, fabric and fit of Italian-made pants are seriously sought after and make Italian pant makers among the best in the world.
Un scherzo: Throw it at a bad opera singer at La Scala?
Italians would never be that rude at the opera or that wasteful. They knew the tomato was special as early as 1544 when Pietro Andrea Mattioli an Italian physician and botanist from the University of Padua included the tomato in his Discourse on Material Medicine where he discussed the tonic and magical powers of the pomo d’oro or “golden apple”.
However it wasn’t until 1839 that the tomato met pasta in Italy when Ippolito Calvacanti, the Duke of Buonvicino, published a cookbook with a recipe for vermicelli co le pomodoro made with crushed tomatoes and the leftovers of onions and herbs from the garden, lightly fried in oil creating the first tomato sauce. And here it is, roughly translated.
Take 4 “rotoli” ( unit of measurement used in Naples equal to .861 kg) (2.760 kg) of tomatoes, cut them in a cross, take out the seed and water, boil them, and when they are melted, pass them through a sieve, and that sauce let it condense over the fire, adding one third (gr.275) of suet, or lard. When the sauce is dense, boil 2 “rotoli” (1.380 kg) of vermicelli, very green (a typical Neapolitan expression to mean “al dente”) and drain well, put them in the sauce with salt and pepper, keeping them on the heat of the fire so they dry a little. Every now and then turn, and when they are well seasoned serve them.
There are many regional dialects in the Italian language. If you come from an Italian family you probably heard your parents and grandparents speak a little differently that what you learn in an Italian language class. That’s because you are learning classical Italian based on the Tuscan dialect popularized by Dante Alighieri.
Dante is credited for standardizing the Italian language and the dialect of Tuscany making it the basis for what would be the official language of Italy and making Dante the “Father of the Italian language”. That’s not to say everyone agreed with him. There was much debate over the centuries on what should govern the establishment of a modern Italian literary and spoken language. An intellectual debate between various scholars of the time (including Baldassare Castiglione and Niccolo Machiavelli) ranted on whether the standard or dialectical form of Italian should be the most accepted. Eventually standard Italian prevailed and the Accademia della Crusca, an official government institution established in1582, began overseeing the preservation of standard Italian. Shortly after that, the Accademia published the first official Italian dictionary, the Vocabolario della Crusca, which ultimately became the template for future language dictionaries.
Spring is officially here and summer isn’t far behind. Meaning that now is the time to plan and plant your garden. Classic Italian cuisine begins with authentic ingredients.
Here are a few heirloom seed choices that will inspire your inner Italian. We call them the Italian Underground because they are slightly off the typical gardener’s radar. You can find them on various internet sites for ordering.
- Ligurian Basil from Portofino. Thick, aromatic bright green leaves. Suited to pots. Traditionally used to make Pesto Genovese.
- Melenzana Eggplant Violet of Florence. A large, violet to pink, round fruit with ribbing. Beautiful to look at as well as eat. Perfect for stuffing.
- Peperocini Ciliegia Piccante . A medium hot round cherry chili pepper. It looses about 60% of its heat when cooked making it great stuffed with mozzarella or grilled. A great addition to a plate of antipasti, pickled or in salads.
- Fava Bean delle Cascine. Farmhouse style fava favored by Italian chefs who insist it to be more tender than other favas.
- Zucchini San Pasquale. Ribbed with dark/light green stripes. Excellent taste and good flower production for stuffed zucchini blossoms.
- Mixed Swiss Chard. Ruby red, yellow and orange stem chard perfect sautéed in olive oil and garlic.
- Fennel Mantovano. Large rounded head. Very white bulb and deep green stalks. Full of crunch. Nice sweet flavor with stronger anise overtones than most varieties.
- Prezzemolo Gigante Parsley Giant of Naples. Very large flat-leaf variety from Naples with incredible flavor. Dark-green leaves regrow after cutting (hence the name prezzemolo, which means “to turn up everywhere”).