Malfatti translated into English means “poorly made.” An Italian slang term for a mistake. But a possible negative becomes a powerful postive in Italy where malfatti is symbolic of an ideal simplicity found in straightforward dishes made from the highest quality ingredients. Similar to the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi where imperfection can be turned into a thing of beauty and doing more with less is an art form. Bringing good food to the table doesn’t have to be a chore and recipes don’t have to be complicated to be good. Italians typically focus on the quality of ingredients rather than the number of ingredients. Italian cooking is founded on generational recipes that are handed down through the oral traditions of the great kitchens of Italy, with simple straighforward ingredients impeccably crafted as a well-designed Brioni suit.
First there was instant now there’s immediate as in coffee on a stick. A spatula-like spoon loaded with a coffee mixture that dissolves into a cup of steaming water. Just select a stick, dip and swirl and like magic your hot cup of water is transformed into a latte, macchiato, cappuccino, mocha or Americano. This immediate caffeine fix by Chinese designer Heo Jeong Im has generated a wide spectrum of comments ranging from a mere novelty, the most convenient way to have your coffee or another contributor to an increasing amount of food related eco-waste. Before we dismiss this as a minimalist coffee drinkers dream let’s applaud the designer’s creativity, dip into the waters and see how far it goes.
One of the best ways to spend time getting to know the region you are traveling through in Italy is to spend at least one leisurely afternoon visiting an Italian museum. Even if you are the most museum adverse person on the planet you cannot help but be amazed and engaged in Italian museums. Often in evocative settings – palaces, castles, churches, amphitheaters , monasteries, wineries and quirky out of the way sites – the authentic ambiance of seeing something in its historical setting can be awesome and memorable. Afterwards have a merenda, a mid-afernoon snack. A small bite of cheese and fruit, a slice of salumi and olives or a local specialty would be good.
Created in 1948 by Gian Luigi Bonelli and Aurelio Galoppini, Tex Willer is the most famous comic strip in Italy. Still published today, Willer is a Texas Ranger who fights, with his three friends, against all sorts of evil. A little like the Lone Ranger in an Italian-made interpretation of the American Old West. There are lawmen and Indians, trappers and bandits but in typical Italian fashion there is also a fantastical collection of magicians, illusionists, wizards and an Irish boxer as well as El Morisco, a warlock, scientist, naturalist and doctor from Memphis, Egypt and the Black Tiger, a Malay prince from Borneo. My Italian friend Rita from Piacenza loves Tex Willer. Years ago she asked me if I knew Tex Weller and Kit Carson. Carson yes. Willer no. And although Kit Carson seems pretty tame by Tex Willer standards on my next visit to Italy I brought Rita a book about Kit Carson – Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West. It was the most sensational title I could find but I warned her that it couldn’t compete with her hero Tex.
Tonight is a perfect winter night for an Italian “hot bath”. A bubbly incensual infusion of olive oil, butter, garlic and anchovies called a “bagna cauda“. A hot bath for dipping chunks of crusty bread, celery stalks, steamed onions and cardoons (thistles). This hot dip from Piemonte shares Italian cold weather cuisine with a winter brasato and a Valdostana fondue.
Typically served in a copper cauldron or terra-cotta pot placed in the middle of the table it is designed for communal food bathing.There are several variations on this sauce including one with an enormous amount of garlic (5 heads) that simmers in milk for an hour before entering into the bath. In fact heavy cream is sometimes added to make this a warm milk bath that will have you envious of the ingredients that enter the ritualist pool. For the rite of bagna cauda is one of a convivial atmosphere with friends and family gathered around the simmering pot of sauce waifing through the air entering into every pore of your being leaving you awash in a satisfying glow.
Buon Capodanno! Happy New Year! Literally translated it means happy “head of the year”. A continuum of holiday merriment that has been underway for weeks as Italians prepare for the Christmas season. A holiday feast of food and drink that leads us into a New Year with symbolic ingredients like coin-shaped lentils (for luck) and cotechino and zampone (stuffed pigs’ trotters) to represent the bags to hold the incoming money.
But such prosperity and good fortune don’t come easily and after the arrival of La Befana the Christmas Witch on January 6th Italians, like most of us, are faced with a way to make the New Year better. It always helps to have a good head “capo” on your shoulders and to quote someone who has seen her share of ups and downs “everyone has highs and lows they have to learn from, but every morning I start off with a good head on my shoulders, saying to myself, ‘It’s going to be a good day! ‘ OK Lindsay Lohan – it’s going to be a good New Year.