A while back I was tagged by the Italian blog Peperosso for a meme inspired by the Observer's list of 50 things foddies should do: make a list of ten things you think every food lover should not miss. This 10 things meme was intriguing. I gave this some thought straightaway... then I took my little job-related pause from blogging, and so I got a chance to think some more. I got tagged for another few memes following that and so in the next few weeks I'll try to catch up with the backlog of writing my dear friends have lovingly dumped on me. Just kidding, deep inside I enjoy this... sure do.
After all this time I ended up with two lists. One is inspired by the way I feel about Italians and their food loves, prejudices and unfamiliarity with what goes on outside our borders. The other puts together ten Italian foods that you just have to have tried, especially if you are a foreigner traveling to Italy, but don't feel excluded if you happen to be an Italian. I'll start today with the latter. The former will be up in a few days.
1) Eat pizza in Napoli. As contender to the crown of most popular dish of the world, pizza would deserve a place between the favorites. It has spread throughout the world with the speed and effect characteristic of bad weeds: pizzerias spring all over the place and, just as bad weeds, not all those pizzas are actually edible. And while it moved it transformed itself: you can get Haway pizza (ham, cheese and pineapple; simply disgusting!) in Germany, pizza with tikka chicken in India, with seaweed and bonito flakes in Japan. Yet, as it gained toppings, it lost its real soul: that of a flat disk of delicious dough topped with a light and careful hand. Go back to base, Naples, and find what the real deal is. And don't wait too long, bad pizza is spreading like a GM crop in Naples too. Forget all those toppings, put your pretenses of fancy service aside, arm yourself with patience (you probably will wait to get in) and eat a margherita in one of the following: Da Michele (Via Cesare Sersale, 1/3; Tel. 0815539204), Starita (Via Materdei,27, Tel. 0815441485), Pizzaiolo del Presidente (Via Tribunali, 120/121, Tel. 081210903)
2) Discover the great aged cheeses of Southern Italy: Caciocavalli. Cheese is simply one of the great foods mankind ever came up with. Stinky, runny washed rind cheeses, moldy and powerful blues, aromatic alpine treasures and so on. Everyone has their favorites. Maybe it's my Southern Italian inferiority complex -something that makes us brethren of all those coming from the conceptual "south" of every country or continent- but I just cannot believe how often aged spun curd cheeses are left out when mentioning the great cheeses of the world. Be it the Sicilian Ragusano, the sought after Podolico, or the round Provolone del Monaco once you give these cheeses a try, you'll be in for a surprise. Pungent yet buttery and so rich with the aromas of Mediterranean herbs to cause a taste explosion in your mouth.
3) Eat sea urchin roe straight from the shell in Salento, Puglia (just to pick one place). You either like sea urchin roe or you don't, that's a fact. The world is divided between the lovers and the haters of this delicacy, as it is between those who think Orlando Bloom is a sexy guy (OK this one is for the ladies, hopefully only those under 30) and a good performer (you're kidding, right?) and those who believe he looks like a pre-pubescent that cannot act if his life depended on it. Still, if the only sea urchin you had came from a can or from a dubious fishmonger who was hoping to find a schmuck (you) to dump his week old stuff onto, then you should have another go. You could travel to Porto Cesareo, southeast of Lecce, and buy a dozen of sea urchins or two from one of the stalls there. Or you could go to Gallipoli's market and hope to get some before the local restaurants clear the daily stocks. But that would be being lazy. The freshest sea urchins you will get are those you will catch yourself armed with diver googles, a snorkel, a bag, and if you really must, gloves. Dive, catch, repeat till happy or till you cannot find any more sea urchins. Cut the little buggers open (nail scissors work great), and remove everything except the roe. Eat alone -no lemon, salt or pepper, a slice of bread only if you must- and savour the delicate sweetish iodine taste.
4) Go on a salumi eating spree in Emilia Romagna. In Italy pig is king. But if I had to choose only one place Emilia Romagna would definitely be where I'd go. How could you resist a region that offers the king of salumi culatello, coppa (cured blade), spalla (cured shoulder), delicious salame, cotechino and its relatives and more? Pity for that Prosciutto di Parma, could be a great ham, it's only a mass market good one. Still, pass on a few slices if you can.
5) Discover real Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena. Seriously, forget that supermarket shit you're using to dress your salad. Use a good normal vinegar, like a Sherry vinegar, for that. If you were thinking that has anything to do with real balsamico, you are way wrong. And don't even get me started on the white balsamico junk. Real balsamico is a work of love, skill and patience, which transforms, in at least 12 years, Trebbiano grape must into an amber colored, mellow and aromatic elixir. Be crazy once and fish out those 100 $ for a small bottle of the right stuff. Once it is in your hands, don't even try to cook with it, you'll be loosing all the fine aromas developed through aging. And for Christ's sake don't even think about dressing your salad with that! Instead sprinkle a few drops on parmesan shavings or a strawberry, try a little with your vanilla ice cream, or even better indulge in a teaspoon of balsamico, straight... or carefully drizzled on the skin of the person of your choice.
6) Fettunta. Don't you just love olives? And great Extra Virgin olive oil? I'd almost drink it straight... but only almost. The idea of a mouthful of oil still has something slightly repelling to me. Yet fear not! The Tuscans have invented the perfect way to taste your favorite EVOO almost pure: A slice of toasted bread, or better grilled on an open fire, a good amount of that delicious olive "juice" and... Antonio's your uncle.
7) Mozzarella. Call me a mozzarellophile, this is my favorite food obsession. I talked about it before, but I cannot stop repeating this over and over: if you never tasted mozzarella made the same day using live ferment with raw buffalo milk from around Mondragone or in Cilento or even raw cow milk one from Agerola you simply never tasted mozzarella. The first freshly made "live" mozzarella is something one never forgets.
8) Alba White truffles. Yes, I know, truffles is almost too obvious a choice. They're up there with foie gras, lobster and caviar in the expensive, delicious and ever so pretentious ingredients. Still if your truffle experiences have been limited to the better known Tuber melanosporum, i.e. the Perigord black truffle or tartufo di Norcia, as it is known in Italy, then you should definitely try this "white" relative, more expensive, more delicate (cooking destroys its aroma), more difficult to find at its very best... but heck even more delicious in my very opinionated view. White truffle at its best is loaded with its unique earthy and somewhat garlicky smell, the so called "profumo", and has a sensual dimension that very few other ingredients have. If you have the time and the money, the best way to have a taste would be to travel to Piemonte, especially the Alba region, in autumn and make a tour of the best trattorie/restaurants serving the delicious tuber on a simple sunny side up egg, carne all'Albese, tajarin noodles and more. Ah, truffle heaven!
9) Not enough cash for truffles every time you'd like to have some? (Me neither!) comfort yourself with one of the simplest Italian dishes there is Pasta burro e parmigiano, nothing more than pasta, butter and parmesan, and a little pepper if you wish. Italy and butter? You thought be bathed in olive oil? Well it's a little lie. Olive oil was always used, but if you look back one or two centuries only some Italian regions (Puglia and Liguria for example) named it their cooking fat of choice. Traditionally other parts of Italy would have used butter or lard as first pick, depending on the local agriculture. So plenty of buttery dishes out there, just think of risotto. Yet if I think butter I think of my very own comfort food: delicious butter (possibly an artisan mountain butter from Alto Adige), tasty Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano (but then from Trentino), and great home made tagliatelle made using only yolks. Using the yolks instead of the whole egg -substitute 3 yolks per egg- gives an even richer dish, just in case it would not be heart-clogging enough for you yet. Surgeon General warning: use with moderation.
10) Granita. Sicily is one of the Italian regions I love most. Apart being beautiful, alive and full of strong contrasts, it is one of the places were culinary fusion has made history: Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, French, Spaniards and not last the continental Italians (still seen pretty much as foreigners by quite a few Sicilians) all left something of their culinary tradition here. The Arabs in particular played a major role in bringing in the foundations, among others, for what evolved into hard wheat pasta, Sicily's most famous dessert Cassata, and last but not least an array of fantastic cold confections. And yet, as with every aspect of Sicilian gastronomy, it was down to the local's inventiveness and love for food to turn those recipe-buds into the fantastically unique creations that now make Sicilian cuisine. And so from the Arab sherbet or sarbat, iced drinks based on fruit juices, the Sicilians developed granita. No, not that icy slurry with great lumps you get almost anywhere -heck, you can make that yourself at home- but the suave creamy ice paste that so few outside Sicily seem to be able to produce. It might be the hot weather, but just now I couldn't think of a finer breakfast treat than the classical Sicilian breakfast treat of split brioche stuffed with almond or coffee granita. I cannot wait to be in Sicily in a month's time and taste what is considered by many the finest granita of them all, the one produced by Corrado Assenza of Caffé Sicilia in Noto. (For a nice read about granita you might want to have a look at what J.Steingarten writes about it in the chapter "The mother of all ice creams" in his The Man Who Ate Everything)