Ernest Hemingway once said ‘Paris is a moveable feast.’ I know of a more literal one: Italian food. How this Jewish boy, raised on Buitoni (canned pasta, for those who have to ask), ended up with a life-long love of ravioli, marinara, osso bucco e tutta la cucina italiana is a wonderful tale of cultural displacement, of how heritage and taste can diverge.
I took my first step away from Hamburger Helper (a staple of suburban American kitchens) as a result of – predictably, for this writer – a book. That book was Elizabeth David’s Italian food. It was originally published in 1954, when the people of England were suffering from food shortages caused by post-war austerity and (not co-incidentally) hearing stories from returning soldiers about a new and delicious continental delicacy called ‘pizza’.
In Italian food, I read Mrs. David’s description of the fish markets of Genoa, her instructions on how to layer lasagna al forno, and how to properly trim an artichoke (far too complicated for this fifteen year-old). There were recipes, of course – for simple things that I could try in my parent’s kitchen, like spaghetti or fritto misto (fried fish, with olive oil splattering everywhere). But I was most fascinated not by recipes but by the prose – the author’s amazing descriptions of Italian hill towns with their vineyards, the open-air markets, the midnight trattorias, and stone furnace kitchens.
When I was old enough to wander outside the boundaries of my family, I discovered Little Italy, a neighborhood in lower Manhattan. There my friends and I discovered a place where you had to walk through the kitchen to get to the dining room, or where your table was on the sidewalk – places where everyone around you was talking (actually, shouting) in Italian. I don’t know why, but I immediately felt at home.
Around this time, I thought about actually making a living in what they called the ‘food service industry’. I took a job at a delicatessen on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and learned how to slice prosciutto, brew espresso, and build a proper panini. I figured I liked eating the stuff, so why not try to sell it? But as with all things vocational, I soon understood loving something is not the same thing as profiting from it.
A dozen or so years later, after I had already settled down with my partner (and soon to be husband), my parents gave me a small gift of cash. This happened right around the time when John and I were planning to celebrate our second anniversary (we’re up to our thirty-fourth one now, just to give you an idea of the time-frame here), so the first thing we thought of when it came time to spend this money was… Italy, specifically Venice.
Venice is like a dream version of Italy: all of the beauty and charm (and food) with none of the traffic and noise. All my fondest memories of this visit all have something to do with food: fegato alla griglia (liver) at Harry’s Bar, a seafood fritto misto on the banks of a canal, a tiny trattoria run by two old ladies who served nothing but spaghetti. I’ve been to Venice a few times since (with, I have to admit, diminishing returns), but I’ve never forgotten that first bite of risotto ai gamberi.
At home, I immediately became a partigiano. I bought a hand-cranked Atlas pasta machine and started making my own lasagna noodles and ricotta-stuffed ravioli. Together, John and I scoured all of New England looking for ‘the best’ Italian restaurant (hint: the winner changed from year to year). And when we retired, we decided to live in Italy. (Full disclosure: actually, we first went to Ecuador, and then Malta – but there’s no room for that story here).
Living in Italy turned out not to be as easy as we had hoped. But the food was never part of the problem. It’s no part of the problem in Prague either; there is more variety, better prices, and greater quality here than anywhere else I have ever lived. But if I had the ability to teleport us to a different city in Italy once a month, I would.
Then I could again have the most perfect pasta Bolognese I ever ate (in Bologna, of course), or a veal cutlet from Verona, served by a handsome waiter while we sat at an outdoor table gloriously cornered by a fifteenth-century church and a medieval stone portal.
John and I could go back to Rome and eat spaghetti a splashing distance from the Trevi Fountain, or find the bar around the corner from the Pantheon where we and our dear friend Rebecka polished off four bottles of the vino di casa, a memory perfectly described by Joni Mitchell: “I could drink a case of you, and still be on my feet”.
We could return to Lake Garda and drink fresh Valpolicella. We could walk down the block from wherever we were staying and buy bundles of fresh tagliatelle to cook for dinner, delicious with nothing but butter, parsley, and parmesan.
John and I don’t live in Italy anymore; at least not physically. But whenever it’s time to head out to the markets here in Prague (there are many of them, and all wonderful), the first thing we say to each other is: what pasta? Shall I make a gluten-free lasagna? (And yes, this is really possible). Or how about pasta fasole (a soup of sausages and white beans)? Or good ol’ spaghetti and meatballs? (Still a nearly weekly occurrence – I can never get enough of a spicy marinara and a glass of ‘spaghetti red’).
They say that food is love, and I’ll add that eating Italian food with my Italian (well, half-Italian) husband is a form of lovemaking. I’ll remember mussels stewed in wine in Little Italy on a hot summer night, washed down with ice-cold verdicchio di castelli di Jesi. Spearing squid-ink rigatoni in the Campo Santo Stefano in Venice. Nibbling gelato on the banks of the Adige river in Verona…
Even after we moved out of Italy, we never left it behind. We can still stroll down to the fair on the banks of the Vltava in Prague and find a booth making fresh ravioli. At home, I can make a blissful meal out of a few lemon-soaked olives, slices of streaky ham, sweet olive oil, chopped basil, and grated gran padano. Across the decades, good Italian food has been a constant and intimate companion, the third in our ménage a trois.
A la famiglia! Salute!