Saturday, September 19, 2009

Gastronomically Yours

Before we left for Italy I was talking with a friend about our plans for our time here. I admitted to being tired of making art, not even sure I wanted to set foot in a museum. I really had not idea how I would spend my time. My friend answered, “Oh well. You have your food.” So, I guess I’m known as a foodie, which is fine, but now I can’t get this strange picture out of my head of me sitting at a table heaped with comestibles which I greedily hug to me, a tableau vivant of gluttony. How appropriate ( and how calculated !) was our ending up in a city that is known as La Grassa—the fat. Yes, Bologna is one of the world’s great food cities, one of the centers also of the Slow Food movement.

There is no lack of food markets in Bologna. They’re everywhere. The other day we were leaving the Piazza Maggiore in the center of town, where the cathedral, Basilica Petronio is located. Turning down a narrow street we discovered it was lined with tiny vegetable, meat and fish shops as well as bakeries selling breads, cakes and pasta. To give you an idea of how surprising this was to me, imagine strolling in the center of a large American city , maybe Times Square in New York or the Loop in Chicago, and being able to do all your ordinary food-shopping right there at not one, but twenty shops. I’m not talking about shops of the Dean & DeLuca variety, although many of these shops could put that foodtique to shame, but “regular” places. A huge part of why this works in Bologna is that its residents are used to picking up groceries for a day or two and bringing them home on the bus. (At this writing I think a small grocery store is set to open near Charlottesville's downtown mall. I'll be interested to know if people can get used to the idea of a grocery store without a parking lot.)

In restaurants and shops we have been amazed at the wide range of pastas, many of which we haven’t seen in the states. There are tortellini, stuffed pasta, which are about the size of a penny.. A slightly larger version is tortelloni. Then there are the quadretti which are tiny, and I do mean tiny squares of pasta. The squares are about the size of a molecule. These, I learned, are meant to be put into broth for a few minutes.

The other day we went out to eat (not something we do very often because restaurants are quite expensive) and I ordered something that I think was called ballonzini. These were shaped like tortelloni but each one was about the size of a tennis ball. I found this pasta to be quite endearing; they would be the sort I would end up with after making two or three of the small tortellini. I would just throw up my hands and speed up the whole process by making them huge. Anyway they were filled to overflowing with a ricotta and ham filling that was very nice. The sauce was butter mushroom and I counted three types of mushroom. Yesterday Bill had a really nice pumpkin ravioli which had a sauce I'd never tasted before. It was mainly balsamic vinegar. The sauce was amazing, almost the consistency of honey and definitely on the sweet side (probably from added sugar). It reminded me of a Chinese barbecue sauce. Boris and I kept dipping into it with our bread, although I think we left a little bit for Bill. All of our pasta dishes have been very rich, as you can tell. I really think Bill and I need to come up with a strategy between us where we order one pasta dish and a salad (these tend to be quite large). As it was, we asked for boxes to take home our leftovers. I am pretty sure that this isn’t “done,” but it seemed a crime to leave it.

Speaking of “done” things, judging from mentions in guidebooks, it seems like everybody now knows that to order a cappuccino after 11:00 am is to give one away as a a tourist (like that guidebook and parachute-sized map spread out on the table wouldn’t do that anyway). John Grisham, in his Bologna travelogue/mystery, The Broker also goes on about this at some length. The explanation seems to be that having milk late in the day is bad for the digestion, but if that’s the case, I don’t understand why it is permissible to order caffe macchiato—espresso with steamed milk.

Today is Saturday and I am very proud of myself for getting to the market near our house before it closes. Last week we all made the assumption—a wrong one—that the supermarket was open Sundays. Luckily the pizzeria was open.

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