Monday, November 2, 2009

Local Italian-style

Near our apartment is the Mercatino Chiesa Nuova, an indoor market with perhaps a dozen stalls which sell fruit, vegetables, meats, cheeses and various other things. There's even a stall with a large inventory of hard candy if you like that sort of thing. Outside of the building are goods for sale which seem to change from day to day. One day there was a table with piles of stainless dinner-ware, pots and pans. It was gone the next day. You can usually count on somebody selling shirts of a jersey material bearing sequins and odd slogans. (How odd ? How about “Ethnic Passion” for starters ? A good name for a cocktail in my opinion.)

Standing before a market stall in which gigantic pears, plums, and clementines are practically tumbling off the tables, it’s hard not to be seduced. Fresh, seasonal produce you think. And yet it’s November and they’re selling plums. Hmmm. (Incidentally the weather in Bologna is very similar to northern Virginia or the southern midwest. Not exactly southern California). So, what’s happening is that food is coming in from all over the world. China is a big exporter for instance. Of course in such a picturesque market setting it’s easy to think everything was dug up from the ground or picked from a tree that very morning. Not that the imported food is bad, but it isn't going to fulfill the requirements of somebody intent on eating locally.

To make absolutely sure you are buying local you can shop in places that have a Chilometri Zero sign on the door. This indicates that the produce or cheese or salume (cured hams like prosciutto and all and sundry) originate in Bologna or the very near vicinity. I happened to see this sign the other day in a shop, but I didn’t realize that the term was such a common one until I read an article outlining plans to put a Chilometri Zero restaurant in a disused villa. The writer of the article didn't even bother to explain what that meant.

An especially easy way to buy local is to look to the wineshops or simply the wine department of any grocery store. In our local supermarket there are five banks of shelves well-stocked with a variety of red and white wine. They have just about any wine you could want…as long as it’s from the Emilia-Romagna region (the region which contains Bologna). There is quite a bit of wine made from sangiovese, the grape made famous by the Chianti region. The Emilia-Romagna version is lighter and slightly fruitier, thinner tasting. The same goes for the Merlot. It’s fair to say that the wines from this area are drinkable and go well with food; they just aren’t very memorable. The same goes for pignoletto , a white wine that is gaining recognition. It is frizzante, being fizzy rather than bubbly like a champagne and dry. It’s what wine guides might charitably call “a good quaffer.”

The other night we stopped at the intriguing, quaint sort of wine bar you always hope to find but usually don’t, or you find it in the morning when it’s closed and then forget to write down the address for another occasion. Happily, on this particular evening our timing was perfect. Olindo Faccioli is a tiny place a few blocks north of via Ugo Bassi, on via Altabella. Although minutes from a bustling city center area Faccioli is on a quiet secluded street with little traffic. It has been in business since 1924 although it did change locations rather recently: in 1934. The interior had floor-to-ceiling wooden shelves full of wine bottles. The shelves together with the bar which cut the narrow room in half made me think of an apothecary shop. When I noticed a pastel portrait of the owner I told him it was a good likeness. The portrait turned out to be his father. The two men were as identical in appearance as in vocation. The son's sommelier certificate was proudly displayed ( and believe me it looked a lot more impressive than my Italian Language Certificate of Participation).

To give you an idea how important drinking local wine is, when the owner was listing the wines available by the glass he specified the ones nella zona, in our zone or area. Then almost as an afterthought he mentioned a couple of wines outside the zone. By outside he meant Tuscany which couldn't possibly be more than two hours away. The wine list for bottles had one page each for every area of Italy: Puglia, Veneto, Tuscany, Friulia, etc. As for wines outside the country, there were possibly eight wines listed for all of France. Can you imagine ? I wonder if Italians travelling in France are surprised to learn that the French dabble in wine-making. And American wines ? I haven’t seen one anywhere since we’ve arrived.

One thing I have been very curious about is the tortellini and where it comes from. Every restaurant serves it and there are a lot of restaurants in bologna. If a restaurant has, say, twenty tables with two seatings for lunch, and two for dinner, the manual labor involved to make all that stuffed pasta is absolutely mind-boggling, to say nothing of the space required in a restaurant kitchen. And there’s rarely just one tortellini on the menu. You usually have a choice of two or three. Where could it all come from? Well, according to our neighbor, there are Bolognese women of a certain age who work at home producing all the tortellini that is served in all the restaurants. I get this image of cozy kitchens all over the city where these women are working. Is it like an assembly line I wonder? Or perhaps it is a more casual setting with casual conversations going on as the tortellini engine roars, providing sustenance for Bologna's insatiable eaters.

As for ourselves, when we’re in the mood for fresh pasta or pastry, we walk down the street to Simoni. All the while that we’re deciding between the ricotta-filled tortellini and the pumpkin-filled tortelloni we can look beyond the counter to the work tables in the back. There we see women rolling out dough or putting trays in ovens. Do I know the origin of the flour ? Do I know if the ricotta is made from Emilia-Romagna cows ? Well, no. I have no idea how local any of it is, to be honest. But I know it’s fresh. And good. Very very good.

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