28 February 2010

LIFE: Passion for Fashion

SARONNO, Italy - The Mayor of Milan, Letizia Moratti, is mad. Furious, actually.

“Nobody, not even Anna Wintour, has the power to change our fashion calendar,” she snapped to reporters a few days ago.

It’s Fashion Week in Milan, five days of non-stop fashion shows, fashion parties, fashion dinners, and now fashion controversy. The problem is that Anna Wintour shortened her trip to Milan by two days, throwing the Italian fashion industry into a tizzie. If you don’t recognize the name, Wintour is Editor in Chief of Vogue Magazine and the “devil” who inspired the book “The Devil Wears Prada”.

With Vogue the most important fashion magazine out there these days many Made in Italy designers were scrambling to re-scheduled their runway shows for the last two days of the week. But every even remotely acceptable venue was already overbooked, not to mention the models, hairdressers, make-up artists and stylists. And so another layer of stress was added to the milieu.

So was la Wintour satisfied? Apparently not.

"This is absolutely crazy,” said Mario Boselli, the president of the National Chamber of Italian Fashion. “She wants designers to schedule their shows during the three days she will be in town."

“We should just say no. Italian fashion rules the world and no one can take that away from us," added Saverio Moschillo, the deputy chairman of the Italian Fashion Association after la Wintour failed to show up for his Haute collection.

To make matters worse, Mayor Moratti decided to ban all auto traffic in Milan on Sunday, a solution Italian cities often use to reduce air pollution. 

When Fashion Week organizers heard that bit of news they began bouncing off the walls. In a desperate, last minute plea they finally convinced the Milan town council to grant journalists, buyers, florists and others attending Sunday’s shows, special permission to drive into the city.

It’s hard to fathom just how big an industry fashion is here in Italy. In Milan it is super important and super intense. The country’s economy revolves around the Made in Italy label and Milan is at the epicenter of this world. What happens on these streets determines the failure or success of a large number of industries up and down the Italian peninsula, and in these days of global business, also around the world.

Traders on the Milan stock market scrupulously follow the fashion shows and design trade shows. Il Sole 24 Ore, Italy’s number one financial newspaper, runs a special fashion section each week, and Milan is home to an international news service dedicated solely to the fashion industry. Who’s lunching with Krizia and who’s having dinner with Giorgio are not just items for the gossip mill, but serious industry indicators.

The end-of-the-year figures are staggering. Design houses report income in the billions of dollars and fashion brands earning mere millions are a dime a dozen. It’s a town of handshakes and back slapping that goes on behind mountains of fluffy tulle and soft silk organza. It’s a multi-billion dollar a year kissy-kissy business conducted with kid gloves, in the latest fashion color of course.

Milan’s Fashion Week runs from February 24 to March 2. Be glad you are not here

Photos: (1) Donatella and Santo Versace, Feruccio and Massimo Ferragamo with Emaunuel Ungaro, Missoni family, Miuccia Prada with husband and sons, Diego delle Valle and his family. (2) Massimo and Alberta Ferretti

25 February 2010


SARONNO, Italy - McDonald’s recently introduced the McItaly, an all Italian beef hamburger topped with Asiago cheese and artichoke paste. The Italian Minister of Agriculture, Luca Zaia, thinks it’s a good idea. He said he wants to give an imprint of Italian flavors to Italian kids.
Italian Celebrity Chef, Luisanna Messeri
What? Give an imprint of Italian flavors to Italian kids? What Italian kids is he talking about? He certainly can’t mean the kids I see every day. Or the ones I hear in the restaurants discussing whether to order the pasta alla Bolognese or the pasta with sardines? Who know better than I do the difference between pecorino and provolone cheese, between calamari and cozze. Are those the kids he’s talking about?

British chef Jamie Oliver did a series of television programs about food in Italy few years ago. The cookbook that followed is called “Jamie’s Italy” and in it he writes that he has been “totally besotted by the love, passion and verve for food, family and life itself that just about all Italian people have.” 

He talks about meeting a six year old girl in Puglia who was sitting with her grandmother making homemade orecchiette, cappelletti and fusilli pasta faster than any chef he had ever seen. And about another young girl who told him if he was going to cook beef on a grill, he should use rosemary to flavor it, and only rosemary, because that was how they grilled beef in Puglia.

 The Art of Making Pesto: Watching and Learning
One of my first jobs was to watch a pot of snails that had been put on the stove to cook. When the water started to boil the snails would climb up the sides of the pot and rattle the cover in an attempt to get out. That’s when I would call my Grandmother. She would rush into the kitchen, lift the lid and push the snails back down into the boiling water with a wooden spoon. 

I took my responsibility very seriously. This was our dinner I was in charge of. I remember standing on a chair next to the stove staring at that pot lid just waiting for the first sign of any movement. I also knew that the snails had spent the night in a pan of cornmeal so that now they were clean and stuffed and would be delicious to eat. I don’t remember how old I was but I don’t think I was in school yet.

Italians start their food education at birth and it never really stops. Pre-schoolers and those in elementary school get school lunches, with fairly basic lunch menus. The first course is some kind of pasta or rice; the second course can be meat, fish, cheese or a frittata, some kind of vegetable and/or salad, and desert, which is usually fruit or sometimes pudding. To drink they are offered mineral water. 

There are very strict rules about what foods the schools can and cannot serve. The basic ingredients must be grown or raised locally and if it isn’t grown or raised locally it has to have been grown/raised organically. No hormones, no steroids, no pesticides, no genetically altered anything that Mother Nature didn’t put there in the first place.

Once the kids are in middle school their school day ends at 1’o’clock and they go home for lunch. This means that if you walk down the street in any neighborhood in any Italian town around 1’o’clock in the afternoon you will most likely hear the sound of Italian mammas in their kitchens cooking something that smells so delicious you want to knock on the door and invite yourself in. Can you see why I'm confused? I don't understand what happened to Minister Zaia that makes him think Italian kids need to be imprinted with Italian flavors.

I'm sure he knows that Italy has the strictest regulations regarding the care and feeding of beef cattle in all of the European Union. But is it possible that he doesn't know that the Italian beef they serve at McDonald’s is not made with meat from beef cattle, but from the meat and extra (dangly) parts of old milk cows that are no longer productive? It’s safe to eat, but that’s about all I can say for it. It is all very strange indeed.

21 February 2010

ON THE ROAD - Cremona

This is the second in a series of monthly travel articles inspired by a recent New York Times article on 31 places to see in 2010. All of the towns on my list are in Italy, most are small, rich in history and art and for the most part off the beaten track which, for me, makes them all the more interesting.

CREMONA, Italy - When the Duke of Milan’s daughter Bianca Maria was about to get married, her father gave her the town of Cremona as part of her dowry. He could do that you see, for 1441 was a time when Italian cities were the personal property of the rich and powerful.
Bianca Maria didn’t do much with Cremona, and for more than a hundred years the town didn’t do much with itself either. That is until the 16th century when Andrea Amati came along and developed the first modern violin. Through Armati, and his pupils Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu, Cremona made history and secured its place as the violin capital of the world.

It is hard to talk about Cremona without talking about violin making, although there are other things to talk about. The origins of the town go back more than 3,000 years making Cremona one of the oldest towns in northern Italy. And while the Venetians, the French, the Spanish and the Austrians all conquered Cremona at one time or another, all of that history is completely over-shadowed by the music.

It hits you right away. Walking from the train station, down the Via Palestro on my way to the center of town, the honeyed strains of Vivaldi and Paganini, Tartini and Boccherini floated out from the buildings. It was like being in a movie with the sound track running. 

The music was coming from the privately operated violin workshops that are the commercial backbone of the city. It was in a workshop just like the ones I was passing that Amati, Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesu worked.

What those old Masters accomplished was nothing short of a musical miracle and for centuries scholars and scientists have been trying figure out just how they managed to build such magnificent instruments. Now researchers think they have found the answer. They say the secret lies in the remarkable even density of the wood the violin masters used.

It really wasn’t a secret. Any of the violin artisans working in Cremona today could have told them that. The real trick would have been to figure out how the old masters knew what wood to choose, and where to find it.

“The method I use to select the wood for my violins is exactly the same method Antonio Stradivari and other Cremonese violin masters used hundreds of years ago,” says violin Maestro Stefano Conia, founder of the Italian Association of Violin Makers.
Like Stradivari, Maestro Conia uses a special wood found in the Paneveggio Forest, high on the slopes of the craggy Dolomite Mountains in Italy’s northern region of Trentino. The unique honeycomb structure of the forest's red spruce trees make it the ideal wood for violins and other string instrument. It is the reason why Paneveggio is called the Forest of the Music Trees.

But there is more to making a musical masterpiece than just choosing the right wood. Making a violin was, and still is, slow and painstaking work and the superstitious violin masters of old didn’t tempt fate. 

Stradivari, for example, would only use wood from the male red spruce trees, and he insisted that they be cut during the winter under a waning moon when their sap was not running. And before the final coat of varnish went on the instrument he would take it home and put it on the table next to his bed for a couple of weeks, for he believed a spiritual transaction would take place between him and the instrument, and that the violin would inherit a soul. 

The craftsmen working in Cremona today may not be quite as superstitious as the old Masters but they do follow the same methods and patterns. You can see how it’s done by visiting an artisan’s workshop. Just stop in at the Tourist Information Office and ask for their list of Botteghe Liutarie. Maestro Stefano Conia’s workshop is in the heart of the city’s historic center at Corso Garibaldi 95. His violins can also be found at Sothebys, Philips, Bongards and Christies. 

In the Palazzo del Comune you'll find a collection of classical Cremonese School violins, including a 1566 violin made by Andrea Amati for King Charles IX of France and the 1658 Hammerle violin created by Nicolò Amati. And in the Museo Stradivariano on Via Palestro 17, there are more than 700 objects from the Master’s workshop. Also interesting is the replica of a violin artisan’s workshop during the time of Antonio Stradivari. It is located in the Tower il Torrazzo in the Piazza del Comune. Museum hours Tues-Sat 10-12:30 - and 3-6, Sundays 9:30-12-30.

Cremona Tourist Information Office (APT)

Paneveggio Forest Information

Photos: (1) Clock Tower and Duomo; (2) Maestro Conia in his Cremona workshop (3) Cremona's Palazzo Comunale (photos courtesy of Cremona Tourist Bureau)

18 February 2010

AUNTIE PASTA: I'll Take Some of Those...Ahhh.... Fried Cookies

SARONNO, Italy - You can call them chiacchiere, or you can call them frappe or bugie or even guanti, but in reality they are all the same confectioner sugar sprinkled fried cookie that signal the start of Italy's Carnival in Italy.

My Aunt Louise has been making and selling those same fried cookies, that she calls guanti, for the past 50 years.These days it's my cousins Etta and Barabara that do most of the work but Aunt Louise, who just turned 99, still folds boxes and helps out when she can. It's an intensive labor of love that no one wants to give up on as the orders keep coming in. Traditions run strong in upstate New York and for many families a wedding or holiday wouldn't be the same without a large sugary tray of Aunt Louise’s Old Country Bakery Guanti.

As a kid, every trip we made to visit my Aunt resulted in a trunk full of cookies to take back home. And no one complained. Personally I have never tasted any quite as good as hers anywhere in Italy, and yes, maybe I am just a little prejudice.

Most of the leading Italian food magazines feature articles this month showing how to make them. The cookies my Aunt Louise makes are a little different than the ones I see here in Saronno. Hers are bigger and because she slits the dough and passes one end of it through the opening before they are fried, they look like bow ties. Here they simply cut the dough into strips and fry it. It’s certainly easier and faster but there are fewer nooks and crannies for the powdered sugar to hide, and that’s what makes them so lip smacking good.

While even after all these years I still can't get excited about Carnival – or Mardi Gras as it’s called in New Orleans – I’m always happy when the trays of guanti start appear in the windows of the rosticcerie in town. Can Spring be far behind?

In Venice and Viareggio Carnival is a huge festa. There are parades with fancy floats and people dress up and walk around and look at each other while kids throw confetti in the air and squirt silly string on everything. They do pretty much the same thing in Saronno except there is a lot less dressing up and a lot more confetti throwing and silly string squirting.

Carnival as we know it today started out as a Pagan Roman festival called the Saturnalia. It was a time when slaves and masters, with their faces hidden behind masks, could eat and drink together as equals and dance in the streets with no fear of reprisals. And because Saturnalia was so much fun, the early Christians were more than a bit reluctant to give it up. So the eat, drink and make merry part was incorporated into Christianity, but with a slight twist.

The Christians started the transformation by giving the festival a new name: Carnivale. While it sounds festive to us now, the word comes from the Latin “caro” meat and “vale”, farewell, which, when you put them together really means say bye bye to meat and hello to those 40 days of abstinence known as Lent. And so that's where we are.

Sometimes, when I walk past the little pink Church of San Francesco and see the plaque that says the church was built on the site of a Pagan temple, I wonder what kind of Italy I would be living in if the Roman emperor Flavius Valerius Constantinus, aka Constantine the Great, hadn't supported Christianity. Would I be out dancing in the streets of Saronno, laughing behind my mask? So far the vote is 5 to 1 that I would be doing just that.

Photos: 1. Italian Guanti; 2. Step by Step: Making Guanti

14 February 2010

LIFE: Love and Marriage Italian Style

SARONNO, Italy - It is easy to think of Italy as a country of traditional values, of marriage, home and children where the family is still the glue that holds everything together. Of a country where there is a church on practically every corner and centuries old traditions are respected. And it is. But over the years I have been surprised by the number of young women I have met who embody all of those values, except one: Marriage.

Most of the women are in their 30’s and early 40’s, they all work, and they all live with a significant other. For the most part they have been in their relationships for 5, 10 or more years. Some have children, often more than one. Others, like Sara, were married, got divorced and are now in a new relationship. 
When Sara moved in with her new boyfriend a couple of years ago, I asked her if her mother liked him.

“Who? Alessandro?” she said. “My mother loves Alessandro. My father too.” 

Divorce is more common here than you might think. They are no-fault, everything is divided down the middle and the kids inherit everything, equally.
A few summers ago I did a series of Living in Italy lectures for an American tour company that specializes in bringing groups of older university alumni to Italy for a week of lectures and travel. When I would get to the part about divorce being commonplace in Italy, a collective gasp would pass through the crowd. But when I would tell them that abortion is also legal here, available on demand, no questions asked and can be paid for through the National Health System, I was practically stoned off the stage. 

Then I would get THE BIG QUESTION: "What does the Pope say about that?"
Because we do have the Pope, and the Vatican and there are crucifixes hanging in every room of every public building in Italy, you would think that the Church would have a greater influence on the laws of the land. But it doesn’t. The Church is the Church and the State is the State and Italians are only obliged to follow the laws of the State, even when it comes to marriage.

When Italian women decide to get married they have two choices: the first, is the civil ceremony preformed by a State official. In a small town it might be the Mayor or, in a bigger city, a representative of the government. The civil ceremony takes place in a public building, like the Comune (City Hall). You can also have a church ceremony anytime after the civil ceremony, even months afterwards, but it is optional. 

And even with two ceremonies at their disposal it isn't easy to understand if a woman is married or not as women keep their own name from cradle to grave.
You can call your neighbor Signora XX as a courtesy, but that’s all it is. That is also the reason why you see two names on a mailbox: one is the wife, the other is the husband. 

Bank accounts, Social Security number, National Health Card, property, all of a woman's legal documents and any legal transactions she enters into have to be, by law, in her own name. She can even choose not to give her children their father’s name, just hers. Or she can give them both names like the Spanish do.
Even in death women retain their identity. There is a custom in small towns to post death notices in public places. Large 30 x 50 notices, banded in black announce the passing of the town’s citizens. If Maria Caterina Severio dies, that is the name you will see first. Underneath the name it will say "in Castelleto." What that means is the person who died was Maria Caterina Severio and when she was alive she was married to Mr. Castelleto.

Less you think Italians have grown less romantic, let me assure you that it is not the case. You still see couples, young and old, walking hand in hand down the street. People still flirt. Couples sit in cafes and talk – to each other. Teenagers camp out on park benches to cuddle and kiss. If they do have to go their separate ways, text messages and phone calls fly back and forth like confetti during Carnival. It’s nice. I like it. It renews my faith in the power of love, and on this St. Valentine’s Day in Romantic Italy, who could ask for anything more.

Photos: (1) From an ad by the Ministero per i Beni e le Attivita' Culturali advertising two for one tickets to all Italian museums on the 13th and 14th of February. The photo is a take on The Kiss (1859) by Francesco Hayez: Romantic Italian painter. Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

10 February 2010

AUNTIE PASTA: Italy's Dark (Chocolate) Secret

 A Match Made in Heaven
TURIN, Italy – With a well-practiced eye, Signora Greni carefully selects chocolates from the vast assortment spread out in front of her. She works quickly, her delft hand slipping chocolate and hazelnut nuggets next to ebony colored seashells, and dark bitter chocolate truffles next to chocolate covered cognac creams. Row by row, layer by layer, the fragrant chocolates are settled into frilly paper cups. When the box is filled she covers it with embossed paper, pops on the lid and another assortment of amazing chocolates from the Peyrano chocolate factory in Turin is on its way to some happy chocoholic somewhere in the world.
 Signora Greni at Work
It’s a Cinderella story. The smooth and silky chocolates in the fancy beribboned box start out as part of the thousands of pounds of cocoa beans delivered monthly to the many chocolate factories scattered throughout the city. But once the beans are in the hands of Turin’s master chocolatiers, the magic begins.

Turin has been the center of traditional chocolate making since the 18th century, for this is where Europe’s billion dollar chocolate industry was born. To celebrate it's love affair with chocolate, the city hosts an annual fesitval called CioccolaTO'. Every spring more than a hundred local chocolate shops and factories set up tents and kiosks around town transforming the city into a chocolate lover's paradise.

No doubt the thousands of dedicated chocoholics who turn up each year to munch their way from booth to booth, would be surprised to learn that before a clever Turinese discovered how to turn the bitter liquid into solid chocolate all you could do was drink it, although it is hard to imagine why anyone would have wanted to.

Chocolate in the 1700’s was not the smooth and silky seductive chocolate of today. It was gritty and bitter, and needed massive doses of hot water, sugar and vanilla just to make it palatable. But the rich and noble found it irresistible, and it wasn’t long before drinking hot chocolate became a daily ritual, le must of the elite, practiced in the royal courts and elegant cafes throughout Europe.

As chocolate grew in popularity so did the myths and mysteries. While some argued that chocolate prolonged life, cured ringworm and ulcers, piles and gout, monks were urged not to drink it as their Bishops thought it inflamed sexual ardor. And if the Bishops were right, well then, all the more reason to imbibe.

It got people thinking. If such passion could be stirred by a simple chocolate drink, then surely more could be done with this wonder bean. Think of the money to be made. The question then became how to solidify the liquid, because by solidifying it the marketing and sales possibilities increased tenfold, a hundredfold - but who would be the first?

 Signor Peyrano and One of His Magic Makers
Chocolatiers from one end of Europe to the other tried everything they could think of. They took freshly processed cocoa beans and they baked them, they boiled them, they even tried adding olive oil to them, but nothing worked. It was as mysterious and futile a process as trying to spin straw into gold.

But then, just as the 18th century was coming to a close, a Turinese chocolate maker unlocked the secret. Tinkering with a pastry making machine, he figured out how to blend the right amount of bitter cocoa with sugar and vanilla and there it was – solid chocolate. A star was born. Turin was thrust into the spotlight as the European Capital of Chocolate.

It is hard to imagine the level of the city’s involvement with chocolate until you realize that while most cities offer museum and bus passes, only in Turin can you by a ChocoPass, a book of coupons to sample some of the best chocolate candies and chocolate specialties in town.

You’ll find homemade chocolates in just about every bar, cafĂ©’ and bakery in town. And while it’s true that there are many high quality chocolate makers throughout Italy and Europe, a recent chocolate guide published by one of Italy’s premier food magazines, listed more master chocolatiers in the city of Turin than in all of Belgium and France combined. Here are three of the city’s best.

Peyrano Fabbrica di Cioccolato
C.so Moncalieri, 47, Turin
Like Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory, Peyrano is a non-pollutionary, anti-institutionary, pro-confectionery factory of fun that turns out exquisite, handmade chocolates with a quality level that is off the charts. Peyrano has the reputation of being the best of the best, no small compliment in a city of chocolate connoisseurs.

Tourinto di Gobino
Via Cagliari 15/a, Turin
Tel. +39 (0)11 247 6245
Using a classic recipe from the 1860’s, this factory specializes in the gold foil wrapped chocolate and hazelnut gianduiotto nuggets. They also produce tubs of creamy gianduiotto that Italians love to spread on bread for a snack. Giuseppe Peyrano considers Guido Gobino his only serious competitor, and that alone qualifies him for a gold star on the Chocolate Walk of Fame.

Stratta P.zza San Carlo, 191, Turin
The swirls and curls that decorate the beautiful confections at this pastry slash chocolate shop – not to mention the outrageous packaging - are enough to send you running back to the hotel for your camera. The shop, which has been around since 1836, is full of rococo gilt and sophisticated Murano chandeliers that illuminate the elaborately decorated boxes of handmade chocolates.


07 February 2010

LIFE: The Italian Health Care System

There was a postcard from my local hospital in the mail yesterday with the scheduled date for my next mammogram. They ask only that I call and cancel the appointment if I can’t make it so they can put someone else in that time slot. Regular mammogram screening is part of the Italian government’s preventive care system.

When I became a legal resident, I was issued a National Health Card but never thought much about it. In my mind nationalized health was the nightmare my daughter experienced when she lived in London. Long waits, bad doctors, third world care. So I just continued to make private appointments just as I had always had in the States. But then my rheumatologist asked me why I didn’t use the National Health System (Mutua) instead of paying to see her privately.

“It’s the same,” she said. “When they ask you if you want a private or a Mutua appointment, just tell them Mutua. It will save you money.”

And it has. Because I have a chronic disease, (rheumatoid arthritis), anything and everything related to that disease is covered by the insurance program and costs me nothing. Even if I didn't have arthritis, all medical visits would be free because we don't pay for medical appointments.

I have had CAT scans and MRI’s and all sorts of specialized exams over the years and have paid for none of them. I've spent a week in the hospital, have had physical therapy, eye exams, visits to the dermatologist and the list goes on, all covered with no out-of-pocket costs for me. My only expense is for one non-arthritis related medication. That prescriptions now costs me €2 ($2.50) a month instead of $28 which is what I was paying for it back home.

And if you think the drugs are cheaper because they are churned out in some dank subterranean grotto, they are from the same high profile, multi-national drug companies I learned to love and depend on when I lived in the U.S.A.

One of the things I like the best about the Italian health system is that you keep your own records and X-rays, and pick the doctors and the care facility, be it public or private, you want to go to.

I recently had to make a couple of appointments at my local hospital. What I found was that for one exam I could get an appointment faster through the National system and for the other, it was faster to go private. So that is what I did. I used the National system for one and paid for the other. It’s that flexibility, and the fact that the choices are always mine, that, in my opinion, makes this system so good.

Another thing I like is that the doctors take their time. They talk to you. They want to know how you are. There is no hurry because appointments are scheduled a half an hour apart. And do I dare tell you that if you can’t get to the doctor the doctor will come to you? It’s true. Italian doctors make house calls. Have an emergency? Your doctor out of town? The Guardia Medica is on-call 24 hours a day, and they will come to you as well.

In the world wide ranking of health care systems, Italy is rated No. 2, after France, but personally I think the Italian system is better. Basically they are the same. The difference is with the French system you have to pay for your services first and then the government reimburses you, while in Italy we don’t pay. Both systems are similar in that anyone who lives in France or Italy legally is covered.

So who pays? The people who use the system. Taxpayers. A percentage of income tax revenue is allocated to health care. And for all the grousing Italians like to do, I have yet to hear anyone complain about the health care system, or having to pay for it because everyone uses it, and everyone benefits by it. Especially me.

Photos courtesy of the Rivista di Informazione Sanitaria della Regione Lombardia, a monthly consumer Health magazine published by the Region of Lombardy.

04 February 2010

Auntie Pasta: PDO, DOP et al

THE ITALIANS have fought long and hard to keep their regional and local food specialties as far away from the control of the European Union as possible. The strict European food rules and regulations scared the bejeebers out of them. As it turns out, they may have lost the battle but they won the war.

It is indeed difficult to explain to non-Italians how cheese and pork aged in caves, and beef hung to dry in the open air with nary a stainless steel refrigerator with automatic temperature control in sight, is a good thing.

Many a visitor has commented on the fact that eggs are not refrigerated in the stores, and that ham (prosciutto cotto and crudo), and salami of every type just sit on a shelf behind the deli counter waiting to be sold. It can be unnerving if you come from a pre-portioned, shrink wrapped, temperature controlled world.

But things are different here, and food is so much a part of this culture I have to think they know what they are doing. I remember a restaurant owner in Santa Margherita Ligure complaining about a EU directive banning restaurateurs from buying and serving trofie (squiggly little pasta) made by local housewives.

“We have been eating trofie with pesto made in the kitchens of our mothers and grandmothers for more than 500 years, and now strangers from Brussels are telling us they are not good enough? I don’t think they even know what trofie are,” he said.

The issue was that the local kitchens didn’t meet the sanitary standards of the European Union. Not that they weren’t clean, there were, but the sinks were not stainless steel and the walls were not completely tiled. The war was on.

But that was in the mid 1990’s. Since then the wily Italians have managed to woo over the hard-nosed members the European Unions Food Commission. The EU now recognizes the unique quality of many foods produced in Europe and Italy has more food products on that list than any other country.

At last count there were 167 Italian products on the EU’s honor roll, earning not just the coveted Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), and the Protected Geographical Indication (PGI), but also the Traditional Specialty Guaranteed (TSG) label.

The labels are important because they serve to protect the genuine Italian products from inferior clones. For example, Chinese cheese sold as Pamasan is not the same thing as Parmesan Cheese from Parma, Italy. Not even close.

Here are just a few of the most recent Italian food products that have won the EU’s heart and earned the highest seals of approval:

• salame from S. Angelo Di Brolo, province of Messina
• salame from Cremona, province of Lombardy
• prized sweet chestnuts from Cuneo, province of Piedmont
• white asparagus native to the Bassano area north of Venice
• hazelnuts and chestnuts from Viterbo, just north of Rome
• olives from Ascoli, province of the Marche
• apples from Italy’s northern Val di Non region.
• chestnuts from Rieti, province of Lazio
• olive oil from Tuscia, in northern Lazio
• goose salame from Mortara, province of Lombardy
• basil from Genoa, used to make Genoa’s world-famous pesto sauce
• ricotta cheese from Rome
• saffron from l’Aquila in Abruzzo and San Gimignano in Tuscany
• lardo from Colonnata, near Massa in Tuscany (See: On the Road with Auntie Pasta, posted Dec. 2, 2009)
• honey from the Lunigiana region of northern Tuscany
• Roman lamb, the famed abbacchio of Rome
• Goose salame from Mortara, near Pavia, province of Lombardy
• prickly pears from Mt. Etna area in Sicily
• Pachino tomatoes from Sicily
• buffalo mozzarella from the area around Naples
• Pizza Margherita from Naples
• artichokes from the Ancient Greek site at Paestum, south of Naples

Some other food acronyms you will find on Italian products are:

DOP – denominazione di origine protetta, or Protected Geographical Status. It ensures that the product genuinely originates in a specific region.
DOPG - the same as above but guaranteed.
IGP – Indicazione geografica protetta, Protected Geographica Area and is your guarantee that the product comes from a specific area.
STG – Specialita’ tradizionale garantita, guarantees a specific traditional production process.
Unlike DOP and IGP, traditional foods must have originated in a specific area, like the salame from S. Angelo Di Brolo in the province of Messina, not just produced there.

There are actually quite a few more categories but I think this is getting to be TMI, (too much information) and besides all this food talk is making me hungry, so I’ll save the rest of the list for another day.

Photos: Honey from Tuscany; Culatello salami of Parma; Cheese from Lombardy. All recognized by the EU as unique Italian food products.