Buon appetito! Everyone loves Italian food. But how did the Italians come to eat so well?
The answer lies amid the vibrant beauty of Italy's historic cities. For a thousand years, they have been magnets for everything that makes for great eating: ingredients, talent, money, and power. Italian food is city food.
From the bustle of medieval Milan's marketplace to the banqueting halls of Renaissance Ferrara; from street stalls in the putrid alleyways of nineteenth-century Naples to the noisy trattorie of postwar Rome: in rich slices of urban life, historian and master storyteller John Dickie shows how taste, creativity, and civic pride blended with princely arrogance, political violence, and dark intrigue to create the world's favorite cuisine. Delizia! is much more than a history of Italian food. It is a history of Italy told through the flavors and character of its cities.
A dynamic chronicle that is full of surprises, Delizia! draws back the curtain on much that was unknown about Italian food and exposes the long-held canards. It interprets the ancient Arabic map that tells of pasta's true origins, and shows that Marco Polo did not introduce spaghetti to the Italians, as is often thought, but did have a big influence on making pasta a part of the American diet. It seeks out the medieval recipes that reveal Italy's long love affair with exotic spices, and introduces the great Renaissance cookery writer who plotted to murder the Pope even as he detailed the aphrodisiac qualities of his ingredients. It moves from the opulent theater of a Renaissance wedding banquet, with its gargantuan ten-course menu comprising hundreds of separate dishes, to the thin soups and bland polentas that would eventually force millions to emigrate to the New World. It shows how early pizzas were disgusting and why Mussolini championed risotto. Most important, it explains the origins and growth of the world's greatest urban food culture.
With its delectable mix of vivid storytelling, groundbreaking research, and shrewd analysis, Delizia! is as appetizing as the dishes it describes. This passionate account of Italy's civilization of the table will satisfy foodies, history buffs, Italophiles, travelers, students -- and anyone who loves a well-told tale.
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John Dickie lectures in Italian Studies at University College London. Cosa Nostra, his award-winning history of the Sicilian mafia, has been translated into twenty languages and has sold nearly half a million copies throughout the world; it was hailed in Italy as the best book ever written about the Mafia. In 2005 the president of the Italian Republic appointed him a Commendatore dell'Ordine della Stella della Solidarietà Italiana. He lives in London with his family .Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Don't Tell the Peasants...
A drive through the country between Siena and the sea in the sunshine of an autumn evening. The Tuscan hills undulating past the car window become harsher, shading from vines and olive groves into pockets of dark forest. The destination is remote, yet it is a place where you can hear accents and dialects from across Italy. Here Venetians mix with Neapolitans, Palermitans with Turinese. In this quiet corner of Tuscany a people divided by ancient local rivalries comes to pay homage together at an altar to their common cult of food.
The building lies in the valley below the perfectly preserved medieval town of Chiusdino, but it is not easy to find. Not long ago, the track leading to it was nearly lost in thick scrub. Even now many people miss the discreet road sign. When the more observant visitors have negotiated a tight, descending corner and nosed over the narrow, parapet-less bridge, they are rewarded with the sight of a riverside field of Jerusalem artichokes -- yellow flowers craning toward the setting sun.
Then it appears, unwelcoming at first, resolutely turning its worn back to the outside world, as if hiding its famous face among the poplar trees. But recognition chimes the moment the corner is turned: a simple brick and stone structure, with a shallow roof and an unassuming tower; at its flank a mill wheel is gently propelled by the limpid waters of the river Merce. It was built by monks from the nearby San Galgano Abbey in the early thirteenth century. Even today one can easily imagine a friar emerging from the beamed kitchen with an armful of cheeses and salami for his brothers. Or a peasant patriarch, his shoulder bowed by the weight of his hoe, trudging through the surrounding glade at the end of his day's toil. Perhaps the plates and glasses on the table under the pergola were set by his homely wife for their extended family. Dinner is still awhile away, but already the air is laced with appetizing smells.
To the foreign visitor, Il Mulino Bianco, the White Mill, seems to typify everything that Italian food should be. To Italians, it is one of the most iconic buildings in the land.
Yet it is also Italy's best-loved fake.
Italians eat lots of biscuits (cookies), mostly for breakfast. In 1989, the leading biscuit brand, Mulino Bianco, was looking for a set for its new advertising campaign. The White Mill shown on the biscuit packets was about to become a real place. The industrialized Po valley -- flat and featureless -- had distinctly the wrong image, thus ruling out locations in the region around Parma where the biscuits were actually made. Instead set researchers found what they were looking for, abandoned and almost derelict, off the Massetana road near Chiusdino in Tuscany. The old building was given a coat of white paint and a new mill wheel powered by an electric motor. In a short time it was ready to receive its imaginary family of owners. Dad was a square-jawed journalist; Mum, a pretty but prim teacher; their children, Linda with curly hair and a bonnet, and Andrea in slacks and a tie, were as smart-but-casual as their parents; a marshmallow-eyed grandfather completed the group. This, as the company Web site would have it, was a "modern family who leave the city and choose to live healthily by going back to nature." Their story, to be told in a series of mini-episodes, was to embody the second-home aspirations of millions of urban consumers. And to tell it, the agency hired two of the biggest talents in Italian cinema: Giuseppe Tornatore, fresh from winning the Oscar for best foreign film with Cinema Paradiso; and Ennio Morricone, famed for his scores to the spaghetti westerns (among other things).
The result, between 1990 and 1996, was perhaps the most successful campaign in the history of Italian television. So successful, in fact, that droves of people from traffic-clogged Naples, Rome, and Milan started to search the hills of Tuscany for the White Mill they had seen in the biscuit ads. Queues of cars stretched back to the ruins of the San Galgano Abbey. Visitors approached the site in reverential silence as if they were entering a shrine. The mill's owner recalls: "There were real processions. Hundreds of people came to visit the mill at weekends. Most of them were disappointed because obviously it wasn't like it was on television. Only the kids were happy: they ran around enthusiastically amid all the plasterboard and polystyrene."
After the last Mulino Bianco advertisement had been filmed in 1996, the White Mill changed again; it was transformed into another, more tasteful manifestation of the Italian rural idyll. The owner spent four years restoring it and converting it into an agriturismo -- the kind of rustic hotel-restaurant that has become so popular in Italy over the last twenty years or so. The building reverted to its old name, Il Mulino delle Pile -- the Battery Mill (it used to supply electricity to Chiusdino before the war). A swimming pool was put in and the stonework sandblasted clear of paint. But even if it is now no longer white, the White Mill still answers to the same nostalgia for country food as does the brand that made it famous. It still attracts plenty of people who want to hold celebratory banquets for their weddings, birthdays, and anniversaries where the ads were set. Children still ask the owner whether he is the one who makes all the biscuits.
The rooms in the agriturismo Mulino delle Pile conform to an ideal of simple country elegance. The menu in its Old Grindstone Restaurant conforms to current canons of what is good to eat: "authentic, typical Tuscan cuisine, based on fresh, seasonal produce." An antipasto of Tuscan sliced salami and hams, or pecorino cheese with honey. A primo of tagliatelle with wild boar ragù -- boar is a speciality. A secondo of Sienese entrecôte, or beef braised in Morellino wine, or local sausages with beans. A dessert of Vin Santo and cantucci biscuits.
It is not the best restaurant you could find in Italy. Nor is its menu quite as authentic as it claims: there are some concessions to fashion (fillet of beef in balsamic vinegar and green peppercorns), and some national and international favorites, such as penne all'arrabbiata, eggplant alla parmigiana, and veal escalopes. Maybe the persistent memory of those famous biscuit commercials makes it all just too kitsch. But I can personally attest that the food at the Old Grindstone is, without a trace of doubt or irony, delicious. One can eat twice as well here as anywhere one could find in London for four times the price. The restaurant is evidence of the indisputable fact that gastronomic standards in Italy are as high as anywhere in the world.
How did the Italians come to eat so well? The story of the White Mill has a simple lesson for anyone trying to find a historical answer to that question: it is possible to love Italian food without going misty-eyed about the fables that are spun around it, whether in Italy or abroad. Italy has become the model to imitate when it comes to making ingredients, cooking them, and eating them together. Some people believe that our health, environment, and quality of life may depend on whether we can learn some of the food lessons that Italy has to offer. It's all the more reason why we need a less syrupy story about how Italian food got where it is today than the one advertising and cookbooks have told.
The White Mill itself may be unknown outside Italy, but the family of images to which it belongs is all too recognizable across much of the Western world: the trattoria in the olive grove; the hams suspended from the rafters of a farmhouse kitchen; the sun-weathered old peasant with a twinkle in his eye; the noisy family gathered under the pergola while mamma serves the pasta. These same clichés recur in countless recipe collections, countless ads for olive oil, or those jars of unspeakable pasta sauce. Together they weave a powerful rural myth that finds its favorite setting in Tuscany. What that myth conjures up for us is a cuisine made from a thousand ancient country traditions; it is Italian food as peasant food. If the White Mill image of Tuscany has helped give Italian food a respectable claim to being the most popular cuisine in the world, then it has also helped make it the most widely misperceived. The Italian cuisine that the world so admires has surprisingly little to do with peasants.
In Italy, nostalgia for the rustic way of life is a recent development. The success of brands such as Mulino Bianco only came when the vast majority of Italians had left the hardship of the countryside safely behind. In Tuscany, the sharecropping system shielded the peasantry from the worst of the hunger and toil that was the timeless lot of the rural masses up and down the peninsula until as late as the 1960s. But even here, the contribution that dishes of exclusively peasant origin have made to local cuisine is not as great as the recent cult of peasant food would have us believe. The menu of the Old Grindstone Restaurant is not representative of the country fare of yore. Nor is there anything poor about quite a few of the recipes one can find in books on La cucina povera toscana, including bistecca alla fiorentina (a thick Florentine T-bone or porterhouse steak) and liver crostini with Marsala wine. The rural masses could only dream of such delights. And even genuine peasant cooking has been the subject of a rebranding exercise. Like the medieval mill near Chiusdino, it has been extensively reconstructed and rethought by contemporary Italians.
Until the middle of the twentieth century, ordinary people in the countryside of Italy ate very badly -- countless documents tell us as much. Such, for example, was the uniform conclusion of the many government inquiries into the state of the Italian countryside conducted in the decades after Italy became a unified country in 1861. The poverty of the peasant diet still echoes i...
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