Tag Archives: italian cuisine

An Old New World: Arthur Avenue’s Little Italy

When I left Italy in March, I’ll confess it wasn’t so much a graceful departure as a beeline to escape. I was tired of fighting bureaucracy in the Living Museum, missed the bustle of a proper city, and had eaten so much cured meat that my sweat stank with lactic fermentation. Italophiles may weep, but I’ll say it anyway—I was totally over Italy and ready to abandon la dolce vita forever.

But like a mosquito to bare arms, I couldn’t stay away for long. Soon, I’d gotten my fix of cilantro and tacos, and my kilo-block of parmesan had run out. Luckily, this is New York and you can get anything here—for a price—so I began discreetly scouting for new dealers.

They said Arthur Avenue was where I wanted to go. It seems that while the Little Italy of downtown Manhattan has long been overrun by tourists and Armenian restauranteurs masquerading as Italians, this little stretch of the Bronx still retains small town character and old men leisurely watching football.

Transportation to Arthur Avenue consists of taking the B/D train to Fordham, a solid 90-minute trek from Brooklyn. The surrounding neighborhood isn’t the greatest, but during the day, I didn’t feel uncomfortable at any point. After you leave the station, walk about seven blocks to the east along 186th St, then one block south on 3rd Ave, and another four blocks east on 187th St until you reach Arthur Ave. The Italian community is centered around this intersection, radiating 3-4 blocks in each direction.
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The Barilla Gorilla: A Day Inside Academia Barilla

Do you know what Italian company was single-handedly responsible for changing the texture of America’s pasta?

Barilla was founded in 1877 by Pietro Barillo Sr., who began the business as a simple pasta shop in Parma. The company is now on its fourth generation of family owners, and has been almost continuously privately owned, save for a gap in the ‘70s when Barilla was bought out by U.S. multinational W.R. Grace. In 1990, Barilla began aggressively expanding into international markets, through the acquisition of local pasta companies and the development of manufacturing plants abroad. This included the creation of the first American plant in Ames, Iowa in 1999, with a second plant following in upstate New York.

Today, Barilla is the world’s largest pasta corporation, and the largest producer of baked goods in Italy, with sales in 2010 totaling €4.535 billion. The firm encompasses over 20 brands, exports to 125 countries, and holds 16,000 employees. They are also the single largest buyer of durum wheat in the world, and consequently, a major player in the supply chain, able to set price and quality demands.
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Finding Sticky Gold: The Greatest Grocery Store in Bra

Publication forthcoming in the January 2011 edition of the UNISG newsletter

The discontent arrived in fits and starts. Mere days after arriving in Italy, I stood crestfallen at the market, valiantly searching for a bunch of cilantro. Piles of parsley surrounded me, a taunting, isomorphic reminder that I was far from home. The bulk bins were swollen with cannellini beans and lentils, but there was nary a sign of black beans. In the baking aisle, I combed the shelves for baking powder. Instead, thin packages with florid photos of cakes touted the ammonia-based leavening agent inside. Skeptical, I stifled my frustration and went home to yet another meal with pasta.

In June, I fell in love with an avocado. The supple, emerald skin beckoned from across the supermarket aisle and I could not tear my eyes away. According to the label, the avocado had been imported from Israel. In lecture that morning, we had discussed the concept of food miles and the merits of buying local goods. I ignored a nagging feeling of guilt and bought the avocado anyway.

But wait, I moved abroad to learn about classic Italian cooking, did I not? Why on earth was I longing for corn tortillas? With freshly made focaccia and grissini in every corner bakery, how is it that I could not shake my yearning for one good bagel?

Italy is renowned for the depth and sophistication of its native cuisine, but the strength of this staunchly traditional food culture comes at a price. Despite the persistent forces of globalization, there have been few inroads made in the availability of international food products, particularly in Italy’s smaller towns. This poses a conundrum for UNISG’s international student body, accustomed to cooking and eating in a more cosmopolitan fashion. In a land blessed with over 25 officially recognized types of cured meats and 400 cheeses, what happens when all you can do is fixate on finding a jar of peanut butter?
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Inside Salone del Gusto, Italy’s Artisanal Foodie Mecca

Clockwise: whole prosciutto from San Daniele on display; a band of two accordions, a guitar and a hurdy-gurdy (the bearded man on the right was making animal puppets out of a hankerchief to entertain the kids); a self-service milk truck parked outside Salone del Gusto; Puglian women stringing cherry tomatoes by hand

After a long morning of seminars, I was sipping a glass of Left Hand beer, when the sound of drums and horn began thundering down the hall. It was Macedonian folk ensemble Akud Mirce Acev, beating a lively rhythm and whipping a crowd of Asians into a frenzied dance. Heads bobbed, cameras flashed, women in hanbok dresses waved their arms in the air. Just another day at Salone del Gusto.

Salone del Gusto is an international food fair and celebration of the artisanal producer, on a decidedly not small scale. In the exhibition rooms of Torino’s Lingotto Fiere, 65.000 m² of space will encompass 910 exhibitors from 17 Italian regions and 46 countries. In 2008, the fair attracted 180.000 visitors and I would guess that this year’s show attracted just as many, if not more attendees. The event is a combined effort of Slow Food and the city of Torino, and as you might expect, the environmental impact is minimized through the use of ecofriendly materials. For instance, the flooring for the stalls is made from Ecomat material, made from the residual pulp left from olive oil pressing mixed with new and recycled polypropylene.

In these grand halls, traditional food products and wines are showcased from all over the world. Grass-green newly-pressed olive oil from Umbria. Perfumed Madagascar vanilla beans. Hot, crackling Tuscan porchetta. Cold glasses of Dogfish Head beer. Wait a minute, that’s not international, it’s American! As it turns out, the only American products at Salone del Gusto were beers at the American Craft Brewers Association stand. I spent some time chatting with “beer wench” Ron from Lagunitas Brewery, and it was nice to see familiar names and bottles for a change.

Of course, the bulk of the fair featured Italian products, some of which are highlighted below:
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Recipe: Banana and Chestnut Bread, or a Celebration of Baking Powder in Italy

One of the (many) ironies of living in Italy is that I barely twitch my eyebrows at the products that gourmets fantasize about (white truffles, Barolo wine) because they are here in abundance, while my pulse races at certain items that would be staples in every American supermarket, yet are nearly impossible to find in Italy. This phenomenon is not limited to only me; one of the highlights of our class trip to France was the discovery of a vendor stocked with cilantro at the Dijon market. The ensuing stampede of students who each snapped up two or four bunches must have left that vendor shaking his head in confusion as to what was causing the run on cilantro. When in Bra, we covertly swap info on where to find cilantro as if we are Soviet spies. (Tip: you must ask for it to be brought out, but there is a particular butcher who sells cilantro on Fridays and Saturdays. Who knew.)

What exactly is in this set of verging-on-unicorn-mystique goods? Well, cilantro, for starters, but in general any sort of Asian or Latin American product is in hot demand. Thankfully, the back corner of the Ortobra on Corso Novembre IV has a section that is dedicated to carrying international products. There are no words that can really capture the twist of joy and confusion I felt when I discovered peanut butter placed in the ethnic section. You can also take a trip to Torino and find a good selection of Asian groceries just west of Piazza della Repubblica on Corso Regina Margherita. Prices can be exorbitant compared to the US, but hey, there’s nothing like the taste of home. Latin goods are even more difficult to find. There is an upscale Mexican store in Torino that mostly carries furniture and household items, but does have some canned and dried food products. I nearly wept when I saw the €5 package of tortillas. In Chicago, they would have cost a quarter and still been steaming. What I would give for a plate of Big Star tacos right now…

Then there are the items that I didn’t even realize were unusual, but have now acquired a magnetic attraction: oatmeal, sharp cheddar cheese, sour cream, canned pumpkin, hummus, brown sugar, black beans, bagels, sourdough bread, baking powder…the list goes on and on. Baking powder? Yes, that magical white powder that you use to make pancakes and pumpkin breads without the hassle of rising time. Much to my surprise, it is nearly impossible to find this in Italy. Hence, while in a Brussels Carrefour, when Danielle barreled toward me holding a box of baking powder, I jumped about a mile and shrieked with giddiness.

And so, I celebrated my newly purchased baking powder with the following banana bread. I still had to make a few ingredient substitutions, so feel free to use the more commonly found “ethnic” American ingredients noted parenthetically.
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Food Anthropology: Chitalian Cuisine

Last week, as part of a class on food anthropology, we all had to conduct an ethnographic study of a food production place in town using participant-observation methods (read: hanging out and discreetly taking notes). Rather than choosing one of the town’s many pizzerias or gelato shops, I decided to investigate the one place that has elicited a sort of morbid fascination for me for the last month: The Chinese restaurant in Bra. That’s right, there’s only one, and there isn’t too much other ethnic food in town to speak of, aside from a couple small kebab shops.

After enlisting the help of some comrades who claimed to be strong of stomach, we ventured toward Nin Hao Ristorante on the northern outskirts of town. It was 8 pm on a Monday night, and the restaurant was ostensibly open, but the dining room looked dark from the outside, and there were no signs of life, other than a Chinese man who was sitting on the sidewalk smoking a cigarette. I hesitated and gave a cautious tug on the door. The restaurant was desolate and the lights were even off. At that point, a server marched out, then turned to us with a smile as she flicked the light switch. We turned to each other apprehensively. I don’t know if I have ever dined at an entirely empty restaurant before.
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