Friday, December 18, 2015

Not Spaghetti and Meatballs!

Liver and Onions with Polenta
When I was a kid cowboy movies were big entertainment.  I couldn’t wait for every  Saturday morning when the theatres would program 3 westerns and 5 cartoons.  (This was in the 50’s before daytime television)   There were famous cowboys, Lash Larue with his whip, singing Gene Autry, toothless Gabby Hayes, and Hoot Gibson.  My hero was Roy Rogers and his horse Trigger, while his wife Dale had ol’ Buttermilk. This was about as close as I ever got to a horse and I never thought that people in the world would eat horse meat.  It was a shock to me to find that here in north of Italy there are restaurants that specialize in horse meat.  You can also find meat dealers in every market that sell horse meat.  You can buy steaks of horse meat, or even tiny strings of “gourmet” horse meat.  Italians will tell you that horse meat has less fat than beef, that it is better for you.  I have also seen horsemeat shops in Slovenia and Croatia.    

There was a series of movies featuring Francis the talking mule.  Francis, speaking in a low pitched, scratchy Bill Clinton voice, shared his analytical knowledge to fix a perplexing dilemma.  He had all the answers and told the main character how to get himself out of bad predicaments.  I remember one where  Francis joined the army (they used mules back then) and another movie where he joined the WACS, the female branch of the army.   Take a gander at  these movies on Youtube.    

Those movies taught me, a kid in elementary school,  that mules were clever and a good friend—Francis always had good ideas.  He was a faithful friend.  He was strong and a fighter for justice. He was the Jesse Venture of Muledom.  Hollywood humanized a mule, the same as Disney humanized a mouse and a duck.  I was an impressionable and Hollywood had me hooked.

Later there was a television series featuring Mr. Ed, the talking horse.   Mr. Ed even managed to talk on the phone in one episode where his owner had a party line installed.  (We had those in the 50's, where you shared the line with other homes and knew the sound of your ring to answer.)  A Young Clint Eastwood starred in one of those shows.  He actually did a lot of speaking, different than the gun slinging cowboy in those spaghetti westerns.  YouTube has these, too.

Join me at my table, I have a surprise for you.  Donkey meat, will arrive and it is called musso, in Veneto, the dialect of the area surrounding Venice.  Musso is a specialty dish found in this region.  They cook it for hours, like a stew,  in a red sauce and then serve it on soft polenta.  When I have  guests stay at my home, I take them to a trattoria up in the hills so they have a chance to play Andrew Zimmern and choose Musso.  Most of them dive in with  great apprehension but come up smiling.  I have to admit that on a cold winter night it is a choice I would consider, but I try not to think of Francis and his descendants.

When tourists come to see Venice they usually stay for two days and then move on to Florence and Rome.  In this short time they want to know more about Venice and experience its beauty.  They want to experience the food of Venice.  They will see liver and onions on a menu , but I doubt they would choose that dish, nor cavallo, or musso,  all famous in Venice.   Maybe this post has helped you know a little more about the Veneto, and someday after your gondola ride you will brave the menu and try one of these specialties enjoyed by the people here.
Cute and Friendly

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Wine Glazed Eyes Under The Influence Of A Stereotype

Most house wines here in the Veneto are exceptional.   Restaurant owners take a pride in offering a house wine that the locals will happily drink.  You have to remember that the village restaurants are not ones frequented by tourists who only visit once and never more.  These locals know a good wine from a bad and will be vocal about a bad house wine.  

One major type produced in the Veneto, called Prosecco, is something I enjoy.  Italians cannot and do not want to call it champagne.  It is not aged in oak casks or stored in underground tunnels for many years.  It is priced much cheaper than French champagne, and every bar has it on tap.  I can buy a jug of prosecco in my local supermarket.  They even provide the bottles.  When ordering in a restaurant you can get it in liter or half liter pitchers.  Sounds funny to order this  sparkling wine by the “jug”, but this is Italy.  They are quite proud of producing prosecco, and I am sure you will agree that it is exceptional.  

Not often will I find a weak or bad house wine.  The big problem is that wine is forced from a cask to the tap by CO2 and this process makes the wine cold.  This was a real shock to me the first few times I ordered house red.  Now I have learned to let my glass sit awhile to warm it, and I have become more used to this cooler serving.  If I will be with my Italian friends I will be naturally sitting longer, so my glass will become warmer through time.  Of course you can always order a bottle of red which won’t be cold, and you can trust the waiter’s suggestion on wine.  Don’t be afraid to explain you are looking for a medium priced wine. 

Something surprising is that the wines from Colli Euganei, south of Padova,  can be quite exceptional.  Grown on the sides of sunny volcanic hills, there are many good years of fine wine.  When I lived in the states I had the mistaken impression that white wines such as pinot grigio and soave were the only great wines produced in the Veneto.  A few trips to the local enoteca in the tiny village of called Arqua Petrarca set me on a new path.  Actually I am pleased that these wines are not famous in the states as the result would be a rise in prices and hard to obtain vintages.  It is bad enough that some enotecas try to buy up the whole supply leaving what is left to be found by diligent buyers.  

One last remark about wine in Italy.  When I first moved here I brought, in my suitcase, a bottle of cabernet from Silver Oak of Napa Valley.  I was invited to a dinner and thought that this would be an appropriate time to enjoy it.  While I was opening the bottle I gave a little dissertation about Silver Oak and Napa Valley.  I poured some in my host’s wine glass.  My jaw dropped to the floor as he reached for the bottle of fizzy water and poured some in his wine glass.  I was speechless!  I expected the swirling and sniffing of wine, after all, aren’t these Italians who love wine so much?  No one at the table seemed to react as I did.  He did not look at the color or check for legs.  There was no discussion of what a great wine we were drinking.  End of Silver Oak, end of my stereotype of Italians with wine.  If you ever consider bringing wine to Italy, go back and read this post.  

There are Italians who appreciate good wines, and there are shops in Padova that feature great wines.  However, most of my Italian friends drink wine without all the hoohah and flourish.  They will probably only drink one glass.  I have never seen any of them drink more than two glasses, and this over a  period of several hours.  I know that part of this is the strict driving and drinking laws in Italy, the other part, I believe is that they are “normal”.  We Americans and our wine, we are not so normal in behavior.  We have learned what is fashionable.  Italians are not so into “fashionable” when it comes to wine.  The hard truth is that in 7 years living here I cannot remember anyone, except myself, swirling a glass and sniffing it.  When my friends see me swirling, etc., I can expect a few laughs.

The Next post will put meat on the table.
Prosecco on Tap Next to Beer Tap

Friday, December 11, 2015

Foodie Therapy and Devilish Children

Italian television has begun to provide access to American food shows with exception of the Food Network that does not even allow Europeans to see video content from their food articles on the internet.   My friends are shocked to see food piled onto plates,  consumed by eating activists with a high-wattage passion for large sized portions.  A perfect example is the program  Man Versus Food.   It is amazing to see the host grow in size through the year of eating his way through America.   After several seasons he was forced to change the format and have others competing for top glutton.

Another show popular in the mainstream here is produced by the Brit, Jamie Oliver.  He has a knack for showmanship and in one series he visited American schools and made a serious attempt at changing the offerings in school cafeterias.  He was met with mean spirited and angry officials afraid to examine their carbohydrated menus.  Oliver features programs more closely to Italian thinking.  He clearly voices his dissent against the propensity of fast food restaurants.

Italy does not have a fastfood joint on every street corner with a food court in the middle of every mall.  This clear difference has saved Italians from becoming over weight, and there are far fewer overweight people in italy.   This is written to make a point that when dining in Italy do not expect that American sized pile of food.   Here in the north if you order a pasta dish it will be much smaller than what you receive in America.  There will be a whole lot less sauce.   It will be mixed into the pasta, not piled on top.  They consider that pasta is more important than the sauce, a compliment to the pasta, not the other way around.   It’s all about enjoying the flavor, not filling the stomach.

Italian children are more allowed to wander away from their parent’s table, and this can be quite distracting to me.  Children are regarded by Italian parents as cute and adorable, and the result of this is that these little darlings are allowed the freedom to share themselves with other diners.  It is a bit annoying to enjoy your well prepared food and have some kid running by your table chasing the cat or pigeons.  Imagine the waiter’s job as he arrives balancing  four plates of food while a 4 year old is racing underfoot.   Restaurants here have begun to provide high chairs for toddlers which has helped the problem a bit.  

I have begun to see a separate children’s menu,  but do not expect this.  You can ask the waiter to bring a smaller portion of food from the menu for your child.  Most likely they will charge less for this plate.  Booster seats for  older children are unheard of,  I have seen tablecloths and piles of napkins used for booster seats on a regular chair.  Change is coming but it is slow.

The next  post will continue the same subject.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

How To Pick Your Teeth While Saving The Tip .

Bruschetta, pronounced Brooskehtah

Lingering over dessert In a noisy restaurant in Padova I tell my friends about conquering the Italian driver exam. Directly across my table, with face cupped inside her palm with a toothpick, my friend politely listens while she picks her teeth clean.  More than frequently when dining with a group of Italians I see the majority looking like a group of giggling Japanese school girls, hand over mouth.   It causes me to smile when I see the whole table mining their “denti.”  I never know whether I should stop talking to them and instead gaze off to do some people spying.  Encountering these teeth pickers I am a bit flummoxed.  (Now there’s a word you don’t see much.)

The rooting out of stringy bits of flotsam and jetsam has caused me to consider my next few posts:  a good discussion of  Italian restaurant customs and idiosyncrasies as seen through my American eyes.  7 years of culinary exploration has revealed restaurant  behaviors displayed in  “hole in the wall greasy spoons” to “flashy eateries”.   With sleeves rolled up I want share with you what I have discovered from the far North of Italy to the South.  However,....

Before reading further, please take this short seven question test.
 No time limit!
 Cell phones off!  

The five food groups are: Fast, Frozen, Instant, Microwaved and Pizza?     True    False
2.   Most Italians drink a lot of wine when dining out.  True   False
3.  Venetians know the difference in taste between donkey and horse meat?                True False                                         
4.  Italians drink coffee with their desserts?   True False
                Personal taste questions
5.  Do you eat pizza more than once a week?
6.  Do you eat at McDonald’s often?

                   Bonus Question
7.  What is the capitol of Europe?

Answers to  1 false,  2 false,  3 true,  4  false, 

If you answered 5, 6, with a NO, good for you!  (ten points reward)

Answered 7 with a name of a city?   Turn in your passport and suitcase!! 

Let’s  plunge into the customs of Italian dining.  Keep in mind that my comparisons will be through the eyes of an American.

                               The Biggest Difference
I have a neighbor friend who is a British expat, married to an Italian.  Her son upon reaching high school age has chosen as his focus of study food preparation, hotel management and  wait staffing.  In Italy, young people make a decision as to which kind of high school they attend and the field of study.  This young man is in his 4th year and working part time at a local restaurant.  He wants to be a full time waiter after graduation.  Waiters are paid a full time salary in Italy and therefore do not depend on tips to survive.  There are few moonlighters here.  They also have full coverage health insurance, and the Italian health coverage is one of the best.

The results of this training and full time work is that waiters in Italy will not be hovering over you, thus eliminating American waiter traits such as refilling your glass of wine in hopes that you will order another bottle of wine, making your bill higher, resulting in a higher tip based on percentage.  Italian waiters do not expect tips.  (If in a tourist area, if they decide you are American, beware, they know you are fair game in the tipping department.)  I have noticed this in particular areas such as Lago da Garda, Rome, Naples and Florence.  And speaking now as a resident of Italy, please, when visiting Italy,  refrain from tipping waiters, unless they do something extraordinary.   

The first few times I went out with my Italian friends for dinner, I was so used to  “wolfing down my food” within 45 minutes and leaving my table.   I found that Italians spend a much longer amount of time while eating.  Your waiter will not be concerned to hurry you through your meal, and pushing you to eat faster by bringing your next course before you finish the one in front of you.  In America waiters do this so that he can have a new table open and earn more tips during his shift.   (The book by a waiter in New York, Waiter Rant, is a great read on this subject)  In Italy, when dining with friends, I normally expect to be at the table 2 hours or more.  I have sat with a group for 3 hours a few times.  They actually stand up, walking around and return to the table after a good stretch and continue conversing.   I cannot imagine sitting at a table in Olive Garden for three hours.  I bet that they would ask you to leave after two hours. 

Because your waiter is schooled and works as a full time employee he will well know the items and explain the menu.   He will know what is in the dish, and basically how it is made.  The menus in Italy remain, with few changes, the same year round.  He will know the specialties of the house and you should consider his suggestions.   (I must say that usually in Italy the posted menu suggestions are not made up by the management to get rid of food about to go old.)   Bear in mind that these restaurants are mom and pop businesses and therefore most of the food is prepared on premises and not out of a box produced in some factory.  This is a great benefit of eating in Italy.   The Italian people  benefit from a lack of corporate restaurants and the result is a negligible multitude of overweight fast food lovers.
Canneloni, (home made pasta)

The next post will be a continuance of these differences…. 


Monday, December 7, 2015

Driving Schooled!

Italian Horsepower
In Italy pedestrians rule!   I have just finished my second “in the car” driving lesson.  I have been corrected, during my lesson, absolutely stopping for people who are standing at a crossing without a street light.   Even if they are standing there smoking a cigarette, without intention of going across, I must stop for them.  

Driving the streets of Padova with my expert instructor has been as fun as a dental visit.   My armchair expert instructor has not been greatly impressed.   I am a defensive driver, while Italians are more aggressive.   Wrecked autos in junk yards here show mostly front end collisions.  Italians don’t stop at stop signs, I do.   My greatest flaw is forgetting to signal with my blinker when I exit a roundabout, the circular intersection that saves Italy from purchasing super expensive street lights.   Today I was forced  to drive through about 30 roundabouts.  It is confusing when I appear to be going in a straight direction across to the other side, yet must use the blinker to exit the roundabout.  I have also been schooled to start my blinker 150 meters before entering a highway. 

The discouraging news is that before driving the exam car the proctor will ask me questions about the automobile.  I must learn to read the numbers on the side of a tire and interpret what they mean, the date of manufacture, sizes, etc.  I will also have to explain things under the hood, and the different lights, all this in Italian.  I am told that I will have to explain how I adjust the seat and mirrors to exactness.  My wrists must be over the top of the steering wheel to be exact, the level of mirrors, and the height of head rest. 

Adjusting the seat is difficult for me as this is a small Italian car, I am not sure this size is found in good old US of A.  Italians are generally smaller people and cars are made for them specifically.    I have set the seat at its lowest level to the floor, yet my head is still pokes above the roof.  The fact that this is a car with an open roof saves me.  Using the rule of measure that my wrists should be across the steering wheel with my back against the seat,  my stomach is 4 inches from the steering wheel.  When finished adjusting myself and seat belt buckled, I am, basically, a sardine.  Total comedy!!  I pray that the air bags will not be needed.

Driving 2 hours around in the centre of Padova, traffic is intense.  Lanes are smaller, and I have to concentrate on driving.  There is no talking, the atmosphere in the car is like a heavy wind.  My comprehension holds me as I drive, and I see a sign, for 30 kilometres an hour, yet I am told to speed up.  I explain that there was a sign 20 meters back that said 30.  He explains that it was only for the speed bump.  My frustration level raises.  BTW You have no idea how many signs are on Italian roads!

We stop in a slotted parking lot and the instructor explains that on the test there will be a chance to display my  skills by backing and turning into a parking place.   (Not parallel)  He tells me to count two spaces before the slot and align my steering wheel with the third line.  Then, while turning the steering wheel, l back up and slip myself between two cars.  (Italians like backing into parking places where they might not be able to leave easily).  (This skill NOT in the driving manual or law, by the way)  But I do as told, and I end up just a bit over the line.   My problem is that looking backwards by turning my head in this tiny car does not allow any vision to the rear.   The mirrors are better for me, but I am not allowed to use them as the examiner will be  looking at my head movement.  This manoeuvre was practiced later in my village with my own car.

My other most eligible to fail habit is not using the “correct” gear when nearing the roundabout, or when entering the highway.  Italians are really into gearing according to rpm, I am not. 

 At the end of the 2 hours, I park the car and I receive the analysis with the anticipation of biopsy news.  With the face of a pall bearer  he says, “it was better this time,” then nothing more.  I identify with Rodney Dangerfield, but   there will be one more 2 hour lesson next week to improve. 

Scroll Down to read my other blogs, in particular the driving test.