Does pizza cause cancer? Italy’s big pizza kerfuffle

italian pizza cancer report raiAbove: the last pizza I ate in Italy in Lecce in October 2013, a “napoletana” with salt-cured anchovies and capers.

Every Italian food and wine blog that I follow posted yesterday on a controversy sparked by a Sunday evening news program aired by RAI 3, one of Italy’s three national television networks.

The show, “Report,” is analogous to “20/20″ on ABC or “48 Hours” on CBS, a “gotcha” news program that generates views and clicks by means of pseudo-investigative reporting.

In Sunday night’s show, entitled “Let’s not burn our pizza,” the producers contend that because Italian pizzaioli (pizza makers) do not properly clean their pizza ovens, the resulting “hydrocarbons” in “burnt pizzas” can cause cancer.

pizza report rai 3Image via the RAI 3 site, where you can view the entire show online.

The residual burnt flour that discolors the bottom of the pies, says one University of Venice toxicology professor interviewed by the producers, is similar to the exhaust that you breathe on the freeway.

The producers make other outrageous claims as well: the use of oils other than olive oil, low quality flour, and even the boxes for delivery pizza can also be cancerogenic, they report.

Between yesterday and today, Neapolitan journalist Luciano Pignataro — one of Italy’s leading wine and food bloggers — published seven posts on his blog in response to what one of his contributors calls “hygienic terrorism.”

In a press conference yesterday organized hastily by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (the Authentic Neapolitan Pizza Association), Professor Antonio Limone, commissioner of the Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale del Mezzogiorno (Experimental Veterinary Prevention Institute of Southern Italy), stated flatly that “the amount of hydrocarbons found in a burnt pizza is less than that found in mussels” (source: Luciano Pignataro Wine Blog).

“We cannot stand for attacks like this against [the region of] Campania,” said Antonio Startita, a “historic” pizzaiolo who works in the Materdei ward of Naples, during the conference. “We must defend our treasures. A Neapolitan pizza not cooked in a wood-fired oven is unthinkable.”

(Translations by DoBianchi.com.)

Furor in Italy, Mueller disavows himself of NY Times olive oil cartoon

best italian olive oil

Above: ribollita, “twice-cooked” Tuscan bread soup drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil is one of life’s greatest pleasures.

Italy’s community of wine and food writers, Italian olive oil producers, and Italian politicians are still reeling in the wake of Nicholas Blechman’s sensationalist cartoon, “Extra-Virgin Suicide: the Adulteration of Italian Olive Oil,” published by the New York Times on January 24, 2014.

In an editorial published today, the editors of Il Parlamentare, a weekly magazine that covers politics in Italy, write: “This is how the New York Times ‘makes fun of Italy.'”

The cartoon erroneously reported that up to 69 percent of Italian olive oil is adulterated. And although the cartoon was later amended, it also incorrectly reported that oil from other countries could be legally labeled as “Italian” despite the provenance (see below).

[Today, the final panel of the cartoon reports that "an earlier version of this graphic contained several errors," including those cited here.]

The cartoon was purportedly based on data gathered by journalist Tom Mueller, who authors the blog Truth in Olive Oil. He is also the author of a Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil (Norton, 2013).

On January 29, Mueller appeared before the Italian parliament’s Chamber of Deputies (akin to our House of Representative) to answer questions about his research. During his appearance, he disavowed himself of the cartoon, which made explicit reference to his work.

“There is no connection to me,” said Mueller of the cartoon, “nor is it my work.” It is made up of “humorous images that incorporate fact but also — and above all — include glaring errors. They reflect a biased approach that ignores quality and focuses only on fraud.”

According to the Italian national daily Corriere della Sera coverage of his appearance before the chamber, he expects the Times to publish a retraction.

On January 31, Italian blogger Olga Mascolo published an interview with Mueller on the popular food blog Dissapore.

The following is an excerpted translation of the interview (to my knowledge, Mueller has only made these comments in Italian and they have not been published in an English-language forum; translation mine).

*****

“There are two principal errors” in the cartoon. “The first is approximation. I wrote 200 pages on this subject documenting the problem of olive oil adulteration. But I also brought attention to those who are doing good work… The overwhelming majority does good work. There are just a few rotten apples who make life difficult for everyone.”

“In regard to the New York Times, it’s a cartoon, fifteen panels that give the impression that all of Italian olive oil is evil. But that’s not the case. The fact that such an authoritative newspaper has reported this makes it all the worse. This is not Home Simpson making silly declarations.”

“In particular, there is a vignette that claims that 69 percent of Italian olive oil is adulterated. That’s not the case. The figure is based on a California study that shows that, at most, the oil is not extra-virgin. But that doesn’t mean that it is adulterated.”

Sources: Dissapore; DiVini (Corriere della Sera).

*****

The following line in the New York Times cartoon was amended in a subsequent version:

“Bottles are labeled ‘Extra-Virgin’ and brand with the globally respected ‘Made In Italy.’ (Oddly this is legal, even if the oil does not come from Italy.)”

The current caption reads as follows:

“Bottles are labeled ‘Extra-Virgin’ and brand with the globally respected ‘Made In Italy.’ (Oddly this is legal, even if the oil does not come from Italy — although the source countries are supposed to be listed on the label.)”

Source: Intravino.

Il miglior fabbro: mourning the passing of the great Italian translator William Weaver

pasolini ragazzi di vita

Above: William Weaver is remembered by many for his superb translations of popular writers like Eco and Calvino. But to many Italian literature cognoscenti, his masterworks are his renderings of experimental works by Carlo Emilio Gadda and Pier Paolo Pasolini (image via Barnes & Noble).

It was with great sadness that I read the news this morning (published over the weekend in the New York Times) that the greatest Italian translator of our generation William Weaver has passed at age 90.

I never had the opportunity to meet him but his work had a huge influence on my career as a translator and my intellectual life (and two of his students were mentors of mine).

Many American college graduates and literary buffs will remember him for his superb translations of popular writers like Eco and Calvino.

But his masterworks are his renderings of experimental works from the twentieth century by authors like Pier Paolo Pasolini and Carlo Emilio Gadda.

Weaver brilliantly translated the title of Pasolini’s 1956 Ragazzi di vita — a novel written in urban Roman dialect — as A Violent Life. The title alone (ragazzi di vita — which, slavishly, means the boys of life — is a colloquial expression that denotes street hustlers) marked a new era for Italian translation and translators. As in this case, he often abandoned accuracy for the verve and ethos of the original. And this bold approach set a new tone and a new benchmark for the generation of translators who would follow in his footsteps.

When I frequented literary circles during my New York years, Weaver’s name was invoked by translators from all fields — poetry, prose, French, Spanish, etc. He was a Virgil for many of us. And he taught us — in theory and practice — that the fact that translation can never be perfect does not stop translation from being great.

If you are so inclined, please read this essay (very short but indicative of Weaver’s work) which he published as an introduction to his translation of Gadda’s Acquainted with Grief (again, another brilliant rendering of a challenging title).

He was il miglior fabbro (the best smith [of the mother tongue])

McChianina? You have to be kidding me! #MakesMeHeave

gran chianina

Above: The new “Gran Chianina” burger at McDonald’s Italy (image via McDonalds.it).

“When will we stop selling off our enogastronomic heritage?” asks my friend and blogging colleague Andrea Gori in a post for the popular Italian wine blog Intravino today.

Andrea, a native Florentine and one of Italy’s leading sommeliers and wine bloggers, is referring to McItaly’s launch of the “Gran Chianina,” a hamburger purportedly made with Chianina beef, the famous Tuscan breed that gave the world the bistecca fiorentina.

Italians are obsessed with hamburgers this year (see this post, one of many devoted to their hamburger mania). I’ve had some great hamburgers with my bromance Giovanni Arcari in Brescia. And my friend Wayne Young, Joe Bastianich’s special ops man, tells me that young Italians love the hamburger at Joe’s new restaurant in Cividale del Friuli.

But McChianina? It touches a raw nerve on both sides of the Atlantic.

For those of you unfamiliar with Chianina cattle, here’s the Wiki entry.

Evidently, McItaly (yes, that’s what it’s called!) is also launching a line of Piedmontese beef burgers.

While the first Italian McDonald’s opened its doors in German-speaking Bolzano in 1985 (according to the Wiki), it was the launch of the McDonald’s at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome that inspired the creation of what would become the Slow Food movement.

This legacy has made McDonald’s the symbol of enogastronomic colonization in Italy, a bitter pill to swallow for a country united only by culinary pride and football.

Here’s a video capture of the Gran Chianina spot from Andrea’s YouTube. It’s enough to make you want to heave…

I can only imagine how offensive this is to Andrea. Not only is he one of Italy’s leading wine personalities, he’s also the wine director for his family’s legacy restaurant, Trattoria da Burde, in Florence. It was the model for the Gambero Rosso (Red Lobster) restaurant in Collodi’s Pinocchio.

Scenes from the “Pasolini in Rome” show at the Cinémathèque Française

Comrade Howard graciously sent me these images from the current “Pasolini in Rome” exhibition at the Cinémathèque Française where he toured the show last week with the museum’s director.

It runs through January 26.

La poésie, la politique, le sexe, l’amitié, le cinéma… The stuff that life is made of.

The track “Pasolini” in the slideshow comes from my band Nous Non Plus’ release Le sexe et la politique (Terrible Kids Music 2012).

pasolini

Vinous aromas of yesteryear: Italy’s 2013 vintage reminds many of a pre-climate change era

grape pomace grappa marc

Above: That’s Hawk Wakawaka, one of my favorite people on the wine blogging scene. She’s dwarfed (and she’s not a short person) by a hill of grape pomace at the Nonino distillery in Udine province in Friuli.

Borrowing a line from my wife, Tracie P, who couldn’t have said it more brilliantly, grappa is the ultimate expression of the grape.

In other words, the grape’s very last gasp is its distillation into a spirit.

When I visited the Nonino distillery in Udine province a few weeks ago, it occurred to me that pomace brandy is also the ultimate expression of the vintage.

Unlike the overwhelming majority of Italian distillers, the Noninos only distill once a year — during harvest.

As Elisabetta explained to the group of writers with whom I was traveling, one of her parents’ great innovations was that they were the first to work directly with growers to ensure the freshness of the pomace that arrived at the distillery and to distill as quickly as possible in order to retain that freshness.

The Noninos — one of the great Italian success stories of the 1990s and one of the most recognizable “made-in-Italy” brands — need no introduction or endorsement from me. In Italy and abroad, their products are considered benchmarks for the category. And they essentially created the category when they launched their distinctive bottles and monovarietal grapps in the early 1980s. And they are largely responsible for grappa mania in the U.S. in the 1990s.

I always have a blast and learn something new when I visit with them. And I know my wife will forgive me for the huge crush that I have on matriarch Giannola. She — one of the most glamorous women in Italian viticulture and a genius marketer — always has me on the edge of my seat with her tales of Marcello Mastroianni kneeling before her in a theater in Rome in the 1960s.

But the thing that I couldn’t get out of my head as we visited over a day and a half was what one of their vineyard managers, Denis Cociancig, said to me when toured their famous Picolit and Fragolino vineyards (where they grow their own grapes destined to become Nonino monovarietal grappas).

“The vinous aromas that are coming out of the cellars” across Friuli, he said, reminded him “of the harvests of another era.”

The “aromas of the courtyard,” as he put it, “are like the ones I remember from my childhood.”

nonino sisters

Above: It’s not a stretch to say that the Noninos are the nuttiest people I’ve ever met in the wine and food trade. Those are sisters, from left, Elisabetta, Cristina, and Antonella Nonino, with Cristina’s husband Tony. They are always so sweet and energetic. Every time I visit, I learn something new…

Across Italy, yields are lower than they have been in recent years but that “courtyard aroma” has returned.

And he wasn’t the only grower/winemaker who told me that. In the Veneto and Tuscany, I heard cellar masters say exactly the same thing.

And you could smell it everywhere we went. It’s a brilliant aroma of fresh, young wine that literally seduces you.

Most attribute those aromas to the fact that the vintage was a “classic” one: the late spring rains and cooler temperatures made for a more balanced vegetative cycle and pushed back harvest by roughly two weeks. More than one grower noted that she/he hadn’t harvested this late since the 1980s, an era before climate change — whatever its cause — delivered a nearly uninterrupted string of warm, bountiful crops.

Like their winemaking counterparts, the Noninos are expecting to produce less this year but they are thrilled by the quality of the materia prima that arrived at their distillery with this harvest.

When we began to see the 2013 wines in the market, it will be interesting to taste them and remember the aromas of my recent trip. And when I sip a Nonino grappa from Fragolino (my personal favorite) after dinner, I’ll remember that visit to the Nonino vineyards where the yields were low but offset by the rewards of the “courtyard aromas of yesteryear.”

In unrelated news…

One of the winners of the prestigious Nonino prize for the arts and sciences in 2013, physicist Peter Higgs, also became a Nobel laureate this year.

Those crazy Noninos: I don’t know how they do it, but they always seem to be one step ahead of the rest of us.

Robert Parker looks beyond Tuscany & Italy stands at a precipice

robert parker vintage charts

“For the first time, Piedmont and Tuscany won’t be the only regions to appear in the Italy column of the Wine Advocate vintage chart,” writes Italian enojournalist Luciano Ferraro this week on the Corriere della Sera wine blog (one of the highest-profile media platforms in Italian wine writing today).

“Beginning this year, Trentino-Alto Adige whites, Friuli wines, Veneto’s Amarone, Campania’s Taurasi, and Sicily’s Etna have been inserted,” reports Luciano.

News of this new vision for Robert Parker, Jr. comes in the form of an interview with the new Wine Advocate Italian editor, Monica Larner.

“The moment to tell the story of Italy’s other wonders has arrived,” says Monica. “Robert Parker agreed.”

You don’t need to be a subscriber to view the chart (here).

Italian wine and its relation with mainstream media still has a long way to go. But — there’s no doubt — this is a literally wonderful step in the right direction.

Chapeau bas, Monica!

Sadly, this good news comes along with some terribly unfortunate developments in Italy’s political scene.

umberto d

As loudly as I applaud former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s conviction on tax evasion by Italy’s highest court, I fear that the power imbalance caused by his tenuous political situation bodes badly for the country.

The “epic fail” of his People of Freedom party has considerably weakened the already fragile governing coalition.

On his Facebook, my good friend and client Paolo Cantele posted this quote from an editorial by Luca Ricolfi that appeared this week in the national daily La Stampa:

“If we are at this point today, it’s not because the judicial system has not allowed politicians to govern. It’s because of an entire class of politicians’ inability to govern… They have allowed judicial events to occupy an abnormally large space in our history.”

This dismal view of the current situation is echoed in a New York Times editorial that appeared two days ago, “It’s not just Silvio Berlusconi”:

“With such obvious weaknesses on both sides of the spectrum, the real winner of February’s elections was ‘none of the above.’ The patched-together government that finally emerged in April is an ungainly coalition with few achievements to its credit so far.”

I spent nearly a decade of my adult life living, studying, and working in Italy. And I continue to travel regularly there. So many of my closest friends live and work there. I have devoted my intellectual life to the study of Italian language, culture, and history, and more recently, to Italian enogastronomy.

My friends and their country are in my heart and in my prayers.

repubblica italiana

More @arpepe1860 from @ItalianWineGuy @WinechefPDX & @Jbastianich opens restaurant Italy

valtellina

Above: “@DoBianchi [the wines of Ar.Pe.Pe. are] beauties!” wrote Michael Garofala yesterday on the Twitter. “We’re very lucky in Pdx [Portland, Oregon] to have them. Valtellina’s also not such a bad place to visit.”

Yesterday’s post on Ar.pe.pe. generated a lot of positive response.

Michael Garofola aka @WineChefPDX, who works in Portland, posted this beautiful photo of the Valtellina (above).

And Alfonso aka @ItalianWineGuy reminded me of this excellent post on his vist to the Valtellina from 2007, including tasting notes for Ar.pe.pe. (highly recommended).

bastianich mozza aragone

Above: The news of Joe’s new restaurant in Italy nudged me to grab this bottle of his Mozza 2008 Aragone from my samples bin. A blend of Sangiovese with smaller amounts of Syrah, Alicante, and Carignan, the wine was fresh and the ripe red fruit was bright, balanced by wholesome earthiness. According to WineSearcher.com, it sells for under $35 in the U.S. market. Another gem of a wine from the great enologist Maurizio Castelli, it paired nicely with some chicken tacos.

Things are insanely busy these days at the home office, but I did manage to catch up on my Feedly reading yesterday.

I’m surprised that virtually no one in the U.S. has written about Joe Bastianich’s soon-to-be-launched new restaurant in Friuli, “Orsone” (the big bear), the name of farmhouse and vineyard where he sources fruit for one of his vineyard-designated wines in the Colli Orientali del Friuli.

I read about it on one of my favorite Italian-language food blogs, Dissapore (where you can also see a photo of the venue’s façade).

One of the things that fascinates me about Joe’s career is his reverse immigration. There are many Italian-American restaurateurs in the U.S. who own vineyards in Italy (as he does) but I don’t know of any who are megagalactic (to borrow an Italianism) television celebrities and restaurant-owners on the other side of the Atlantic.

It will be interesting to see what he does with it… And like any high-profile “restaurant man” (the title of his memoir, published while in his early 40s), I’m sure that Orsone will be the subject of intense scrutiny…

So much more to tell but I’ve got hungry mouths to feed. Thanks for reading. Stay tuned…

Eataly founder Oscar Farinetti bans racist politician

oscar farinetti

Above: Eataly founder and Italian entrepreneur Oscar Farinetti with Uman foundation president and environmental activist Giovanna Melandri in Rome, October 2012 (image via the Uman Foundation Flickr).

“Entry to Eataly is forbidden to people like [Italian senior parliamentarian] Calderoli,” said the food emporium’s founder Oscar Farinetti to a radio interviewer this week in Italy, adding that the ban was “for hygienic reasons.”

He was referring to Roberto Calderoli, Northern League (Separatist) party member and vice-president of the Italian senate, whose recent racist comments have been the subject of controversy this week in Italy.

At a political rally on Saturday in Treviglio (Lombardy province), Calderoli used a racial slur in reference to Italy’s first African-born minister, Italo-Congolese politician and opthamologist Cécile Kyenge.

Calderoli and his racist cohorts, suggests Farinetti in the interview, “shouldn’t just resign from politics… They should resign from the human race… They lack the conscience that distinguishes humans from chimpanzees.”

Click here for an updated English-language report on the episode and steps Italian officials are taking to censure Calderoli.

You can listen to the interview here.

As an Italian wine and food historian and an observer of Italy’s wine and food trade, I applaud Farinetti for his “no racists allowed” policy.

His statements came in response to the interviewer’s question: As someone who works abroad, are you ever embarrassed by the attitudes of Italian politicians?

While many international ambassadors of Italian wine and food avoid the sticky, unsavory issues of politics and racial tensions in Italy today, Oscar Farinetti’s decisive stand on this issue — zero tolerance for the manifest racism expressed by Italy’s separatist movement leaders — deserves our attention and commands our respect.

Enogastronomy is one of the greatest expressions of the Italian soul — no matter what the political affiliation. As the highest-profile representative of Italian wine and food throughout the world, Farinetti’s example should be a model for us all.

“Universe in a glass of wine”: who really said that? The answer…

galileo wine glass

Above: Portrait of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) by Justus Sustermans (1597-1681; image via the Wiki).

Reading the excellent Italian-language food and wine blog Porthos this morning, I was reminded by the authors of the famous and brilliantly topical lecture by U.S. physicist Richard Feynman, “The Universe in a Glass of Wine.”

“A poet once said,” it begins, “‘the whole universe is in a glass of wine.’ We will probably never know in what sense he said that, for poets do not write to be understood. But it is true that if we look in glass of wine closely enough we see the entire universe.”

Click here for the entire text (it’s very short) and the audio. If you’ve never heard it, it’s worth listening (in part because Feynman’s immense ability as orator).

(Today’s post on Porthos takes the form of a Socratic dialog on biodynamics and Natural wine and the interlocutors cite Feynman as an example of the powerful mythology of Nature as expressed through wine.)

Feynman doesn’t seem to know who the poet was. (And he notes — for comic effect but erroneously in my view — that poets “don’t write to be understood.”)

I believe that the imagery comes from a “scientific letter” by Italian philosopher Lorenzo Magalotti (1637-1712) who cites Galileo’s [attributed] maxim, wine is a compound [mixture] of moisture [humor] and light (il vino è un composto di umore e di luce).

Note that humor denoted moisture in seventeenth-century Europe (cfr. “1697 Dryden tr. Virgil Georgics i, ‘Redundant Humours thro’ the Pores expire,'” Oxford English Dictionary).

This celebrated observation of the physical world was transmitted anecdotally by Galileo’s student Raffaello Magiotti (1597-1656), who is quoted by Magalotti in the letter.

magalotti letters

In the text (the fifth letter in the collection), he uses the maxim as a thesis in his dissertation on the nature of light. The grape and its transformation, he writes, are a perfect example of light’s ability to “penetrate a body.”

In Dante’s Commedia (Purg. 25, 76-78), the Latin poet Statius compares G-d’s creation of life to Nature’s transformation of moisture into wine by means of light:

    E perché meno ammiri la parola
    guarda il calor del sol che si fa vino,
    giunto a l’omor che de la vite cola.

    [And, that you may be less bewildered by my words,
    consider the sun’s heat, which, blended with the moisture
    pressed from the vine, turns into wine.]

(Some have translated Dante’s omor [umore] with the English sap but moisture is a more accurate translation, especially given the context.)

In the light of Dante’s popularity during Galileo’s time, it’s likely (guaranteed, really) that Galileo was familiar with these lines. Magalotti cites the Dantean verses as well in his letter.

So did a poet once say that you could see the whole universe in a glass of wine?

It’s possible but unlikely.

Did the poets, as far back as Statius, consider wine to be a substance that could reveal the nature of the universe? Yes, most definitely.

Like me (however small I am compared to those giants), they were negotiating the epistemological implications of oenophilia.

Thanks for reading…