Fantastic Roman ruins in Brescia, once a hub of the Empire

capitolium brescia brixiaI just had to share these photos of the fantastic Roman ruins at Brescia, which was once a major hub of the Empire.

That’s the Capitolium or Capitoline Temple, above. It was constructed under Vespasian (first century C.E.). It sits today on the city’s Via dei Musei or Museum Row. It’s part of a UNESCO Heritage designated site, “Longobards in Italy: Places of Power.”

Brescia is arguably more famous for its Longobard artifacts (which can be viewed in the superb Santa Giulia Museum there).

But its Roman ruins, including the Capitolium, Forum, and Theater, are considered northern Italy’s most important Roman archeological site.

roman inscriptions bresciaDuring my recent stay in Brescia, I had the great fortune to be led on a guided tour by my friend Laura Castelletti, the city’s deputy mayor and superintendent of culture.

Over the course of her tenure in city government, Laura has worked tirelessly to reopen the ruins to the public. It’s one of the achievements she’s most proud of, she told me.

That’s the lapidarium, above.

teatro romano theater brescia brixiaThat’s the theater, above.

Brescia isn’t always the first destination that comes to mind when planning a “grand tour” trip to Italy. But I highly encourage you to check it out next time you’re in that part of the country.

It’s a very easy city to navigate, medium in size, with a beautiful city center (the Via dei Musei lies on the northern edge of the historical center).

Check out the Brescia Museum Foundation website, which includes an excellent English-language version.

The All-Italian Bacon Cheeseburger: Italy’s love affair with the hamburger

Today’s post is the first in a series devoted to my recent trip to Italy, the wines I tasted, foods I ate, and people I met.

best hamburger bresciaAbove: Arianna Vianelli’s “All-Italian Bacon Cheeseburger,” a masterwork by any international standard.

Italy’s current love affair with the hamburger shouldn’t be surprising to Italian food and wine cognoscenti.

After all, think of how many pillars of Italian gastronomy have been borrowed and adapted from other cultures and places.

Tomatoes, corn meal, and potatoes: all of these foods came from the New World. Can you imagine an Italy without spaghetti al pomodoro, polenta, and gnocchi di patate?

cipolla di tropea recipeAbove: not just any onions but EU-designated cipolle rosse di Tropea from Calabria. Arianna sautéed them with aromatized balsamic vinegar.

Anyone who’s read the footnotes to Pellegrino Artusi’s late nineteenth-century landmark tome La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiare bene (The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well) knows that eggplant, a transplant from the Middle East, was just beginning to catch on at the time.

Where would pan-Italian cooking be without melanzane alla parmigiana?

italian baconAbove: Arianna explained to me that Italian butchers have begun to slice pancetta the way that bacon is sliced in the U.S. The curing process hasn’t changed. Only the way it’s sliced has.

And when the food scholar looks more closely at pasta — the crown jewel and sine qua non of Italian cookery — she/he learns that the Italians learned how to make dried pasta from their Arab neighbors. At the zenith of Arab culture during the Middle Ages, when Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily Frederick II invited Arab mathematicians and philosophers to his court, it’s very likely that they also brought with them techniques for drying pasta in the “August moonlight,” as Maestro Martino wrote in his Libro de arte coquinaria (The Art of Cooking, probably composed around 1450).

Where would the world be today without pastasciutta?

how to cook hamburgers on a griddleAbove: the thing that sets the Italian burger apart from the rest is the quality of the ingredients. Pasture-raised Chianina beef, artisanal cured pork belly, heirloom onions, and wholesome freshly baked bread. It takes the art of this American classic to a new level.

So it’s only natural that Italians would embrace the hamburger with gusto.

Italy’s Slow Food movement was founded in 1986 after McDonald’s opened its first franchise in Rome at the foot of the Spanish Steps. I traveled to Italy for the first time in 1987 and I remember those years well.

To many, the thought of an icon of American imperialism in the heart of the Eternal City was blasphemy.

At the time, Italy already had a fast-food burger chain. It was called Burghy (it was purchased by McDonald’s in the 90s). Like McDonald’s, the quality of the beef was atrocious.

Before Burghy, the ground beef patty was called a svizzera di carne in Italian gastronomic parlance, “Swiss beef.”

Today, hamburger culture has come full circle in Italy and it now aligns seamlessly with the Slow Food ethos (as you can see from the burger above).

Italian food blogs abound with hamburger ratings in Milan and Rome, the hamburger movement’s epicenters (see this post, for example, on Dissapore). And a new restaurant category has emerged, the hamburgheria or amburgheria. Even Eataly in Rome has a hamburgheria and I’ve been told that guests go crazy for the hamburger served at the Bastianich restaurant in Friuli, Orsone.

And invariably when you order a hamburger in Italy, when you’re asked whether or not you want bacon, you’ll note that the waiters use the English word for pancetta to denote the way the cured pork is sliced and griddle-fired.

giovanni arcariAbove: Arianna Vianelli, left, creates and executes menus for many of the Franciacorta consortium’s tastings and events. Giovanni Arcari, right, is my bromance in Brescia, the city that’s become my Italian home base in recent years.

On our last night in Italy last week, my traveling companion Ben Shapiro and I were treated to Arianna Vianelli’s superb hamburgers in the home of my good friend Giovanni Arcari in Brescia.

Arianna had made our first proper meal in Italy a few weeks earlier: spaghetti dressed with dried fresh water sardines, toasted breadcrumbs, and olive oil. The sardines came from nearby Lake Iseo in the heart of the Franciacorta appellation.

It seemed only fitting that she would send us back home to America with bellies full of All-Italian Bacon Cheeseburgers and Franciacorta wine.

Thanks again, Arianna and Giovanni, for taking such great care of two weary American travelers!

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.

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