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La Bella Vita
What is "la bella vita"? It is the good life. But what constitutes a life well lived? Our conceptions of what is needed to live well have changed. We now look to other cultures -- with envy, with wistfulness, romanticizing perhaps -- feeling deep within ourselves that the life we lead is lacking some of the most basic human needs. Most often, it is to Italian culture that people look to discover what it is to live well, to live la bella vita.
I' ve always felt that one of the most damaging facets of American society is an aching loneliness that so many people feel at their core. The day rushes along, many hours spent at work or in the isolation of suburban homes or city apartments. Where is our sense of community, once so prominent in American life? Where is the family that, in the past, provided a sense of belonging, or made us feel we were a part of something bigger than ourselves? Children are occupied with after-school activities and spend precious little time at home. Men and women in the work force are gone all the live-long day. Arriving home tired, they assemble a quick meal and inevitably migrate toward electronic entertainments -- television, videos, computers.
This is where Italy enters into our imagination, with the imagery of la bella vita. We picture the extended family gathered at a long table, most often under a grape arbor, on a terrace surrounded by geraniums, with a view of the sea or a vista onto the countryside. This type of scene transforms Italy into a place that is unbearably desirable.
But think carefully about this picture. What are the elements that compose it, that make it so enviable? Imagine what isplaced on that table you've conjured up so vividly: large serving bowls of pasta with tomato sauce, platters of brightly colored vegetables, a bowl of tender salad greens from the garden, glistening olives, dark and crusty peasant bread, bottles of wine and mineral water, a bowl brimming with fresh fruit. This vision of joyous abundance reflects a generosity of spirit that many of us feel is acking in our lives; it speaks of a desire to share with others what we have. Look now at who is seated at this table: generations of family and friends eat in each other's company. Eating is basic to human survival, and is generally repeated three times a day. To engage in something so necessary to survival in the company of others is a comfort and a joy.
Look again at the picture and you'll notice that everyone at the table is seated in nature -- not observing it, but actually in or very close to it. The olives come from the nearby silvery trees; in the garden, herbs flourish, fava beans take shape, and tomatoes hang on the vine. We see an intimate connection with nature, a sense of merging, of belonging to and being part of this earth. These are heady images that represent our deep longing to return to nature.
We see wine on the table, for ages a symbol of happiness, a magic elixir that in Italy always accompanies meals, but is never drunk to excess. It is but one of the many components of the meal, but it adds a sense of well-being and enjoyment-gioia di vivere, the joy of living-to daily rituals. Another symbol of life, and for good reason called the staff of life, is the bread on the table. It is heavy and crust -- you could live on it. Bread like this truly provides sustenance. In the bread you are aware of the hand of the baker, another person connected to your life. We all want to be seated at this table that sustains body and soul.
Another image of la bella vita that is deeply etched on our collective consciousness is that of an idle hour or two spent at an outdoor caffÌ¬. We can imagine ourselves sitting and watching the world go by, observing the others as they pass. By studying people, by observing them closely, we feel more connected to our own humanity.
Gradually we realize we are basically no different from anyone else, and we become at one with the flow of humanity. You thought you were short; well, just look at that fellow! You admire the beautiful cut of a man's suit. You see a group of children playing in the street and it makes your heart glad. Of course, men in Italy are still given to ogling the women in that passing parade. But the women are also front and center watching all the gorgeous men saunter by. You see rich and poor, children and old folks, some who move slowly and with difficulty, others who rush by -- and it helps you find your place in the world.
Of course, food enters into this picture, too. In our minds, we see scoops of gelato in gleaming small metal goblets -- dark brown, creamy brown, the pastel tints of fruit ice creams, pale strawberry pink, creamy lemon yellow. We see tiny cups of black espresso and frothy cappuccinos, accompanied by little pastries or biscotti, or an aperitivo, an aperitif, enjoyed on a sunny afternoon. These are all parts of the ritual of everyday Italian life! How fortunate Italians are to have made time for leisure, how civilized of them, or should I say how smart of them, to make time for such humanizing behavior.
And then there is August -- the vacation month with full salary, the entitlement of everyone in Italy. Lazy days on the beach, eating almonds or bits of fresh coconut, taking pranzo, or lunch, at a seaside trattoria. Perhaps a month at one of the beautiful lakes, or up in the mountains, where the air is cool and fragrant with pine. In August everything shuts down except those businesses that cater to tourism; their vacation comes later, and lasts for the rest of the year!
Although this life still exists in Italy and is still at its core, certain modern realities have entered the scene, just as they have around the globe. Italy is changing; Italy will never change. These are the thoughts that, like a Ping-Pong ball, bounce back and forth in my mind.
But the culture of a place runs deep, like a plant's tap root, scrappy and persistent. You can try to pull the plant out of the ground, yank it hard, but the root grows deeper than you think. The plant springs up again.
Italy is like that. The superficial changes are obvious: telefonini, cell phones; a lonely panino lunch for one; families spreading hither and yon -- unheard of until recently, except in situations of dire poverty that prompted migration to other regions in Italy and to other countries. There is more loneliness now among the elderly, more alienation among young people.
But the plant is tough and sturdy -- its questing tap root suckling the earth for sustenance. The traditions of a culture run just as deep; they are embedded in one's DNA. The rituals do not fade away completely, even though they may change in certain ways.
The essence of Italian culture, which I feel is inextricably bound with Mediterranean cultures in general, continues to flourish in places far from the grasp of cities and towns where modern industrialized economies prevail and where, instead, an agrarian-based economy still exists. This essential Italianness is especially true in out-of-the-way places like Puglia, as far removed from moneyed Milano as you can get, and well off the tourist path. In fact, most people outside Italy would not be able to tell you where Puglia is located, or even if it is part of Italy. And the Salento, the southernmost part of Puglia, where I've spent a great deal of time, is that much more isolated than the rest of the region.
The Salento isn't an easy place to live. Conditions are severe: intense sun, craggy land, fierce winds, insufficient water. But the people of the Salento, like the people of so many challenging parts of Italy, have taken the flat, rock-strewn landscape and turned it into a habitable, productive land.
The Salento's natural gifts are many: a blue-green, pristine sea, an agrarian tradition that flourishes and feeds all of Italy and beyond with its extraordinary fruits and vegetables, its superb, super-abundant extra-virgin olive oil; and a verdant landscape in shades of muted green and olive gray.
Above all, what I've found in the Salento is a human-scale existence, where generosity and sharing are as natural as breathing. Perhaps it is the soulfulness of the people that has moved me the most and given me a sense of belonging.
Maybe it is because human survival demands interdependence that those cultural traditions run deeper in places like the Salento and in the small towns and villages that dot the Italian landscape. Nature, religion, agriculture, community, the local cooking -- they all are alive and well here, nurtured by a tap root that must extend to the other side of the earth.
Communal participation and time to observe one's world, a basic respect and unbounded generosity toward fellow human beings, a strong connection with nature, feeling oneself to be an integral part of the natural world. These are some of the important aspects of living better, qualities found in Italy in general, but perhaps even more so in small towns in far-flung places like the Salento, less touched by the modern world, where the true meaning of la bella vita still exists in its purest form.
I've based this book largely on the time I've spent in Italy over the last five years, specifically in the Salento. During these years I've been able to stay for periods of greater length and frequency than at any other time of my life. I've cooked in my own kitchen by the sea or in the countryside. I've followed the daily patterns of Italian life, watched the seasons change.
I've made close and lasting friendships in the Salento. The people there, my friends, have shared so much with me, patiently answering all my questions as I searched to understand the real Italy. They have taken me into their homes and cooked for me, walked with me in their orchards and fields, picked fresh fruits and vegetables and given them to me by the basketful, shared precious reserves of homemade olive oil and wine.
With my friends in the Salento as my guides, I've worked in an olive grove, burning wood trimmings heaped in piles to prepare the fields for harvest; picked mulberries from a tree in the countryside during the dead of summer; gone diving along a rocky coast for sea urchins to eat raw with a crust of bread; foraged for wild arugula; and gathered tiny snails clinging to the dried stalks of summer fennel to cook up into a little stew.
The more I see, experience, and taste, the more I grow convinced that Italy represents an ideal paradigm for living la bella vita here at home.
We know the whole world loves Italian food. I strongly believe that this is because Italian cooking, more than any other ethnic cuisine I'm familiar with, allows the food to speak in a pure, simple way, with a direct expression of flavor and texture and with a lack of pretense or formality -- and here I'm specifically talking about home cooking. Think of the foods on that imaginary table. In a sense, it is food that, because of its simplicity and lack of guile, almost transcends ethnic boundaries.
In La Bella Cucina I present the best and simplest versions of dishes that express authentic eating patterns, not just authentic dishes. The food and menus are based on what I have eaten during my sojourns in the Salento. I offer recipes for what an average Italian eats for breakfast, and later that day for lunch and dinner, as well as what one might snack on when a craving hits.
It is knowing how to cook simply, and the subtleties behind these seemingly simple dishes, that I hope to illuminate. A series of menus guide you through the day, and dishes appear and reappear as they would in a real Italian home.
In La Bella Cucina, I want to share the lessons I've learned through tasting and experiencing what has been given to me from the heart: the sweetest zucchini from my neighbor Signora Pantella; the garden peas cooked with wild fennel from another neighbor, Signora Ida; Signorina Maria's homemade marzipan; and the bowl of freshly picked plums Signor Franco left on my doorstep.
I've attempted to get back to the origins of foods that have gone astray, sharing the true nature of Italian biscotti, that barely sweet and friable cookie that Italian families use in place of bread to dunk into their morning caffe latte. And I demonstrate the various ways in which Italians add nourishment to simple dishes -- for example, the paper-thin slices of seared beef that top a bowl of pasta with tomato sauce.
In an Italian kitchen, familiarity means love, and simplicity is a way of life. An authentic Italian kitchen offers the reassuring cooking that is at the core of the Italian experience. In La Bella Cucina, more than anything, I hope to convey the passion with which Italians eat, the keen sense of pleasure they bring to gathering at the table. In essence, I want to show you the many ways in which Italians are frugal, joyous, generous, and respectful in their approach to food, cooking, and eating.
These are the important lessons at the heart of La Bella Cucina, so that we can eat better, more wisely, and more joyfully here at home.
Inside an Italian Kitchen
The kitchen is the soul of the Italian home. It scents the house with tomato sauce bubbling away, with onions cooking gently in fruity olive oil, a simple cake baking in the oven. From it emanates all the warmth and love associated with cooking and nourishing those we love. The Italian kitchen is where the heart of Italian life resides.
The kitchen in my summer rental flat in the two-story villa owned by Signorina Maria, who spends her summers in the ground-floor flat, is fully equipped. Signorina Maria has thought of everything. Actually, every kitchen I've ever seen in Italy possesses the same basic equipment: everything required to produce la cucina Italiana.
The Italian kitchen is utilitarian, in the sense that it is a workroom dedicated to the task of cooking. It is my opinion that the simpler a kitchen looks, the better the food. And Italian kitchens shine. Appliances look as if they have never been used, since no residue from cooking ever remains. Starting with the floor and working one's way up to the ceiling, the Italian kitchen must be spotless.
In my kitchen in the Salento, I am blessed with what I consider to be one of the most beautiful floors I've ever seen. The large terrazzo floor tiles are flecked with tiny chips of marble in pale pistachio green and white. When the temperatures climb, the floor stays cool, and the colors are refreshing to the eyes. In fact, most Italian kitchens have tile or terrazzo floors. Cleaned regularly with a particular mop contraption -- basically a floor rag you purchase at any market that you push around with a type of broomstick -- these floors help maintain an overall feeling of freshness and cleanliness.
In the center of the kitchen is a simple wooden table with a white marble top worn to a lovely dull luster and a set of wooden chairs painted blue. Windows that open to the breezes wrap around the kitchen -- and outside I can almost touch the old-fashioned pink roses and little yellow plums that grow in the garden below. French doors lead out to a terrace in back tha faces other gardens and other villas.
A relatively new stove is shiny and white, with the bombola -- a gas canister that fuels the stove -- tucked away in its own compartment beneath the stovetop. A small refrigerator on the opposite wall hums with electricity.
It is in the pantry that one really sees the inner workings of the Italian kitchen. The basic and essential tools are lined up on shelf after shelf and offer everything one needs to cook Italian. The tools include colanders in many sizes for draining pasta; a hand-cranked food mill with three disks having holes in various sizes for creating different textures -- for making tomato sauces, smooth but textured soups, and other Italian-style "purees." There are several cheese graters (handheld, four-sided, big box contraptions with a grater that fits on top, and larger hand-cranked graters that attach to a counter). Of course there is an assortment of formaggiere -- little glass serving pieces with hinged lids for holding the freshly grated cheese placed on the table at almost every meal.
Moving on to coffee making, the pantry contains espresso pots, called Mokas, to make espresso on top of the stove: single-cup Mokas, Mokas for three cups, six cups, nine cups, and twelve cups -- a whole family of Mokas all in a row. There is even an old, hand-cranked coffee grinder that looks like it hasn't been used for years. To serve the various coffee drinks, one finds numerous cups in a variety of sizes: tiny cups for espresso, large cups for caffe latte, and an assortment of other sizes for the occasional cup of tea or broth.
Moving from cups to glasses, my pantry contains the everyday wineglasses, stemless, sturdy, and reliable, and diminutive glasses for liqueurs, digestivi, and aperativi -- drinks that form a part of the ritual of eating in Italy. A few fancier wineglasses have made their way into the pantry, but most of the finer pieces are in the dining room credenza. Taller, but not too tall, glasses for homemade lemonade or cold tea are also lined up on pantry shelves.
Of bowls, there are many sizes: very large, shallow bowls for tossing together pasta and sauce, and a succession of bowls in ever decreasing sizes for salad making, for cooked vegetables, for olives, and individual shallow bowls for serving pasta.
You will always find at least one enormous pot for boiling pasta for a crowd, as well as a variety of pots in various sizes for other uses. And frying pans for frittatas, for frying zucchini in batches, for frying in general, a cooking method Italians have perfected and employ often, for when done properly the results are exceptional. Earthenware casserole dishes of various sizes look beautiful and produce the best-tasting food, and there is always a very large rectangular baking dish for making pasta al forno or lasagne.
Baskets for bread, carafes and pitchers for wine and water, and cruets for olive oil and vinegar are on another shelf. A big box of sea salt is always present. Salt shakers aren't used much since unadulterated salt tends to cake in a humid climate. Instead, salt is placed on the table in very small salt dishes, accompanied by equally small spoons. A pepper mill is also a kitchen basic.
Speaking of spoons, no Italian kitchen is complete without tiny spoons for espresso, medium-sized spoons for general use, and gigantic soup spoons, much larger than the ones we use in America for soup. And many wooden spoons to use for cooking. Forks are larger, too.
Posted June 1, 2003
This book will be enjoyed by anyone who enjoys cooking homeade italian food. What I enjoyed the most was the author's account of her summers in Italy. Although I have not yet visited, I feel like I have when I read this book. Being italian, I have always wanted to know what life is like there and imagine what life had been like for my great grandparents who used to live there. This book carries me there. The recipes are so authentic,delicious, and pretty simple. In addition to the recipes, the information on italian life is what sets this cookbook aside from the rest.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.