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Il Supermercado: Eating Like a Roman

Thursday Jul 18, 2013
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Author Jackie Townsend heads to Rome and discovers that the best meal may not always be farm-to-table.

My imaginations of Italy and food are of this: a stolid, determined woman toiling away in her kitchen, pinching out pasta shells with her thumb, gathering tomatoes from scraggly vines hanging off her balcony railing, basil from the spice pots cluttering her window sill. I see her trudging up a cobbled slope to argue with the macellaio about the best cut of meat, over to the salumeria to admonish the owner for yesterday’s salty parma. I see her waddling over to the panettiere to get the first batch of bread. And yes, my imaginations are real. I have eaten meals with these beginnings, and have never once been disappointed.

But let your imaginations run wild into the gutter, for there is this thing now in Italy. It’s called the supermarket.

I discovered this phenomenon only recently, on a visit to Rome, when one night I was served the most fabulous pesto I’ve ever eaten. My cousin’s wife is an excellent cook, not to mention a young beauty and working mother of three. "It’s from Genova," she said proudly (where she is from), and then she ran and got the package to show me.

Package? No mortal and pestle?

She was not ashamed. Which left me ashamed for thinking she might be ashamed. Like I might be ashamed if I cooked with a microwave. But no, this is simply how the modern Italian woman cooks. Plus, I don’t think Italians are ever ashamed. The pesto didn’t taste like it could be from a package, and it was this, above all, that confused me.


Long Live the Bimbi

The next day I accompanied her to my first Roman supermarket. Other than the ancient external faƧade, once inside it looked like any old supermarket, unmemorable, disorganized, fluorescent. Let’s put it this way. It was no EATALY. I followed her around while she threw items into her basket, our three course meals for the next few nights. Everything was pre-packaged, including the meat, including the fish. Nothing said organic or free range. The bacon was pre-cut into cubes for the pasta carbonara, the ricotta from a carton, the vongole frozen, the agnolotti vacuum packed.

I’ve eaten handmade agnolotti in Italy, and yet when I ate hers that night I could tell no difference. The chicken was succulent, though it didn’t hurt that it was rolled up with slices of prosciutto into little fingers. Nothing tasted preserved. Nothing tasted tainted. The quiet ease and grace that exudes so naturally from any Italian kitchen remained in tact. No fuss. No noises. No sighs or banging. One might think there was no effort put into it at all.

One night, in between feeding three kids, to accompany our meal she set out a loaf of warm, homemade bread, quickly telling me not to worry, she didn’t have to do anything. It was made with the Bimbi.

"Ah Bimbi," I responded, an anticipatory gleam in my eye, for while I’d heard of this Bimbi, I’d never actually seen one. Many Italian women have them but few talk about them. Like the supermarket - that crass American invention - the Bimbi is hush hush. All I knew was that it was some big contraption that could make almost any dish. From pudding to pasta, from cake to pizza, the Bimbi did it all.

It’s hard to imagine an Italian woman throwing a bunch of ingredients into a machine and pressing start. Scooping pesto from a package. But what I’ve come to learn is that it doesn’t matter. Unlike processed food in the U.S., processed food in Italy tastes how it should taste, like food, real food, the kind of food that makes me, ironically, avoid supermarkets back home because our processed food doesn’t taste like there was ever any earth involved.


The Italian Table

So while modern Italians are going by way of the microwave, Americans like me are moving back to untainted earth; organic, farm raised, wild caught, unprocessed. All fine and good, but after Italy it occurred to me that I might be missing the point. Forget about the salumeria, panettiere, and macellaio; forget if it’s organic or farm raised, Italians don’t really care about any of that stuff-hence, il supermercato. They care that their food tastes good. Make your food taste good. And the more simple Italian touches you bring to your table the more it will taste good. Here’s one example, my favorite taste of Italy meal to eat at home in the U.S.:

  • Buy a bushel of basil, cut the stem ends and put in a glass of water. Keep at the ready on your kitchen counter or sill (because it looks and smells nice). When you need a leaf just pull it off, ideally, to sprinkle on some locally grown tomatoes you’ve just sliced, adding some chopped garlic, dribbles of oil and balsamic, a touch of salt.
  • On a small cutting board lay out thinly sliced prosciutto and salami. (The U.S. has just relaxed a decades-old ban on cured pork from Italy!) Add a pile of crumbles from a broken up hunk of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese (what Italians call "junk food").
  • Place a whole, wet mozzarella ball in a small plate, dribble on olive oil and crushed pepper.
  • Caesar’s olives!
  • Serve red wine from a ceramic pitcher. (When I’m in Italy, if a labeled bottle is put on the table I feel as if it’s because I’m there, the Americana. If I were not there, there’d be a simple carafe or pitcher filled with wine from a box stored in cooler somewhere.
  • Place chunks of bread or grissini directly on the table by each plate.
  • Drink wine from water glasses
  • For la dolce, mix strawberries with red wine and sugar

    Buon appetito.

    Jackie Townsend received her MBA from U.C. Berkeley and spent eight years on the fast track to becoming a partner with a financial services consulting company before burning out. After coming to terms with what is important in life (being married to an Italian didn’t hurt), she began writing and hasn’t stopped since. She just released her second novel, "Imperfect Pairings," an exploration of these themes.


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