[Thoughts on the Table – 96] What makes a dish Italian? With Eva from Electric Blue Food

In this new episode of Thoughts on the Table, Eva from Electric Blue Food is back to help me break down a massive topic: What makes a dish Italian?

To non-Italians, Italian food may be what appears on the menus of Italian restaurants or anything tagged as Italian that goes viral on social networks, like Carbonara, Amatriciana, Neapolitan Pizza, egg-yolk ravioli. To the Italians, Italian food is what they naturally cook at home, and maybe the only thing they are able and equipped to cook. These are potentially two very different things!

With many cuisines, we see a set of iconic dishes that become famous around the world through some kind of selection (like Pad Thai, Chicken Vindaloo, Salmon Teriyaki). Despite helping to make those cuisines accessible to many, these dishes are really just a small sample of the foods originating in their native regions. Eva and I argue that the (often ill-formed) quest for “the original” or “the authentic” version of these recipes may contribute to weeding out all variations of those dishes except for their dominant ones. This is probably why abroad there tends to be only one kind of Tiramisu (the coffee/cocoa one), whereas in Italy important spin-offs happily co-exist.

Join us in this episode to hear more about the true cuisine of Italy by going over some unexpected Italian dishes, such as Mostarda, Bagna Cauda, Prosciutto and Cantaloupe, as well as evidence of many dishes sometimes labeled as “non-authentic” that are eaten daily all around the Peninsula, like Spaghetti alla Bolognese, Gnocchi al Pesto, Lasagne al Pesto, Carbonara with Pancetta, and Strawberry Tiramisu.

Finally, Eva describes her experience with the Polish cuisine of her grandmother and her encounter with Blueberry Pierogi, a sweet variation of the iconic potato dumpling that is equally unexpected outside of Poland.

You can learn more about Eva by visiting her website Electric Blue Food. You can also follow her on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter. Please also check out Eva’s interview in episode 87!


Italian Words Gone Wrong – 6 Mistakes Native Italians Don’t Make

For a narrated version of this article, please check out: Italian Words Gone Wrong – Mistakes on the Menu

Even though Italian food is prominent in North America as well as other English speaking countries, restaurant menus often use Italian words in ways that are not even remotely close to what would sound natural to a native Italian. And it isn’t just because of spelling mistakes, the grammatical and logical use of Italian words is also frequently incorrect.

This post started as a chat with two Twitter friends, Cecilia Razelli (@cocci_ge) and Carlo Settembrini (@csettembrini.) Cecilia found it amusing that I titled one of my articles “Formaggio Cheese,” given that she had noted a similar trend with constructs like “salsiccia sausage” and “prosciutto ham” (if you don’t see why Italians can find this amusing, keep reading!) Then Carlo joined the conversation, expanding to other types of mistakes that English speaking people make when using Italian words. We kept chatting on Twitter for a bit, then we moved the conversation to a shared Google Document, which eventually became the outline for this article. I would like to thank Cecilia and Carlo for engaging in this collaboration – literally, this post wouldn’t have happened without you!

To help illustrate the variety of errors that are commonly made when non-experienced Italian speakers use the Italian language, we grouped the mistakes according to their nature into six distinct families. So, let’s get started!

1. Spelling

When native Italians look for authentic Italian restaurants abroad, they often assess their authenticity merely on the number of spelling mistakes they can spot on the menus. Since the Italian language is mostly phonetic (i.e. written as pronounced,) there are no spelling competitions in Italy – spelling is generally not an issue over there(1)! This is why spelling mistakes stand out even more to the Italians.

Some spelling mistakes seem to reflect the way Italian words tend to be pronounced by English natives. Take ‘focaccia’ as an example: its misspelled counterpart ‘foccacia’ is gaining popularity because it’s closer to how it sounds in English. At other times, alternate English spellings appear to reflect the dialect of the first Italian-Americans. Words like ‘Cappicolla’ and ‘Macaroni,’ for instance, bear clear signs of a southern Italian heritage as opposed to their national counterparts: ‘Capicollo’ and ‘Maccheroni.’ Other words, like ‘linguini’ and ‘zucchini,’ reflect a combination of causes: their dialectal origin and the way the correctly spelled ‘linguine’ and ‘zucchine’ sound when read with an English accent.

To a native Italian, it’s bad enough to hear a misspelled word, but things get even worse when the alternate spelling has a different meaning in Italian. For instance, ‘panini’ is sometimes misspelled as ‘pannini.’ Now, while ‘panini’ is a diminutive of “pane,” which means ‘bread,’ the word ‘pannini’ is a diminutive of ‘panni,’ which is equivalent to “items of clothing” or “rags.” So now you know why a native Italian may get a giggle when they read that the chef’s special is the “house pannini.”

2. Plural vs. singular

Even when spelled correctly, Italian words may be misused in the context of a sentence because of an incorrect “grammatical number.” A classic example of this mistake is using the word ‘panini’ (which is the plural of ‘panino’) to refer to a single sandwich. It’s not clear why the plural ‘panini’ entered the English language instead of the singular ‘panino,’ although one theory is that ‘panini’ is assonant with other Italian-sounding words like ‘linguini’ and ‘zucchini.’ Regardless, a sentence like “I’d like a panini” sounds to a native Italian as wrong as “I’d like a sandwiches.” And it goes without saying that the word “paninis” doesn’t make any sense to a native Italian since it’s a double-plural. The same mistake occurs when ‘biscotti’ is used to refer to a single cookie (in Italian it’s the plural of ‘biscotto.’) The word ‘gelati’ instead is often used interchangeably with the word ‘gelato,’ when in reality it’s its plural form and should be used when referring to two or more Italian ice creams.

When using the English language, however, nobody is expected to use Italian grammar. Therefore, words like ‘paninos,’ ‘gelatos,’ and ‘pizzas’ are perfectly acceptable. In fact, Italians do the same with English words: they adopt the singular form and use it interchangeably both as singular and as plural (“un computer, due computer” = ‘one computer, two computers.’)

3. Feminine vs. masculine

In the Italian language, nouns have gender. Moreover, articles and adjectives must match the gender of the nouns they are used with. Because of this, besides knowing if nouns are plural or singular, in order to write proper Italian one must know the gender of nouns. Luckily, most of the times it’s easy to tell if a word is masculine or feminine: if it ends in ‘a’ it’s feminine; if it ends in ‘o’ it’s masculine (this for singular words, for plural words it’s ‘e’ for feminine, ‘i’ for masculine.) So, for example, because ‘pizza’ is feminine, one should say ‘pizza classica,’ not ‘pizza classico.’ And it’s ‘pasta ai gamberi,’ not ‘pasta alle gamberi.’ Consistency is important!

4. Adjective vs. noun

Many Italian dishes bear colorful names also thanks to the use of descriptive adjectives. As an example, ‘Bolognese’ means “from the city of Bologna.” When native Italians use words like ‘bolognese’ to refer to the famous kind of ragù (a generic word for meat sauce), they say “alla bolognese,” meaning “in the style of the city of Bologna.” Although it’s acceptable to say “Bolognese sauce” (“salsa bolognese,”) it doesn’t make sense to say: “I’ve had pasta with Bolognese” (leaving out the noun.) The sentence: “I’ve had Bolognese pasta” is also likely incorrect since it means “I’ve had pasta from the city of Bologna” with no reference to its sauce. Worse yet, if you order “a Bolognese” in a restaurant, it will sound like you are ordering a person from Bologna – that would be a very dubious kind of meat sauce!

Similarly, ‘Parmigiano’ or ‘Parmigiana’ means “from the city of Parma” (referred to a masculine/feminine subject respectively.) As for the famous eggplant dish, however, it’s equally correct to say “melanzane alla parmigiana” (“parmesan eggplants”) or “parmigiana di melanzane” (“parmesan of eggplants,”) the latter using ‘parmigiana’ as a noun.

And to conclude this category of mistakes, let’s not forget that the word ‘balsamic’ is an adjective, and it means “curative,” or “having the same properties of a conditioner” (‘conditioner’ = ‘balsamo’ in Italian.) It makes no sense to an Italian to use ‘balsamico’ without a noun or a pronoun. So, you can’t have anything like “I’ll have balsamic on my salad.” Balsamic what?

5. Generic vs. specific

‘Formaggio cheese,’ ‘salsiccia sausage,’ ‘prosciutto ham’ don’t make sense to a native Italian because they are redundant. ‘Formaggio’ is Italian for cheese, ‘salsiccia’ is Italian for sausage, ‘prosciutto (cotto(2))’ is Italian for ham. So, in Italy, all you are saying when you say ‘salsiccia sausage’ is “sausage sausage,” or “‘ham ham,” “cheese cheese.” We know the prospect of Italian food is exciting, but just one term will do!

As for the origin of this construct, it may come from the North American practice to use generic product names combined with specific adjectives. For instance, people say “cheddar cheese,” or “tuna fish,” when really ‘cheddar’ or ‘tuna’ can’t be anything other than ‘cheese’ and ‘fish’ respectively.

Interestingly, however, ‘gelato ice cream’ is technically correct since gelato is not exactly Italian for ice cream: it’s a particular kind of ice cream (denser, less sweet, and less fat.) Because of this, it may be justifiable to use ‘gelato ice cream’ as a marketing strategy to indicate a specialty product (likely to be sold at a higher price.)

Also technically correct is ‘espresso coffee’ since ‘espresso’ is indeed descriptive of a distinct kind of coffee extraction. In Italian coffee bars, however, people just call it ‘espresso,’ or even simply ‘coffee’ since the coffee sold in coffee bars is almost exclusively espresso. When ordering a coffee, Italians also often shorten the name when they order an espresso variation, which comes with its own descriptive adjective. Examples are ‘corto’ (short), ‘macchiato’ (stained or spotted with steamed milk,) ‘corretto’ (corrected with liquors or spirits,) etc. Sometimes they even leave out the noun altogether and order directly a ‘macchiato,’ which ironically also happens in North America.

The construct: ‘ricotta cheese,’ instead, is completely wrong since ricotta is technically not even cheese (being it made from whey, and therefore considered just a dairy product, or ‘latticino’ in Italian.)

In the Italian language, the following are generic names as well:

  • ‘Panino’ is the generic name for ‘bread roll’ or ‘sandwich,’ whether grilled or not.
  • ‘Biscotto’ is the generic name for ‘cookie,’ though Italian cookies tend to be crunchy, rather than chewy.
  • ‘Antipasto’ is the generic translation of ‘appetizer.’ Not a particular kind of appetizer made of pickled vegetables, olives, and often tuna, or (worse) this “invention” from Kraft.
  • ‘Latte’ is the generic name for milk, cold milk to be precise – which is what you would get if you ordered a ‘latte’ in Italy. The proper name for the espresso-based drink is ‘latte macchiato’ (steamed milk stained or spotted with coffee.)

6. Food vs. preparation

To end the list of mistake families, we can’t leave out one of the most mysterious ones exemplified by the Italian-American dish called Shrimp Scampi. Scampi, plural of scampo, is a crustacean similar to a small lobster. For some reason, it also became the name of a preparation (based on tomato, garlic, and white wine) that is generally used for shrimp and other crustaceans. But if “Shrimp Scampi” makes no sense to a native Italian because it’s essentially “Shrimp Shrimp,” Olive Garden’s Chicken Scampi makes even less sense, since it’s like saying “Chicken Shrimp.”

Sometimes Shrimp Scampi is instead used to refer to a crustacean, possibly just to make a dish sound more mysterious, or “elevated,” and definitely more “Italian.” Dishes like “Linguine with Shrimp Scampi” from “Barefoot Contessa” Ina Garten are a clear indication of how mainstream this misconception has gone. It goes without saying that actual Scampi are nowhere in the ingredients.

To make matters worse, dictionaries such as the Merriam-Webster define ‘scampi’ as “a usually large shrimp; also: a large shrimp prepared with a garlic-flavored sauce,” also reporting ‘scampi’ as a singular noun with an invariant plural form. Fortunately, heroic bloggers like my friend Frank Fariello set the record straight by correctly explaining the naming issue behind this dish.

To end the category and this article, ‘Calamari’ is another example where non-native Italians may confuse an ingredient with its preparation. Whereas in Italian it generically means ‘squid,’ outside of Italy, and especially in North America, it refers to its deep-fried ring-shaped slices.

(1) In some regions of Italy, Italians make certain kinds of spelling mistakes due to how words sound in their dialects. As an example, those who speak a Venetian dialect tend to drop double consonants. In southern Italy, instead, double consonants tend to be added where they don’t belong (e.g. Carabbinieri instead of Carabinieri.)

(2) In Italy, there are two kinds of prosciutto: ‘cotto’ (“cooked” similar to ham) and ‘crudo’ (“raw, cured.”)

[Thoughts on the Table Transcript] Gino De Blasio on Slow Food/Fast Food

Continuing on the series of transcripts, up next is the textual form of an old episode with my friend, writer Gino De Blasio. In this podcast, Gino applies his amazing storytelling to describe the origins of the Slow Food Movement, in response to the fast-food orientated mentality that was spreading in Italy in the ‘80s.


Listen to the original episode


Paolo Rigiroli
Hello and welcome to the audio blog, Paolo here for another episode of Thoughts on the Table with Gino De Blasio. Hi Gino, good morning, good afternoon actually today. How are you?
Gino De Blasio
Not too bad. Good morning to you Paolo. How are you?
Paolo Rigiroli
Good. Today we connected in the afternoon for Gino and morning for me. Much better, I have to say. Today, a-
Gino De Blasio
Everybody feels more polite.
Paolo Rigiroli
Yes, it’s more ourselves, I think, I hope. We’ll see. Anyway, yeah, today a different topic, today we’re going to talk about slow food and fast food. Gino, you were saying, you would like to start with some history of the slow food movement.
Gino De Blasio
Yeah, and I think it’s a fantastic area, fantastic moment in food history. You have to go back to, this is me now storytelling, so kids try and keep awake, so you have to go really back to the mid 1980s. It was a time where capitalism, free market economics was rife. You have the Reagan era in the States, the Thatcher era in the UK. It was really at the forefront of thinking. Communism was being broken down from the east slowly and surely.
Gino De Blasio
You have to think of this very wobbling time of what you could regard as really a capitalist machine, a capitalist model. What was behind that really in terms of food was fast food. Now, in 1986, at the height of this capitalism, the golden arches of McDonald’s sent Carlo Petrini into shock.
Paolo Rigiroli
Italy already had some fast food chains. There was in the north, I don’t know if it was widespread all over Italy or not, a chain called “Burghy”.
Gino De Blasio
Paolo Rigiroli
A few of us would remember. “Burghy” is Italian pronunciation of “burgy” [from burger]. You were right, fast food was up and coming and a lot of people were interested.
Gino De Blasio
Yeah. There was this fascination because culturally, you just look at the films that were being produced. 1980’s Italy was probably what you would say at its lowest in terms of quality. Foreign films were all the rage. If you look at the 1980s films, they were really highlighted by the Spielberg era, the Back to the Futures. Which it was so popular, I mean it was popular everywhere, but in Italy people were talking about the Delorean because they were so fascinated about the car, all these things.
Gino De Blasio
That’s what it was embodying. That’s what it was trying to capture. I think Italy was trying to capture it through this idea of the food. Basically, Carlo Petrini, he started this movement in 1986 because McDonald’s opened on the Spanish steps.
Paolo Rigiroli
That was his first McDonald, is that right?
Gino De Blasio
I think that was the first McDonald’s in Italy.
Paolo Rigiroli
In Italy, that’s right.
Gino De Blasio
It was in a lot of ways being accepted. This will be the norm, and that was Petrini was against. In fact, he was against this idea that food isn’t being savored, both in the preparation and in the execution and in the tasting. He conjured up this brilliant movement called the slow food movement. Really, the way to think of it is take the recipes from old, from yesteryear, we’ve spoken about it in the previous podcast, La Cucina Povera, those elements, but bring them to the forefront of our imagination again. We spoke last week about the polpette in a sauce. Now, that is slow food. All of these things which are classical home and rustic dishes, that’s what the slow food movement started to bring back to our imaginations. It was moving away from this capitalistic drive, and a lot of people see it as this anti-globalization movement.
Paolo Rigiroli
Yeah, that’s part of it.
Gino De Blasio
In terms of food, it actually is because it’s taking the local ingredients, local chefs, and bringing it altogether. I speak with a smile in my voice because it is a fantastic, fantastic movement, and one which I think can be unique to every nation.
Paolo Rigiroli
Yes, yeah.
Gino De Blasio
It’s absolutely amazing, and I think if you were to look at, for example, there’s a … Can I say his name? The celebrity chef?
Paolo Rigiroli
Yeah, of course you can. Yeah, absolutely.
Gino De Blasio
Jamie Oliver with his Ministry of Food. That is almost going into the slow food movement in some regards. That’s about actually growing your own food, about making things basic in the kitchen, and giving people cooking lessons, which is what the slow food movement has become in Italy with Petrini’s latest Eat Italy.
Paolo Rigiroli
Yes, yeah.
Gino De Blasio
It’s that one world Eat Italy, all is one, Eataly. These are big complexes where people can go to learn about how you grow your food, how you eat your food, where your food chain comes from. It’s all part of this movement which is really, like you said, it’s trying to dig back into the past and say, “This is what it is, fantastic to have it.”
Paolo Rigiroli
It’s also behind the Salone del Gusto, the Salon of Taste that takes place in Turin in October. I think it’s every two years.
Gino De Blasio
Every two years.
Paolo Rigiroli
Gino De Blasio
Yeah, I remember reading something about like how it was they have all these competitions of regional cuisine and some of the things. In your experience, fast food in Italy, apart from the burger of the 80s, how is it regarded? How do you see it as being considered?
Paolo Rigiroli
Well, a lot of Italian food is fast by nature. A pizza takes 90 second to cook. Fast food doesn’t necessarily mean a bad thing. There are a lot of chains that do produce something that can be considered fast food, the Autogrill chain, or Spizzico, Ciao. These are owned by large organizations. Yeah, probably the slow food movement would have a lot against them. However, in my opinion, they do make something that is quite authentic. Overall, they provide a service which is useful when you’re traveling and often you’re driving around Italy, and stopping at the Autogrill is a very refreshing experience, and sometimes, you may even have a good meal. Actually, often you do have a good meal.
Gino De Blasio
Yeah, I mean, this is probably for another podcast about service station meals.
Paolo Rigiroli
Oh yeah, very interesting.
Gino De Blasio
Yeah, there’s a whole podcast in it, but the one thing that I will always get for my friends who travel to Italy, if they’ve ever had to drive a car, there will always be stories, firstly, how they were scared for their lives whilst driving, and the second one is how well they ate.
Paolo Rigiroli
Yeah. It is remarkable.
Gino De Blasio
It is amazing. You get such a variety, and it’s so cheap, which is the complete opposite to, well, in England where you look and get four times a price of what it would normally cost and it taste absolutely awful.
Paolo Rigiroli
Yes. I think Autogrill is relatively cheap compared to a restaurant but is fairly priced. I’ll have to say, it’s not the level of other fast food chains where really the race for the lowest possible price seems to always be there. Frankly, shocks me to see that you can get a burger for 1.75. One eats that not because it’s the best way to use the $1.75, but because it’s the fastest, the easiest way.
Gino De Blasio
I noticed there’s more McDonald’s in Italy.
Paolo Rigiroli
Gino De Blasio
I think people have become more accustomed to it. McDonald’s has had to change its menu for Italy. It’s now offering pasta, which you won’t find in England. I think it’s trying to cater for the local palate.
Paolo Rigiroli
Also, there is a place for a chain, especially in the big cities, when people live a very frenetic life and they need to get from Place A to Place B and grab lunch in-between.
Gino De Blasio
Yeah, and I think as long as the market demands it, there will always be a McDonald’s or a Burger King. I keep on saying McDonald’s but I think-
Paolo Rigiroli
Oh yeah, it’s not just McDonald’s.
Gino De Blasio
A generic fast food equivalent, which is why Spizzico has come about. People want a piece of pizza. It’s great idea. It’s a grab and go. It is what it is. It’s not the pizza which might be which my pizzaiolo makes.
Paolo Rigiroli
No, absolutely.
Gino De Blasio
Admittedly also, I get much better customer service from the Spizzico than I do from my pizzaiolo (laughs).
Paolo Rigiroli
Very good point (laughs).
Gino De Blasio
I’m usually getting a lot and lots and lots, into a lot of trouble with my pizzaiolo…
Paolo Rigiroli
We should be talking sometime about customer service in restaurants-
Gino De Blasio
Oh, that’s even another podcast… Yeah, we got service station, customer service.
Paolo Rigiroli
Yeah, I wrote articles on both my blog. You can read about my view of Autogrill and my view of customer service in restaurants. A lot of interesting considerations, I think, that one can make. A good travel guide for people that want to visit Italy and venture themselves into what customer service is or isn’t.
Gino De Blasio
Yeah (laughs).
Paolo Rigiroli
It’s all relative, I think we’re used to it a little bit too much in Italy. Personally, I think it could be better, but at the same time-
Gino De Blasio
I don’t think it’d be hard to improve.
Paolo Rigiroli
No. It won’t be hard to improve. I am the first to admit it and I am sorry. I apologize to all the people that didn’t get treated the way they do at home. However, people go to restaurants for the food more than for the hospitality. You go to somebody who is the owner. It’s not your host necessarily. It’s the person that owns the place, and you adapt to their customs and their rules, as long as they feed you what you know they can make and make really well. We’re willing to put up with that. Yeah, we should talk about it some other time, so much to say.
Gino De Blasio
So much. We’ve spoken at large about really the slow food movement. We’ve touched upon the fast food moment. Where do you see Italy now? Do you see it turning more towards the slow food or do you feel that we’ll be a cultural shift to more fast food orientated mentality? What do you see happening?
Paolo Rigiroli
I think that the slow food doesn’t need to be a movement in Italy, necessarily. There is a large resistance built-in with the Italians. Fast food would naturally be there and grow, reach its potential, but it won’t takeover slow food. There is no such risk. You may even start to see a Starbucks, just to name some more brands in this episode. I don’t think espresso will ever be lost in there and the many non-chains that make fantastic espresso in every Italian city. There’s no risk because of there’s such a at base palate that is entrenched in the people from Italy. You’ll occupy as much room as the Italian allow it to occupy, and then the rest will still be family dining and traditional restaurants.
Gino De Blasio
I certainly agree. I certainly think coffee, it’s not that I don’t think I’ll ever see a Starbucks, but I don’t ever think I’ll see the fruition of Starbucks or all the large chains. I think one of big thing would be trying to make people queue for their coffee. I can’t see that in Italy. I don’t think it would go down well, because of the culture where you walk in, you stand at the bar, within a minute, you’ve got your espresso.
Paolo Rigiroli
Gino De Blasio
The word espresso means quick. This morning I went to have a coffee in a chain and it took me nearly 8 minutes to get served and there was only one person in front of me. It is like, that just couldn’t happen. It just couldn’t.
Paolo Rigiroli
Yeah, it’s weird. It’s the double-edged sword of good customer service. If they’re too good with the person in front of you, it may get very, very slow. In Italy, it wouldn’t be acceptable. You know what you gain, you know what you lose too, because there’s no way you can have a conversation with your barista because he’s got to move. He’s got to get on the next one really quickly.
Gino De Blasio
As my granddad always say to me I many occasions, most things in Italy are slow, apart from the cars and the coffee. I think that’s different. Coming back to where we see Italian food moving, I think what would might be successful is something which is almost marks it really on a slow food ideology of the produce that we get is from a ten-mile radius from here. Things like that. I think that would see more success.
Paolo Rigiroli
Yeah, the ‘eating local’ idea, I think, would be welcome. It does already happen. In Italy, we’re fairly lucky that we can grow a lot of produce locally, not all of it, but some more than other, more northern countries where it’s harder to produce locally without expensive greenhouses. I think it may become more of a trend to advertise that and enforce it.
Gino De Blasio
Yes, yeah.
Paolo Rigiroli
Gino, I think we got to the end of this episode. It was a very fascinating discussion for me. I’ve learned a lot researching about it and talking about it with you, Gino, this morning. I hope that you people listening have enjoyed it. We’re looking forward to your feedback as usual. Please contact us. There are several ways, on the website, on my blog, disgracesonthemenu.com, on Gino’s blog….
Gino De Blasio
Paolo Rigiroli
As well as through our Twitter and Facebook handles. You will find them very easily on the websites. Thanks very much for listening. We’ll get back to you with another episode shortly. Bye-bye.
Gino De Blasio
Take care.

Il Mercato – The Tradition of the Italian Street Market

~~~ This article is available in narrated version. Check it out! ~~~

Every year, when I go back to Italy to see my family, I manage to squeeze in a visit to a mercato. As you may have guessed, the word “mercato” means “market”, but what’s a mercato (plural: mercati) to the Italians? I asked several friends from various parts of Italy to help me define it – the article you’re reading includes their collective observations.

The mercati are traditional neighborhood street markets that take place in most Italian municipalities and are as ancient as the cities themselves. Small towns tend to have a weekly mercato (on alternating weekdays among bordering towns) in a designated street or square (often called “Piazza Mercato“). Bigger cities instead tend to have several neighborhood mercati, some of which may occur daily (on weekdays and Saturdays) and take place in permanent structures that are either partially or fully covered (mercati coperti).

Produce stands
Produce stands usually occupy the biggest and most prominent section of the mercati.

In the mercati, street vendors set up their movable shops to cover a complete range of needs: from food, to clothes, to household items. The stores are generally open from early morning until early afternoon, but in big cities or for special occasions (e.g. patron saint feasts or Christmas celebrations) they may remain open until late. The mercati feature products for all budgets, from affordable consumables to high-quality designer items. Bargaining is acceptable though not as common as it was in the past, with the newer generations of customers being more used to posted prices.

“At the regular neighborhood market, you can buy all sorts of things, bargain, and you can also find prestigious brands and products, such as leather boots.[…] In Turin, there’s the biggest open market in Europe: Porta Palazzo which has a covered area for meat, pasta, and fish.” Lucia

“Bologna has a covered market in the city center (The Herbs Market – Mercato delle Erbe), some permanent markets in the style of Alger’s kasbah (via Pescherie’s market […], Aldovrandi’s square’s market) and some temporary markets […], plus a number of neighborhood markets all over the city.” Nando

“In the past, all cities had covered markets. Now in the Emilia region, the only famous market left is Modena’s – a spectacular market with a lot of high-quality foods […] [which are] also sought after by tourists.” Ilaria from Ilaria’s Perfect Recipes

Even though supermarkets have become the main source of supplies, the mercati remain popular in Italy. One reason for their appeal is the reliable quality and competitive prices of their fresh produce. Italians are very demanding when it comes to food and select vendors based on an expectation of high quality and fair value. Since in the mercato vendors strive to form long-term relationships with their customers, they must honor such expectations.

Another reason for the popularity of the mercati is that small towns may otherwise not have enough stores to supply the local demand. This phenomenon has become even more significant in recent years since many small businesses closed due to the financial downturn and competition from out-of-town commercial centers and department stores.

Outdoor meeting spaces
The mercati are also outdoor meeting spaces.

Aside from the merchandise itself, however, a big part of the appeal of the mercati lies in their social function of being outdoor gathering places where people can meet. Those who visit a mercato are greeted by a cheerful atmosphere derived from the variety of merchandise and the excitement of bargaining. In small towns where the mercato only occurs weekly, the infrequency of the event intensifies the excitement.

There are mercati that specialize in a certain genre of merchandise, such as the famous “mercati del pesce” (fish markets) that are commonly seen in coastal cities, or the “ortomercati“, which are dedicated to fruit and vegetables. But the multipurpose mercati are the most common. In those, vendors are loosely grouped together by type, with fresh fruit and vegetables stands taking on the most prominent section.

Coffee truck
Even a small Italian street market can feature a fully equipped coffee truck.

In most mercati, the space next to the produce is reserved for bakeries and deli trucks (selling fresh pasta, cheese, cold cuts, olives and other preserves, roasted chickens, and pre-made dishes). A few butchers and some fish trucks are also commonly seen in that area. As we move away from the core, the merchandise switches to clothes, including pajamas and underwear, as well as shoes and accessories such as belts and wallets. Then, it’s the turn of household items, including linens, curtains, mats, as well as hardware, tools, and cleaning products. Sometimes plants, seeds, and even birds, and other small pets can be found as well. Finally, in recent years, “coffee trucks” have been making an appearance even in small mercati, offering espresso and cappuccino, as well as croissants, pastries, sandwiches, and pizza by the slice. Some even feature a dedicated seating area.

Even though the produce sold in the mercati is often local, vendors may rely on nationwide distribution chains, and as such the mercati cannot be considered as farmers’ markets. In some big Italian cities, however, actual farmers’ markets have started to appear as stand-alone venues or as distinct sections in regular mercati. Just like in North America, farmers’ markets are associated with smaller production volumes, organic farming (agricoltura biologica), fair trade, and consequently higher retail prices. In Italy, however, farmers’ markets are still relatively uncommon, possibly because the majority of the Italians consider regular produce to be just as healthy.

“In Milan, the first farmers’ market, organized by Coldiretti [a national agricultural organization] opened in 2008 in the headquarters of the farmers’ cooperative (Consorzio agrario) of Milan and Lodi. The number of farmers’ markets reached 120 in Lombardy in early 2013.” Simona from Briciole

It has to be mentioned that mercati sell new merchandise and should not be confused with flea markets (mercati delle pulci) and other second-hand markets (mercatini dell’usato), or with antique markets (mercati dell’antiquariato). Most major cities do have such specialty markets as unique venues, though generally only monthly or seasonally.

“As for second-hand/antiques, in the area of Porta Palazzo there’s the Balon market, which has some rare pieces. The “Gran Balon”, takes place the second Sunday of every month, and there you really have the chance to find treasures.” Lucia

“Then there’s the «small» antique market of Santo Stefano’s square in Bologna [the second Sunday of each month, and the preceding Saturday].” Nando

Municipal police
The municipal police verifying all vendors’ permits.

In order to occupy a spot in the mercato, vendors need to apply for a permit with the city. During each mercato day, the municipal police go through the aisles to check that every vendor has paid their occupancy fees. They also check that there are no unauthorized salesmen offering merchandise of dubious origin (brand name imitations) or simply items of little value and high return margins such as lighters, string bracelets, plastic sunglasses.

In recent years, Italy has seen a sharp influx of immigrants. This new multiculturalism affects the mercati by more imported items being sold, and new vendors taking over some of the businesses. Some of those long-term relationships with the familiar vendors have been lost, and until new ones are established the mercati in some towns must wait to regain their neighborhood identity.

Yearly town fair
Beautiful stands in a yearly town fair. In the foreground: a stand showcasing artisan bread, olive bread, raisin bread, and panzerotti. In the background: a display of ethnic rugs, vases, and paintings.
Polenta and fried fish
Freshly made polenta and fried fish are common treats in northern Italian fairs.

Some markets, however, have strongly maintained their traditions. This is the case, for instance, in the yearly fairs that many towns hold to honor their patron saints. Years ago, these town fairs were often the setting of small cattle shows (fiere del bestiame). Nowadays, instead, they are essentially big mercati, but with an emphasis on delectable and extravagant products such as cheeses and salumi from the various regions of Italy, marzipan fruits, torrone (nougat), croccante alle mandorle (almond brittle). You can also find an abundance of ornaments, toys, and even the latest kitchen gadgets! Some yearly fairs may also host traveling funfairs (giostre), with elaborate carnival rides.

Other yearly fairs, instead, celebrate a seasonal harvest and are sometimes called “sagre” (festivals). The products that are showcased may be sampled in dedicated food tasting stands (which are sometimes equipped like full restaurants) and are generally available for purchase at wholesale prices. For instance, the world-famous white truffle fair is held every fall in Alba, near Turin.

“[There are] also fairs that are centered on seasonal products. For instance, near Turin in October there’s the pumpkin fair.” Marta“They have fairs dedicated to some specific local food and its gastronomic specialties for each area. […] These are more like restaurant-style gastronomical stands (e.g. the truffle festival – “sagra del tartufo”, the garlic festival, the festival of the pear, of the asparagus, of the cappellaccio [a pumpkin-filled dumpling characteristic of the town of Ferrara], etc. […] You order food to be cooked by locals (renowned for their traditional cooking knowledge) and you sit at communal tables to eat.” Ilaria from Ilaria’s Perfect Recipes

“Every year in Perugia there’s the Fair of the Dead, which dates back to the Middle Ages.” Simona from Briciole

Oh bej! Oh bej! market
The Oh bej! Oh bej! market held in historic piazza Mercanti, in Milan.

Finally, a different kind of seasonal market is, of course, the one that is held in many towns during the Christmas period. Mercatini di Natale (Christmas small markets) are especially dear to the Italians, in part for their whimsical atmosphere. Like other winter markets, they often feature warm treats including roasted chestnuts and mulled wine (vin brule). Naturally, they also focus on giftable items such as fine foods, clothes, accessories, and crafts.

“There is the Christmas market under the Portico dei Servi (which lasts from Santa Lucia, – December 8, but it opens on December 6th -, until January 6th) and the market of independent artisans [called] «Decomelart» in via San Giuseppe and one of sweets and random gadgets in via Altabella.” Nando

“Christmas markets are mostly located in northern Italy but are not absent in the south. You can check out the website: mercatini-natale.com for a list of the locations.” Ilaria from Ilaria’s Perfect Recipes

“The Christmas market that I know best is the Fair of the “Oh bej oh bej” that is done in Milan for Sant’Ambrogio [the city’s patron saint, on December 7th].” Simona from Briciole

Truffles Uncovered

I am very excited to announce that I have been invited to participate in a food lit event that will take place in Turin (Piedmont, Italy) this coming September. The event is titled “Turin Epicurean Capital” and will revolve around the universal meaning of food in life – naturally, a topic I feel strongly about.

When the organizer, Lucia Hannau, asked me to write a guest post for the conference’s blog, I immediately thought of truffles, since Piedmont happens to have the best in the world.

I must admit that I didn’t grow up eating truffles – as a child I only experienced a whiff of them in restaurants when a truffle dish was ordered by somebody seated at my table. And I can’t say that I loved it. As an adult, however, I had a chance to rediscover and develop a palate for them. But my love for truffles totally bloomed during my latest trip to Tuscany and Rome. Being truffles season, most restaurants were featuring truffle dishes, so I finally had a chance to try them in different preparations within a short period of time – an amazing experience!

My research for this article has been fascinating, and I managed to answer questions that I have always wondered: what gives truffles their characteristic aroma? Why do people use pigs to find them? When is their harvesting season? I also wondered: can I actually buy them in Vancouver? And the answer to this last question is: yes! I was able to get a gourmet supermarket to special order a single black summer truffle, which is what is in season right now and, luckily for my wallet, one of the most affordable varieties. You can see it showcased in the pappardelle dish above (for which you can check out the recipe at the end of this post).

But what are truffles? They are a unique kind of mushrooms that develop entirely underground, attached to tree roots, and which may be of great commercial interest due to their high demand and relative scarcity.

Summer truffle
Summer truffle

Like their tuber relatives, truffles are dense, rounded masses usually between 1 and 4 inches in diameter. In order to spread their spores, truffles produce pheromones that prompt animals to uncover and eat them – a behavior which has been exploited by truffle hunters who have traditionally made use of pigs to locate them. Particularly, truffles contain androstenone, a steroid also produced by boars when mating. Dogs1 can also be trained to search for truffles, with the advantage that they can be taught not to eat them upon discovery!

Flavor-wise, truffles are an acquired taste, containing several sulfur compounds (e.g.: bis(methylsulfanyl)methane) which may resemble hydrocarbons, and because of the presence of androstenone, which has an unpleasant smell described as woody/musky, to sweaty/urinous2. Even though a portion of the human population is unable to detect it3, there is evidence that repeated exposure to androstenone can cause sensitization4, leading to the conclusion that androstenone largely contributes to making truffles an acquired taste.

Truffles have been known since antiquity, with written evidence as early as in the 4th century BC. The Greek historian Plutarch thought that they were the result of lightning, while the Roman physician Dioscorides classified them as tuberous roots. Rarely mentioned in the Middle Ages, truffles became popular within the high classes during the Renaissance (legends say that they were a favorite of King Francis the 1st of France), and through the 18th and 19th centuries, their prestige kept increasing in high-cuisine.

The "Langhe" region, in Piedmont
The “Langhe” region, in Piedmont

Truffles only grow in very specific climates, in symbiosis with the right host trees. Because of this, they are very hard to cultivate with the most sought after demanding exorbitant prices. Most valuable is the white truffle (Tuber magnatum), especially the one found in the Langhe region (located in the Piedmontese provinces of Asti and Cuneo), but that can also be found in some parts of Tuscany and in central Italy. White truffles grow on the roots of oak, poplar, hazel and beech trees. White truffles mature in the fall, which is when the famous “Fiera del Tartufo” (Truffle Fair) of Alba takes place – a prestigious exhibition and trade show born in 1929 where the best white truffles can sell for over $400 per ounce. White truffles have a pungent, slightly garlicky aroma, and are best appreciated raw, freshly shaved on dishes before serving.

The second most valuable truffle is the black (winter) truffle (Tuber melanosporum), found in the hazelnut and oak forests in the Périgord region of south-western France. These truffles are harvested in fall and winter and have a delicate earthy flavor, which is known to be enhanced by light cooking. Another notable truffle is the Burgundy (Tuber uncinatum), which has an intense hazelnut flavor. It can be found in much of Europe and it is harvested in fall and winter. The Summer truffle (Tuber aestivum), instead, is harvested in the summer – it is molecularly identical to the Burgundy truffle, but has less intense flavor due to environmental factors.

Given the high price that truffles can reach, cooks often make use of truffle oils, pastes, kinds of butter, or even flour. Since oil-soluble bis(methylsulfanyl)methane can be easily synthesized at low cost, truffle-infused products are often completely artificial (also lacking any androstenone flavor, resulting in increased palatability for those who haven’t acquired a liking for it).

Some of the most known dishes using truffle as an ingredient include:

  • Risottos (often together with porcini mushrooms).
  • Various pasta dishes (especially egg pasta, such as tagliatelle, pappardelle or maltagliati, generally along with butter, cream, or mascarpone sauce).
  • Truffle omelets (for a stronger truffle flavor, the uncracked eggs can be kept in an airtight container along with the truffle for a couple of days before use).
  • Paired with Foie Gras.
  • Costolette alla Valdostana (cutlets as made in the Aosta Valley, located in the western Alps).
  • Sauces to pair with meats, including beef tenderloin.

Truffle dishes are often accompanied with medium to full body red wines, sharp enough to cleanse the palate of the sulfurous notes, and aged enough to develop a matching earthiness. E.g.: white truffles with Barolo, Nebbiolo, Barbaresco, or Dolcetto d’Alba; black truffles with Burgundy or Pinot Noir.

As a final remark, please note that the popular “truffle” gelato served as a dessert in pizzerie and restaurants has nothing to do with truffles! It owes its name to its shape and color, which resembles a truffle, and, just like truffles, can be found in white and black varieties:

  • “Tartufo bianco” – (white truffle), consisting in “fior di latte” (cream) and coffee gelato, sprinkled with white chocolate shavings.
  • “Tartufo nero” (black truffle), which consists in chocolate and “fior di latte” gelato, covered in unsweetened cocoa powder.
Pappardelle with Cream and Black Truffle

Yield: 4 servings

Total Time: 20 minutes

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

#Pappardelle with Cream and Black Truffle


  • 280 g (10 oz) fresh or dried egg pasta - I recommend pappardelle (one of the widest cuts), but tagliatelle, or fettuccine can also be used
  • 1 cup light cream (10% fat)
  • 30 g (1 oz) fresh black truffle (a small one)
  • 30 g (1 oz) unsalted butter
  • 4 garlic cloves, crushed
  • Nutmeg, salt, and pepper
  • Parmigiano Reggiano, grated (optional)


  1. Bring a large pot of salty water to a boil.
  2. In a skillet, melt the butter at low heat, add the garlic and allow it to soften without browning (upper image).
  3. Remove the garlic, add the cream and bring to a gentle boil. Sprinkle with grated nutmeg, adjust salt and pepper.
  4. Using a sharp grater, grate half of the truffle directly into the skillet; remove from the heat and let rest (lower image).
  5. Cook the pasta for 2-3 minutes (if fresh) or 5-6 minutes (if dried). Then drain it quickly and add it to the skillet with the truffle cream. Toss gently and finish cooking the pasta in the sauce for a couple of minutes.
  6. Using a truffle slicer or a mandolin, thinly slice the rest of the truffle.
  7. Serve the pasta in preheated bowls, and lay 5 or 6 truffle slices on each portion. Optionally, sprinkle with freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano.
1 Here is a video on the life of a truffle hunter, and of his dog (http://vimeo.com/62704923).
2 Androstenone belongs to the urinous and musky primary odors (http://chemse.oxfordjournals.org/content/2/4/401.full.pdf+html).
3 Recent studies estimated that only 6% of adults can’t perceive its smell (http://chemse.oxfordjournals.org/content/28/5/423.full).
4 “Sensitization” is the increase of the ability to perceive a given stimulus (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2813372/).

[Thoughts on the Table – 4] Acquired Taste

Join Jason and Paolo for this week’s interesting and entertaining episode exploring why certain flavors are acquired tastes. Why do we enjoy “spoiled” products like Gorgonzola and Nattō? Why do we put cream and sugar in coffee? Why some people can’t stand root beer, cilantro, dill pickles, or even sushi?


The Italian Bar – A Licensed Coffee House for Every Time of the Day

Despite being licensed, bars in Italy are nothing like pubs. They are more similar to coffee shops, but they are actually far more than that. They are an establishment that runs all day with a wide range of food items, and a necessity for tourists with fast and affordable refreshments and services.

Bars, however, can be a source of misunderstandings and frustration due to the many unwritten rules that they conform to and to their many exceptions. This post explores the significance of bars in the Italian popular culture and gives important tips for travelers who are unfamiliar with their ins and outs.

What to get in a bar?
In an Italian bar, all coffees are espresso-based. If you ask for "a coffee" ('un caffè'), you get a single shot of espresso.
In an Italian bar, all coffees are espresso-based. If you ask for “a coffee” (‘un caffè’), you get a single shot of espresso.

Bars sell a variety of products catering to the desires of the moment, and they are often a daily routine for the Italians. Coffee is sold all day but is especially popular in the morning and after lunch and dinner. Cappuccino is almost exclusively a breakfast item (accompanied with croissants or other pastries), as are juices. Aperitifs are served before lunch and dinner – some bars offer complimentary snacks as an accompaniment. At lunchtime, many bars sell sandwiches (generically called panini in Italian, whether they are grilled or not), accompanied by sodas, beer, or wine. Some bars instead offer a more extended restaurant service, from salads and cold platters to first courses and other warm dishes. A few bars remain open in the evening turning more into pubs.

Seated or standing?

In Italy, customers should always ask themselves: “Am I allowed to bring my order to a table to enjoy it while sitting?” Ignoring this question may lead to an unpleasant experience since, in general, seating is not complimentary in a bar. The price of the items served at the table can be much higher than the price at the counter. The surcharge is a fee for being served by a waiter, occupy the table for any amount of time, but mostly for sitting in a premium location, such as in a historic piazza. When they choose to be served at the table, customers are generally allowed to sit themselves, and they are then greeted by a waiter. When ordering at the counter, instead, customers don’t have rights to a table, even if they carry their order themselves, and even if there are plenty of tables available.

Some bars, however, choose not to have table service – in these, it’s OK for the customers to carry their own orders to the tables. Generally, complimentary tables are small and unclothed, with no tableware and no menus, or high tables without chairs. When in doubt, it’s always a good idea to ask: ‘Possiamo sederci?’ (May we sit down?)

Even when paying for seating, remaining for an excessive amount of time is frowned upon in Italy. Not like in North America, where coffee shops often act as lounges where people who buy a drink gain the right to hang out with their friends, do their homework or use the free WiFi for as long as they want.

Pay before or after?

In many cases, the customers pay after, when they’re finished with their food or drinks. This is generally the case during off-peak hours, especially when sitting at a table and in other situations where the barista can easily keep track of the customers to ensure that they don’t leave without paying. Sometimes, the bar might require pre-payment by asking customers to pay at the cashier first and then present the receipt (‘scontrino’) as a voucher in order to be served at the serving counter (the barista will partially rip it to tag that it has been used). Pre-payment is always in effect if the bar has an active cashier station either located at the counter or standalone. Standalone cash registers may also sell cigarettes, transit tickets, and stamps.

When being served at the table, the bill is generally brought upon request, when the customer is ready to leave. In some cases, however, the check may be brought together with the order and payment may be required immediately. This is quite common when the seating area is located outdoors (especially on sidewalks) and it would be easy for a malevolent customer to dash without paying.

Where are the fixings?

In a bar, all coffee drinks are served in their porcelain or glass cups, on a saucer, and with a metal spoon. There is no “milk and sugar” station, just sugar packets in a container positioned on the counter. Sometimes, a sugar packet is placed directly on the saucer by the barista – this is often the case if the coffee is served at the table. Generally speaking, if Italians wish to have any milk added to their coffee, they ask for it as they order (see below). It is uncommon, although perfectly acceptable, to ask the barista for additional cold milk (in a small milk jug).

Caffè – Regular (single-shot) espresso, 20-30 ml, served in a 60 ml espresso cup
Caffè doppio – Double-shot espresso, 40-50 ml(1)
Caffè macchiato caldo (“marked” or “stained”) – Espresso with a dollop of steamed milk
Caffè macchiato freddo – Espresso with a dash of cold milk
Caffè corretto (“corrected”) – Espresso with a dash of liqueur, grappa if not specified, or brandy (e.g. Vecchia Romagna), Sambuca, or other
Caffè lungo (“long”) – Espresso obtained by allowing more water to flow through(2) (30-40 ml)
Caffè ristretto (“shrunken”) – Espresso obtained by stopping the water flow part-way through(3) (15-20 ml)
Caffè con panna (“with cream”) – Espresso with a drop of cold heavy cream
Caffè decaffeinato (“decaffeinated”) – Espresso made with decaffeinated ground coffee (popular is the brand name “Hag”)
Marocchino – Espresso with chocolate powder on top, and then a dollop of steamed milk
Cappuccino – Espresso with steamed milk(4) (at 65°C) in the proportions of 1/3 coffee, 1/3 milk, 1/3 milk foam, served in a cappuccino cup (~120 ml)
Cappuccino tiepido (“lukewarm”) – Espresso with steamed milk and some cold milk (served around 50°C)
Cappuccino ben caldo (“well hot”) – Espresso with steamed milk (warmed up to 75°C)
Latte macchiato – Espresso with a larger amount of steamed milk (with only a small layer of foam on top), served in a latte macchiato glass (~200 ml)

(1) Not as commonly ordered in Italy as it is in North America
(2) Weaker in flavor, but containing more caffeine
(3) Stronger in flavor, but containing less caffeine
(4) It’s preferable to use whole milk, for a creamier and more flavorful foam

Can I get it to go?

Getting coffee to go is quite uncommon in Italy, mostly because it only takes five minutes to drink an espresso or a cappuccino (which is never served too hot). Italians also prefer to use ceramic or glass cups, which are warmed up beforehand not to draw any heat from the freshly made coffee. The only case in which is acceptable to ask for the coffee to be served in paper cups with lids is when the coffee is meant to be carried to a work meeting in a nearby office, or when the customer can’t physically go to the bar, e.g. because they are working in a nearby store. In big cities, occasionally, bar waiters can be seen walking around the streets as they deliver coffees-to-go on a tray.

Am I even in a bar?

There are different kinds of bars, and they have different opening hours. Most bars open quite early in the morning (some as early as 5 or 6 am), catering to commuters. These bars remain open until late afternoon or early evening. Other establishments, instead, open around lunch time (with cafeteria service) or even later in the afternoon and continue until late at night (some as late as 2 or 3 am). This is often the cases for bars that operate as ‘enoteche’ (wine bars), or as ‘gelaterie’ (gelato shops).

Bars that double as pasticcerie (pastry shops) are more likely to be open during regular store hours (generally, 9.00 am to 7.30 pm). It has to be noted that not all pasticcerie offer bar service – when they do, they tend to display a “Bar Pasticceria” sign. Similarly, some restaurants also offer bar service. When they do, they also display a “Bar” sign (e.g.: “Bar Ristorante, “Bar Trattoria”, or “Bar Pizzeria”). Unlike in North America, it is generally not acceptable to stop in a restaurant (that isn’t also a bar) just for coffee or drinks.

Pasticcini, Italian Fine Pastries

What is the correct pronunciation of “bruschetta”? Check out this and other often mispronounced Italian words.

Pasticcini are exquisite Italian fine pastries which have been perfected over the centuries to achieve the best flavors, textures, and fragrances. In the Italian tradition, assorted pasticcini are served as a dessert, as a treat to accompany coffee, tea, or hot chocolate, or as a cake alternative for celebrations and other special occasions (in which case they are usually accompanied with ‘spumante’, the Italian sparkling wine).

The word ‘pasticcino’ is a diminutive of ‘pasticcio’, which in turn derives from Vulgar Latin pasticium, a dish made by mixing various ingredients, mostly wrapped in dough (‘pasta’).

A pastry shop display
A pastry shop display.

Pasticcini can be found in two sizes: standard (2-3″ in diameter) and mignon (1-2″). The latter has become increasingly popular thanks to its sampling size, a definite plus, given the great variety of pasticcini.

Since fine pastries are difficult and time-consuming to make at home (especially if a variety of kinds is desired), Italians prefer to buy them fresh in a ‘pasticceria’ (pastry shop). Although some bakeries also sell pasticcini, most pastry shops are independent specialized stores, have extended opening hours (they’re often open on Sunday mornings, for any last minute pastry pickup), and sometimes even double as coffee bars.

A small tray of paste da tè: chocolate and pistachio shortbreads, and'Baci di Dama' (Ladies' Kisses), a traditional Piedmontese cookie made of two crumbly hazelnut or almond halves held together with a layer of dark chocolate.
A small tray of paste da tè: chocolate and pistachio shortbreads, and ‘Baci di Dama’ (Ladies’ Kisses), a traditional Piedmontese cookie made of two crumbly hazelnut or almond halves held together with a layer of dark chocolate.

Along with pasticcini, pasticcerie often also sell shortbreads and other kinds of cookies and dry pastries. Those, however, are called ‘paste da tè’ (tea pastries) and are considered a distinct product. Nevertheless, pasticcini and paste da tè are often served side-by-side to appeal to every palate.

The Italians are traditionalists when it comes to food, and pasticcini are no exception. As an interesting consequence, it’s on traditional pasticcini that most pastry chefs showcase their best techniques. Every pastry chef needs to know how to execute them flawlessly since it is on them that they are evaluated by their customers.

There are several kinds of traditional pasticcini. Some are available all throughout Italy, some are exclusively regional, and some are only made during particular times of the year. The following can be found nationwide (although some have strong regional origins).

Cannoncini (cream horns). Among the most popular pasticcini. Made with a baked horn of puff pastry (‘pasta sfoglia’), generally filled with pastry cream (‘crema pasticcera’), which may be chocolate or hazelnut flavored. They are not to be confused with ‘cannoli’ (see below), although they sound similar because both of their names derive from ‘canna’ (reed), which they resemble.

Bigné (cream puffs). Also extremely popular. Made with choux pastry filled with pastry cream (vanilla, chocolate, coffee or hazelnut flavored), with Chantilly cream (vanilla-flavored whipped cream), or with zabaione.

Sfogliatelle Napoletane. Made of a shell similar to the Greek phyllo dough and filled with ricotta and candied peel. Originally from Naples.

Crostatine alla frutta (fruit tarts). A base of baked shortbread, with a layer of custard, topped with fresh fruit, often covered with gelatin.

Crostatine con Marron Glacé (Marron Glacé tarts).

Babà. A spongy cake dipped in sugar water and rum. Also traditional to Naples, though with Polish origins.

Cigni (swans). Bigné which have been cut in half and filled with pastry cream (on the bottom) and whipped cream (on the top). A small squiggle of puff pastry is then applied on the bigné to form the neck and head of a swan.

Cannoli. Made of a fried shell, with a ricotta-based filling and flavored with candied citrus peel or chocolate chips. Originally from Sicily.

Fiamme (flames). Drop-shaped mousse (thick foams, generally chocolate-based), on a wafer or a shortbread base, usually covered in chocolate.

Tronchetti (small trunks). Rolls of sponge cake and mousse, which are then sliced in cylindrical sections.

Tartufi al cioccolato (chocolate trouffles). Chocolate and coffee ganache covered in cocoa powder.

Mini strudel. A small version of the Austrian/German strudel, a kind of pastry filled with apples, raisins, and pine nuts.

Cassatine Siciliane. A small version of the Cassata Siciliana cake, a dessert made with sweet ricotta, sponge cake, almond paste, and candied fruit. Originally from Sicily.

Chiavi di Violino (treble clefs). Liqueur-drizzled sponge cake layered with cream, covered in dark chocolate and decorated with a treble clef made of white chocolate.

Diplomatici. Layered puff pastry, sponge cake, and custard, which is then cut in squares and sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar.

Meringhe(1). Two crisp meringues enclosing a heart of whipped cream.

A basket of pasticcini (2-3 mignon per person) is also a common hostess gift.
A basket of pasticcini (2-3 mignon per person) is also a common hostess gift.

(1) Contributed by Simona.

The Coffee Machines – The Evolution of Coffee Extraction

Is there more caffeine in an 8 oz medium roast drip, in a single shot espresso, or in an 8 oz dark roast drip? Where does the espresso crema come from? What is the difference between the Percolator and the Drip Pot? What is the Italian Moka? This article answers these and more questions by giving an overview of coffee: from its origins, to its composition, to the coffee machines and the different ways to brew it.

Let’s start from the core: the brewing process. The extraction of desirable substances from the coffee beans into water depends on three factors: the temperature of the water, the amount of time that coffee and water remain in contact, and the extent of the surface of contact (which is lower for a coarse grind and higher for a fine grind). As we will see, these parameters vary substantially between the different brewing methods.

The extraction ratio can be measured as the weight of dissolved grounds in the drink, relative to the total weight of the ground coffee used. Ideally, it should be between 18 and 22%, but higher ratios are sometimes desirable. The strength of a brew depends on the extraction ratio but also on the amount of water used: it can be expressed as the weight of dissolved grounds relative the weight of finished product. The strength ranges from 1.3% for the average drip coffee to 5.5% for espresso.

Besides its intensity, the extraction percentage affects the flavor of the brew. The acidic components, in fact, are easier to extract and tend to dominate in under-extracted coffee. Astringent and bitter components, instead, are harder to extract and therefore prevail in over-extracted coffee. This, combined with the type of coffee beans used and depending on the type of roasting, determines the overall the composition of the brew and its flavor.

Which has more caffeine? Espresso or drip?

Knowing the desired extraction and strength, we can calculate how much coffee grounds are needed for any type of coffee. Particularly:

– To make an 8 oz cup of drip coffee, at 1.3% strength, we need 0.1 oz of dissolved coffee grounds. Since the Drip Pot has a 20% extraction rate, we need to start from 0.5 oz (14 g) of ground coffee (20% of 0.5 is 0.1).

-To make a 1 oz cup of espresso (single shot), at 5.5% strength, we need 0.055 oz of dissolved coffee grounds. Since espresso machines have a slightly higher extraction of 22.5%, we need to start from 0.25 oz (7 g) of ground coffee (22.5% of 0.25 oz is 0.055 oz).

The interesting conclusion is that 1 single-shot espresso contains about half of the dissolved grounds than an 8 oz drip coffee. Therefore, if the same kind of beans is used, one espresso contains about half of the caffeine of one small drip coffee.

There are two main varieties of coffee beans: Arabica and Robusta. Arabica has higher amounts of oils, contains twice as much sugar (and as a result has higher acidity due to sugar breakdown), and has half of the caffeine found in Robusta.

During the roasting process, both varieties undergo major transformations. When the coffee beans reach a temperature of 160°C (250°F) the Maillard browning reaction causes them to develop the characteristic roasted color and aroma. Medium roasts are heated up to 190°C.

At around 200°C (390°F), part of the oils are driven to the surface and burn off causing a more intense burnt flavor. Some of the caffeine also burns off, while carbon dioxide (CO2) starts to develop and remains partially trapped in the beans. Dark roasts are heated to 220°C and therefore have less caffeine and oils than medium roasts. They do however contain CO2, which, as we will see, plays an important role in the production of the espresso crema.

Since the aromatic compounds and the CO2 are quite volatile, brewing should ideally take place within a few days of roasting, and within minutes of grinding.

As we mentioned earlier, the depth of the extraction depends on the brewing method used. Over the course of history, several brewing techniques have been developed, each with unique properties. Interestingly, most of them are still in use today in various parts of the world. Let’s go through the main ones in chronological order.

Circa 1450 – 1700. Coffee is born in the Sufi monasteries around the city of Mocha (in Yemen, southern Arabia). Legends indicate that the practice of brewing coffee is tied to the discovery of the reinvigorating effects of caffeine. Coffee then spreads to Egypt and North Africa. During the 16th century, it reaches all of the Middle East and starts to be traded throughout the Mediterranean. As it enters Italy through the trading post of Venice, coffee expands to the rest of Europe. In the 17th century, England, France, the Netherlands, and Austria all become regular coffee importers.

During these times, coffee is exclusively brewed by direct infusion. Roasted powdered beans are boiled in sugared water (fig. 1). After bringing the mix to a boil, the unfiltered coffee is poured into cups, where it rests for a few minutes to allow for the suspended particles to sediment. Since the ground coffee can be in touch with water for a long time, direct infusion tends to over extract. Moreover, the extraction continues even after pouring, turning the coffee more and more bitter as time goes by. This simple technique is still in use in the Middle East, Greece and Turkey.

Fig. 1 - Direct Infusion
Fig. 1 – Direct Infusion

1700. In France, the grounds are isolated from the water using a cloth bag and can now be easily removed after the brew is complete.

1750. Still in France, the Drip Pot (or Filter Drip) is invented. This is the first example of percolation: hot water is poured over coffee grounds, it percolates through them (pushed by gravity), and then it passes through a filter (fig. 2). Drip Pot prevents over-extraction by limiting the amount of time that the water is in contact with the grounds and by operating with water below its boiling point. This method will become today’s American favorite, also thanks to automatic drip machines.

Fig. 2 - The Drip Pot
Fig. 2 – The Drip Pot

1800. A number of new methods are introduced:

    • The Plunger Pot (also called French Press). An improvement over direct infusion thanks to a built-in filtering system (the plunger), which pushes the grounds to the bottom through a metal mesh after the desired extraction is reached (fig. 3). The metal filter allows small particles in the drink, resulting in a more velvety coffee, whereas the lack of a paper filter allows for some of the oils to be emulsified into the drink. The Plunger Pot operates a slow extraction that requires relatively coarse grinds.
Fig. 3 - The Plunger Pot
Fig. 3 – The Plunger Pot (or French Press)
    • The Percolator. Using steam pressure, water is pushed up into a tube and forced to drop on the grounds. After percolating through, the water lands in the same container where clear water used to be. The cycle can then restart until the desired strength is reached (fig. 4). Since it operates at boiling temperature and recirculates brewed coffee through the grounds, the Percolator may over-extract. This method will become America’s favorite in the 1950s.
Fig. 4 - The Percolator
Fig. 4 – The Percolator
    • The Napoletana, or Flip Pot. Originally a French invention, the Napoletana is adopted by the Italians, and from the city of Naples, it spreads to the entire country. The Napoletana is a variation of the Drip Pot where the water is brought to a boil in a lower chamber over a source of heat. The coffee maker is then flipped upside down, the hot water percolates through the grounds and is collected into the other chamber (fig. 5). The Napoletana will remain popular until gradually replaced by the “Moka” (see below).
Fig. 5 - The Napoletana
Fig. 5 – The Napoletana
    • Vacuum, or Siphon Brewer (1830). Steam pressure pushes hot water from a lower chamber into an upper one, where it mixes with ground coffee. The pressure sustains the column of water and the infusion can occur for as long as desired. When the device is removed from the heat, the pressure of the water column drops, allowing the infusion to go back down to the original chamber, through a metal filter (fig. 6). Despite the name, no actual vacuum is created by this coffee maker – the force that pushes the coffee through the filter is exclusively gravity. The Vacuum Brewer is appreciated in Japan because of its ceremonial character.
Fig. 6 - Vacuum Brewer
Fig. 6 – Vacuum Brewer

1855. The first espresso machine is presented at Paris Expo. The machine is capable of producing individual shots of coffee expressly “on demand”, hence the name. The operating principle is simple: hot water is pushed at high pressure through finely ground coffee (fig. 7). The result, however, is a completely new product. The process extracts the oils contained in the coffee beans, which are emulsified into droplets that bound to the coffee particles in suspension in the water. The emulsification gives the drink a syrupy consistency that binds to our taste buds, accentuating the coffee flavor. The fast brewing process also rapidly extracts the CO2 stored in the grounds, causing the aeration of the emulsion and producing the persistent foam known as crema (Italian for “cream”).

Fig. 7 - The Espresso Machine
Fig. 7 – The Espresso Machine

1905. Desiderio Pavoni founds in Milan the first company that mass produces espresso machines. Throughout the 20th century, the espresso machine becomes more refined and new standards are determined in terms of ideal brewing parameters. The best results are obtained by heating water to 93°C, and by pumping it at 9 bars through a 7 g patty of compressed grounds (for a single-shot). The extraction takes 20 – 30 seconds and produces 30 – 40 ml of coffee (1 – 1.5 oz).

1933. The Italian “Moka” is patented by Luigi De Ponti for Alfonso Bialetti. Also known in Italy as ‘caffettiera’ (coffee maker), the Moka is a particular kind of percolator where the water goes through coffee grounds while still on its way up, as it is pushed into a funnel by steam pressure (fig. 8). Just like the espresso machine, the Moka operates a quick extraction and requires finely ground coffee. Since it operates at boiling temperature, it produces a slightly over-extracted coffee, which is however popular in Italian homes.

Fig. 8 - The Italian Moka
Fig. 8 – The Italian Moka

1970. Home espresso machines appear, but they have limited success because expensive and hard to operate.

1990-2000. More practical home espresso machines enter the market. These can be fully automatic (with a built-in grinder) or based on coffee pods or capsules. The new machines are more reliable and increase in popularity.

To conclude the overview, here is a summary of the various brewing methods with their distinguishing properties.

Brew Type Brewing Method Brewing Pressure Filtering Material Filtering Pressure
Greek/Turkish Direct Infusion None None N/A
Vacuum Brewing Direct Infusion None Metal Above Gravity
French Press Direct Infusion None Metal Above Gravity
Drip Coffee Percolation Gravity Paper, metal, plastic Gravity
Napoletana Percolation Gravity Metal Gravity
Percolator Multiple Percolation Gravity Metal Gravity
Italian Moka Percolation Steam Metal Steam
Espresso Percolation Pump Metal Pump

Links and references:

– David Joachim, Andrew Schloss, A. Philip Handel. The Science of Good Food: The Ultimate Reference on How Cooking Works. 2008.
– Harold McGee. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. 2nd edition (2004).

– Turkish coffee http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turkish_coffee
– Vacuum brewing http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vacuum_brewer
– French press http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_press
– Drip Coffee – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drip_brew
– Napoletana – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neapolitan_flip_coffee_pot
– Percolators http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Percolator
– Italian Moka – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moka_pot
– Espresso – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Espresso

Copyright notices:

– The vintage poster used for this article (by Henri Privat-Livemont, published in Paris in 1897) is royalty-free.
– All illustrations © Quatro Fromaggio. All rights reserved.