[Thoughts on the Table – 81] Questions Italians in North America Can’t Help But Wonder About

In this episode, Thoughts on the Table goes back to its quintessential nature: investigate the difference in food and food culture between Italy and North America.

My new partner in this journey is the multi-talented Sim Salis (radio host, writer, voice actor, video and podcast producer.)

Join the conversation to hear us dissect some of the most pressing questions Italians living in North America ask themselves, including why does fresh milk last three weeks? What is the difference between ice cream and gelato? How do Italians feel about the stereotypes associated with them? Why does Japanese food taste so good?

You can follow Sim on the web @ sim.show and through his podcast.


Deep-Fried Battered Cauliflower

Battered deep-fried cauliflower (‘cavolfiore in pastella,’ in Italian) is an appetizing side dish which originates in Sicily but can be found in many variations all around Italy.

Out of the various kinds of batter, this recipe describes one that is quite opaque—without being too thick—especially suitable for vegetables (including zucchini flowers, which are fantastic, by-the-way!)

Deep-fried batter has a bad reputation for being heavy. However, if the oil is at the proper temperature, it sears immediately and any excess hot oil (with its lower viscosity) drips right off with draining. Still, the resulting dish is relatively high in calories and generally served in small amounts as a side, or as a vegetarian entrée.

The use of olive oil for deep-frying is somewhat controversial due to its relatively low smoke point. However, if you can control the temperature, olive oil is suitable for frying vegetables (which don’t need to reach extremely high temperatures) and brings an amazing extra flavor to the dish. Out of the different kinds of olive oil, non-extra virgin (or even non-vergin) olive oils are preferred for frying since they have a relatively higher smoke point at a lower price point!

Battered Deep Fried Cauliflower

Yield: 4-6 servings

Total Time: 45 minutes

Prep Time: 30 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Battered Deep Fried Cauliflower


  • 1 medium cauliflower (about 800 g), divided in florets
  • 75 g (2/3 cup) all-purpose flour
  • 30 g (2 Tbsp) butter, melted
  • 100 ml (scant 1/2 cup) milk
  • 1 egg white
  • salt
  • 1 l olive oil (use a non-extra virgin oil for a higher smoke point)


  1. In a mixing bowl, combine the flour and the melted butter obtaining a crumbly texture.
  2. Incorporate just enough milk to create a thick cream, then gradually whisk in the rest of the milk.
  3. Whip the egg white until firm (for best results, use an egg at room temperature).
  4. Gently incorporate the whipped egg white, a tablespoon at a time, mixing from the bottom to the top. Season with a pinch of table salt.
  5. Boil the cauliflower florets for 10 minutes until cooked but still firm.
  6. Bring olive oil to frying temperature (if you have a thermometer, reach 150 °C; if you don't, wait 3-4 minutes at medium heat then test the oil with a drop of batter.) Dip a few florets at a time in the batter, shaking off any excess. Then deep-fry the battered florets until golden brown.
  7. Allow the fried florets to dry for 5 minutes on a sheet of paper towel before serving them.


Geographical Indications: Italian Food, Made Official Or “Complicated Simplicity”

For the first time in this blog, I have the pleasure to feature a guest post. This article is by enologist, writer, and photographer Melinda King. To know more about Melinda, check out The Premise of Italian Cuisine podcast.

Melinda King

Italian culture is special in ways that are delicately combined, tangible and intangible. It would be impossible to disconnect Italian culture from the topic of Italian food, and the entire nation is formed by connections of things grown and eaten. Eating evokes emotional, memory, sensory, spiritual, and gustatory reactions, which are born from chemistry and imagination. This is a proud food system made from thousands of years of place-specific combinations; exceptional raw ingredients, combined and shared at tables, are traded in markets and perfected with love. Italian flavors are a stunning collection of colorful stories that grow from field to city, within regions—after all, the country was a collection of nation-states until unification in 1861. The subject of authenticity is constant to hungry Italians, who does it best, according to the way it is supposed to be done. Although they are talented innovators, tradition is the mark of excellence and respect. Thus, we are left to wonder: what is Italian food? What is Italian? Now, the country that has been a historical crossroads is asking serious questions about identity. Thoughts on the Table is the brilliant work of a worldly Italian (Paolo Rigiroli) who is brave enough to explore these themes. What Italians eat (and how), he reminds us, is every bit who they are.

And it is the Italians who have the hardest time answering these queries. The food is a source of incredible comfort and passion, and it is very difficult to reach conclusions. In an effort to distill one singular definition for the entirety of “Italian food,” one might say it is agriculture. This reminds us that the cuisine is an honorable and humble form of hard work. It is the superlative expression of microclimate, microbiology, and sunshine. It is the Italian people, respecting the gifts of their land, who proceed to turn wheat fields into toothsome vermicelli, lemons to acrid limoncello, winter cabbage into soothing ribollita, and 140-kg pigs into rose-leather prosciutto. Wine is further example of Italian agricultural genius.

How is it possible to organize such an enormous, magnificent topic? Taking into consideration so many places, dialects, seasons, and details, what is Italian food, and where does it come from? Are we being too precious about what we eat? Does place truly matter? And how can an entire nation be world-known such a thing as flavor?

Italian PGI olive oil sold in the UK.[Photo by Paolo Rigiroli]Recently, a friend of mine traveled to Rome, and wanted to buy a bottle of “authentic” Italian olive oil, to take with him back to Sweden. He found a large store, and assumed it would be a simple purchase. He tells me that it took forty minutes for him to decide on a single bottle, after asking three employees for help and making various searches on his cell phone. “There were so many bottles!” he exclaimed. “So many oils, from so many places, and so many different prices! Why do they do this?” In the end, he bought the smallest one, and left. Italy is very proud of its products, and olive oil is an incredibly critical topic. I imagine my friend saw bottles from Puglia, Veneto, Sicilia, Toscana, and Umbria, at the least, as each claims its olives to be the best. There are then the categories of oils (virgin, extra virgin, cold press, organic, biodynamic, gold label, etc.) and sizes (1 oz. flavored with pepperoncini or truffle) to 5 kg. The oils are sacred to the places they come from, and one would use local oil for local dishes. Moreover, every Italian olive has different compounds (peppery, golden, green, honey, smoky, juniper), that is tied to the environment it was grown and processed in. Hundreds of such compounds have been identified which contribute to the distinctive organoleptic characteristics that make Italian olive oil so exceptional.

Added to that, there are currently some issues in the worldwide olive oil industry, as origin is not easy to certify. Olives may be grown in Tunisia, and bottled in Spain. California olive oils companies used to quietly fly their products to southern Italy, where the plane would touch down and fill with gas, only to return to California for sale. This meant the oil bottles could be labeled with the words “From Italy.” Confusion is rampant in the marketplace, considering the brand of Italian foods.

How can Italian food protect and promote itself, and guarantee quality? This is important, more than ever, with the increasing global economy—and with new technologies (it is easier to mass produce foods, or copy ones already existing). What about Italian traditions? The individual state governments of Europe have, for the past few decades, been dealing with these issues within their own cultures. How to protect the integrity of Bulgarian cheeses, Greek wine, or German blood sausage? Italy was the second country, after France, to take action on certifying its natural food products. It was both a post-war reaction to economic and land issues, as well as a way to acknowledge the most important pieces of lifestyle. European states have since cooperated under the umbrella of the European Union, recognizing one another’s specialized products. Italy has been a tremendous example in this movement, to certify traditions in and out of its borders.

This does not mean that Italy published a list of official foods. Protected status does not cover lasagna and tiramisu. The topic is Geographical Indications (GI), and means that certain food products are trademarked as Italian, and cannot be impersonated or misrepresented. To be certified, the item must have a specific place of origin, a historically documented meaning, and production methods that adhere to exact steps and standards. They are the ingredients (animal products, herbs, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and dairy products) that make Italian food “Italian,” that they are raised in Italy, by Italians, where taste represents what cannot be verbalized. It is also a way to maintain identity, while earning a decent income. This applies to small-time producers, as well as the entire industries.

Geographical indications (GIs) is a legal status, represented with a visual package or label symbol, that identify a food as having originated from a specific place where a given attribute, reputation, or other characteristic of that good is attributable to its geographical home. GIs act like a trademark–once established, they confer certain exclusive rights to the owner. Unlike other intellectual property rights (patents, trademarks, copyrights), GIs are owned collectively by all producers in a region, rather than by an individual or a single company.

Note: there are Geographical indications are over the world (China, India, Sweden, Australia, South Africa, etc.). The United States is currently trying to garner support for their own system of GI (Georgia peaches, Idaho potatoes, California avocados), but the reputations of such products, and a strong system of capitalism, prevents the need for place/product protection. This article seeks to concentrate on the Italian context.

France was the first to certify national butter, cheese, and wine products (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, AOC). Roquefort cheese was regulated by a parliamentary decree in the year 1411; the modern system was reinstated in France in 1919. Italians followed with their own GI organization, post-war, as a way of naming and protecting cultural property within a delicate economic structure. Geographical indications were created by the European Union with Regulation 2081/921, seeking to solve communication problems between and within countries, for consumers and producers, while promoting rural development. Italian GI goods earned €15.2 million in production value in 2018, contributing 18% of the national agricultural economy.

There are 550 Sicilian growers certified for Sicilian arancia rossa (blood red oranges, IGP); each farm cultivates the same three arancia rossa varieties (there are three) according to the same rules, and is overseen and organized by a central ruling body called a consorzio. Each consorzio reports to the Ministero delle Politiche Agricole Alimentari, Forestali e del Turismo (MIPAAF), (Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies). These fruits are monitored by the Italian government, and have protection within the European Union.

The GI system has broad and precise stated objectives:

  • To promote foods, beverages, and wines with specific characteristics, particularly those coming from less-known or rural areas;
  • To improve the income of farmers who make “genuine effort to improve quality”;
  • Sustaining populations in rural areas;
  • Providing clear and “not-misleading” information to consumers regarding product origin;
  • Preserving cultural and historical identity.

Place-defined products connect value between food and territory, thus guaranteeing the quality for which a consumer pays a premium. The idea is to further prevent unwanted third parties from using terms, tactics, and marketing that mislead and misrepresent. Italian pride and livelihoods remain in the balance.

There are currently three European Union schemes for geographic preservation:

EU quality schemes
The EU Protected Geographical Status logos.
[Fair use of copyrighted logos]

  1. Protected Designation of Origin (PDO, red symbol): the entire product must be traditionally and entirely manufactured (prepared, processed and produced) within the specific region.
  2. Protected Geographical Indication (PGI, blue symbol): the entire product must be traditionally and at least partially manufactured (prepared, processed or produced) within the specific region.
  3. Traditional Specialties Guaranteed (TSG): food must be of “specific character” and either the raw materials, production method, or processing must be done in exact area (consistent for a minimum of 30 years).

PDO apples
The PDO logo applied on “Val di Non” apples, which are coincidentally brand-named ‘Melinda’.) [Photo by Melinda King]

Gorgonzola DOP
Gorgonzola DOP sold in the United Kingdom, branded with both the PDO and the Consorzio logos.

Protected Italian Foods

Many of the GI items are known to anyone interested in Italian eating. The names of these items are synonymous with the places they come from, and the name alone acts as an Italian ambassador. Some of the expected items on the list: PDO Chianti Classico olive oil, PDO Lago di Garda olive oil, PDO Mortadella, Asiago cheese, PDO Basilico Genovese (think pesto), PDO Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, IGP Nocciola Piemonte (hazelnuts famed for chocolates).

Still, most of the items may be called peculiar or even uninteresting to those outside the places they are made. Some unexpected items: IGP Acciughe sotto sale del Mar Ligure (anchovies), IGP Carota dell’Altopiano del Fucino (“A carrot? That’s not sexy!”), Pane di Matera (specialized bread loaves from the Sassi cave town), three kinds of saffron, IGP Bresaola della Valtellina (dried horse meat is highly esteemed), four kinds of asparagus (Bassano, especially), five kinds of lemons, eight kinds of chestnuts, Bergamotto di Reggio Calabria essential oil, Kiwi Latina (an Italian kiwi? Yes, and it is magnificent!). Of course, this country is always surprising.

Asparagus, unexpected IGP. [Phtoto by Melinda King]
It is quite common to see the PDO or IGP acronym in a restaurant or gelateria, where the pride of place ingredients is translated to the consumer, as a promise of something real and delicious to be had. And with the force of 0 KM eating, Slow Foods, Bio, Organic, and artisanal products, GI label status is not only economic, but “cool.”

Pepite McDonalds
The Italian McDonald’s featuring IG products. [Screenshot from www.mcdonalds.it]

Cin Cin

Italian wines have an exceptional portion of Geographical Indications to endorsement. GI wines are a vital element, though controversial, in the business and character of Italian winemaking. Autochthonous (native) grapes represent distinctive zones and methods of viticulture, each with unique climactic features. Nerello Mascaelese is a grape that only grows on Mount Etna, in Sicily; this grape is authorized as one of the grapes to be used in the Etna DOC red wine. Nerello Mascalese has been growing in this place for centuries. Popular international varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Syrah need no protection–nor do they have such a significant history, cultivation, or sensory connection to Italian soil.

In 1964, Italy established a series of laws to safeguard the brilliance and authenticity of their wines. The directives define wines by characteristics such as: type of grape(s) used, alcohol content, bottling, labeling, how long the wine is aged, how and when to harvest, who can work the fields, machinery and tools, irrigation, naming, and sales promotions. In the last decades, several modifications and changes have been made to original legislation, as the numbers of wines and regions grow to the list. The last addition, made in 2010, established four basic categories that read consistent with concurrent European Union wine regulations (2008-2009) — Italian wines GIs are categorized as:

  1. Vini (also known as ‘generic/table wines’): wines can be produced anywhere in the territory of the EU, label includes no certain indication of place origin (of grape varieties used or vintage); only the wine color is required to be listed on the bottle label (“Tavernello” often ‘house wine’). In some cases, however, table wines can have very high quality and be sought by connoisseurs that don’t need any official certifications (‘Super Tuscans’).
  2. Vini Varietali (Varietal Wines): generic wines that derive mostly (at least 85%) from one kind of certified ‘international (grown in many places)’ grape variety (Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah) or entirely from two or more of them; grape used or vintage may be shown on the label (e.g. “Merlot-Raboso” blend from Veneto).
  3. IGP (‘Protected Geographical Indication’ also known as IGT: ‘Typical Geographical Indication’): wines produced in a specific territory within Italy that follow precise regulations on allowed varieties, growing and vinification practices, organoleptic and chemical/physical characteristics, labeling instructions, among others (e.g. “Toscana IGT”).
  4. DOP (‘Protected Designation of Origin’) which includes two classes:
    • DOC (Controlled Designation of Origin) These wines must have been IGP wines for at least 5 years, and generally come from smaller regions within a certain IGP territory; far stricter regulations and focus on territorial personalities; a DOC wine can be promoted to DOCG after 10 years.
    • DOCG (Controlled and Guaranteed Designation of Origin) In addition to fulfilling DOC requisites, DOCG wines meet tighter analyses before going to market; they must also demonstrate a superior commercial value, and are linked with historical development.

Currently, there exist 332 DOCs (e.g. “Aleatico di Gradoli DOC”) and 73 DOCGs (e.g. “Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG”) bringing total to 405 DOPs. The financial aspects of the wine GI are momentous; a single bottle of DOCG Brunello di Montalcino can sell for up to $550. A scandal shook the Brunello consorzio in 2008 (known as “Brunellopoli”), where select winemakers were suspect for mixing lower quality wine grapes from other regions with local Sangiovese. Vineyards were quarantined and hundreds of thousands of bottles seized by authorities, facing millions of dollars in fines and years in prison. The issue was potential violation of GI purity rules, written by the Brunello Consorzio ruling body, and approved by the Italian Agricultural Ministry. Charges were ultimately dropped, and agreements to reinforce production principles were made between the Consorzio and winemakers.

Wine bottles display

I spent a number of years working in a wine business in California. When customers asked about Italian wines, they asked for wines by company or grape. Furthermore, their purchase decisions were generally based on price; customers were fascinated anytime I gave them a back story to the makers of the wine, the place it was made, or the types of grapes used. A wine was Chianti or Prosecco, but they did not know why. I would point to the labeling below the cork, when appropriate—if the bottle had the DOC or DOCG certification. “So the government says this wine is the best?” they would ask. No, I would shake my head and give a brief description of what GI represents. “Oh,” they would continue, “so the Italian government says this wine is the best?” they would repeat. Every time.

No, the government has no sensory opinion on the wines being made. This is a label that a company pays for, in a group with other companies in the same place, in order to show you, the consumer, that they mean business. The bottle of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano comes from vineyard lands that were budding vines hundreds of years before the pilgrims even built their boat. That is what the GI system would like us to remember. Currently, I am working in a vineyard/winery on Mount Etna, in Sicily. The DOC here is exceedingly proud of its work, and place (terra) is the language spoken in every glass. The soil changes from sandy to limestone, then lava rock, within a few meters, and vines stand fierce tests of weather and volcano. Add the salt of the sea and the shine of the sun, and it makes for an extraordinary natural beverage. The GI labels struggle to describe these things to an American wine shopper: philosophy of terra in an island borough founded by Greek settlers in 734 B.C.E.

Although GIs may promote a food or wine’s reputation, the level of quality is not guaranteed above similar food items. The perception of GIs is a matter of personal consumer taste and company/brand marketing, and this is an important concept to understand. For example, there may be six options of lemons at the local market. Two are certified GI status, from Siracusa (Sicilia) and Sorrento (Campania), and one from Spain. The other three, local fruits, do not list variety, but are stamped with the farm and city of origin. The GI status lemons cost twice as many Euros per kilo. Would you choose a locally made lemon, a higher priced GI, or the least expensive Spanish one?

How much sway does GI play, in the eyes of a shopper? Does it shift our priorities–taste preference, price, or place of being picked? Would you scrimp on lemons but splurge on cheese? How is this any different from brand name luxury Italian Gucci, Ferrari, or Armani? Normal people buy according to experience and reputation. If it works, they buy again. Italy, itself, has become a brand. The Italian GI is represented on the food or drink label with a small circular symbol (red and yellow or blue and yellow, depending on legal status), so we see as we buy. But these certifications are very expensive, and they require a long and thorough vetting process.

The symbol on the food (package, container, box, fruit seal, or wine label) will tell the buyer that it was made in according to the tradition of the area, by people who live there, with local or regional resources, in Italy by Italians. It will taste the way it is supposed to taste, according to history of the place, made flavorful by unique environmental conditions that only that place can provide. Terra, confirms that balsamic vinegar from Modena can only come from Modena. In this case, the Balsamic Vinegar Consorzio is a nearly secret society of older gentlemen who speak very little and carry out regular chemical “alchemical” analysis with small glass pipets and sensorial tastings. They meet in quiet rooms, and keep careful records. But they are extremely exclusive, and there is worry that the Modena vinegar community will soon disappear. It is not easy to pass on the legacy, or attract much excitement, as the work is difficult and unattractive to outsiders. This kind of work must be psychologically understood. But this is a common problem today, in Italy, with gentrification, separating family structures, and move towards tech jobs and city life.

Pomodoro di Pachino

The taste of Sicilian Pachino tomatoes cannot be reproduced. Heart-shaped Marostica cherries, from Veneto, are blessed by cool mountain breeze and warm sunshine. There is a cherry festival to honor the local fruits, as well as a famous chess game played with real-life human pawns in the Piazza degli Scacchi. The game dates back to 1454 when it was organized to settle a courtly duel between two noble lords competing for the hand of a lady. The history, the climate, and the science of place convene to create, in legal status, a true Italian flavor. Travelers can go to the game, enjoy the festival, and feel the life behind the GI, every September.

Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is a prime example of a Geographical Indication, demonstrating food as an art form. Outside Italy, “Parmesan” (originally a term from France to refer to Italian hard cheeses) is used as a generic name to identify a product (cheese-like, but not always cheese), that has a flavor reminiscent of the famed nutty bite that we know from true Parmigiano Reggiano. However, this copy food lacks the origin, and artisan producers. Parmigiano Reggiano has a singular history, taste, and identity that is unmistakably Italian. The Consorzio for Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese was formed in 1934; in 1996, Parmigiano Reggiano earned complete legal status in the EU. The Consorzio states that “the secret of its goodness originates in the place of origin, in the natural feed, our types of milk cows, the wind, the incline of our hills and goodness of grass, and in the high-quality milk with no additives.” The term “Parmesan” comes from geographical origin and means “of or from Parma.”

Parmigiano Reggiano is not only a good cheese, but also healthy and nutritious (named the official food of the International Space Station). After creation, the cheese wheels are subjected to a maturation period of at least twelve months (twenty-four for the most common version, thirty-six months and more for finer stravecchio), allowing Parmigiano Reggiano to gain its characteristic granular structure. It is made from raw cow’s milk (not pasteurized; there are 245,000 cows in the production area registered to make Parmigiano Reggiano) only grass and hay, not silage. After primary creation, the cheese is put into a brine bath of Mediterranean sea salt for about 22 days and then aged. At twelve months, each cheese is inspected by an expert grader who uses a hammer to tap the cheese and by sound detect undesirable cracks and voids. Cheeses that pass inspection are branded on the rind with an inspector logo. To guarantee each cheese and catalogue quality, each cheese wheel (40 kg) is stenciled by hand with:

  • The Parmigiano Reggiano DOP acronym and consorzio seal;
  • Identification number of dairy (there are 363 certified Parmigiano Reggiano dairies);
  • Production month and year;
  • An alphanumeric code identifying every single wheel.

Rounds of Parmigiano-Reggiano
Rounds of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
[Photo: Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0]
Every cheese is inspected by the consorzio, to verify if they are worthy of the Parmigiano Reggiano title, then fire branded when PDO standards are satisfied. There is a well-documented 800-year history of production, as it was first made by Benedictine monks in the same hilly areas. The processes are fiercely controlled by the consorzio, and every cheese is crafted with care, for excellence.

The cultural meaning for this cheese is also economic: in 2018, 149,000 tons (3.65 million wheels) of it was made by 50,000 Italians in Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Mantua (to the right of the Po river), and Bologna to the left of the Reno river). In the same year, the cheese had a €2.2 billion estimated turnover at consumption (51,900 tons of it being exported). This is a meaningful cheese! It is easy to understand how such powerful food would have imitators. The name, alone, is sacred to the Italian people.

In 2003, the EU responded to a complaint filed by the Parmigiano Reggiano consorzio concerning the improper use by certain German companies of the name “Parmesan” as a generic name, on cheeses that neither exhibited the peculiarities of Parmigiano-Reggiano PDO, nor came from the area of origin—thus manipulating consumers and damaging reputation. German authorities refused to intervene, and thus the case was taken before the European Court of Justice. However, the case was ultimately dismissed, as the EU court did not have enough evidence to demonstrate German misuse of the generic name.

However, problems arise when deciding which phrases to protect as GIs. For example, although “Parmigiano Reggiano” is a protected GI under U.S. law (in an agreement made with Italian authorities and the cheese consorzio), the name “parmesan” is not protected—and this term is ubiquitous in American grocery markets on products that Italians would find abhorrent and embarrassing. Shoppers might even see Parmesan Reggianito, a hard Argentinean cheese invented by Italian immigrants who left Italy for South America after the Wars. They wanted to make something that would remind them of their native Parmigiano Reggiano.

Every few years, the Italian Parmigiano Reggiano consorzio tries to file legal action against a company in North America, regarding “Parmesan,” but an outright purge of all such cheese products would be impossible, and expensive. The issue comes down to labeling, but mostly, quality.

In 2012, American FDA agents investigated a cheese factory in Pennsylvania, called “Castle Cheese.” They were making goods sold as “100% real Parmesan” across the country; the cheese was found to contain cut-rate substitutes, chemicals, and fillers, such as wood pulp and cellulose. The Castle Cheese president pled guilty and was spent one year in prison, with a fine of one hundred thousand dollars, but the case was made on health standards—not Parmigiano Reggiano GI name protection. Kraft, America’s well-known mass pasteurized cheese mass brand, has argued that their parmesan cheeses actually promote and encourage the Parmigiano Reggiano product, rather than compete with or mock it.

Thoughts on the TableThis is why a podcast like “Thoughts on the Table” is so important: there is a tremendous need for a cross-cultural conversation about Italian food, by Italians and non-Italians, in the name of taste, access, affordability, and integrity. I can only imagine what it was like for Paolo, experiencing his first visit to a Canadian grocery store. It would be like showing him a roller skate and trying to convince him it was a car. Food is passionate and evocative; what happens when it is reduced to a transaction? We want to talk about grandmother’s soothing pasta dishes, not packaging standards.

Place Matters

Food is grown, traded, prepared, and shared according to geographical context. What you eat, for most of human history, depends on where you live. This is a field of study known as the GEOGRAPHY OF FOOD, which includes complex patterns and relationships between “space” and “place.” Taste transforms during stages of preparation. Quality means safe and wholesome ingredients, and consistency. This is where Italy excels. It has a vast range of topography, proximity to water, varieties of microclimates, and brilliant, creative farmers and chefs. As one of my friends reminds me, “our government is terrible, jobs are hard to get, and our soccer team fails in the World Cup, but we have the best eating in the entire world to console these pains.” The Mediterranean hits the Alpine ranges, and leave centuries of collaboration, giving this nation gastronomical and agricultural superiority. Science proves this, as well as our own opinions. And while so many things did not “originate” in this country, they are respected and perfected here: tomatoes, wines, pastas, coffee, and chocolate.

Place does matter—very much. In terms of food and wine, terra is the philosophical combination of physical and spiritual “place” that gives flavor. By flavor, I mean “memory,” the kind of meal we remember years after the dishes have been washed.

Geographic Indication is a legally recognized certification of quality for place-driven taste. It happens by tradition–meaning what is produced, how, and by whom. The Italian government is very serious about protection and recognition. History is, in my opinion, based in agriculture, and agriculture reveals identity. GI status strives to keep identity, while preserving the taste of memory.

In the name of authenticity, GI hopes to maintain marketplace clarity. Every protected food is traced, tracked, and guaranteed. There are major efforts by law enforcement agencies to uphold the legitimacy of food products. Olive oil, wine, balsamic vinegar, cheese, and prosciutto are some of the Italian products that are most copied and sold by fraud, or produced in sub-standard ways. Livestock are RFID tagged, and documented from conception to market shelf, and full records of genetic breeding are kept by the consorzio. A vegetable, a cheese, or a grape can be tracked by DNA testing, to assure the place it has come from. Italy has 822 registered GI products, more than any other nation, of the worldwide total 3,036 (2018 ISMEA). “Made in Italy” is very big business.

Of course, the Geographical Indications are quite general, and work with ideals. It is basically a package of economic safeguards—copyright schemes made in a non-capitalistic system. The European Union oversees each country’s regulations, and promotes communication across the board. Italy does not always enjoy being a part of the Union, though it gains considerably from the Geographical Indication projects. Aside from the spiritual and cultural lauds from economic protection, the PDO and PGI symbols are basically there to pay people to make good raw materials (beans, sardines, and kiwis). Italy must also realize that certification means Italians competing with Italians, long before the rest of the world. As Italians are hungry for creative and economic innovation, they are, more than ever, hungry to strengthen the core of their traditions.

Cultural Meaning

Nostalgia is everything to an Italian palate. So are relationships. Although larger food chains and grocery stores are trending, there is still a strong and regular desire to shop locally. How do GI products interact with everyday eating? How can we trust that the story behind the label is true? Some Italians do not support the GI system; there are many barriers to entry (certification costs, registration, legal oversight, documentation, North versus South quarrels) that prevent many from participating. Others detest the European Union. In a conversation with my elderly neighbors, Don Donato and his wife, Luciana, I asked their view on Italian Geographical Indications. Don Donato was quick to answer: “We do it because France did it, and we always have to compete with France. We have Italian food in a French system. Even the supermarkets are from France (Carrefour, Auchan in Veneto)… the problem is that Italians are very bad organizers. We have the good food, and the government doesn’t trust us with it.

His wife does the food shopping, and said she never really noticed the food labels until last year, when she read about it in the paper. She generally keeps to the butcher, bakery, and produce shop in our small village, but goes to the shopping centers once or twice every month with her children’s families. Two things regularly astonish her: the amounts of products in the aisles, and the prices. Having choices, she told me, is very expensive. “If I want lentils from Umbria, we will go there. I am not about to pay so much for a bag of lentils. These are things that are made very well in my own area.” She told me that food is only as good as the person making it, and she can make any lentil taste Italian.

GI advertisement
GI brands advertisement in Italy.

Can you taste the difference between a GI product and a non-GI product When it is late in the evening, and someone has prepared a beautiful Italian meal, simple and warm—what is the role of Geographical Indications for regional foods?

If my Swedish friend had known, at the least, to look for red and blue symbols on olive oil labels, his search would have been much simplified. He was looking for the best representation of an Italian olive oil, and those certification marks would have spoken for the people, processes, and places that make the oil authentic—as so the label would ideally have us believe. Later, I curiously asked which bottle he had selected from the large Roman grocery store. He laughed when he told me, “I don’t remember the name, but I bought an expensive one.” He continued, “But when I got home, I went to use it and saw, written right there on the backside: 100% California Olives.”

These contradictions make Italian food fascinating. The conversation continues…

Top 15 highest value (by production numbers) Italian Geographical Indications, 2018 (source: ISMEA—Qualivita)

Product Minimum value 2016 Minimum value 2017 % Change
Parmigiano Reggiano DOP €1.123 €1.343 +19,5%
Grana Padano DOP 1.293 1.293 0,0%
Prosciutto di Parma DOP 816 850 +4,1%
Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP 372 391 +5,0%
Aceto balsamico di Modena IGP 381 390 +2,5%
Gorgonzola DOP 316 356 +12,8%
Prosciutto di San Daniele DOP 293 304 +3,8%
Mortadella Bologna IGP 326 301 -7,4%
Bresaola della Valtellina IGP 220 224 +2,2%
Pecorino Romano DOP 251 155 -38,0%
Pasta di Gragnano IGP 107 115 +7,2%
Speck Alto Adige IGP 100 109 +9,4%
Asiago DOP 95 98 +2,8%
Mela Alto Adige IGP 132 88 -33,2%
Mela Val di Non DOP 75 65 -14,0%


Product Minimum value 2016 Minimum value 2017 % Change
Prosecco DOP €629 €631 +0,3%
Conegliano Valdobbiadene – Prosecco DOP 161 184 +14,0%
Delle Venezie IGP 169 114 -32,7%
Asti DOP 103 107 +4,0%
Terre Siciliane IGP 82 107 +29,9%
Amarone della Valpolicella DOP 83 103 +23,4%
Alto Adige DOP 82 100 +22,3%
Chianti Classico DOP 112 98 -12,6%
Barolo DOP 79 89 +12,3%
Valpolicella Ripasso DOP 63 86 +35,9%
Chianti DOP 87 81 -6,7%
Veneto IGP 101 79 -21,9%
Brunello di Montalcino DOP 61 72 +18,3%
Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOP 67 63 -6,0%
Trentino DOP 50 51 +1,7%

Source References

Recommended Further Reading

NOTE: This article’s featured image is a view of Govone, Cuneo, from its castle. [Photo by Paolo Rigiroli].

Mushroom and Cheese Crespelle, the Italian Crepes

Crespelle are the relatively unknown Italian equivalent of the world-famous French crepes. Although very similar to crepes, crespelle are often baked in the oven with other ingredients.

Both in crepes and in crespelle, the batter is mainly made of milk, flour, and egg. The proportions, however, can vary considerably from recipe to recipe. The version I’m presenting is light in the egg and flour, making for a batter that is quite runny and which turns into a thin disc. The resulting crespelle are more brittle than those made with higher proportions of egg and flour, but they are strong enough to be handled and are more similar in flavor and texture to fresh pasta. This makes them a great vessel to hold the filling without overpowering the dish.

The result is a decadent first course that is perfect for a festive meal as an alternative to other baked dishes like lasagna or cannelloni.

Mushrooms and Cheese Crespelle, the Italian Crepes

Yield: 2-3 servings

Total Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Prep Time: 1 hour

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Mushrooms and Cheese Crespelle, the Italian Crepes


    For the crespelle
  • 1 egg
  • 75 g flour (5 tablespoons)
  • 250 ml milk (1 cup)
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • Butter to grease the pan
  • For the filling
  • 400 g mushrooms (e.g. chestnut), sliced
  • 1 Tbsp butter
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • 200 g fontina, raclette, or gouda
  • For the bechamel
  • 1 Tbsp butter
  • 1 Tbsp water
  • 2 Tbsp flour
  • pinch of salt
  • 300 ml milk
  • To assemble the dish
  • Butter to grease the baking pan
  • 2 Tbsp grated Parmigiano


  1. Make the batter by working the egg into the flour, then add the salt.
  2. Gradually, whisk in the milk - small amounts at first, then more until all of it is incorporated. The batter will appear quite thin.
  3. Preheat a 6-8 inch (15-20 cm) non-stick pan at medium heat, and brush it evenly with melted butter.
  4. Pour 1 tablespoon of batter into the pan, then quickly swirl it around by tipping the pan until it spreads to cover the entire pan. (Adjust the batter amount if necessary.)
  5. Let the crespella dry and cook undisturbed until you see it browning slightly on the edges.
  6. Using a spatula, lift the crespella at the edge slightly, then continue lifting it using two fingers and fully slide the spatula underneath it.
  7. Move the crespella onto a plate. As you make more of them, stack them on - they won't stick to one another. You should be able to make 8 to 12 crespelle (depending on the size of the pan).
  8. Set the crespelle aside. Roast the sliced mushrooms in a large non-stick pan in a mix of oil and butter at high heat. Make sure not to crowd the mushrooms (you may need to roast them in two batches). When the mushrooms start to soften, add a pinch of salt and pepper. If the mushrooms release water, continue cooking at a high temperature until it reduces substantially.
  9. Make the bechamel sauce in a small pot. Start by bringing water and butter to a boil. Then add the flour and mix vigorously.
  10. When the mix makes a sizzling sound, reduce the heat and gradually pour in the milk until fully absorbed. Then, allow the mix to boil for one full minute for the flour to cook - mix constantly preventing it from boiling over. In the end, the bechamel will appear quite thick and creamy. Set it aside and let it cool down a bit.
  11. As you preheat the oven to 180 C (350 F), fill each crespella with a heaping tablespoon of mushrooms, part of the cheese (the size of a finger), and a tablespoon of bechamel. Roll the crespella gently.
  12. Continue rolling the crespelle placing them side by side in a buttered baking pan. (I used an 8-inch square pan.)
  13. Once the baking pan is filled, drizzle it with the remaining bechamel and cover it with grated Parmigiano.
  14. Bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes until golden.
  15. Note: Instead of using bechamel, the crespelle can be baked with butter and sage. After rolling, cover with sage leaves and butter drops, then bake in the oven until golden.


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.”)

Alpine-style Onion Soup (Zuppa di Cipolle alla Valdostana)

When it’s cold outside, my definition of comfort food is a warm and rustic dish. This soup totally qualifies as such, especially when it’s served in individual earthenware bowls that stay hot.

This preparation is characteristic of the Aosta Valley, a small Italian region at the borders with France and Switzerland, on the western Alps. It can be considered a variation of the classic French onion soup that makes use of Fontina, a semi-soft cow’s milk cheese, which is local to the Aosta region.

As for the onion, the white variety works best thanks to the complex flavor it develops when roasted, which I find has hints of cabbage and fennel.

Part of the success of this dish is due to its layered construction and the resulting alternation of textures and flavors. Besides making for an appealing presentation and keeping the dish hot, the individual bowls also keep the layers into place.

Alpine-style Onion Soup (Zuppa di cipolle alla Valdostana)

Yield: 2 servings

Total Time: 30 minutes

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Alpine-style Onion Soup (Zuppa di cipolle alla Valdostana)


  • 1/2 white onion, sliced
  • 1 Tbsp butter
  • 2 cups vegetable stock
  • 1/2 Tbsp white flour
  • 2 tick slices country bread
  • 4 slices fontina (or swiss cheese)
  • salt and black pepper
  • 2 earthenware soup bowls, oven resistant


  1. In a pan, roast the onion in butter at medium heat for 3-5 minutes until golden.onion-soup_12
  2. Sprinkle with flour and continue roasting for a couple more minutes, stir gently.
  3. Add the vegetable stock and bring to a boil. Boil for 10 minutes without a lid to reduce.onion-soup_34
  4. Meanwhile prepare 2 thik slices of fresh country bread, possibly with crust on one side. Trim them so that they fit tightly within the bowls.
  5. Adjust the onion soup with salt and pepper, then pour it in the two bowls.layering_12
  6. Add the bread, so that it lays overtop, crust downwards, barely touching the soup.
  7. Lay the cheese over the bread to fully cover it.layering_34
  8. Broil for 10-15 minutes until the cheese will be bubbly.



[Thoughts on the Table Transcript] Grandma’s Wartime Memories: Food in Northern Italy

Back in May 2014, I published an unusual episode of Thoughts on the Table, but also an episode that meant a lot to me. I had just returned from a trip to Italy, where I had a chance to record a conversation with my grandmother, Chiara, on her life in northern Italy during World War II. In this conversation, I realized that I didn’t actually know most of these stories, so I asked a lot of questions focusing specifically on food and cooking during those difficult times.

This post presents the same interview in textual form.

Grandma Chiara has since turned 95, she still lives in her home and is doing great.


Listen to the original episode


I wanted to ask you a few questions on when you were young, so we're talking about… You were born in 1920, right?

Oh, I have to say my age? Well, I was born in 1920, so, in 1941 the war began. When I turned 25, the war ended.

‎And what did you have to eat during the fascism?

Well, during fascism, before the war, people used to live well. It's when the war started, that scarcity began. Scarcity of food, and the bombing of the wagons that transported food… Uncle Mario, my brother also fought in that war (World War II), when I got married he hadn't returned home yet. Instead my father fought in another war (World War I). Mussolini, il Duce, used to hold speeches in the squares – it was a mess…

And so, during the war, how was it? What did you manage to eat?

During the war we ate what we could – not everyone had enough even for basic needs. For me, in the home I grew up in, near Milan, before the war, I didn't suffer hunger because farmers had everything – we had bread, because we had flour, and also we used to raise our own cattle… Pigs we didn't have but other farmers did… and when they used to kill a pig there was a lot to eat. Take those farmers with pigs – they were able to raise the pigs because they had hay, bran, all those things. So when they killed the pig they had food in abundance. But there were also families which didn't even have bread to eat.

But was there a "minimum" provided by the government? Did you use to have a rations badge?

Yes, the badge was established by the government of war – that set amount of food per person: e.g. 100 g of bread per day, one kg or 2 of rice however often they gave it to you (must have been 2 months, 3 months – whenever the truck arrived, with 2 cardboard boxes of rice, those with the badge would get it – the last ones in line sometimes had to return empty-handed). But there was also the black market – those who could get oil under the table, maybe from warehouses, I don't know where they used to get it from, it was really expensive, but at least you could get it.

During the war your grandpa used to work with a person whose father worked on the railway. On the railway line from Milan to Switzerland, they used to put salt on the tracks – for winter when there was ice, so the trains wouldn’t slip. The father of this friend of grandpa – he used to collect the salt! He brought home big sacks of 4 or 5 kg. We used that salt for cooking – because there was no salt otherwise, they gave you maybe a 100 g of salt per month – so, you know what we used to do? That salt from the tracks, we used to boil it in water, then we strained it, and it would turn out still brown, because it was from the railway and there was iron in it! My father in law used to use a cloth as a strainer… and it was still full of debris! They used to put it into a jar, and we had it there to salt the food during cooking… like 1 or 2 tablespoons for every time that we made pasta, or soup, or something that needed salt. So it was salty water that we used to collect from the tracks… Look what I have seen!

No, I wouldn't have guessed that you had to do that… How was the kitchen? Did you have a wood stove?

Yes, we had a wooden stove.

Was it easy to find wood?

Wood, we used to go to the bushes. And heating was also wood… nobody had heaters… maybe the rich? Perhaps they already had it. But us, the farmers, we had just a wood stove… or the fireplace – not even the stove! I didn’t have a stove until the last years, before getting married. Before there was only the fireplace. And we would go get wood in the bushes, long thin branches, with thorns. At home we had big chests in the corner for storing wood. When we had to start the fire, we would go get some of those branches, we would break them up (poking our fingers with the thorns), and also we would use some straw – we always had it from harvesting the wheat and rye.

We used to hang the cauldron on the fireplace, and it turned all black underneath, and then we used to get burnt flying debris, that would end up in the food. Any time you used to make soup or pasta, or you boiled water to make soup, there were those things in it, the things that when you burn wood fly in the air…

So you had your own wheat… did you make your bread?

Yes, I did make bread.

So this is because you were farmers and had flour?

Yes, because we were farmers and farmers didn't suffer as much from hunger because had the land and cattle. But those who used to work in factories had more issues finding food.

But the government, did they ever take some of your harvest? Did you have to pay taxes on your harvest?

No, there was nothing to pay – whatever the farmer wanted to cultivate for themselves on their land, they were allowed to. With the rations badge you would pay for what food you bought, but it was cheap. Though there wasn't much to buy, so the amounts allowed to each person were very limited… There was also the black market, the black market was expensive because it was dangerous… if they caught you selling things, they would put you into jail…

Like for example those who had the pig. If they ate it and keep it in the family, that's one thing, if they sold it in the black market then it's a different story: if the authorities found out they could have come to confiscate everything.

Anyway, was there any meat from time to time?

Ohh, meat – there was 100 g per week.

This with the badge?

Yes, with the badge.

And outside of that? When they killed a pig was there extra?

Yes, but it wasn't much. In fact our cow once had a calf – are you recording? – that then the calf died. So my father wanted to eat it, but you had to get the city veterinarian's approval that it was OK to eat. So the veterinarian came and said: "No, you have to dispose of it, throw it in the cesspit". So my father threw it out in front of the veterinarian. Then he waited until he exited the gate and he pulled the calf out. We washed it inside and out and we ate it.

What did you use to cook for dinner? Let's say, a common meal? A bit of everything?

Oh… in my home there wasn't much to eat… also because they weren't really good cooks. We used to prepare big pots of soup, and that's what we used to eat. We had soup, we cut down bread slices and soak them with milk or hot water and ate them. And then we had chickens – those we ate, boiled. And for Christmas – look what we had to do to make a bit of money – we used to raise ducks. So my father, to make a bit of money which we really needed, he used to keep one duck for us and another 4 or 5 he sold to people he knew, before Christmas. Every year we had those who we used to sell the duck to. But they would pay for it. It would be now, let's say, 10 Euros. Those days it would have been 1, 2, 3 Lira, it wasn't much but it was to have a bit of extra… Life was hard, really.

And then, with the money, we're you able to buy some extras?

Yes, also something to wear… Also: there was no soap! They used to give me the sugar badge and…

Paolo, on Saturdays, when I was riding my bike home after work, to be able to have soap to wash clothes, to wash ourselves, to wash the sheets, we didn’t use the kilogram of sugar that they used to give us monthly. But instead, my coworkers and I, who used to work together on the looms, we had a store in town that would take the sugar and give us soap, or a bit of money. For instance, for 1 Kg of sugar we would get a piece of soap. The soap they used to make themselves, with animal fat – not like the soap that we have now… it was what it was – we used it to wash clothes… Look what we had to do in war times…

So, sometimes you had excess sugar, that you didn't need, and you traded it for soap or money…

Yes, for us using sugar seemed like a waste, we had more use for a piece of soap to wash ourselves, to do laundry… soap was more useful, they didn’t give you soap.

Maybe for those who had kids, they needed more sugar.

Yes, probably. Soap: you use it all the time – when they came home from the fields, all dirty, the clothes all covered in dirt… you needed soap. With a brush and some soap you cleaned them a bit. There was no laundry machine; it was a "disaster".

Well, off course – there was no hot water, right?

Hot water?! No, the water was always cold. There were those who used to wash clothes with ash, the fireplace ash.

How could they wash with ash?

I'm asking you!… they used to boil it, then strain the water and use it to wash – they used to say that things turned out clean… I don’t know.. . My mother never used ash – we always were able to go get some soap.

And also you were saying that there used to be curfew. RightÉ

Yes, but what I am telling you right now refers to the first period of the war – then towards the end we started to live a bit better… I don’t know why. In the month of April 1945 there was the armistice and thing gradually improved. Then from April to September (the actual end of the war), we started to live better those months… provisions started to arrive, there was no more curfew, and food started to be available. I remember I was in the field with my father and I heard church bells from all neighboring towns… And one person was coming on a bicycle saying "the war has ended! It's over, it's over!" This was the month of April. I got married the 12 of May – the month after. My brother (uncle Mario) was serving in the war and he couldn't come in time for my wedding. He came home in September when they started to discharge the soldiers (those who didn't die, of course).

I see, and then the post war times – how was it? I know there was crisis…

Yes, for some time there was crisis, but then jobs started to resume, the factories started to increase in number… I was OK, I never stopped working.

So the crisis in the first after war you didn't feel it?

No, we were ok, we didn't lose our jobs, there was no unemployment – we, my family and friends, all worked. I remember that during war times they used to take us to the city square, in Arconate where the plant was, on the street to Busto Arsizio, they used to take us to the square because Mussolini was speaking. And he used to go up on a balcony of a house in the square, and repeat in the microphone: "Believe! Fight! Obey! – Believe! Fight! Obey!" And it was loud, speakers everywhere…

How many times did you have to see him? Did the dictator come around often?

Yeah, he came – during war times il Duce was in command – he was the dictator. And us, in the factory, along with those that used to live in the area, other factories (foundries, mechanical) used to gather in the square to listen to him. He was talking about the war; and he was talking about the rations badge: "We will give you a badge…" Every now and then he would talk, there was a set day: in the factory they used to put out a sign, like: "this Wednesday at 3pm, il Duce will speak in the square", they used to stop all work, stop the looms, and get all workers out to the square. And the square was full of people, and he was up high on a balcony, with the flag, and he talked. He used to say all that was happening, for example: "we will give you the rations badge, don't worry – now we are at this stage of the war…". And he continued talking all throughout the war… until they caught him, and they killed him! He had a mistress named Petacci and "donna Rachele", his wife. And the story continued that way, until the end of the war. Then in September everything ended and we could all do what we wanted again. Before, there was the curfew and we had to cover all lamps in black fabric, so you wouldn't be seen, also in our home. This was so we wouldn't be seen by the airplanes. Because when they were coming we had to escape to the fields! During war time, when we heard the airplanes we ran to the fields in our pajamas – my father used to take me inside the irrigation canals, because we were worried that they would bomb and kill us. So without flashlights or anything we used to go down on our knees to hide until there was the end of the alarm… this because before the airplanes arrived they used to sound a siren "uuuuu…" and then go! We were all running to escape. You used to see everyone running to the fields. So, we were going into the fields, lying down on the ground. In Milan they bombed – so much bombardment there, also in Legnano – Milan though it was very bad.

So the big cities, the most populated centers were bombed more, whereas the countryside was left more alone.

So when we were hearing the alarms, we were ready – the head of the family always had a bag with the documents, the little money that he had and all the documents demonstrating property of the house, any insurance, etc. Because – if they were to bomb the house, you would have ended up with nothing. You wouldn't have had anything that said that it was your house – so they had a bag with all the important documents.

Grandma, you know I did not know all these things… Thank you so much, very interesting – and also hearing from your voice was incredible. Thank you, we are closing here the recording – then when it comes out I will let you know, OK?

Oh Lord! (laughs)

[Thoughts on the Table – 26] Introducing Elisa Cerruti from ‘Milk Honey and Rum’

In this episode, Elisa shares her research and discoveries in nutrition. Join us to hear which foods are better for our health, why we should try to vary our diet, incorporate raw unprocessed vegetables and whole grains, and limit the intake of sugar and the consumption of meat.

You can follow Elisa on Twitter @milkhoneyandrum, as well as on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.


Poppy Seed Potato Bignès on Braised Leeks and Taleggio

Going through my old recipe book, I stumbled upon this delicious dish – true comfort food, Italian style! An amazing entree where soft and creamy potato bignès, covered in nutty poppy seeds and deep fried are laid to rest on a bed of braised leeks and Taleggio! The dish is absolutely simple to make and a guaranteed success. The only challenge lies in finishing the two components more or less at the same time.

This recipe has been adapted from La Cucina Italiana (November 1997, page 58).

Poppy Seed Potato Bignès

Yield: 2-3 servings

Total Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Prep Time: 1 hour

Cook Time: 30 minutes

Poppy Seed Potato Bignès


     For the sauce

    • 1 Tbsp butter
    • 1 big leek (or 2 smaller ones)
    • 1 cup (250 ml) milk (for the sauce)
    • 1/2 cup (125 ml) heavy cream (for the sauce)
    • 10 oz (300 g) Taleggio cheese (for the sauce)
    • salt to taste (for the sauce)

     For the bignè

    • 1 small Russet potato (250 g)
    • 1/2 cup (50 g) flour
    • 1/4 cup (50 g) butter
    • 1/4 cup (50 g) water
    • 1/8 of a teaspoon salt
    • 1 egg
    • 1/2 cup poppy seeds
    • 2 cups (0.5 l) olive oil for deep-frying


    1. Boil the potato. Let it cool until lukewarm.
    2. Meanwhile, start preparing the sauce.
    3. Slice the leek in thin rings (fig. a) and sauté them in butter for 10 minutes (fig. b).
    4. Add the milk and cream (fig. c), and stew slowly for 30-45 minutes until thick (at that point take off the heat but keep warm).
    5. While the sauce cooks, start preparing the bignè.
    6. Put the water and butter into a small pan (fig. 1) and bring to a boil (fig. 2).
    7. Add the flour and stir constantly (fig. 3).
    8. Keep the mix on the heat until sizzling, and the mix detaches itself from the pot (fig. 4).
    9. Move the mix into a bowl, let cool.
    10. Add the egg and salt (fig. 5). Mix (fig. 6).
    11. Mash the potato with the ricer and add it to the mix (fig. 7).
    12. Mix everything until smooth, then stir in 1 Tbsp of poppy seeds (fig. 8).
    13. With your hands, make walnut-sized balls, roll them over poppy seeds until completely covered (fig. 9). You should be able to make 8-10 of them (fig. 10).
    14. Deep fry the bignès in olive oil (fig. 11) keeping the temperature at constant 180 degrees Celsius.
    15. When golden-brown, remove balls and put them to dry onto paper-towel (fig. 12).
    16. Finish preparing the sauce by adding the diced Taleggio to it (fig. d). Stir until the cheese melts completely. Adjust the salt.
    17. Serve the bignè while still hot on a bed of sauce.