The ancient narrow streets barely accommodate a Fiat, the modern Roman chariot. Anywhere else the crumbling stone walls of buildings might conjure a forlorn sense of poverty and decay.
In Italy their patina belts out the famous Italian aesthetic like a Bocelli aria. This is a place where beauty runs deeper than others on the planet.
Add to this, the uncanny way Italians overlay antiquity with modern design elements like neon or chrome, fusing centuries in surprising, living harmony.
At 7 in the morning, the lady in the svelte black mini skirt, matching stilettos, cream silk blouse and black pearls is sweeping the sidewalk in front of her apartment before she heads off to work. Trim men in tailored Armani suits lean out front of cafes drinking espresso from tiny white porcelain cups, smoking cigarettes and chatting with such animated hand gestures, it feels like a delicate, somewhat perilous ballet.
I worried that a cellphone might ring.
Bon giorno bello. Hello, beautiful, is a standard Italian greeting.
Beauty is woven into every corner of Italian life. Not surprisingly the Italian aesthetic is firmly face forward in their food. Maybe Lamborghini are full out, but an important part of the Italian culinary aesthetic is restraint. Not too many ingredients. Not too complicated. Not too much food. Not too much wine.
As an American or an Italian American, we might well believe that TV image of Nona cajoling: “Mangia. Mangia” Eat. Eat. Where that’s true in Italy, it’s an expression of their ingrained sense of hospitality. But in Italy, to eat too much is a breach of etiquette.
One should never empty one’s wine glass. One waits for the host to add some. One never pours a glass too full. One doesn’t get intoxicated at a dinner party.
Much wine and food may be consumed, but it all happens on a languid time frame that stretches for hours and hours where lively conversation is the prima piatti — the main event.
Of course, the food and wine would be major topics in the conversation.
“Is this olive oil from Uncle Rinaldo?” “This wine is lovely. Where does it come from?” “How do you get your eggplant so crispy?”
A good example of the Italian reverence for restraint and simplicity can be found in their pizza. Naples is the birthplace of Italian pizza. The classic Pizza Margherita has just a precious few ingredients applied modestly: dough, San Marzano tomatoes, garlic, salt, fresh mozzarella, basil. But every ingredient is alive and sparkling with flavor.
It’s better that each bite is different from the others. This bite may have basil, this one not. Va benne.
The Old 5Mile House has been serving up Italian-style pizza for nearly five years — baked in a high temperature, stone hearth oven like they use in Naples.
The high temperature adds to the texture, crispness, flavor and chew of the dough. But if you put too much stuff on that pizza, the dough will burn before the ingredients are cooked.
Some Americans accustomed to chainstore pizza may look at an Italian pizza and wonder why there isn’t two pounds of cheese and a pound of meat. But real Italian pizza is about quality, not quantity.
This September, we will be serving up quality, authentic Italian food. Things like fresh figs stuffed with goat cheese and sage, wrapped in prosciutto, baked and drizzled with white truffle oil. Crab and pancetta pasta, penne made with local, organic, heirloom tomatoes and fresh basil, swordfish a’ la Palermo, chicken or veal Saltimbocca and more.
Try this easy recipe for Figs in a Blanket to impress your friends at your next dinner party. Buon Appetito!
Figs in a Blanket
Per appetizer portion
2 fresh, ripe figs
2 fresh sage leaves
2 heaping teaspoons of fresh goat cheese
2 thin slices Prosciutto di Parma
White truffle oil
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut the stems off the figs and make a cut vertically down the figs, halving them, but leaving a little hinge at the bottom.
Put a sage leaf vertically inside the fig and stuff one teaspoon of goat cheese in each.
Wrap each fig around the base with a strip of prosciutto. Bake for about 10 minutes, or until goat cheese is soft and warm.
Plate, drizzle with some white truffle oil and serve immediately with a dry white wine, like a Vermentino or a Soave Classico.
Robert Smith is the chef-owner of the Old 5Mile House.