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Tuesday

Marriage Genovese style...oh my the pesto!






Two dear friends of mine, Michele Secco d'Aragona and Teresa Fioretti, married in Genova on September 20th. They were classmates of mine at the Slow Food U. in Parma and didn't, um, hook up until mid-way through the program. The ceremony was intensely Catholic, as befitting the religiosity of Michele and in contrast to the more secular Teresa. OK, enough marital subtext. How was the food at the reception?

There was Culatello di Zibello, the king of Italian cured meats, sliced Jamon Iberico style with a long knife; Strolghino di Culatello, which is a soft sausage version; cheeses included the crumbly and sharp Castelmagno from Piemonte and aged Gorgonzola and Parmigiano-Reggiano; crudi of salmon and tuna, basically Italian sushi; a river of Italian spumante--prosecco, Franciacorta Brut, and some artisan French champagne as befits a Slow Food wedding; and the Slowest food of them all, pesto by hand with mortar and pesto. And check out the klutz pitching in with the pesto making: yours truly. I was told by the helpful Genovese guests to use more olio di gomito, which is italian for "elbow grease".

The best part was the class reunion and sitting in a circle eating, drinking and trading stories. Missing from the festivities was my one of a kind Japanese flatmate, Akihiro Sawai, perhaps the most popular in the class due to his utility as comic relief. I live kind of a solitary life back in the USA and every time I come to Italy, I feel like I am part of something more than myself for once.


Saturday

Osteria del Treno in Milano







This lovely osteria is wildly popular with nattily dressed Milanese office workers and unsuspecting tourists--I'm not one of the latter because I sought this place out. It is a true osteria, not a ristorante filching the osteria moniker for restaurant marketing purposes. Slow Food Italy endorses locales that are traditional and serve typical products of the region. Osteria del Treno isn't slavishly devoted to Milanese cuisine: I saw no mondeghili (breaded meatballs), casseoula (sausage, cabbage and bean stew) nor Milan's most famous dish, Risotto alla Milanese. Yet Osteria del Treno is given a good review in the Slow Food guide and has the telltale Slow Food snail sticker on the front door. It's a daily changing menu, with antipasti, three pasta choices, secondi or meat course, and an amazing cheese plate. I ordered the cheese plate as my second course and it featured aged gorgonzola, a gorgonzola made from goat's milk which blew my mind and had a creamier mouthfeel than the aged gorgonzola, a small nib of goat cheese marinated in EVOO and juniper berries, served in a small ramekin--essence of the forest more than the pasture due to the juniper. Then a rich and rindless Toma from Piemonte and a goat's milk cheese called Pan di Pane.


The pasta could have been better, the gnocchetti were overcooked but the sauce was lovely: mild sausage crumbles, chard, fresh herbs and cherry tomatoes, which created its own soupy broth. The pasta seems to be pre-made in large batches and not to order. At Osteria del Treno, you order directly to the chef through the kitchen pass and she scoops out the pasta into a bowl, and you, the customer/waiter, carry it to your table perplexed about why you came to a restaurant to be an unpaid worker. That was my initial reaction being a newbie here, the Slow Food guide never mentioned slavery. Anyway, being a photographer, I got a little snap happy with the menu and the food as you see above, which ran afoul of the proprietor's unwritten rule, called Ask Me First. I got an irritated earful from him, and then some, and then oddly, an apology for his reaction. It's all part of the experience I suppose


Osteria del Treno
Via San Gregorio 46, Milan
About a 10 minute walk from Milan's Stazione Centrale

Thursday

Parmigiano gets in bed with the Antichrist



So the self-proclaimed King of Cheeses is reduced to being a condiment for a McDonald's sandwich? Aside from the economics, why would the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium want to cheapen their image? 

Monday

Grom gelato












On Via Ventidue Luglio, in the middle of the historic center of Parma (and several cities in Italy, plus two locations in New York City), sits  Gelateria Grom. Contrary to the meaning of the clichĂ©, it is your grandfather’s gelateria because they make gelato “come una volta”, as it used to be made. 

Similar to some delicatessens, Grom announces its flavors on a sandwich board and easel placed on the sidewalk and inside near the cash register.  At first glance, Grom has the same flavors as any gelateria, from stracciatella to caffe, to limone and gianduja. Their spin however, is that every flavor contains all natural ingredients, no food colorings, syrups, and all ingredients purchased directly from the producer, not through a broker or some warehouse. Grom only sells gelato with seasonal ingredients and the conceit of this gelateria is that it gives a pedigree to the ingredients, much like fine dining restaurants around the world do. And wouldn’t you know it, the little Slow Food snail is trotted out by Grom to signify that an ingredient from a Slow Food presidio is being used, such as the CafĂ© de Huehuetenango. Not only the name of the presidio is used, but Grom thinks it is important for its clientele to know that the exact coffee bean used from this Guatemalan presidio is the wood-toasted Cru San Pedro. For the Slow Food obsessive, that kind of tidbit is manna but for the average cone licker, it means zip. The young scooper whom I interviewed told me that Grom is taking the quest for the freshest ingredients to another level: the company goal is to have a producer grow or produce ingredients especially for Grom. The bottom line for all this freshness is that the average cup or cone at Grom is at least fifty cents higher than at other gelaterias around town.

The inside of the store is quite spare, very clean but chic, and with a wide lateral space for the clientele to order and then consume gelato. Those who like to linger can enjoy matching yellow pastel table tops (three in all) and chairs that are shaped like spoons. The counter has the usual array of cup sizes and a bin for plastic spoons, with cones kept behind the counter. Grom serves the gelato out of bins that the customer can’t see into, which is ironic because gelaterias of lesser quality often stuff mountains of gelato behind a big glass counter. There is an old-fashioned butcher’s scale on the far left of the counter for those buying gelato by the kilo, often it’s not for personal but family consumption. Floors are dark hardwood that contrasts nicely with all the pastels. Grom maintains a sedate ambience whether empty or full, which stands in contrasts to many food places that equate loud music and harsh acoustics with building a buzz. The only sounds are the clanking of the scoopers, the hum of the cash register, and the happy chatter of customers excited to take possession of a frozen treat. The temperature inside the store is neutral to cool due to the machine and air conditioning. It’s never too warm or cold inside of Grom.

On average, the scooper shift is seven hours standing up and scurrying about, stirring the canisters of gelato to keep them from getting too hard and maintaining the trademark smooth texture. Before opening in the late morning, the scooper is actually a gelato creator and busily mixes ingredients, following a set recipe made day in and day out, and checks all the canisters to make sure they are full with fresh product. It is an intensely social job because once the ice cream is made and stored, it’s about interacting with the customers and following their prescription on the ideal marriage of gelato flavors. A waiter in a restaurant may reel off a list of specials or recommend a good bottle of red to pair with the order, but scoopers have zero input into customer decision making. 

There are only two material functions in a Grom gelateria, making and storing gelato and granita and serving it to customers. One can ask what is the function of consuming a gelato? Is it about sustenance and energy for the work day or is it about pleasure? Gelato is a sweet and contains sugar and can provide a momentary but not a sustainable energy boost. It’s consumed for no reason in particular other than being delicious and sweet, and for a lot of people, children especially, sweet equals pleasure. It is reasonable to posit that giving pleasure is a core material function of a gelateria and serves a vital social function: that if 200 Grom customers a day are given pleasure, there are 200 more happier people in Parma than the day before.

Ventidue Luglio is not a touristy thoroughfare and the clientele tends to be from Parma and most heavily those who work and live in the historic center. On my perhaps too frequent visits, I’ve noticed some people pop in to Grom for a quick chat, some just to scan the menu to see what’s the flavor of the month, which alternates between a cream gelato and a fruit gelato.

What Grom stands for is a quality product made with the freshest ingredients, that gives pleasure to the gola but also to the body and mind. Because the flavors are delicious, the gola is happy; the body is pleased because the are are no additives or preservatives, or anything artificial; the mind is pleased because Grom is not industrial, it contributes to sustainability by buying from small producers of quality products, producers who respect the environment and their workers (so I would imagine the latter).

 Gelato consumption means pleasure and gustatory memory. For a child the pleasure is palpable and immediate and the nostalgia is being created on the spot, and when a child who loves gelato passes his favorite gelateria, the child desires immediate satisfaction. The adult who enjoys gelato has more mature flavor receptors in that they are able, by the benefit of having lived some years, to have family or friend memories intertwined with each taste of gelato. Gelato is comfort and succor, and Grom is painted pastel in order to evoke a haze of nostalgia and memories of childhood visits with mom and dad and perhaps siblings to the neighborhood gelateria. Nostalgia triggered by gelato consumption equals familiarity and tradition, of families staying together and eating together.