Italian Scientists Say Vines May Love Vivaldi

Wired for sound: vineyards at Paradiso di Frassina in Tuscany.

Just in through the grapevine: Music helps grow healthier plants.

That’s the preliminary result of research by Italian scientists who have been examining vineyards exposed to classical music to see if sound makes the plants grow larger and more quickly.

While sound has long been thought to influence plant growth, this is the first time anyone has investigated the effects of music outdoors on Sangiovese vines, which are best known for producing grapes that go into Tuscany’s famous Chiantis.

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Salute! Italian fridge with beer spout

Beer fridgeForget the water dispenser and ice cube maker: a new fridge made in Italy has a front-door beer tap.

Called HomePub this chic, stainless steel fridge holds a five-liter keg and can keep the beer bubbly for up to three weeks. Price not listed.

You’d think Italians would be more interested in a vino dispenser, but Bel Paese residents have developed a taste for beer in recent years.

Healthy Indulgence: Chocolate Vitamins

Choco-pillThe best giveaway at Milan’s recent tourism fair: dark chocolate enriched with Vitamin A & C for the guilty.

Called “Chocopirin-A,” (a play on “aspirina,” aspirin) the tabs were handed out to hungry visitors to promote the Eurochocolate fest in Perugia next fall. Meant to underline how chocolate has become more a part of our daily lives, hopefully some marketing genius will copy the idea and make them for real.

Rome Restaurant Gets Grannies to Cook

If you happen to eat at Primo al Pigneto in Rome on the right day, you may be treated to a home-cooked meal from a neighborhood grandma.

At age 30 — when many Italian men are still living at home feasting on la nonna’s cooking — chef Marco Gallotta had the brainwave of recruiting local women to “guest star” in his kitchen for one week a month. Continue reading

Salty Gelato for Your Sweet Tooth

While many Italian gelaterias are closed for the winter, ice cream makers here are testing new flavors.

What’s hot? If you believe the news coming from Sigep, the gelato, chocolate and bread fair in seaside resort Rimini, sweet is out.

Salty is hot. Organizers of the fair are so convinced that people will want a cool lick of savory gelato they held a contest for the best new flavors. Seven international teams – Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain and the U.S. — participated in this piquant cook-out. Continue reading

Italians Say: Take Me Out

An increasing number of Milanese are shunning aprons for ready-made meals and take out food. It’s such big business that the Chamber of Commerce decided to study it.

So, how much is everyone eating out?

Well enough to register a 101% jump over five years in the number of businesses making and selling prepared foods, with a 30% increase between third quarter 2004 and 2005. Continue reading

I Say Tortilla, You Say Piadina – Let’s Eat

The last thing I expected when I moved to Florence, Italy was to lose 12 pounds in a few weeks.

Surveying the gaunt faces during a morning orientation session for a year-long study abroad program, the director noted that many of us had dropped the “Freshman 15,” the weight newcomers shed after putting scruffy Converse sneakers on Italian soil.

Yes, in the land of pasta, pizza, prosciutto and gelato.

How could this be?

Far from some anti-Atkins miracle, it came down to a severe lack of culinary skills. I, for one, had spent my college years in San Francisco staving off hunger by slapping together a few tortillas with cheese with perhaps a guacamole chaser for a meal. Many meals.

This was not going to sustain daily schlepping on foot to the sights of a city with 600 years of art treasures. The nearly constant wooziness — equal parts Stendhal syndrome and hunger — reminded me that I did not know how to live in this beautiful, bewildering place.

Many an intrepid cultural exploration starts at a foreign supermarket and my trek to an Esselunga across town, one of the few supermarkets around then, was a revelation. I had never seen a supermarket that stocked only food.

Just the raw materials. There wasn’t any cereal, frozen pizzas or canned soups. And not a tortilla in sight. I walked the cramped aisles in amazement, wondering how long it would take to grasp the subtle differences in 63,000 different shapes of pasta. The variants on tomato products also mystified me: tubes of tomato paste, a plethora of different types of canned whole tomatoes, cans of tomato pulp.

Left to my own devices, there was only so much crispy burnt garlic and undercooked penne I could eat. Gelato was daily sustenance and even that didn’t keep me from sporting the oversize look nearly a decade before it came into fashion.

Some months later, my Italian language exchange partner Barbara invited me to her hometown Faenza, in Emilia Romagna, for the weekend. I was eager to learn more about regional differences in Italy — Barbara’s slightly lispy accent was already so different from the open-mouthed hah-sounds of the Florentines — and hopefully put on a pound or two thanks to her doting grandmother.

On Saturday night, we drove out to a trattoria that looked like an abandoned farm house where we found two places at the end of a long, communal table and drank fizzy red Lambrusco wine.

Then baskets of flour tortillas, cut into triangles, came out of the kitchen. Tortillas? In Italy?

“No,” Barbara explained: Piadine. Not tortillas.”

I asked what they were made of: flour, lard and salt.

Whatever. Call them piadine, I know they are tortillas. Besides, I’m too hungry to argue.

The platters of toppings that followed were a different matter: creamy squaquerone cheese, smoked scamorza, prosciutto cotto and crudo, arugula, spinach, mushrooms. In triumph, I lifted a triangle sagging with eggplant to my mouth knowing I would never go hungry again.

Barbara’s grandmother, Isotta, nearly cried with laughter as I related in approximate Italian my delight in their local specialty. She had been plying me with pumpkin tortelloni and roasted lamb with peas, true regional masterpieces, and here I was raving about peasant food. Isotta explained that piadine were farmer’s daily bread but nearly went extinct until the 1960s when they made a comeback as “Italian fast food.” Now nearly everyone bought them instead of making their own at home and they were staples at all-night kiosks.

When the weekend came to an end, I was grateful to have an unfashionable, Everest-ready backpack (for some reason, life in Europe seemed to require sturdy hiking gear) roomy enough to export my discovery.

There were piles of ready-made piadine (as foreign to Florence as tortillas then) and a testo, a terracotta disc to heat them up. Isotta had showed me how to make them and while I limited my participation to nodding while she kneaded, I learned how to heat them up properly.

With the testo over a gas flame, the piadina cooks a few minutes on one side until brown spots show up, you prod the bigger bubbles down with a fork, then just flip over and repeat. Slather some cheese, a few slices of prosciutto and ecco! you’ve got a meal. While it wasn’t exactly cooking, piadina slinging did wonders for my morale and my waistline. I stuck it out in Italy, learning to cook among other things and that perplexing trouble of trying to gain weight is only a distant memory.


  • Substitute regular flour tortillas (no non-fat versions!) for best results.
  • Leave cheese at room temperature for at least 10 minutes so it will melt without burning the tortilla.
  • Heat both sides of the tortilla on a griddle or non-stick pan, lower heat and add thinly-sliced cheese, warm for about 10 seconds, then add meat and heat for another circa 10 seconds. Take off griddle, fold in half, cut and serve.

Unlike many Italian dishes there are no steadfast rules here, but avoid sharp or salty cheeses with cured meat — brie and prosciutto, for example. Some winning combinations:

  • Mozzarella and crudo, mozzarella and tomato, brie and crudo, gorgonzola and walnuts, prosciutto (cotto or crudo) and fontina.
  • Cheese: provolone, mozzarella, fontina, brie, gorgonzola
  • Meat: prosciutto (cotto, crudo) or cured meats such as speck, bresaola.
    Veggies: arugula, tomato, spinach and grilled eggplant, bell pepper or zucchini.

Beefed up: Italians bring back bistecca

Steak feastby Nicole Martinelli Beef is back in Europe after a nearly 10-year ban for mad cow disease. In Italy, butchers are trying to entice people to put the famed bistecca fiorentina, a monumental T-bone steak, on the table again.

Ban, schman. If you knew where to look — just three months after locals held a public funeral for the steak — you could sink your teeth into a fiorentina anyway.

Timing, though, couldn’t have been better. Continue reading

”Pizza Pact” for cash-strapped Italians staff What could possibly ruin the love affair between Italians and pizza?


The faltering Italian economy — more or less stagnant since 2002 — and relentless price hikes with the arrival of the euro have made many in the Bel Paese forgo eating out.

And because even the most gifted mamma is unlikely to have the wood-burning oven necessary to make a proper pizza, it is the one dish Italians gladly eat outside the home.

Restaurant owners have struck up a “pizza pact” (patto della pizza) hoping to get cash-strapped Italians out and eating the national dish again, offering pizza and a beer or soft drink for 7 euro ($8.39).
The pizza crisis and the idea of a pact was first discussed on popular talk show Porta a Porta, a late-night program generally dedicated more to burning political issues than hot pies. Retailers’ body Confcommercio took up the idea and over 200 restaurants throughout Italy have signed the pact, valid to the end of 2005, so far.

It may be a case of too little, too late.

“Pizzeria owners are crazy if they think this will fill the restaurants after they’ve jacked up prices over the last few years, ” Rik Sentenza wrote in a letter to daily Metro. “Why don’t they give us coupons, like war-time rations for bread, since none of us can afford to eat out anymore? This isn’t going to solve the problem.”
Sentenza, like many readers who wrote into the paper, remembers a few years back when a pizza cost ?4.000 to? 6.000 lire or about 2-3 euro.

The profit on the average pizza is already 490%, reminds Vincenzo Donvito, president of consumer group ADUC, who called the initiative “obscene.”

Four out of the just seven pizzerias supporting the pizza pact in Milan called by zoomata did not know whether the offer was valid just one day a week or every day or on which day it was offered.

Roberto, owner of pizzeria Summer in Milan, who has not signed the pizza pact told us: “They didn’t publicize it very well, I first read about it from the newspaper.”

When asked whether he would be signing up any time soon he said, “We’re talking a 1.50 discount on our normal prices, I’ll throw in an espresso or grappa if people ask for the pizza pact. How’s that?”

Related resources:
Pizza Napoletana!
A love letter to the true Italian pizza from chef Pamela Sheldon Johns
Official site for the pizza pact