Italian Appreciation Day
(dedicated to Ethel Ricci Anderson, one of our rational treasures)
There was quite a ruckus last year over Columbus Day, as in recent years, as more people get to know Christopher Columbus for the monster he was (see “Columbus Day: A Tale of Horror,” Archives, Oct 2014). There has been a movement, sort of, to have the day be a recognition of indigenous peoples. I like the idea, but last year I heard from someone in Seattle’s Italian community, who suggested we call it Italian Appreciation Day. He said Italy had many better examples than Columbus. Well, being a confirmed Italophile, that resonated with me. I spent a few months there forty years ago, and never recovered. In fact, a good part of me never left Italy. I love the people, the ever-changing countryside, and you can’t get a bad meal anywhere. I need to amend that. I had a terrible meal while in Milan. The American business community heard that a group of students were there, and they invited us to their 4th of July picnic — this was 1976, the Bicentennial. When we got there we were charged admission, and the burgers and hot dogs were pretty awful.
To begin with and for better or worse, Italy gave us the Roman Empire, followed by the Roman Catholic Church, which many feel is just an extension. But Italy also gave us the Renaissance! Think of it — this brilliant flowering of the arts and sciences that culminated with Andy Warhol painting soup cans and mankind walking on the moon. It’s not only the great minds of that time, but the sheer numbers of them. Start with Leonardo da Vinci, Machiavelli, Dante, Galileo, the Medicis, Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino (you should look him up). There’s Michelangelo, Botticelli, Raphael, Cellini, Ghirberti, Donatello, Verrochio, Titian, oh, and Giotto! He once won a commission by taking a brush and drawing a perfect circle on a canvas, right there in front of the judges, or so the story goes. And Marco Polo journeyed all the way to China, and that was 800 years ago!
Then there’s Filippo Brunelleschi, who Kenneth Clark of PBS’ “Civilization” said invented the Renaissance. I wrote a paper on him in college. And you should see his Duomo in Florence, you have to experience it personally. Masaccio, Veronese, the Bellini brothers, Caravaggio, and here’s an artist whose name you may not have heard, but I’ll bet you’ve seen his work: Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593). He painted portraits, but they were all made up of fruits, vegetables, fish, books, etc. I love that guy.
The Italians didn’t stop there. In music they gave us the operas of Rossini, Verdi, and Puccini, the great conductor Arturo Toscanini, and the master craftsman Antonio Stradivari, as well as the symphonic works of Respighi and Vivaldi. Later they would give us Enrico Caruso and later top it off with Luciano Pavarotti. If you think you don’t like opera, listen to him sing Nessun Dorma (“None Shall Sleep”) from Puccini’s “Turandot.” In film they gave us directors like Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini, who changed cinema forever. There were men of science like Nicola Tesla, Luigi Galvani, Marconi, and Alessandro Volta. The Roman Empire gave us great thinkers like Cato Cicero, and Marcus Aurelius. Let us also praise the contributions that Enzo Ferrari brought to auto racing, a personal passion of mine, and the elegant writings of Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco. [Note: as we learned with Columbus, not all Italians are to be appreciated. So I will not extol the Borgias, Benito Mussolini, or the Roman Emperors Nero, Caligula, and Elagabalus, monsters all. I would add former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to the less desirable.] We should also add Italians or Italian-Americans we’ve appreciated over here, like Joe DiMaggio, Vince Lombardi, Andrea Bocelli, Mario Batali, Robert DeNiro, Gina Lollobrigida, Anna Magnani (see her and Burt Lancaster in “The Rose Tattoo,” for which she won an Oscar), Marcello Mastroianni, and the force of nature known as Sophia Loren. I don’t include Joe Pesci, as he’s a one trick pony. I could go on and on, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten many, but let us proceed to other Italian endowments.
I could do a long column just on the food. Where we have pedestrian porcine products like bacon and ham, the Italians refined them into pancetta and prosciuto. Growing up, I ate spaghetti and macaroni, but who excels in the universe of pasta? Consider them as they parade by: rotini, penne, linguini (my favorite), fettucini, lasagna, roteli, ziti, orzo, farfalle (those are the little bow ties), cannelloni, rigatoni, bel paese, ravioli, tortellini, and the delightful radiatore, that resemble nothing more than those old hotel radiators. They’re adorable. And what a friend they have in cheeses: romano, fontina, parmesano reggiano, asiago, gorgonzola, provolone, ricotta, mozzarella, and mascarpone. How about the wines? There’s another whole column, Soave Bolla. Asti Spumante, and Marsala is a wonderful flavoring for chicken. The best bottle of wine I had in Europe was while I was staying in Florence. It was a cheap local chianti, 200 lire (about 25 cents). Rich, bold, yet soft as silk. There are other alcoholic pleasantries like sambucca, an anise-flavored liqueur, Campari, Limoncello, and Oh My God, Amaretto. One you may not have heard of is called Cynar. It’s an artichoke liqueur, but tastes nothing like that. It’s deep brown, with a sort of sweet sour taste, like horehound. It’s hard to get over here, and most Americans I had try it didn’t like it; the consistent complaint was that it reminded them of cough syrup they were force fed as children. I still want to try Grappa sometime, a sort of brandy I think.
For dessert, how about tiramisu? It’s my all-time favorite, and most people know about it. There are a host of other delicacies, like panna cotta. That’s a rich, thick, sweetened cream to which gelatin is added, then put in a molding. It’s served with berries and drizzled with your choice of coffee, Amaretto, of a variety of syrups. But in my opinion the crowning achievement of Italian sweet things is gelato. Made with local, organic ingredients, it’s still the closest thing I’ve had to the homemade ice cream I grew up with.
Oh the places you can go. Just as intoxicating as the food and beverages is the beauty of the land. I used to wonder how the various regional painting schools during the Renaissance were so varied. But traveling in about half of the country, I marveled at how different the landscape could be in just fifty miles or so. In the same way every little town in France has a gothic cathedral with dominating spire, every little town in Italy has the remains of a hill fort surrounding the city. Throughout most of her history, Italy was a collection of city states mostly in conflict with each other; it wasn’t unified as a country until 1881.
The architecture of each city is as varied and unique as the schools of art. Milan is the big banking center of the country. They say for every cathedral in Rome there’s a bank in Milan, and I believe them. Milan has a cathedral too, a monstrous mess that looks like a drunken wedding cake; it’s just hideous, unless you like over the top pretension. If it had been designed by Alice Cooper or Kiss, I could understand. I was prepared to hate Venice, with its postcard canals punctuated with raw sewage, and tourist mobs everywhere. It was love at first sight, though. You only have to go a block or two out of the way to get back to Italy. Florence is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve seen, and one of the regional pasta dishes is Lasagna Verde, made with spinach noodles and a cream sauce. Molto delicioso! In Assisi I learned about spaghetti alla carbonara, again with a cream sauce, with bits of bacon. I walked the paths Saint Francis did, near the monastery founded for him. There’s such an incredible aura of serenity floating over that little town.
Rome was everything and more. There are really three Romes: the ruins of ancient Rome, Renaissance Rome (after my third or more magnificently gold-coffered cathedral ceiling, I’d had enough), and modern Rome, where you drive in a demolition derby at Fast Forward, and yet no one seems to hit anyone else. It was terrifying. I got bitten by a stray cat in the ruins of the Forum, my own fault, having brought nothing else for it to eat. One Sunday I walked across the city, the streets nearly bare, occasional strains of Puccini or Verdi wafting from distant windows. It was like a dream.
With all we have to appreciate from Italians already, let me add two more, really important things we see and use every day. Nearly all newspapers and magazines, whether they’re on real paper or on line, use a Roman font (most popular these days seems to be Times New Roman). There’s a reason for this. The Roman alphabet of two thousand years ago still hasn’t been improved upon. Look at the capitals like B, R, or S. The top half is slightly smaller than the bottom, otherwise it would appear top heavy. It’s these principles of balance and harmony that make them beautiful and easy on the eye. You’ve heard of italics, I take it. The Italic hand was developed during the Italian Renaissance, five hundred years ago. Its beauty and legibility still hasn’t been improved upon, either.
As an encore, and perfect to serve after a good meal, I need say one word only: espresso. A machine using a pressurized brewing process was registered by Angelo Moriondo, in 1884. Following up on that, the first actual espresso machine was patented in 1901 by Luigi Bezzera. I discovered it over there, and bought my first Bialetti. I’ve not been without one since, but when I returned in that fall of 1976, there were few espresso bars in the U.S. Starbucks was decades away. If the Italians never came up with anything but this, I would still merrily say, Grazie a le! And have yourself a happy Italian Appreciation Day.