Saturday, March 31, 2012

Contanti is king

Valentino on Milan's Via Montenapoleone, hallowed ground for high fashion
Mi fai sconto? you ask the vendor. Can you give me a discount? Pago contanti, I'll pay cash.

Now, this time-honored Italian tradition doesn't work where prices are clearly stated and there's nothing for merchant to gain by dropping the public price. But when it's a designer dress, or a piece of designer jewelry, then it's a different story. No credit card fees, nothing to declare.

Ah, but Italy's government is cracking down on tax evasion. It briefly banned 1,000-euro notes, then relented. Now the limit applies only to Italian citizens, leaving the big spenders alone. And who are they? Not us, not 'Merkins, nope. The big money's being spent by Chinese, Russian and Brazilian tourists, flush with cash and eager to buy designer labels in Rome, Milan and Venice.

Reuters reports on the problem here

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Boeing's Italian Mistress

Italian Alps, with Franciacorta vineyardes in the foreground
 Across the top of the Italian boot, from Torino in the west to Trieste in the east, where the Alps meet the plain, runs one of Europe's most prosperous economic engines: Italy's high-tech, high-design, precision manufacturing industry. It's a mind-boggling network of small businesses that line the A4 motorway like an unending strip mall. Further south, the mighty Po river, then farm country punctuated by the jeweled art cities of Parma, Bologia, Ferrara and Ravenna. Then, across the Apennines, the dreamworld of Tuscany and Umbria.

But it's the high-tech manufacturing corridor that's in the news today. Boeing has just announced that the horizontal tail of its 787-9 Dreamliner will be manufactured not in Seattle (where the development work has been going on) but in Italy, at a factory owned by a subsidiary of Italy's giant Finmeccanica known as AleniaAermacchi.

Alenia (a species of skipper butterfly in Latin) already makes the horizontal tails for the 787-8 (the version of the Dreamliner that's currently under construction), but those parts, according to Seattle Times aerospace reporter Dominic Gates, produced "many quality issues and resulted in significant delays to the program."

Still, it appears that all is forgiven. "We try to have more than one source for parts and assemblies," a Boeing spokesman said. "When it is possible, we have a bias toward additional sourcing."

Alenia does more than just piece-work, however. Their latest plane, just released, is a trainer for the Israeli air force.

The company is headquartered Venegono Superiore, a town of 7,000 souls adjoining the northern Italian lake coutry about 35 miles northwest of Milan. One of its advantages: an airstrip that's longer than its main street, the via Finzi. The best restaurant in town is called La Pancia Piena (the full stomach), and specializes in unlimited portions of oversize gnocchi. Those Boeing inspectors, they'll need every foot of runway to get off the ground on their way home.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Ribollita: 3rd (or 4th) time's a charm

By now, you know Pamela Sheldon Johns, right? She's the American author of a whole shelf of Italian cookbooks who settled in Tuscany over ten years ago after she and her husband, an artist, bought an olive grove outside Montepulciano. Johns turned the guest house into a B & B, Poggio Etrusco, and began teaching cooking classes to groups of American visitors.

Her latest book, enthusiastically reviewed on Cornichon last month, is titled Cucina Povera. Unlike books filled with fancy recipes and exotic ingredients, it celebrates (if that's the right word) the simplest preparations, the cuisine of privation.

TheTuscan philosophy is exemplified by the successive uses of its basic vegetable soup, minestra di verdure. Gently sweat a sofrito of onions, carrots and celery in a bit of olive oil. One by one, add vegetables, from hard to soft: cavolo nero (dark kale, also called locinato), potatoes, broccoli stems, chopped stems of mustard greens, zucchini, the green leaves, eventually some roughly chopped canned tomatoes and cooked cannelini. Don't add liquid until the very end. Specific vegetables aren't as important as balance: sweet (herbs like parsely and celery), aromatic (thyme, fennel) and bitter (mustard greens).

If you add hot water or stock, the flavor stays in the vegetables. If you use cold water, the flavors will leach into the liquid. That's what you want.

The first day you have the minestra di verdura, your baseline vegetable soup, drizzled just before serving with extra virgin olive oil. The second day, you slice up your old, dried bread and layer it with the soup, and it becomes a minestra di pane. Tuscan bread is made without salt, so it dries out quickly. If you make this dish at home, you'll need to dry out your bread in a warm oven.

The third day, you add a bit more liquid and a bit more bread and bake it in the oven. That's minestra di pane al forno. It's the very incarnation of a country dish, flavorful and belly-filling, made from nothing, feeding both body and soul for days on end.

And on the fourth day, you take the leftover baked soup out of the pot, brown it in a skillet and eat it with a knife and fork. This is the ultimate ribollita, "recooked" vegetable stew.

Johns got as far as the "bread soup" stage at a two-hour cooking class last week at Diane's Market Kitchen in downtown Seattle. "You have so much more here in the Northwest than we do in Italy," Johns told her students, referring to the abundance of the farmers markets. It would have been unimaginable to the Tuscans she wrote about in Cucina Povera, who scraped by on nothing. And yet, they would agree with what the cobbler in Montepulciano said, "We were better off when we were worse off."

Diane's Market Kitchen, 1101 Post Avenue, Seattle, WA 98104 (206) 624-6114 
Poggio Etrusco via