My First Taste of Italy

My travels to Italy to attend Slow Food’s Salone del Gusto & Terra Madre, by Gary Granata

The predictably unpredictable predicaments of international travel provided me with the good fortune of having my very first meal in Italy at the birthplace of the Slow Food movement, the Osteria Boccondivino in Bra. I travelled by train from Torino to Bra on Wednesday, my third day in Italy. Yes, I had my first meal on my third day in this country known for it’s gastronomic culture … a tale told at the end of this blog.

I met Slow Food staffer Elisa Demichelis outside the International Headquarters. We took a short stroll down a narrow cobbled street and entered a quaint courtyard. A sculpture of the now famous Slow Food snail stood in the corner, marking the very spot where the grassroots movement germinated as Carlo Petrini and fellow founders savored the food and wine of the Piedmont and decided that regional food traditions were worth preserving.

I could not help but notice a giant wisteria vine had wound its way around the balconies of the courtyard. I felt at home as I used to climb and play in an even larger wisteria in my neighborhood when I was a very young child. We climbed the wisteria enshrouded staircase and entered the Osteria Boccondivino. Osteria is symbolic of local, seasonal and traditional cuisine served in a family style establishment at moderate prices.

Paolo di Croce, Secretary General of Slow Food, joined us at our table and an incredible meal and conversation ensued. Paolo ordered foods and wine traditional to Bra and the Piedmont region and an amazing pranzo (lunch) began with a toast to new friends and slow ventures.

Lardo, salsiccia di Bra e carne cruda, small sausages made with raw veal, was the first antipasto dish to hit the table … amazing! Next was Vitello tonnato, veal carpaccio with a creamy mayonnaise seasoned with tuna … astounding! Tajarin al burro e salvia o al sugo di Salsiccia di Bra, delicately thin pasta made with 40 egg yolks per kg and served with a butter and sausage sauce was my main course. The ingredients suggest a heavy dish, but it was both light on my palate and my stomach and pared perfectly with the local wine. And finally, Paolo insisted I have the panna cotta for dessert … and yes, I ate the whole thing! I was left speechless and truly humbled by the entire experience.

My first meal in Italy, the birthplace of my grandparents, in the very spot that gave birth to the Slow Food movement and shared with two wonderful people that took time from their busy preparations for Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre … these words and pictures simply do not do justice to the blessing that was bestowed me that day.

Elisa then drove me a few kilometers to visit the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo. UNISG was founded by Slow Food in 2004 with the goal to create an international research and education center dedicated to renewing farming methods, protecting biodiversity, and building an organic relationship between gastronomy and agricultural science.

Daniela Pirani served as my tour guide. The campus, facilities and surrounding vistas are truly inspiring. My incredible day simply got better and better. Unfortunately, the tour was cut short as I had a train to catch. But, seeds were planted, good friends were made and my journey in Italy had only just begun.

Epilogue: How I had my 1st meal on my 3rd day in Italy I arrived in Italy on Monday afternoon.

My travels included a delayed flight in St. Louis, a cancelled international flight in Newark, a “Mr Toad’s Wild Ride” shuttle to JFK for a flight to Paris and connection to Torino. I had planned to exchange money at the airport, but choose a different course after learning about their fee for services … a prelude to what awaited me. I found a taxi that took credit cards and proceeded to take me on a $cenically circuitous tour of Torino. I knew I was being taken for a ride when the driver popped in the Blues Brother’s CD. But hey, I was in Italy for the first time, the weather was great, the sights were beautiful and I was listening to Cab Calloway sing Minnie the Moocher … how apropos. We finally headed into the old city, drove past the Royal Palace and proceeded a few blocks down the narrow and cobbled Via del Carmine, my street for the next 16 nights. Believe or not, I actually tipped the guy, even though he had just fleeced me for 13 Euro more than the standard fare from the airport … ciao Mario the Moocher!

I was soon greeted by my temporary landlords Daniela & Dario, who led me to a quaint apartment on the 4th floor overlooking the courtyard. We shared pleasantries and made plans to meet Tuesday for lunch so I could pay my rent once I had exchanged my money for Euros. They gave me a few recommendations of neighborhood restaurants that would accept my credit card. Once the left, I laid down for a brief nap that turned into a 15 hour sleepfest … so, no soup for me on day 1.

I awoke early Tuesday morning and hit the streets with two tasks; 1) exchange my money …. errrr, travelers checks and 2) “make groceries” at the neighborhood morning markets. I visited 9 banks in the morning. Even though my Italian is very poor, I soon understood that Italian banks were not fond of American Express travelers checks. So by lunch on day 2, I found myself still rich in travelers checks and credit cards, but with nary a Euro in my pocket … and I owed my hosts 2 weeks rent in Euros.

Daniela and Dario arrived for lunch, learned of my plight and began calling banks to find one that would exchange my unpopular legal tenders. While I understood hardly a word Dario spoke on the phone, the bulging veins in his neck easily communicated his displeasure in what he was being told. He located banks in both Roma & Milano that would exchange my pieces of paper, but none in Torino. So, we jumped in his car and the adventure continued.

Bank #11 finally accepted my checks, but only $600 (~$450 Euro) per day … and I owed Daniella more than twice that amount. We then visited bank #12 to exchange the few American dollars that I had in my pocket. I choose to view the day as a fun adventure. I made two good friends, got to see the city and accomplished one of my two tasks by the end of the day. Plus, I was in Italy … why complain?

I returned to my apartment and busied myself with e-mailing friends/family and researching how I was going to find my way to Bra the next day. Before long, the clock struck midnight and I had yet to dine in Italy. So, I hit the sack.

OK, I was not starving. My friends will tell you that I always carry calories, usually delicious homemade snacks, especially when I travel. I refuse to waste my money or risk my health on the expensive crap offered in airports and (in)convenience stores. I had made ~ 5 pounds of chocolate date & nut rolls and also stashed some fruit in my bag. My hosts provided some complimentary water and juice at the apartment, so I was fine. Overall, things could have not turned out better. My first meal in Italy was savored in the very spot where Slow Food started … what a memorable way to start a trip!

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