In my paternal hometown of Sammichele di Bari, an inland comune of Puglia in southern Italy, my third cousin Giuseppe took me to one of the town’s macellerie, a butcher shop, where we were to pick up dinner for the family. The husband and wife team prepared the meat: he chopped while she grilled. In Puglia, it’s customary for butchers to grill meat for customers. Smells of grilled meat swirled around the small shop as more and more people huddled around the glass counter. The husband hollered in the local dialect for the wife to hurry. From the hot kitchen the wife responded with a long string of what were probably Italian curses.
At my cousins’ table, we ate the primo, which consisted of grilled zampine, the long sausage links joined to form something resembling a Jute rug. For secondo came more meat called braciole, grilled beef, or goat, stuffed with cream cheese. Then came maiale. I ate the pork despite my stomach screaming Basta! Basta! On the table was also fresh mozzarella, black olives, bread, and grilled vegetables. During my stay in Sammichele I ate the same savory meal over and over, either at a restaurant or at my other cousin’s home for lunch and dinner. I never ate so much grilled meat.
The deep south of Italy, where I had always thought spaghetti and red sauce reigned queen of the table, is famous not for its pasta but for its carne di brace: barbequed sausages, pork, and beef. Here the butcher rather than the pastasciutte is the one people clamor around for dinner. In Sammichele they even have a yearly festival in honor of grilled meat.
My father is full-blooded Puglian, but I don’t recall him or anyone on his side of the family in America ever grilling. His specialty was spaghetti with meatballs. As a boy I would watch him make tomato sauce from scratch each Sunday after church. He would test the pasta’s doneness by tossing a single strand to the ceiling and seeing if it would stick. Our ceiling was covered with so many swirls it looked like a deliberate design. He also taught my sisters and I how to twirl the spaghetti on a fork. Although my grandmother’s pasta was usually a combination of five different kinds of noodles, she always prepared a thick tomato sauce too. But I wondered where I could find this “authentic” Italian cuisine in Puglia.
On the outskirts of Puglia’s second largest city, Taranto, along the Ionian Sea, my friend Luciano took me to a restaurant tucked in the rolling inland hills. “It’s the most popular place to eat in the area,” Luciano told me as he navigated the twisting narrow streets and tried to avoid the bucket-sized potholes.
Nearing 10:30 p.m., a typical dinner hour for Italians, we arrived at the large eatery. We squeezed into the lobby where a crowd was pushing against the counter. On the other side four tireless butchers took orders for the different cuts of meat on display. More zampine, braciole, maiale and other types of meat. It was then I learned the popular grill house was actually a chain across Puglia and that this style of food really was the local favorite.
Rome wasn’t much different. I found no restaurants that served Dad’s style of spaghetti either, or any other familiar Italian dish. I explained this dilemma to an Italian friend at a small pub near the 2,000-year-old Piramide di Cestius, the only standing pyramid in Europe. I described how my father made his famous spaghetti sauce and tested the pasta on the ceiling, and in general how most Italian-American food is prepared.
“My God!” my friend declared, nearly falling out of his chair and spilling his glass of port. “You’re cooking like it’s 1940!”
And he was right. I had never thought of it that way before. It explained why I could not find “real” Italian food anywhere I traveled in Italy, including Rome. The largest Italian migration to the United States occurred between 1880 and 1940, and we still prepare food in much the same way as our ancestors. What was “authentic” for me, was in the past for most Italians.
“We still make pasta by hand on some Sundays,” my Italian teacher in Otranto, Puglia, had told me on the day she showed me how to make the local “white pasta” made with only farina and water. In the north of Italy they are more likely to add eggs and olive oil. “We don’t make it as much as we used to,” she confessed. “It takes too much time.”
We made minchiarelli, straw-like pasta two-inches long, using a fierru, a small hollow wire two millimeters in diameter. Then we made orecchiette, tiny ears, made with the press of our thumbs into pinches of dough, a delicate gesture that took me a little longer to adapt. Our monotonous labor brought out a natural desire for my teacher and I to chat, and I imagined this is how it had worked for generations. The process of making handmade pasta had probably resolved family crises over and over.
“We usually just buy dry pasta at the store,” my teacher went on as we formed ears shoulder to shoulder. “My grandmother is too old to make it by hand. Anyway”—she patted the small pouch on her belly which she probably thought was larger than in reality—“pasta is very heavy.”
In Brindisi, a town of about 80,000 where the blue waters of the Adriatic lap against the old fortress walls, there are more restaurants that serve sushi than pasta. Common southern Italian dishes like tonno, acciughe and polpo (tuna, anchovies and poached octopus, usually tossed with olive oil and served cold) are close cousins to the raw Japanese cuisine. During my entire three-month stay in Italy, I ate more sushi than pasta. In fact, my favorite eating place in Rome turned out to be Japanese-Chinese, where I enjoyed chatting in Italian with the Japanese waiter.
Spaghetti the way my grandmother and father made it is antiquated, a relic of the past like the crumbling medieval towers that dot the Puglia coastline. The taste of Old Italy is more likely to be found in New York or Chicago. Of course, immigrants to the New World were exposed to different ingredients and that helped shift the cuisine down a unique path, but Italian-Americans still consider spaghetti with meatballs the real deal.
It took me some time in Italy to realize that Italian food and Italian-American food are really two different types of cuisines, dissimilar in many ways and separated by generations and a vast ocean. Nonetheless, both styles of cooking are good and have their place at the table. So, one way or the other, Buon Appetito!