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Squacquerone

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It's not every day that you come across a food with a name as fun as squacquerone. So when I noticed it on a menu in Bologna, my interest was piqued.

Squacquerone is a fresh cow's milk cheese. It's eaten when it's only a few days old. It looks something like cottage cheese, with curdy bits suspended in a milky slurry. The flavor is similar to cottage cheese as well, though it's a little tangier. It's typical of the region of Emilia-Romagna, and I saw it all over the place while I was there.

The traditional way to eat squacquerone is on a piadina: an unleavened flatbread kind of like a tortilla that you fill with cheeses, cured meats, and vegetables. At the piadineria (the name for a shop that serves nothing but a few dozen kinds of piadine), you're almost sure to find a piadina with squacquerone and arugula. It's a killer combo: the peppery arugula is tempered by the tangy, creamy cheese, all wrapped up in a hot, thin, soft yet crisp wrapper. Ultimate …

Philadelphia

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Everywhere I went in Italy, I saw Philadelphia cream cheese. It showed up in the refrigerated aisles of groceries in Venice and Rome. It was employed with arugula and speck in sandwiches served at rest stops along the autostrada. It even popped up amongst a dozen kinds of cured ham at a very high end food shop in Bologna (one that sells the same Roi olive oil and Carnaroli risotto rice that we do).

So what's that all about, anyway?

In pursuit of wild boar and ricotta

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"Come," said Emanuele. "We are going to the wild boar festival."

So the two of us climbed into Emanuele's small white van and drove the narrow, winding, mountain roads to the nearby town of San Gregorio. "When I was a boy, my friends and I would ride our bikes to San Gregorio," he told me. "It was hard to get there, uphill the whole way. But going home again was easy."

The drive into San Gregorio was perfectly romantic. The town is precariously perched along the ridge of a mountain peak. A medieval castle still defends the entrance to the old part of town (though today it is guarded by policemen who tell you where to park). As we approached the town, passing under the branches of blossoming redbud trees and the tiny, bright green foliage of early spring, it almost felt as though we were driving into a fairy tale.

Walking the streets of the town was less romantic -- especially with Emanuele as my guide. He pointed out the tiny rooms protrudi…

Asparagini selvatici

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Hello, Goodbye

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In France, every interaction starts with a "bonjour" (or, if it's past about 5 PM, a "bon soir"). It doesn't matter how small the interaction is: buying a baguette from the boulangerie or asking for directions, you start every conversation with a hello. To not say hello is very rude; I suspect that, when people talk about how rude the French are, it's partly because they don't know this basic facet of the culture.

In Italy, you don't necessarily say "buongiorno" when you greet someone. In fact, on the phone, you don't start with "hello" at all, but "pronto" - essentially, "I am ready, speak to me." But if what I have seen in the past few weeks is typical, you always say goodbye. When you leave a restaurant or shop, you are sure to hear "arrivederci." And, just for good measure, you'll probably also hear "grazie," "buona giornata" or "buona serata" (have a go…

The family pantheon

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Last week I visited Vecchia Dispensa, an acetaia [balsamic vinegar maker] in the province of Modena in northern Italy. Like most Modenese families, the family behind Vecchia Dispensa has been making balsamic vinegar for generations. In the past, every family kept a batteria, or set of barrels for making balsamic, in the attic. The production was small - just enough for the family to use the balsamic to cure occasional headaches or indigestion. 

(As a side note, I stayed in an agriturismo in Modena one night last week. We got to talking about food with the owners, one of whom then led me over to the attic closet to show me their own family's balsamic batteria. Even as balsamic becomes a known entity around the world, the small family production tucked away in the attic remains a part of Modenese culture today.)

Today Vecchia Dispensa produces a little more balsamic than the family requires; we sell hundreds of bottles of their vinegar every year. The tradizionale vinegar - the st…

Rest stop theory

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I'm working on this theory. It goes like this: you can learn all you really need to know about how a country eats by visiting one of its highway rest stops.

In the US, at an interstate rest stop, you find Starbucks and shitty burgers and pizza. In Belgium, you can chow down on mussels, fries, and beer when you stop along the road. And what did I find at a rest stop along the Italian autostrada last week?

An espresso bar.


Sandwiches (fairly decent ones, I might add), served hot. Buttery pastries filled with creams.


A buffet with four courses (antipasti (hot and cold), primi, secondi, dolci), plus wine to drink and an oil and vinegar station for dressing your food to your taste.


Bags of pasta and bottles of wine to take on the road.


I don't think I could design a more perfect microcosm of Italian food culture if I tried. The only thing that's missing is the gelato case.