Italian Food Facts: Cappuccino

Pouring CappuccinoCiao ragà! It’s time to learn some more cool stuff about the Italian foods (or beverages, in this case) that we all love.

Hot n’ frothy! No, it’s not the name of an adult film … well, actually it probably is … but that’s not the point! Today, we’re talking about cappuccino!

Ok, so you know what a cappuccino is, right? Sure you do! You’re a card-carrying citizen of planet Earth! How could you not? But do you know the meaning behind the word “cappuccino”. No, no you don’t. That’s why you need me.

The word “cappuccino” means “little hood” in Italian. No, I’m not talking about a small urban area known for its tough streets. I mean “hood” in the, “head covering attached to a sweatshirt” sort of way.

Capuchin MonksThis famous Italian coffee concoction got its name because of its light brown color – the result of the espresso and steamed milk coming together. This shade of brown is the same as the one found on the robes of the Capuchin monks, they themselves being named after the hood on their robes. See the connection? There are tons of pictures I could show you of real Capuchin monks to illustrate this point. I, however, have opted for the salt and pepper shakers that my grandparents used to have.

These sure bring back memories!

These sure bring back memories!

A few more quick points on cappuccini (note the correct plural form in Italian is “cappuccini” and not “cappuccinos”):

  1. Good luck trying to order a cappuccino in Italy after 11 am or (horrors!) after a meal! That’s sort of against the rules here. Something to do with Italians believing that milk will block your digestion.
  2. Have you ever gotten a cappuccino with cinnamon on it? Mamma mia! It’s good stuff! Try it!
  3. There are some real cappuccino artists out there. Baristas who decorate the top of the cappuccino with the foam or cocoa powder. It always puts a smile on my face when I order one and it comes with a little extra care put into its aesthetic quality. Here’s a few examples of cool cappys!

That’s a lot of oil!

Italian Olive OilExtra VirginIt’s no secret that Italians love their olive oil. They use it all over over the place in the kitchen: drizzled over bruschetta, mixed into sauce, and used with balsamic vinegar to dress a salad. Olive oil is to Italians like butter is to Americans (which I think says something about our comparatively different waistlines).

Some home remedies also see olive oil used to heal chapped lips, get car grease off your hands, polish furniture, and as a home-made bath scrub when mixed with sea salt. An all natural cure-all!

I obviously knew all about olive oil before living in Italy, but I was totally unprepared for how many different types of olive oil there are here! I mean, we have half a supermarket aisle dedicated entirely to Italian liquid gold! There’s even this cool wine and olive oil shop called La Vineria that’s part of the classic tour I bring visitors on. The nice guy that works there lets my friends sniff the various vats of olive oil that they have, and I’ll be damned if different types of olives don’t produce oils with different smells – spanning from roasted tomatoes to fresh-cut grass. It’s amazing!

Back in Roman times, there was so much olive oil used, that it contributed to one of the largest ancient spoil heaps in the entire world.

AmphoraeMonte Testaccio, in Rome, is a huge pile of crushed amphorae (that’s a fancy name for old earthen pots). These pots were used for transporting and containing oil back in  ancient Rome. The used amphorae were smashed and then placed on the carefully planned spot where Monte Testaccio still stands today. It’s estimated that the hill is formed by 53 million olive oil amphorae. Mamma mia! That’s a lot of olive oil! 6 billion liters, to be exact! To give you a better idea, this hill covers an area of 20,000 square meters and is 35 meters high!

Nowadays, Monte Testaccio is overgrown with plants and trees and is surrounded by the houses and shops of the neighborhood, but it’s still cool to think that under it all lies the olive oily remains of many, many tasty Italian meals.

Monte Testaccio

Monte Testaccio

Full-Bodied and Distinctively Fascist

I took these pictures at a restaurant in Milan (with Instagram, of course). I was enjoying dinner and the company of friends when I noticed these insane bottles of wine! Can you see ’em? They have images of Mussolini and fascist propaganda!  Pazzesco! I’ve never seen anything like that ever before!

The buzz of several glasses of fascist wine prompted me to bring a bottle home, more out of curiosity than anything else. The girl at the restaurant who sold me the bottle asked me if I wanted a bag to carry it home. I told her that I was all set, and she responded, firmly but gently, “Take a bag. It’s better that way. You may piss some people off if they see you with that thing on the street.”

Yikes! What have I gotten myself into? I’m going to have to take the label off and flush it down the toilet before I place the empty bottle in the recycle bin!

Italian Superstitions: Corno

Italians all say “we’re not superstitious“. Don’t believe them. That’s a lie. Italians are most definitely superstitious. Even some of the most sensible and logical Italians I know are still inexplicably superstitious.

I thought it’d be fun to kick off 2012 with the first in a series of posts based on Italians’ ideas on fortuna and sfortuna (good luck and bad luck). I always like to start on a positive note, so today let’s talk about good luck.

Red Coral Corno

The most popular Italian good luck charm is by far the corno (the horn).

The origin of the corno is said to stem from the Old European moon goddess, before the rise of Christianity, and it’s supposed to protect you from the dreaded evil eye.

The corno is traditionally made from reddish/pinkish coral that predominately grows in the Mediterranean sea surrounding Italy, and is worn around the neck as a charm. Although today you can see it in lots of forms including silver, gold, and even plastic key chain versions which you can easily find in any tacky souvenir shop in Italy.

Plastic Key Chain Corno

These good luck charms are so popular that you can see them in America too. If you’re Italo-American then you probably already know what I’m talking about. If you’re not, then go ask one of your friends with an Italian last name if they know about the corno. I’ll bet they do!

Now I’m not superstitious, but I do have a corno that I often wear. I’ve been living here a while now, and certain things have rubbed off on me!

Paired with my hairy chest, I’d say that it’s pretty darn Italian of me! 🙂

My Corno

Do you guys have any preferred good luck charms? Leave me a comment and share yours!

Here’s to a 2012 filled with good luck for all my readers!

Little Mouse

I am a huge Mickey Mouse fan! Have been ever since I was a boy!

I love Mickey so much that when I was little I dressed up as the famous Disney mouse for numerous consecutive Halloweens. My Mom gave up on trying to persuade me to change costumes by saying “Why don’t you try being a cute lil’ Dracula” or “Don’t you want to be a Ninja Turtle this year? Cowabunga!” and just accepted the fact that she was going to have to dust off and slightly alter the old Mickey costume once more, for the 4th year in a row.

Me as Mickey Mouse for Halloween in the 80’s! How cute am I?!!?

One year Mom was able to convince me to be a cowboy … but I still had to have some Mickey Mouse involved!

You may even say that I was possessed by Mickey Mouse. In fact, my parents have video evidence of me being silly (what else is new?) and talking in a high-pitched voice saying “Hi! I’m Mickey Mouse!”. When my parents kindly ask “Garrett, use your normal voice.”, I creepily respond by shrieking “Garrett isn’t here right now, but you can talk to me, Mickey, if you want!” The video is an old 1980’s VHS home movie, and I have absolutely no idea how I’d go about transferring and uploading it to YouTube so I can’t show it to you, but I think just writing about it is embarrassing enough for me!

Now, you might be asking yourself “What’s this got to do with Italy?”. I’m getting there, don’t worry!

Mickey Mouse is known around the world either by the original American name that Walt Disney gave him or by a country’s local version (ie. Mickey Maus, Miki Miška, Ratón Mickey, Mikki Mús…).

Italy is an exception to this rule. In Italia, Mickey Mouse is known as Topolino (which translates to Little Mouse) and there’s an interesting historical reason behind this name change.

The cover of the first issue of the famous Topolino magazine in Italy … still read by children (and adults) even today!

During the period of fascism in Italy, Benito Mussolini outlawed the publication of foreign comic strips, especially American ones. The only one American comic that was “allowed” was Mickey Mouse, apparently because Mussolini’s children loved the character so much. The way to get away with publishing it anyways was to get rid of Mickey’s filthy American name and give him a new Italian one that was more in line with the ideals of strong Italian nationalism and pride. Fascism in Italy may have died off but the name stuck, and to this day Italians refer to the Disney star as Topolino.

Call him whatever you want, all I know is that Mickey Mouse continues to have a special place in my heart!

I think it’s quite clear which Disney character is my favorite. What’s yours? Leave a comment below! 🙂

It’s shaped like a boot

Italy celebrates it’s 150th birthday today. Buon compleanno Italia!

I know that might sound weird, especially because Italy is considered to be an “old” country with ancient Roman ruins that have been around for a lot longer than a “younger” country like the USA has. Well, all this is true, but this celebration of 150 years doesn’t represent the existence of Italy, but rather it’s unification. I’m not really that “into” history (nor do I know enough to really write a blog post about it) so I’ll be quick on the historic details so we can get to the heart of this blog post: different parts of Italy were conquered and ruled by different countries, different regimes, and different governments untill 150 years ago when the Resurgence took place to unify all of these territories into one state.

Given the shape of Italy on the map, perhaps its best to think in terms of a boot. Italy was a boot that had pieces manufactured by many different companies. The laces were from the Austrian Empire, the heel was from Napoleon, the sole was from the Kingdom of Sicily, the leather was from the Catholic Church, and the inner lining was from Garibaldi. Then, 150 years ago, the boot was re-manufactured according to new production laws and now it has a tag on the inside reading “100% Made in Italy“. Any of my blog readers who know their Italian history are probably shuddering in horror at this metaphor right now, but I think it’s a cute way to sum it all up! 🙂

All these different ruling entities, each with their own language and culture, helps to explain how Italy is so vastly different from region to region.

Take the USA, for example. It’s true that in Boston we don’t pronounce the “r” and that the southern states have an accent all their own. It’s true that the northeast has Wendy’s and the east coast has Jack-in-the-Box. But in the end, even though we’re a really spacious country, we Americans are all speaking the same language and all eating the same type of cheeseburger.

On the other hand, in Italy, which just go give you and idea is smaller than the state of California (and we got 49 more freakin’ states!), the language, culture, and food changes dramatically from one region to another.

As far as language goes, Italy has two of ’em: standard Italian and dialects. Standard Italian was created so that all Italians coming from the various unified regions could communicate with each other. Before the creation of Italian, everybody just spoke dialect (a local regional language influenced by whatever party was ruling over that particular chunk of Italy). These dialects are not merely “accents” but languages all unto their own. Somebody from Bergamo and somebody from Naples, somebody from Sardegna and somebody from Florence, wouldn’t be able to really understand each other if they were all speaking in their own regional dialects. Dialects have their own vocabulary, own grammar, own spelling, and own pronunciation. Just take a look at the different words for the Carneval snacks in different dialects from my previous blog post. If somebody is speaking dialect in a movie or on the news, they even put subtitles in Italian so that people from other parts of Italy can understand! Isn’t that crazy??? I mean, Americans may have some regional words (sub vs. hero vs. hoagie vs. grinder) but if I spoke with somebody from Chicago or Atlanta I’d still know what they were saying!

Another part of Italian culture that has been strongly influenced by all the former non-unified regions is the food. Certian types of food, like pizza and lasagna, can be found all over Italy, but there are lots of types that are region-specefic that are hard or even impossible to find outside of the region, like Bologna’s gramigna pasta (a squiggly egg pasta), Venice’s sarde in saor (fried sardines and onions), Milan’s ossobuco (braised veal shank), or Sicily’s capunata (eggplant and celery salad).

sarde in saor

I mean, this isn’t like going to the grocery store in California and not finding the same brand of hot sauce or ice tea mix that I can get back in Boston… it’s like not finding these things at all! Plus, being that a lot of these local foods have names that come from dialect, people in other parts of Italy won’t even know what the hell food you’re talkin’ about!

It just really blows my mind that I can take a seven hour flight from Boston to San Diego, step off of the plane and be able to speak with people and know what food there is to be had, but if I take a 2 hour train ride in Italy, I risk entering a world where I don’t know what people of saying nor what that delicious looking cheese in the deli window is!