Sunday, October 15, 2017



Before we go shopping ... it's been six years, and a lot of wine under the bridge, since my last blog post. Although Ovada is still my home base, I've been dividing my time between Italy and Asia. I've also written and published MESSIAH ... MONEY & MAYHEM, a food and wine mystery novel. I'll shamelessly plug it in these pages whenever the opportunity presents itself. Like now ...
    O.K. that wasn't so bad, right? These new post benefits from all the time I've spent learning how to shop in Italy. I mean, I was always able to go out and buy stuff. Now I just do it better, smarter and in many instances, cheaper. Although food in my non-touristy bit of heaven was never very expensive. Of course, if you ask the Ovadese they'll tell you something quite different. The brilliant Italian expression - "braccia corte" when referring to those of Genovese extraction(like many of my fellow Ovadese) describes one whose "short arms" cannot reach into their pockets. Some call it thrifty, others call it cheap. I get it. Many people live on tight budgets. The beauty of food shopping in Italy is the abundance of great stuff for little money.
   I'm much more familiar with the area around home, but this really applies to much of Italy, as well. Google "mediterranean diet" and you get 6,320,000 hits - and that's just in English. Interestingly, if you search for "la dieta mediterranea" in Italian you get only 640,000 results. Why is that? Maybe Italians just eat well without agonizing about what to eat. Interesting, no?
   Let's look at where Italians shop for food. In my zona you can stay in town (shopping on foot) or you can travel by car, train or bus and shop in a city like Genova or Milano(or to the surrounding small towns). Now you can even buy fabulous regional specialties online. Italians are not addicted to the internet like most other Europeans. It's partly the shitty info-structure and partly/mostly cultural. Italians like to see, touch and smell what we eat. The law says you must wear gloves to touch the unwrapped food, but like everything else in Italy, it's considered to be optional. Something the fucking Brussels bureaucrats just don't seem to understand. Nobody here wants to force grandma to stop using the milk from her own goats to make the cheese she gives away at the holidays. Or our local bar to use sugar packets because the beautiful sugar bowl on the counter is now unhygienic.

        .....this is what we are allowed now                

         .....this is how it used to be
Fruits and vegetables wrapped in plastic are better for us. Puleeese!

The policing of food by the grande catene (chain stores) is largely dictated by the EU. "No touching with your filthy hands," says the sign in the supermarket. I mostly don't pay attention to this and am rarely "busted" by the mostly lackadaisical staff at IPER, where I do a lot of my shopping. I flout the rules about this (many Italians don't)...but then again, I observe the posted speed limits (most Italians don't). I was taught in Italian driving school to never drive more than 10% over the limit. In driving school!


Yea, right...See - Smell - Touch. That's what food is about for most Italians. 

   And the point is? Italians don't shop for fresh food on the internet. Although I have not lived anywhere that you can order up a bunch of asparagus and some ground beef and have it delivered to your door, I know that this is fairly common in many places in the U.S. and elsewhere. I do remember, as a kid growing up in New York, that my grandmother used to call the meat guy, the fish guy and the produce man and order. I'll never forget her telling Feldman the butcher(every time) that she wanted "a nice piece of calves' liver." Like what other kind was there?
   By now, you're starting to notice that I tend to digress. E così. You don't like it. Wadd'ya gonna do about it? Is that New York enough? So let's return to the subject at hand. Buy my book. Just kidding...not!  
   There are generally three kinds of food shopping opportunities in towns the size of Ovada. There's the alimentari, which is like a combination corner deli, selling meats, cheeses, fruits and veg alongside other necessities like laundry detergent, beer and wine, and emergency toilet paper. My local is Sandro, a wonderfully gruff old-school throwback(foto below). Some years ago he upped his game and now has some of the best quality offerings in town. And he lets me touch everything and pick out my own tomatoes! He does get a bit testy when it's porcini mushroom season. Alimentari generally charge more than other places. But not a lot more and the quality is often superb. It's also where you bump into friends and get to be kidded about being a foreigner. I find it immensely enjoyable and shop there at least once a day. Join me in the next episode for an in-depth visit with Sandro.

Which reminds me. Shopping in small towns can be an adventure. Some stores are closed here on Monday morning, some all day on Tuesday, most are shuttered on Thursday afternoon. My butcher is only open in the mornings(except on Friday and Saturday). More about the fratelli Rocco - the macellaio, a bit later. Why are opening hours still this way? Nobody can remember. It's just the way it is. Supermarkets are usually open everyday. But not on holidays and not on Sunday afternoon. Talkin' about you COOP - which is run by a bunch of Commies. Or so goes the urban legend.

   Here in Ovada, we have a food market that engulfs an entire piazza on Wednesday and Saturday morning.

   This is the stuff of dreams if you are a tourist. It's equally enjoyable for the locals and brings out everyone in town as well as the surrounding smaller towns. Most of the vendors do a circuit. Ovada once or twice a week, nearby larger towns like Novi Ligure and Acqui Terme on other days. There are produce stands, fish trucks, chicken trucks, plant and seed sellers, and purveyors of dried fish(baccalà), olives and condiments. Other piazze have stands selling hard goods like clothing, kitchen equipment, hardware and toys. I usually don't shop there. But they're impossible to avoid and are often a snapshot of recent arrivals trying to make a life for themselves and their families in Italy. I just don't like the Chinese, Moroccan, Senegalese, etc. mafia bosses that take advantage of their newly arrived countrymen by turning them out with their low quality consignment goods and broken down vehicles. If you have 10 minutes to waste, here's a video I made of the Saturday morning market in Ovada.

Shopping in these weekly/bi-weekly/daily markets is not as easy as it looks. Unless you are known(and speak Italian) you will have to rely on the vendor to pick your stuff. This is especially true with the fruit and veg stands. Let's be honest. As a foreigner, you look like someone who can be intimidated into taking a bad peach! My with it. Or learn Italian, or if you plan on returning, make yourself recognizable for the next time. Smile, take a photo, do anything to endear yourself. Once this is accomplished you will get a better melon. You will also have access to "secret" stuff. Like amazing eggs. You have to ask (in a low voice). You will be given 6 spectacularly fresh eggs, wrapped in a piece of newspaper. These appear from under the table with a wink and a smile. EU reg's strike again! 
   In these markets there are the "ambulante," who set up in a different town every day and the "locals" who bring in their products from their farm, dairy, etc. and live in the community. One is not necessarily better than the other. They're just somehow different. I much prefer the "locals" who you'll probably see around town with their kids, parents, friends, etc. If you "ciao" them in the street, after a while they will recognize you and steer you to the best stuff in their stand. You'll be given tastes of things. You can even buy from them if you've forgotten your wallet.
These lovely folks have a farm just outside my town.


   The markets also have fishmongers, butchers, cheesemongers and various stands that sell prepared foods like spit roasted chicken. These "rosticcerie" are very popular and you often need to reserve your bird in advance.

   Here's a good tip. Italians (except for a few exceptions) like their meats "well-done." If you see something like a leg of lamb that looks amazingly good on the outside, enquire how it's been cooked:
al sangue - rare
a media cottura - medium-rare
rosata - medium(with a bit of pink)
ben cotto - well-done(morto)
These are also good terms to remember when dining out.

This fish guy has been coming to my town for years and years. I trust him and also admire his love for what he does!

   For some reason, Italians seem to think that these "ambulante" have better prices than the local merchants. It may be true(sometimes). I find that the "special" prices that they are offering are no different than you can get at the local butcher, salumeria(deli), alimentari (convenience grocer) or supermarket. These travelling vendors do have some interesting items that you won't necessarily find locally. This is especially true for cured meats from the south of Italy and some hard to find cheeses. Just remember that these amazing finds are not always better or cheaper or amazing. I'm a big supporter of our local shops. They need our business in order to remain viable. Ovada(my home) would not be nearly as interesting for me if the cheese shop or the butcher disappeared.
   So far I haven't discussed these specialty shops. In almost every town there's at least one or two bakeries, fishmongers, pasta fresca, etc. I'll get more specific about the individual categories in subsequent posts.
   Each week I'll feature one or two of these and offer some tips on what and where to buy. Stay with me. It's going to be fun and hopefully informative. It's good to be back. 


Monday, September 19, 2011


Close your eyes.  I'm about to take you on a very special journey.  We're not going back to the future.  We're going back to the past.  See the wagon wheels, the wooden trays?  Ready for the moscato grapes and the brachetto grapes that will be carefully laid out to dry in the warm air of a vine covered shed.

There's a basket of grapes - just picked and still warm from the sun.

Smell the fruit?  It's wonderful, isn't it?

Imagine this. You're standing in your new Jimmy Choos - in a barn filled with grapes harvested just minutes before.  You look around. Everything is sepia. Everything except that fancy retina display on your iPhone4.  You know its 2011 because you arrived in a brand new 'cloud catcher' white Fiat Seidici.  But somehow, you're not in the present.  You're in a wonderful dream, a dream that you've had before.  A dream about Italy.  An Italy that still looks, smells, feels like your first introduction to this magical country.  You remember the pictures that your friend Vinny's family framed and hung on the walls of their house in America.  You remember the faded photos that were scotch-taped to the cash register at Carmine's pizzeria.  O.K. You can open your eyes now.  You're at
CÀ DI CICUL, in Strevi, Provincia di Alessandria, the alto Monferrato.  You're at a small wine farm hidden in a sea of vines. Bang! Pop! Wow!  Yo, is this place for real?  You betcha.  Andiamo.  Let's have a look around.

(this is what the old time travel writers called "bucolic")

Disclaimer:  I was a (non-paying) guest at this lovely place.

Cà Di Cicul is dedicated to the production of passiti, the delicious concentrated dessert wines
 made from naturally dried grapes.

Exit 1 North 

Here, the grapes are moscato and brachetto (which tastes to me like wild berries).  Should you ever see Brachetto in a shop or on a winelist, indulge. Aaaand!  Don't forget, kids, Brachetto goes great with chocolate.  Chocolate and wine, charter members of the five basic food groups.  No?

This is a very small farm

  The grapes arrive in the drying shed and are stacked in shallow wooden boxes on old wagons.  I'm told that they are among the last to still use this method.

The drying shed - an Alto Monferrato industrial park - not!
Before we eat we have a look at the laboratorio of our host, Gianni Salina.  The device on the right is used to hang a bag that is used for doing something for the holidays.  I'm not exactly sure since I wasn't paying attention.

By this time we were all getting hungry.  What's that in the wood oven?  Could it be?  Yes it is. A fantastic pan of everyone's favorite - farinata al forno.  I can't believe that I've done several posts and never ever mentioned the king of snacks.  Farinata is a simple batter of chickpea flour, olive oil and water.  This version had a bit of rosemary added to it.  You can find this all over Liguria and in lower Piemonte.  The French also make it.  They call it socca and you find it around Nice (which Italians call Nizza - not be confused with Nizza Monferrato - which is about ten minutes from Strevi- and the place where you get the best cardoons for bagna caöda - which will be the subject of another posting soon).
The farinata is just about ready.  It's time to sit down for dinner.  Buon appetito.

ragazzi - è pronta la farinata?

As my buddy Fabio would say, "una bomba"
Brothers and sisters - this is the bomb.  The real deal.  Piping hot, out of the oven and onto the table.  Check out the salami (to die for).


This is, for me, the quintessential Italian experience.  A table set with the simplest of plates, utensils and glasses. A table where the important things are the company and the food.  Followers of this blog already know my aversion to a snotty restaurant - what Italians call a 'chicaria.'  Pronounced sort of like the pianist, Chick Corea or the green vegetable, cicoria.  A place more interested in style than substance. This evening I'm in, what is for me, the épitomé of cool.  Like if Miles or Mingus or Arbus or Lenny Bruce were wine farms in Italy.

We sit at the table, pour some wine and begin the beguine.  A sensual dance of...

Crispy on the outside and wonderfully creamy on the inside, farinata redolent (ugh, a foodie word) of wood smoke and hot from the oven.

The salami is local - soft, chewy, fatty, wonderful...

These are 'peperoni ripieni alla piemontese'
spicy fresh peppers stuffed with capers, anchovy, olives and fresh herbs

So what are we drinking with our antipasti?  Vino da tavola drained into someone else's old reclosable bottle.  I ask "what wine are we drinking?"  "A mix," I'm told. "Whatever is left over."

The bottle is way older than the wine.  
The wine, not bad at all.

After an hour or so, it's time to get serious.  First to arrive, a fabulous platter of roast chicken.

What could be better?  Some ribs.  Same family pigs that provided the salami.  Grazie, Porky!

What an incredible meal.  It's the height of tomato season (the best in years).  So how about...


Vine ripened, a bit of sliced red onion, salt, pepper, olive oil.

Our hosts have decided that a feast like this deserves some serious wine.  
CÀ DI CICUL also produces some first rate still wines.  Gianni suggests a Barbera d'Asti.  A bit of acidity, big fruit and no oak.  Well that's not exactly true.  The wine rests for a while in botti grande, the hugh upright barrels that are used, not once, but year after year.  The wine mellows without taking on the flavor of new wood (or wood chips - heaven forbid)!  It's so good, I talk Gianni into 18 bottles.  That's it.  They make 800 bottles a year and it's all spoken for. Eight hundred bottles.  That's two minutes of production for the wine giants who live in California and Australia.  Beh!

We did it.  Salami, farinata, stuffed peppers, chicken, tomatoes, ribs.  How great was that.  Oh, did somebody say "cheese?"  No, please.  Maybe just a few grapes.  A cookie or two.

More to drink. Care to try our moscato? Perché no. Our moscato's not too bad.

Not too bad.  Are you joking?  It's................ wonderful.
Now I'm getting nervous. A few of the women at the table disappear into the house. Their devilish grins suggest that we're not quite done here.  And then they return. I'm like, "Oh, no. It's a cake. No! It's two cakes. And cookies. What the fuck?"

torta di nocciole 

(hazelnut tart)

usually horrible

this was not horrible

Maybe it wasn't 

torta di nocciole

(is this a haiku?)

torta di mele

(apple cake)

usually horrible

this was not horrible

Maybe it wasn't 

torta di mele

(is this another haiku?)

What is this dinner lacking? What are we missing? Yes! The maison d'etre. The magnamater, the geeta' with the heata', the ayatollah of rock n'rolla, the p...p...passito. The reason for being, the liquid of the gods, the white James Brown. Passito, baby. It's like good sex - but sexier. It's like good weed - but weedier. The crown jewel of the azienda arrives in this beautiful slim bottle. Unfortunately, I neglected to take a good photo of it. However, you can see the cake ladies pretty well. I'll leave you all the pertinent information at the end.


Hang in there, we're almost done. Sig. Gianni wanted us to taste the new moscato passito, still in the tank. He draws out a glass for us to try. Mmm.

the passiti at rest - is that Bacchus hanging on the wall?

There it is. This is why a strainiero like me cannot get enough of this country. It's the reason I live here. It pulls me in. It's why you work hard and hope you can someday (magari) live like the great people at CÀ DI CICUL do.

Grazie mille, Sig. Gianni!

Valle Bagnario - Reg. Cavannone, 19
15019 Strevi(AL) Italia
39 (0114) 36.36.53

grazie, as well, to my homies (fabio & paolo) 
and to the women they're lucky enough to know