Since 1492, when Genovese navigator Cristoforo Colombo sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to what he thought was Asia, Italians have played an important role in our land. Another Italian explorer, one Amerigo Vespucci, recognized that Colombo had actually “discovered” another continent and was awarded naming rights. (It’s an old Italian custom to refer to their greatest people by their first names — e.g.- Michelangelo — or this would have become the United States of Vespuccia). But for several centuries few Italians settled in the New World, though one notable exception was Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist and the founder of New York’s first Italian bookstore. But by the late 19th century Italian immigration was increasing [link in Italian] and from 1906 to 1915 nearly six million people left Italy for America.
Italian entry into “mainstream” American life was slower than for many other national groups. Both a cause and effect of this was the strength and primacy of family bonds and the ability to transplant many aspects of Italian culture, especially Italian food. As Italian dishes became more common in the American diet — pizza was an unappreciated Neapolitan pie until the 1950’s — Italian-Americans also moved forward in all walks of life. But now it seems that many traditional Italian dishes may have fallen victim to American mass production, marketing and food technology. In essays collected in the new book “Bitter Greens”, Anthony Di Renzo details his hunger for authentic Italian food, and the culture that it literally nourishes.
Dr. Anthony Di Renzo teaches classical rhetoric and professional writing at Ithaca College. His father is from the Abruzzi region of southern Italy, his mother Sicilian by birth. He describes himself as “a fugitive from advertising” and so is able to appreciate the adventure described in the first chapter of “Bitter Greens”, a “Lucullan feast” that he was awarded by the Wegman’s supermarket chain. The company was seeking to promote its line of Italian foods. A video sought to demonstrate “an easy and authentic Sicilian meal”, for which Dr Di Renzo could only comment back to his TV screen, “Easy and authentic? Lady, nothing authentic is easy.” In succeeding chapters he tells of his quest to find and prepare real broccoli rabe, Abruzzese soppressata sausage (which, for food safety reasons, the USDA will not allow into the country), tripe obtained from the stomach of a ruminant and prepared in Roman style, and powerful Sicilian chocolate that overwhelmed the author:
“Used to the bland Hershey bars of suburban New Jersey, I expected something smooth and mild. Instead, when I bit into the crunch outer shell, I found myself chewing a granola of honeyed beetles. Numerous sugar crystals numbed my palate, while a raw powder — thick and pasty as volcanic ash — paralyzed my tongue. Traumatized, my taste buds recoiled and stumbled into a mine field of red pepper flakes, cloves, nutmeg and allspice. Just as the agony became unbearable, molten velvet soothed my tongue, and a warm bliss settled on me like the descent of the Holy Ghost. For all I knew, I had experienced Nirvana. The shock obliterated my will and consciousness, and I gladly drowned in an ocean of chocolate. Shipwreck was sweet in such a sea.”
— from “Bitter Greens”
Anthony Di Renzo’s “Bitter Greens: Essays on Food, Politics and Ethnicity from the Imperial Kitchen” is issued as part of the SUNY Series in Italian American Culture. For those seeking the genuine taste of Italy he includes recipes for several dishes including Tripe alla Romana and Apulian broccoli rabe salad, and guidance in preparing a proper antipasto and hints on brewing caffe espresso. The book concludes with a moving memorial essay about the workers who perished on 9/11 at the Windows on the World restaurant atop the World Trade Center.
Anthony Di Renzo joins Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE to tell about the glories of Italy and the frustrations of finding good soppressata.