Saturday, October 31, 2009

Josie's Pasta

October, I'm told, is National Pasta Month here in the US! As a young boy way back when, I recall Wednesdays being advertised as 'Prince Spaghetti Day' and then there was always Anthony, pronounced “Ann-ton-nee” on TV, being called home for his dose of pasta by his mother as she leaned out the window and shouted his name. So now we have a whole month devoted to pasta. Imagine that, an entire month with a focus on pasta in the USA while in Italy pasta boils 24/7! You can just imagine there are few humidifier sales in Italy because of the high humidity in their homes from all the water boiling to daily prepare their beloved pasta.

I heard about National Pasta Month only after someone recently asked me where the people of Calitri did their grocery shopping. A curious question but it got me thinking about pasta and the grocery stores in Calitri, which in aggregate must contain tons of the dried concoction on their shelves.

So what better time than this month to address this topic. You know, there are reportedly over 600 varieties of these tongue-twisting doughy strings, strands, beads, noodles and tubes out there. Clearly, it’s more in the infinite number of shapes of this international favorite than in their formulary that accounts for so much variety.

But pasta’s international popularity is greater than just relying on a curiously shaped shell or limp noodle. It lies in the wonderful versatility of this soothing comfort food, which allows for infinite variations. It can be easily dressed up or down with extra ingredients, cheeses and sauces. If you are not so deft at making your own tomato sauce for instance, a simple mixture of chopped garlic, olive oil and butter is a great substitute – and there you have it, ‘Aglio & Olio’ (garlic & oil pasta sauce). Add a fiery pinch of ground peperoncino red peppers to any form of pasta and experience a wake-up call in your mouth (you may recall seeing pictures of these tasty peppers drying over doorways in past blog photo albums.)

And then there is the etiquette of eating pasta. Proper etiquette is to never use a spoon to twist your spaghetti or linguine. Instead, these types of pasta should always be served in a vessel with a well, like a bowl, where you can use the sides of the bowl to assist in the twisting and free up your other hand to sop up the ragu, sometimes called salsa, with trenchers of crusty bread.

Italian men are in love with their mothers, their cars and their pasta. Can you blame them? I have heard stories of immigrants who have returned to Italy because they missed and therefore craved the homemade pasta their mothers would prepare. Unable to find it anywhere else, some returned. Now that's amore!

Some sight Marco Polo for introducing pasta to Italy. That Venetian boy got around a lot but of all the things Marco may be credited for bringing back to Italy, pasta was not one of them. In fact, a baked pasta similar to a lasagna noodle was around during Etruscan times and the Etruscans predate the ancient Romans. But the dried variety we are familiar with today was most likely introduced in southern Italy by Arab invaders. Made of durum wheat, abundant in Sicily and in the southern Italian breadbasket on the mainland, it soon became a staple of Italian cuisine. It was much later, however, when pasta took up its affair with the tomato, recently introduced to Europe from the New World. One can only imagine that development. Did some irate chef happen to throw a handful of noodles across the room at his souchef only to have some land in a pot of bubbling tomatoes? I doubt it. In fact, that reminds me of the imagined invention of the french-fry with potato and boiling oil substituted for the pasta and boiling salsa.

It must have been the Italians as they spread around the world bringing along their need and yearning for pasta that has today made it a food so internationally well known. Pasta is today quintessentially Italian. While the Arabs may have invented macaroni, it was the Italians who made it into an international favorite. Pasta is the national food of Italy. Think of Italy and its pasta cuisine comes to mind; think of pasta and immediately Italy comes to mind. In way of proof, a check of the numbers shows that Italians eat 60 pounds of pasta per year versus the measly 20 pounds per American.

Now that you have digested all this information about pasta, where do you find it in Calitri? There must be 10 - 12 small grocery stores around town. After all, six thousand people have to buy their food somewhere. Most are what you would call 'mom & pop' operations – small establishments run by family members scattered about the neighborhoods. As of now, there is only one large chain-store operation in town, called "CONAD". It is on the scale, though still relatively small, of the large grocery store we are more familiar with.

Many of these local ‘alimentari’ are nondescript establishments, so well hidden you can't find them though you know they’re around. Such was the case with Josephine's, a typical market close to our place in Calitri. It is about the size of a neighborhood convenience store. Before a sign went up outside (see photo album), we honestly walked right by the entrance of this 'alimentari' many a time before realizing it existed behind the bijoued curtain and heavy framed metal/glass door. What a local gem it is, not only for what it contains but who it contains.

Josephine and Michele run the “Centro Market di Ragazzo JosĂ©phine”. Josie is a jovial, almost jolly, person but a businesswoman nonetheless through and through. When she walks into ‘Mario's Caffe’ for instance, before opening up her market each morning, she practically lights up the place with her presence. She strikes me as a tireless worker - the queen of the hive as she buzzes around the store. From one moment to another, she might be assisting a customer, dealing with a salesman, inventorying a delivery out front on the street or slicing hunks of cheese when not weighing out kilos of bread. In your next breadth you could find her manning the checkout register and insuring you take your receipt just in case the finance police might be lurking outside her door checking for sales receipts. Buzz, buzz, she is just about everywhere.

There is more to Josephine’s place then just Josephine, however. There is also Michele, her husband. Michele’s lair is usually in the meat department in the rear of the market where he juggles the demands of ‘I need your immediate attention’ patrons. Mild-mannered, he is a quiet sort who I could never imagine raises his voice. Unlike Josephine, he strikes me at first look as serious minded. Like me, a steadfast serious look is simply a function of how the skin naturally lays on your face! When he recognizes you on the street, in the market or a cafĂ©, his mask of seriousness melts into a broad-faced smile.

Centro Market, on Corso Matteotti, is on the medium side of size and looking up at its tastefully arched and domed ceiling you’d think you were in an Italian chapel. The check-out line by the register is nowhere as long as the line in the local post office/bank on the first of the month when it seems every pensioner in town waits patiently to tap into their government pension check. In reality, due to its small size, there is really only one main free-standing wall of shelves just behind a single file of shopping carts. An entire side of this shelving, a space consisting of five very long shelves extending from the register at the front of the market back as far as the entry to the meat department, is entirely dedicated to, what else but, pasta.

And what of that national Italian identity, pasta, for sale at Josie’s? I spent some time there recently chronicling the brands of pasta and their particular names. The variety was amazing and no doubt helps account for that 60 pound intake per capita I mentioned. Here is a sampling on just one of the five shelves, which was dedicated entirely to Barilla Pasta:

1. Tortiglioni (deep lines on the surface and a large internal cavity gather all the sauce)

2. Rigatoni (a wide, ridged, tube-shaped pasta with holes large enough to capture pieces of meat or vegetables in the sauce)

3. Penne Mezzane (cut like feather pin quills)

4. Ziti Tagliati (ziti cut w/ straight ends)

5. An empty shelf slot … I’m guessing something really popular!

6. Mezze Maniche (similar to penne but shorter and broader)

7. Conchiglie Rigate (with a graceful concave shape, reminds you of those shells you might find on the seashore)

8. Pipe Rigate (large elbow macaroni that have been pinched off at one end)9. Ditalini Lisci (small, ridged pasta tubes for soups)

10. Ditalini Rigati (thimbles)

11. Spaghetti Tagliati (think chopped spaghetti)

12. Penne a Candela (spaghetti-like rods the width of a finger – see photo album)

13. Penne Lisce (smooth-sided penne w/ quill points)

14. Penne Rigate (slender, thin w/ oblique cut ends like feather ink quills)

15. Pennettine

16. Pennette Lisce

17. Gramigna (thin, short, tubular strand of pasta in a broad spiral shape)

18. Conchigliette (tiny tiny conch shells)

19. Lumachine (tiny snail shells)

20. Farfalline (shaped like butterflies)

21. Corolini(shaped bowties)

22. Anellini

23. Tempestine (tiny bee-bees size pasta)

24. Midoline

25. Putine

26. Stelline

27. Risoni (rice-like pasta)

28. Reginette Napoletane

29. Ziti Napoletane

30. Casarecce Siciliane (cut open penne tubes)

31. Gnocchetti Sardi

32. Cellentani

33. Farfalle

34. Gemelli

35. Fusilli Bucati Corti (first appeared in southern Italy and was born from the idea of rolling spaghetti on a knitting tool)

36. Castelline (cone-shaped shells)37. Casagnette

38. Bavettine #11

39. Bavettine #13

40. Vermicelline # 7

41. Vermicelline # 8

42. Spaghetti #3

43. Spaghetti #5

There you have it. How many of these have you had? And realize, dear reader, that there are four more packed shelves of pasta besides this one, maybe 80% more, to choose from. There's still time … why not start the pot to boiling and set a goal in life to sample them all! Many an Italian has.

So my friends, if “Wonder Bread” and “SpaghettiOs” are on your shopping list, don’t bother going to Josephine’s!

As always 'Divertiti",


For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Look for and click on a photo album entitled "Josie's Pasta".