EN VOYAGE – Picinisco No More

20 Feb 2003

There has been much debate here in Italy recently about the quality of Italian restaurants abroad. Last year the Italian Minister of Agriculture Gianni Alemanno put the cat among the pigeons with a proposal to officially certify such establishments, setting standards for menus and demanding a ‘seal of authenticity’ for the fare served up. Whether such an ambitious scheme is feasible remains to be seen, but it does reflect questions that have long been asked about the quality of Italian restaurants round the world. How far do such places reproduce the culinary culture of the homeland. How far is it apt to speak about ‘Italian cuisine’ in the first place? Listen to Matthew Fort writing in the Guardian:

The fact is that most of the Italian food served abroad has always been appalling. Think Spaghetti House, think Pizza Hut, think of thousands of Da Ginos, Da Marios, Amalfis, Bella Venezias, Borgo this and Trattoria that … Of course the most willing conspirators in this traducing of Italy’s great cooking traditions have been Italians themselves—the immigrants who sought to make a living out of restaurants in the countries where they settled, and quickly realised that they didn’t have to try very hard to do so.

I recall Slow Food president Carlo Petrini decrying the same symptoms of malaise following a disastrous eating experience in an Italian-run restaurant on a recent rip to Brussels. Back home in Italy, he wrote in La Stampa that Italian catering abroad is

characterized by piecemeal information on the evolution of the quality of our products … From the cultural point of view, many of these fellow countrymen of ours are still slaves to parochial logics, and the mother country fails to provide them with the right knowledge and information …

In Edinburgh in Scotland for Christmas, my friend Kerala and I had the chance to admire an Italian food enterprise—the Valvona & Crolla deli cum café cum restaurant on the city’s Leith Walk—that offers hope for the future, sticking rigorously to principles of traceability, taste and authenticity, and thereby echoing part of the Slow Food philosophy. When I was a student in Edinburgh in the Seventies, Valvona & Crolla already enjoyed a considerable local reputation as a grocery store, stocking fine Italian foods and wines; today it also boasts a restaurant, modestly described as a ‘bar caffè’, and a kitchen accessory department.

The business is now run by Philip and Mary Contini, both descendants of families from the villages of Fontitune and Picinisco in the Ciociaria area, halfway between Rome and Naples. Their forebears (Cesidio di Ciacca, his son Johnny, Alfonso Crolla, to cite but three of their wonderfully evocative names) emigrated to Scotland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, first working in, then launching fish-and-chip shops and ice-cream parlors in and around Edinburgh. The shop on Leith Walk—Scotland’s oldest Italian delicatessen and wine merchants—opened.in 1934.

It was Christmas Eve and we intended to pop into Valvona & Crolla for a quick spot of lunch before doing our last-minute shopping. The idea was to stay for no more than an hour, but we eventually emerged at four in the afternoon. It was dark and the shops were shutting, but we were happy and well fed.

As we entered, Kerala, a genuine food lover born and bred in Turin, a city with its own share of fine food emporia, was immediately taken aback by the sheer range and quality of the food Valvona & Crolla stock and sell. The sparkle in her eye was like that of a kid in Santa’s grotto. After half an hour’s wandering, she was enthusing about the comprehensiveness of the cantina.

“They’ve got wines from every single region in Italy,” she said. “I know, I’ve counted them.”

She also commented on the quality of the pastas available and a particularly creamy gorgonzola in the cheese counter “dall’aspetto incredibile”—incredibly tasty-looking.

For my part, I noted that, alongside the fine Italian salumi, cheeses, condiments and fresh fruit and vegetables, the shop section also stocked traditional Scots delicacies, such as haggis, smoked venison, oatcakes and porridge oats.

One thing we attempted to buy in the accessories department was a truffle slicer. Not that we expected to find one (why should a shop in Edinburgh sell truffle slicers?). As it happened, we didn’t, but the staff did assure us that they’d sold out just the day before and that they regularly kept truffle slicers in stock.

As we queued to enter the restaurant section, Kerala began chatting to the waiters. One was from Cagliari in Sardinia; he was there to improve his English. The other was from Torre Pellice in the Waldensian Valleys of Piedmont; he was there because his fiancée was studying theology at nearby St Andrews University. They told us that the fruit and vegetables for the shop and restaurant arrive fresh from the Milan general market twice a week and that the mozzarella di bufala is produced in Naples every Thursday to be on the counter in Edinburgh the following Monday.

Kerala and I lunched on tagliatelle with fresh tomato and olives and a mixed piatto freddo of mozzarella di bufala, roast aubergines and courgettes, olives and a fine section of cured meats, including Valvona & Crolla’s house’s own brand Fonteluna sausage, all washed down with a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Umani Ronchi (we picked it from the list, but, if you want, they’ll bring you any bottle in the shop). I wouldn’t describe the food as fantastic, but it is simple, unpretentious and, above all, authentic (that word again!), which is a merit if you think of some of the poor imitations of the real thing dished up at Italian restaurants abroad.

Not that the entrepreneurial skills of the owners are confined to the preparation and selling of food. Last year Mary Contini, published Cara Francesca, part cookbook and part family biography, in which she outlines the principles behind the business. She emphasizes the importance of using fresh ingredients and of educating children to appreciate ’good healthy foods’:

The most worrying element of relying entirely on ready-prepared food for children is that it stops the process of experimentation. Processed food is by definition always exactly the same. A child will have very limited experience of different flavors and will come to expect food to always taste the same. This will stunt their palate and inevitably make them less likely to try new foods …

Addressing her daughter directly, she writes:

Francesca, use all your senses while cooking: sight, smell, hearing and taste. Pay attention to what is happening and adjust as you go along.

Philip Contini is more of a musical bent. He recently cut a CD of the Neapolitan songs he used to heard as a kid—Santa Lucia lontana, Luna rossa, Io mammete e tu and other classics. We were lucky enough to spend an evening singing along with his guitarist John Russell, also of Ciociarian origin, despite his name. But that, as they say, is a different story.

John Irving is the editor of the Slow Food www.slowfood.com website

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