There must be something in the air the minute your feet hit Italian soil. Or when my feet hit it. The stress of life literally oozed out of my body. Life got instantly sweeter, food looked more vibrant and tasted so much better, and only gorgeous men entered my eyeshot. I forgot all about the worries of my world, cared not one bit if I looked or acted like a tourist, (albeit a nattily-dressed, well-shod one), and just strolled and gazed, snapped shots and gazed, and deeply breathed in Italian! The sternest attitude from waiter, desk clerk or valet melted under my Italia-drunk gaze. I was slap happy, giddy, schnockered on it all, without partaking of even a drop. And the minute you get off the train in Venice, it’s even worse (or perhaps better.) No matter how cool, how nonchalant or blasé you may think you are, you walk down those steps and see the canal, and you can’t help being gob smacked in the best way possible by it all.
To help sober up a bit from the fabulous full sensory onslaught, I looked for a café for a jolt of caffeine. And thus began my education in the fine art of ordering, standing up, and sitting down in Italy. We’ll start today’s lesson with ordering. When you walk through the door of a café for some caffé, the counter stands before you, cups and saucers all stacked and waiting. The mechanism of your caffeination is about the size of a Buick, and glistens in a shaft of sunlight. The barista eyes you and waits, white apron neatly tied. He knows you are a turista, and unless you’ve been taught or witnessed the drill, he knows you are going to do the next step wrong. If there are two of baristas, it’s likely a euro will change hands depending on your next move. You step up to the counter. Buon giorno, you chirp, un caffé per favore! WRONG! The smiling barista (who won the bet) looks at you and raises a hand, pointing like the ghost of Christmas yet to come at the senora behind the cash register. NOW you know. Ah, pay first. Receipt in hand and plunked down on the counter, the Buick fires up, and your coffee blessedly appears. Which you drink, standing. Not to go, not at a table, but standing at the counter. It’s actually quite a civilized and efficient system. No sloshing hot beverage down your blouse as you walk, or in your neighbors lap as you jostle and balance. Speaking purely in caffeine delivery terms, a shot of high-test breakfast beverage quickly quaffed at the counter is a pretty flawless system.
If it’s lingering you are looking for, dinner is the answer. For a country that has perfected stand-up consumption, they are brilliant at lingering when hind quarter hits restaurant chair. This is when la dolce vita really comes to life. In fact, it seems to me the whole menu and pace of its arrival to your table is designed around the leisurely pleasure of eating and sharing in the company of companions. Your wine and antipasto arrives at your table lickety-split, but the secondo takes it’s sweet tasty time. My theory around this is simple. You’re hungry from a day of living, a day likely of stress, and a little quick nosh is necessary to nourish your body, revive your soul, and start the wheels of conversation flowing. After that, well, who cares? You’re happy, you’re smiling, that table is yours until closing, and you know whatever you’re getting and whenever it gets there, it’s going to be delicious and well worth the time. Plus just look at how much fun you had waiting.
Italians don’t only stand up for coffee. They stand up for cocktails too. And in Venice, when you meet a few friends for a cocktail after work, you’ll usually get some cichettito go with it. But these are no usual bar snacks scooped from a bucket behind the bar. Cichetti are small plate specialties to eat with your drink, sort of like the tapas of Venice. And they are absolutely delicious! Various vegetables in a tempura-like batter, croquettes and little arancini, quickly fried till crisp and finished with a sprinkle of salt and squeeze of lemon. You could easily make a meal of just them (a great budget idea, since they are usually free with the drinks), but they are often just the first stop in an evening of food and friends. One of my favorite cichetti is Mozzarella in Carozza, or mozzarella in a carriage. The carriage is white sandwich bread, battered quickly in and an egg and milk wash, then fried quickly in a thin film of olive oil. The result is a combination of grilled cheese sandwich and French toast, and the perfectaccompaniment to a cold glass of prosecco. Cin cin!
Mozzarella in Carozza
Serves two as an antipasto, or one for a great lunch atop an arugula and tomato salad.
2 slices thin white sandwich bread (like Pepperidge Farms – I use a slice of Trader Joe’s Texas toast cut in half, cross-wise)
1 to 2 slices mozzarella, cut ¼” thick
1-2 TBSP milk
Pinch of salt
Olive oil for pan
Cut the crusts off the bread. Place the mozzarella on one slice, making sure you leave about ¼” border around the edges (prevents premature oozing and a very messy pan.) Top with the second slice, then squish the edges together a little to make a seal – this is why white sandwich bread is great for this – its squishable.
Film a sauté pan with a little olive oil. Beat together the milk, egg and pinch of salt. When the oil is hot, dip the sandwich into the egg mixture, but don’t let it sit and absorb too much. Fry in pan until it is golden brown on one side, flip and repeat. Cut into quarters, and serve with a cold glass of prosecco! Calories: about 300 per sandwich.
This recipe is very adaptable to additions – I like to put an anchovy (the marinated white ones in vinegar) inside for a little salty-tangy bite, but you could put in a little sun-dried tomato in olive oil, or basil, or whatever you like. Just don’t load it up – the cheese is the star.