In Italy, the consumption of food is a ritual that lasts
from morning to night. Much of this consumption takes place
outside the home, on the streets, and most of what is eaten is snack food, or
merende. Eating food in the street has been normal for the poor of Italy for
centuries, primarily because they had no access to cooking facilities at home.
Street foods today are sold from restaurants, kiosks, market stands and stalls,
and vehicles like ice-cream vans. The range of street foods consumed now
in Italy is vast and, naturally, differs from region to region: in Puglia it is raw
seafood; in Marche lambs’ innards; in Emilia-Romagna you will find the
classic piadina (a type of filled pancake) as well as a fried gnocco filled with
the region’s salami. In Tuscany you find cecina, a chickpea cake and panini
filled with lampredotto (tripe) in Florence, while in Rome,
kiosks sell sandwiches of the famous porchetta (roast
suckling pig). In Cagliari in Sardinia, it is traditional
during the summer to consume ricci di mare (sea urchins)
at kiosks along the seafront, before lunch. In Palermo,
Sicily’s capital, pani ca’ meusa (a bread roll with veal
spleen, thought to be of Jewish origin) is sold at stalls
outside nightclubs in the early hours of the morning.
During the day stallholders at the market sell boiled
octopus, stigghiole alle brace (grilled innards of goat, lamb
or veal), as well as sfincione, the Sicilian version of pizza,
panelle (chickpea fritters), cazzilli (potato croquettes) and
arancini (risotto balls).
But the most renowned Italian street food of all must be pizza. Worldwide,
flatbreads have always been a basic food of the poor, and at first the Italian
version, pizza, was simply a bread dough made with lard – filling, portable
and cheap, and despised elsewhere. But in Naples it gradually acquired
toppings, principally tomato (after the fruit became popular only a couple of
centuries ago). It is amazing how this humble Neapolitan food has become so
famous, and how many different types there are now.
Memories of street food in my home village of Minori are very vivid. My
friends and I actually became sellers of street food, collecting prickly pears in
the summer to hawk along the seafront! There were also small stands selling
snails cooked with garlic, chilli and parsley, wrapped in paper. During the
winter, stalls sold roasted chestnuts, sofritto, a mixture of offal, served on
hunks of good country bread, and at Christmas and on feast days there were
zeppole (doughnuts). Although the street foods of my childhood
still exist today, there are definite changes taking place in Italy, especially
in the larger towns and cities. The globalisation of eating habits and the
proliferation of fast-food chains are beginning to threaten traditional street
food. There are pockets of resistance, however: in the small town of Altamura
in Puglia, a McDonald’s was forced to close in favour of a traditional bakery!
Immigration too is having an effect on Italy’s food culture and traditions in
general. From being a country of mass emigration, Italy has over the last
20 years received many immigrants, with some 7.5 per cent of the population
now coming from abroad, and these immigrants are having an effect on the
food. Turkish and Middle Eastern kebab houses are appearing in cities like
Milan and Rome, as well as Chinese and Indian restaurants. Even sushi is
on offer! For younger Italians this type of food is a novelty and a welcome
addition to the foods of their childhood. For the older generation, it is a
different story and the majority would not dare try anything new such as a
kebab. Unfamiliar ingredients are also appearing in Italian markets, such as
ginger, and traditional recipes are subtly changing as they are incorporated.
Italians are very conscious of these changes and there are movements which
are desperately trying to protect the future of traditional street foods. Books
have been written, as have countless newspaper and magazine articles.
A cultural association, Streetfood, has been set up to promote awareness
of traditional foods, and organises events throughout Italy such as the
International Street Food Festival in Cesena. After all, street food is indelibly
linked to the history and traditions of the country, the diverse culinary
culture and diverse ingredients of each region and often offers
the most truly authentic flavour of a city or region.
This is an edited extract from Two Greedy Italians by Antonio
Carluccio and Gennaro Contaldo (Hardie Grant Books, $39.95).