I always had an ambivalent relationship with the concept of national and regional characters; the idea that people develop specific cultural characteristics and behaviour within the borders of their country or region of provenance sounded old-fashioned and dangerously close to ideological drifts.
Being Italian posed some challenges to this approach. In a nation roughly a thirtieth of the United States in size, some 34 languages and related dialects are currently spoken.
The fact that each of the country’s twenty regions believes to be better than the others has never really helped our national unity. We even have a word for it: “campanilismo” (loosely translatable in “parochialism”) stems from this eternal rivalry, which in turns originates from primordial feuds between villages.
One could even argue the very identity of the nation is made out of regional differences, which I used to sternly ignore. Until I met my husband.
“If you ask for a drink and they offer you water, you’re still in Emilia. If they offer you wine instead, you’ve arrived in Romagna”. The old saying is a useful reminder for at least a couple of thoughts… first: although Emilia and Romagna are part of the same region, they are separate and different altogether; and second: Romagnoli are good fun.
When I first met Riccardo I was 21 and didn’t know many people from Romagna. I had formed a romanticised idea of the region from past trips during my childhood and from watching Federico Fellini’s movies. That was it.
The more I got to know him in his hometown, Forlì, the more it became clear we had totally opposed characters that reflected cultural stereotypes. Me, the piedmontese: introverted, quiet, and hopelessly formal; and him, the romagnolo, sociable, boisterous, and unaffected.
The first thing that struck me is that Riccardo talks, and talks, and talks. A lot.
Even if he’s been living abroad for some time now, he has maintained a pretty strong and adorable accent which I invariably make fun of. The most clear expression of it is the assibilation of the letter “z”, which means he pronounces every “z” as it was a “s”. I still tease him every now and again today, making him say: “un pezzo di pizza”.
When our relationship started to get serious, my introduction to his parents became unavoidable. It turned out that, in comparison with the rest of his family, Riccardo had retained only a fraction of his regional character. The real cultural shock was yet to come; Riccardo’s family is huge (they made for half of the guests at our wedding reception to be precise), loud, and all over the place.
Luckily for me, I fell in love with a man coming from a land famous for the cheerfulness, hospitality, and open-mindedness of its people. They welcomed me with open arms. And if at first they would try to contain themselves to adjust to my sober northern standards, that changed pretty quickly. As a consequence, I also started to loosen up, embracing the Romagna life-style.
My initiation included Summer days on the riviera in Rimini surrounded by dozens of shouting kids; endless motorcycle rides (Romagnoli’s love for pretty much anything on wheels is a cornerstone of local culture); family Sunday lunches that invariably escalate into intense political debates. My mother-in-law made me discover the 15th century Malatestiana Library in Cesena and the ceramic workshops in Faenza. I, in turn, dragged her to re-visit every single church in Ravenna.
Food, of course, has always played an important role in my marriage.
As an introduction to local gastronomy, I was given a copy of Pellegrino Artusi’s cookbook La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene (Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well), first published in 1891. While I almost appreciated the old-fashioned Italian of the texts more than the recipes in it, I promise I did follow some of them.
I decided to start with something easy. It took me an entire day to make Artusi’s chicken stock (and the whole day before to get all the listed ingredients), but I was eventually able to make the best stock ever.
I also rediscovered the joy of piadina, and was introduced to other specialties like squacquerone cheese with caramelized figs; my father-in-law’s chestnut pudding – made by strictly following a family recipe that is over a century old; Zia Laura’s legendary crostata; and, of course, a Winter classic: cappelletti in brodo.
Riccardo and I usually spend Christmas day in San Francisco, hosting lunch for our friends. When a couple of years ago our trusted Italian deli for pasta fresca closed, we looked for valid alternatives, with poor results. After trying a place that made cappelletti as big as golf balls, Riccardo channeled his inner Romagnolo and decided to make them from scratch. He called his grandma for advice, bought a pasta machine, and got me to help him. Of course, that year he had invited some 30 people over. So, as the ultimate proof of love, I spent the entire Christmas Eve and Christmas morning making cappelletti, which came out pretty good, I have to say. I already knew how to make the perfect stock for them.
Recipe n. 7 by Pellegrino Artusi
Cappelletti all’uso di Romagna
They are so called because of their hat shape. Here’s the easiest way to make them so that they’re less heavy on the stomach:
– Ricotta, or half ricotta and half raviggiolo cheese, grams 180.
– Half breast of capon cooked in butter, seasoned with salt and pepper, and finely chopped.
– Shaved Parmigiano cheese, grams 30.
– Large eggs: one whole and one yolk.
– Nutmeg, few spices, lemon peel for those who like it.
– A pinch of salt.
Taste the mixture so that you can correct it if necessary because the ingredients don’t always agree any one way. If capon breast is unavailable, add grams 100 of pork loin, cooked and seasoned in the same way.
If the ricotta or raviggiolo is too soft, omit the egg white. If the mixture is too firm, add another egg yolk. To seal the pasta, make a fairly tender pastry dough with only dull flour, water and eggs, using some of the remaining egg white. Cut it with a round disc. Place the mixture in the middle of the discs and fold them in two, forming a half-moon; then take the two ends and place them together to form the finished cappelletto.
If the sheet of pasta dries up in your hand, dip your finger in water and wet the edges of the discs. The broth needs to be that of capon to give it that most gratifying flavor. The goodness of this foolish animal is offered in the solemnity of Christmas.
So, cook the cappelletti in its broth as it is done in Romagna, where you will find those heroes who boast of having eaten a hundred of them on the same day. There is the possible case however of death, as it happened to an acquaintance of mine. A modest eater needs no more than two dozen.