In these uncertain times we have focused on the concept of space: the environment where we live and the objects that surround us identify our space and define ourselves. Houses have become homes and the tools and objects in them create the background to our actions. Some of my working days during the Italian winter and spring season restrictions took place on my kitchen table. Sometimes, when I wanted to pause and escape for a bit, my eyes fell on the objects that surrounded me and that’s when I noticed that some of them are Italian culinary culture’s staples, objects that allow us to identify ourselves as Italian without even saying it. These tools are symbolic and part of the country’s gastronomic heritage.
THE MOKA POT
I still remember the astonished faces of my American friends during the chapter of my life back in Paris. We were hanging out at my place and while I was preparing coffee with my beloved moka pot a friend nicely mocked me on the nonchalance of doing coffee with three pieces of weird-shaped aluminium. More than their astonished faces at the sight of the moka, I remember their peculiar interest while telling and showing them the three go-to rules to prepare coffee in the Neapolitan way with a moka pot:
- Insert the coffee in the funnel without pressing it in order to create the so-called montagnella
- Keep the collecting chamber open so that the water vapor doesn’t steal the coffee creaminess
- Add sugar directly in the collecting chamber and stir it
The moka pot is the most important tool for any Italian breakfast and after lunch coffee. This is why on my first morning in my new New York home I felt kind of lost and disappointed. I realized that I forgot to pack a moka. Before going to my office the next morning I made a mandatory run to Target in Flatbush. Luckily I found an original moka by the one and only Bialetti, the company considered the father of the moka and one of the most forward-thinking minds in the contemporary kitchen design world. His work is included in the MoMa’s database and was part of an exhibit dedicated to Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen, back in 2010.
There is a link between the word canovaccio and the word canvas, both express an act of storytelling: painters use canvas and playwrights create a canovaccio; a storyline. The word canovaccio comes from canapa (hemp). This meaningful piece of fabric is part of any Italian kitchen and used both symbolically and practically: the canovaccio was part of the traditional Italian nuptial kit, called corredo, along with linen and towels. The bride’s gift was given by her family to perpetuate their story and prestige.
Today the canovaccio has lost its symbolic meaning but is still used for the most practical activities in the Italian kitchen: to dry surfaces and dishes, to cover dough or just to decorate the kitchen; a home’s main stage for hospitality.
THE SPAGHETTI STRAINER / COLANDER
Let’s start by saying that it would be reductive to refer to this tool only for spaghetti. Like for canovaccio, the colander is a multi-purpose object used to drain any type of pasta but also to let the water drip after having washed fruits and vegetables. According to Parma’s Pasta Museum – which is probably one of the most mouth-watering institutions in the world – “the first reference to this tool dates back to 1363 and refers to a tool similar to a ladle with holes rather than to a colander and was used by Genoese lasagnari to prepare trenette and spaghetti. The colander was later quoted in 1570 and was used by Bartolomeo Scappi” (pope Pio IV and Pio V’s chef). Throughout the years, this object has become an tool providing identity in Italian kitchens and has been re-designed by several artists that have pushed its use to a new aesthetic level: 1990”s “Max Le Chinois” by the French star-designer Philippe Starck for Alessi is maybe the most famous colander.
As you all know we Italians LOVE cheese and we NEVER buy pre-grated cheese. Why would we when our kitchens are always equipped with la grattugia.
The first evidence of graters dates back to Homeric times, as Nestor invites his injured guest Macaone to grate cheese in his wine. Also Polyphemus had a cheese factory, so we have to guess he too was probably familiar with this tool. More than twenty five Centuries ago Etrurians grated cheese on food and centuries later, during the Great Depression, Philadelphian Jeffrey Taylor made his own cheese grater by sharpening a metal shower drainer’s holes.
This useful object is part of any Italian kitchen as it is associated with pasta and symbolizes conviviality. If you grew up in an Italian family you certainly noticed that aunts and grandmothers had and still have the weirdest and loudest graters ever seen: to this day, my grandmother still uses her 1970s cheese grater* and my 80 year old aunt Nina is very much devoted to her Rigamonti grattugia**.
The semantic role of these everyday objects have a true meaning and, to quote Umberto Eco, these are “signs endowed with a pre-established sense”. These tools’ identity is so strong and deeply-entrenched in our culture that they have become iconographic pieces of the Italian kitchen and have been refined, studied and re-shaped by designers throughout the world.