What's it like to live in a far-off place most of us see only on a vacation? Foreign Correspondence is an interview with someone who lives in a spot you may want to visit.
Fred Plotkin, 54, is a New Yorker who first visited Italy in 1973 to work in opera houses — and stayed there seven years. Plotkin, who now divides his time between New York and the Italian Riviera, is the author of nine books, including the recently updated "Italy for the Gourmet Traveler" ($24.95, Kyle Books).
Question: Four of your books are about Italian cuisine. How do you keep your weight under control?
Answer: I'm 5 feet 10 and weigh 225. When I update "Italy for the Gourmet Traveler," I sample food but don't necessarily finish it: If I have to sample 10 versions of spaghetti alla carbonara, I don't want to. That's the challenge of food writing.
Almost every restaurant listed in the book doesn't know I'm writing about it. And if you don't finish your food, they think there's a problem. So I arrange what's on the plate so it looks like I ate a lot — though I'm really compressing it with a fork and knife.
Q: How often do you dine out over there?
A: I have an apartment near Genoa; I cook at home when I'm there. Otherwise when traveling, I dine out at least twice a day. And you eat differently when you're "living" there instead of "traveling" there. You eat slowly and sit for a while. You digest it.
That's different from what we Americans do. We order big portions and scarf them down; Italian portions are much smaller. We often put a mountain of things on one massive plate; they'll have several courses.
Italians will have five forkfuls of pasta first, then a nice size — but not enormous — piece of fish or meat, and a side plate of vegetables. They don't mix foods the way we do. There are exceptions, but they want each thing they eat to be its own star.
Q: What do you peg as the best-eating city in Italy?
A: Bologna. That's easy. Their food is at a whole higher level than the rest of Italy's, and Italians know that. Bologna is a charming town with the oldest university in the world, the best food markets in Italy, and citizens who supposedly are the most knowledgeable about love making.
Bologna is an empire of fresh egg pasta. Lasagne is from there. So is tortellini, tortelloni, tagliatelle and just about every fresh pasta we love except ravioli.
Bologna is on a plain near the Apennine Mountains and near the sea. So you have all the terrains you need for great food, including incredible farmland. It's like Iowa. All of this is within 30 miles, and you learn how to use what's raised there.
Cows produced Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and provide meat for the sauce we know as Bolognese. Incredible pork is there for prosciutto, mortadella and other amazing delicacies.
Second, it was someone from there who realized that if you combine an egg with flour it makes a different kind of pasta than water plus flour.
So while the rest of Italy was living on a few tomatoes and greens, the people of Bologna had all these things to develop a magnificent cuisine.
Q: So how does ho-hum baloney fit into this story?
A: Much of the Italian food in the U.S. is the product of immigration — the millions who made facsimiles of their food from Italy.
Bologna has a wonderful pink sausage called mortadella. It's made with pork, is slightly peppery, and may have little bits of fat and pistachio and peppercorn in it. It is very large and round — the size of a pizza or bigger. It's not some skinny little sausage!
But when people came to America, they couldn't produce it in the same way. The ingredients aren't the same, and Americans didn't like the little bits of fat. So they made a small, pinkish and slightly pepper-ish pork sausage that was cooked so you could slice and eat it. Rather than call it mortadella — that sounds like "dead Della," right? —they would just say it was from Bologna. Americans couldn't pronounce "Bolognese"; that's how it came to be called "baloney."
Q: Any tips for hungry American tourists?
A: Never order soup and pasta at the same meal. Never. The first course is either pasta or soup — not both. Similarly, you don't order pasta and risotto (rice).
Pizza is only eaten for dinner — not lunch — and you get your own pie. It's 8 or 9 inches across; the size of a plate.
Fresh anchovies. Where I live, people almost only eat them fresh. They're caught, cut open and — whether or not the bones are removed — preserved for a few hours in lemon juice and olive oil. You eat them like sushi.
Anchovies are salted only to be saved for another season.
There are other salted fish — like cod — that are cooked in phenomenal amounts, mostly in Venice and Liguria. When people were poor, it was the cheapest thing they could get. Italy is now a wealthy nation, but they retain traditional dishes because they taste good.
Consider the Veneto, of which Venice is the capital. It's a rich region, but some people there live on codfish and horse.
Italy's most unusual eating town?
"It's all good, but maybe Palermo, the capital of Sicily. It's a huge city on a coast and is surrounded by mountains. Most of the food comes from the sea. There was wealth there in the past, but poverty, too. People would eat things like cow spleen — milza: They would mince it, stew it, cook it with spices and put it in a roll they'd top with delicious ricotta cheese. It's delicious. It is to them what a cheeseburger is to us.
"In Palermo, they also eat spaghetti with sardines and wild fennel. Something else they like is spaghetti with bread crumbs; at one time, toasted crumbs was all they had. But it's really good.
"Palermo is one of the best places in Italy for great coffee and pastries. There are a lot of convents there, and nuns produce pastries with an almond paste. Because the nuns aren't allowed to deal with the outside world, you go to outside the convent wall and communicate with them by note or speech. There's a turntable that's built into the wall. You put in your money; they put in the pastries. The turntable moves and out comes what you ordered. It's like an automat with nuns."