A Tour of Two Food Traditions: Chocolate & Pizza (Part 1 of 2)

October 27, 2010 § 4 Comments

I love learning about the foods my friends and family enjoy: what they grew up eating and how that’s informed whether and how they cook and what they eat today; tastes that were formed as children or emerged or shifted in adulthood; dishes and traditions served at holiday tables and the nostalgia and appetite that float to the surface as they recount those tales. Occasionally, people share with me their grandmother’s cookbooks, some neatly organized into binders, others collections of scribbles in yellowing notebooks. In Italy, people share their family’s limoncello recipe.

Hearing these stories can give you insight into not just people’s eating habits, but also into the people themselves — the food and family traditions that they’ve sustained across generations, and in turn, their values and passions.

In Italy, I was struck by seeing, time and time again, food traditions that had been preserved, often within the same families, for 75 to 200 or more years.

Today I invite you to experience two of those Italian traditions…


You’ve arrived at Milan airport, bleary-eyed after an overnight flight from JFK on which you didn’t sleep much because the guy next to you got a little (okay, a lot) drunk and talked to himself quite loudly for the entire seven hours. But excitement overcomes your fatigue, because this morning you’re driving 2 1/2 hours to Bologna to visit the oldest sweets shop in Italy, opened in 1796: Antica Casa Majani.

You’re armed with a GPS device, but there’s this curious glitch where the names on the device don’t seem to match any of the street signs. You get lost multiple times and at one point drive smack-dab into the middle of a pedestrian piazza (where none of the perambulators were perturbed by a car in their midst), but you laugh it all off, determined to find the shop. Then, thanks to an extremely kind hotel concierge who draws you a map and, perhaps lacking confidence in your ability to wind your way down side streets successfully, walks you to your destination. Finally, you duck under a stone archway and float into a cloud of hazelnut and chocolate.

The Majani shop in Bologna

There you manage to communicate with the shopkeeper in your broken Italian and animated hand gestures, sampling their famous Fiat candy, first created in 1911 to celebrate the launch of the Fiat Tipo 4. The traditional version is a cube of chocolate layered with hazelnut and almond cream; they also sell one shaped like a little car, as well as bark-like scorza, the oldest existing form of edible chocolate, and bars of hazelnut-studded chocolate.

Majani was among the first chocolatiers to produce solid chocolate. Given the attention to detail and commitment to quality evident in the neatly-kept, gorgeously arranged shop and the candies themselves, you can see why Majani hasn’t changed their chocolate-making technique since the Tipo 4 was a new car.


Not wanting to drive in Southern Italy…

Traffic in a massive intersection with no stoplights. Awesome.

…you hop on a train from Tuscany to Naples for the next leg of your trip. People warned you about the insane driving (true), the garbage mounds on the sidewalk (true) and the mafia (untested!), but it’s not so different than NYC. And, you’re only going to Naples for two reasons: (1) as a base camp to visit the Pompeii ruins 30 minutes away and (2) to eat a really good pizza.

After seven hours trekking around Pompeii, you’re tired and hungry. You walk a few blocks from your hotel and take a chance on a hole-in-the-wall pizzeria, Ristorante Marino.

You and your traveling companion order two glasses of the house red, and your waiter (who, you later learn, is the owner/manager) advises you to order a carafe; it’s cheaper. It arrives in a ceramic jug. You start to wonder if this is going to be like one of those places that serves beer in buckets in the U.S.

The Marino wine pitcher

But the wine is a good solid one, and all of the other customers are clearly locals. When your pizza arrives, you are not disappointed. The crust is impossibly thin and tender in the middle and expertly cooked on the edges (not too charred, not too raw) to a crispy-chewy consistency, with a pleasing dash of salt that enhances the flavors of the simple and fresh toppings. And the generously-sized pizza is only four euros!

Pizza with cherry tomatoes, basil and mozzarella

The pizza maker, Ciro, and the owner/manager, Luigi, see you snapping photos of your meal and naturally, their interest is piqued. You learn that the pizzeria was founded in 1934 and originally Luigi’s grandfather’s; now, his father and uncle own it while he manages it. They invite you inside to watch how they assemble a pizza…

Ciro, the master pizza maker, doing his thing

…and deftly slide it into the wood-fired oven to cook for just a few minutes before serving it, piping hot, to customers.

The apprentice placing the pizza in the oven

The passion for making perfect pizza is palpable. In fact, Luigi tells you that the apprentice came all the way from Japan to learn how to make pizza here. Luigi brings you one, then two, glasses of his family’s limoncello on the house, asks if you’ll email your pictures to them and welcomes you back anytime. You leave feeling a little bit like family.


This is Part 1 in a two-part post about keeping food traditions alive. Check back later this week for Part 2 — a tradition my family is keeping alive. It involves 300 pounds of chocolate.


Antica Casa Majani, on Via Barberia at Via Tagliapietre near Piazza Galileo, Bologna. The best landmark is Piazza Maggiore, about 6 blocks away.

Ristorante Pizzeria Marino, Via Santa Lucia 11/81/20, Naples, Italy. 081-764-0280.


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