Bread, a staple of all Italians, has many forms, many shapes, and many tastes.
I sit here spending more time savoring Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli as I savor a Montepulciano red wine. Levi is also providing clues in the daily life of contadini in Lucania now called Basilicata. It borders on Calabria on the side of the Mare Tirreno and to Puglia on the Mare Adriatico. Let me share with you Levi’s description of peasant bread:
“The bread was of the characteristic black variety made of hard wheat in great loaves weighing five or ten pounds. They lasted a whole week, the mainstay of rich and poor alike, round like the sun or like a Mexican calendar stone. I began to slice it, with a gesture I had already learned, holding it against my chest and drawing the sharp knife toward me, taking care not to cut my chin” (page 24).
I’m not sure if my nonni ate the same type of bread in Miglierina in 1913, but I bet there are more similarities than differences. In Chicago, good Italian bread was plentiful from immigrant-owned bakeries. The most famous is Gonnella bread, a long baguette-type loaf. The Gonnella Bakery, at 1001 W. Chicago Avenue, is 126 years old, cranking out Italian loaves for over six generations.
Unlike my nonni, once they arrived in America, I often make my own bread. Schiacciatina, which means smashed bread in Tuscan dialect, is a flat bread, immersed in olive oil–extra vergine, and speckled with rosmarino, that grows wild in our backyard. My partiality to schiacciatina comes from my time in Florence where I conducted my research.
My grocer, a Vietnamese woman, greeted me every morning about 11am and sliced me up a rectangular loaf, green and salty. She knew the amount to slice for me through habit. Our conversations were as rich as her bread. I make oval loaves of schiacciatina for use as Christmas presents and my students love it when I bring it to class.
That’s globalization for you: a Calabrese-American doing research in Florence, eating schiacciatina made by a Vietnamese grocer, featuring ‘nduya from Calabria, olive oil from Puglia, an Asti from the northwest to wash down my lunch, and ending the world’s best sandwich with a limoncello from Napoli and pistacchi from Sicily.
Life is good!