Gatherings & Celebrations: Food and Romance in Verona - #114

We know that people have been living in the region of Verona since prehistoric times.  But the oldest remaining structures are from the days of the ancient Romans.  Twenty-one hundred years ago, this was a major Roman settlement -- and you can still see parts of the actual buildings that stood here.  The number of Roman remains in Verona and the quality of their preservation is second only to Rome. 

This is what remains of the Lion’s Gate, which was the entrance to the city during the first century BC.

In size and historic importance, the Roman Amphitheatre in Verona is almost as significant as the Coliseum in Rome.  It’s over two thousand years old.  When it opened, it was used for the battles between gladiators, sporting competitions and the general spectacles that were put on by the government.  These days it’s used for the presentation of operas.

Verona is itself a museum that is easy to visit.  A simple guide book and a good pair of walking shoes are all you need.  The Piazza dei Signori was built in the 1200s.  All the entrances to the square are accented with arches.  In the center of the square is the statue of Dante, the author of The Divine Comedy.  When his political beliefs became offensive to the rulers of Florence, he moved here to Verona, and lived under the protection of the Scala family.  To the side of Dante is The Palazzo del Comune.  Its walls are constructed of the distinctive bands of brick and stone that are used throughout the city.

Verona is also packed with wonderful churches.  Verona’s cathedral, known as the Duomo, was consecrated in 1187.  Students of art are particularly interested in the double arches over the entrance.  The first church on the site of San Zeno Maggiore was built during the 400s.  The present structure was put up during the 1100s.  It’s considered to be one of the great examples of Romanesque architecture.  The panels on the doors present scenes from the Old and New Testaments, stories of belief and devotion.

Of all the stories that can be told in Verona, the story that is most often associated with this city is the story of Romeo and Juliet.  Shakespeare set his play here and lovers have taken it to be the truth for the past four hundred years.  Number 23 Via Capello is said to be the actual home of Juliet.  This would have been the courtyard where their great love scene took place -- and the balcony. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Interesting thing about the relationship of love and food... many of the same words that are part of the vocabulary of romance are the same words that are part of the vocabulary of cooking.  I’ll run down a few.  You think about them in terms of love, and I’ll think about them in terms of things that go on in the kitchen.  Steamy... hot... tender... moist... juicy... spicy... delicious... hungry.  I’d better stop or I’m gonna end up with the first R-rated recipe, which could be too hot to handle.  In either case, Verona is an ideal city to take a look at the relationship of love and food.

Romeo and Juliet, as the play or the ballet, is the story of clashing families that threaten to destroy the fabric of society.  The young lovers, however, are wiser than their society, but the madness of their culture destroys them.  Their destruction is a lesson:  Don’t let your society split up into factions that hate each other.  That kind of conflict will destroy the culture’s youth.  When Romeo and Juliet die, everyone realizes how wrong things are, but by then it’s too late.  The tragedy has taken place. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  In reality, Romeo and Juliet may or may not have existed -- but their families, or families like theirs, certainly did.  It was a time in Italy where the powerful families were getting bigger and bigger.  They began to bang up against each other and feel crowded.  There was constant fighting in the streets. One of the things that reduced the tension was a marriage where two families ended up in an alliance.  That smoothed things out and made life a lot more peaceful.

Marriage was important -- but the real issue was children.  A society needs children:  no children, no future.  One way of getting the lucky couple together was for the head of one family to decide where the alliance was needed and make a deal with the head of the other family.  If your family did not choose your mate for you in a kind of pre-emptive strike on your emotions, then you might actually meet someone on your own.  At that point, all you needed was your family’s approval.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  A good place to meet somebody was a festival.  Festivals were ideal for romance.  Lots of men and woman, different ages, all in the same place at the same time.  At some festivals you were asked to wear a mask -- so your identity would be a secret.  At a festival the best place to meet somebody was at the food table.  Lots of people hanging around, all hungry for, ummm... one thing or another.  Sounds like hot stuff to me.

If your family wasn’t in the festival set, the church was the next best place, and as a fallback position you could always count on the local fountain.  In the days before inside plumbing, young men and women were constantly going off to the water fountain to bring home a bucket’s worth.  But the well also offered you a place to meet someone.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  “Come here for water often?”  We still think of fountains as romantic places where people come to meet.  As a matter of fact, when I think about my old neighborhood where I grew up, there was kind of a pub, a tavern where everybody would go to meet each other, and we always described it as “the local watering hole.”

The Latin word companion literally means “someone with whom we share bread.”  And sharing is what holds people together. It could be two lovers, a family, a group of friends or an entire society.  To share food is often an expression of love.  There are a number of societies where a man and women eating together in public is a clear statement that they are sleeping together in private.  The flip side, of course, is that if a woman stops cooking for her man, or drastically lowers the quality of her cooking, he’s got a real problem.  Same thing when a man cuts down on eating his mate’s cooking or if he starts to cook more and more for himself.  Something is failing.  Though I should point out that I do most of the cooking for my family, so these signals can get flipped around.

For thousands of years, there’s been tradition and ritual around the foods of lovers.  In order to be “sexy,” the meal must be titillating, more about tasting than eating.  We wouldn’t want anyone to think that the food was the main attraction here.  But there are foods that are believed to arouse desire.  Exactly which food depends on where in the world you are dining.  For a long time, the focus was on any animal with a reputation for great sexual activity.  The idea was that the same abilities would be induced in anyone who partook of that animal at a meal. 

Guys would look at salmon.  Finding their way back from the open sea to the river they called home.  Hundreds of miles of swimming against the current.  Hurling themselves up through waterfalls.  And all done in the name of love.  Let’s have some salmon for dinner!  Couldn’t hurt.

There are foods that some people identify as having sexual textures.  Oysters are in that category.  And then there are foods that come into the culture with a well established reputation as a tasty morsel that will by themselves induce thoughts of love.  Chocolate is the leading food in that category.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Chocolate had been around in South America for hundreds of years before the first European had a taste of it.  Legend has it that the lucky guy was the Spanish explorer Cortez, and he got that first taste from the Aztec ruler Montezuma.  Montezuma recommended chocolate as the appropriate beverage for the amorous evening.  And we’ve been repeating that story for 500 years.  Is it true?  Will chocolate affect your love life?  Every couple of years a scientific group announces the result of their studies.  Some say there is absolutely no effect from chocolate, except the positive feeling you get from eating the chocolate itself.  Others say that chocolate can have an enormous effect on your emotions.  You pay your money and you take your choice.  There is, however, one chocolate that does come with a true story of love; it’s called a Baci, which is the Italian word for “kisses.”

In 1907 the Buitoni family was already well-known in Italy as manufacturers of pasta.  To broaden their production, they decided to start making sugared almonds, which were traditionally used in wedding ceremonies.  They set up their confectionery in the Italian city of Perugia, and called it Perugina.  The family’s 22-year-old son Giovanni was sent to run the facility.  Giovanni fell in love with Luisa Spagnoli.  Luisa was a confectioner and developed many of the company’s products.  Luisa invented the Baci in 1922, and used her work samples to send secret messages of love up and back with Giovanni.  To commemorate that correspondence, Perugina wraps a love message into every Baci that they make.  Baci were introduced to North America at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, and promoted by some really big names.  Joe DiMaggio handled public relations on the west coast and Frank Sinatra was their spokesperson in Italy.  Talk about lovers!

And this is the facility in Perugia where the Baci are made.  Ground hazelnuts come down from the top.  The chocolate base comes up from the bottom.  They’re mixed together and formed into a small round disc that is about an inch in diameter.  Then a whole hazelnut gets placed on top.  Each nut is checked to make sure that it is properly placed.  You know, you can’t be too careful when you’re dealing with nuts. 

Next -- The Enrobing.  A curtain of liquid chocolate pours down, completely coating the centers.  For the next ten yards, the Baci pass through a cold tunnel, set at twelve degrees Centigrade.  At the end of the tunnel, the chocolate is firm.  And since love works best in twos, there’s a second coating.  One more cooling and they’re off to the wrapping machines.

Bright colors are also thought to be important at meals for lovers, especially red.  Scientists who study the effects of color believe that red is received as a warm color, something that is near and attracts the viewer.  It’s alive and vibrant.  Red is the color of passion.  We color our hearts red.  We give red roses.  We wear red lipstick and rouge.  And we include red foods in menus for lovers.  A common double threat is the red strawberry dipped in chocolate.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  There are also places that are ideal for romantic rendezvous.  In order to be a good meeting point for lovers, you need a couple of things.  You should be able to sit down, because you never know when somebody is going to be late.  It’s also nice to be able to order a little something to eat or drink.  And it’s very important to be able to look like you are not waiting for somebody when you are actually waiting for somebody.  The cafe is the ideal spot.  It’s like a mini-festival -- you can come in, sit around, and when you’re ready, you can leave.

This is Verona’s Piazza Bre.  It’s one of the largest squares in Italy.  The line of buildings is emphasized by a wide pavement, which is covered with cafes.  The other place in Verona that is like an ongoing festival, always available for people to see and be seen in, is the Piazza Erbe.  It’s almost in the exact same spot as the ancient Roman Forum that stood here 2,000 years ago.  There’s a colorful and active fruit and vegetable market covered with giant umbrellas and surrounded by historically famous buildings.  And, of course, cafes and restaurants.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  A restaurant can also be an excellent place for romance, especially at the beginning of a relationship, when you’re just getting to know each other.  You’re in a public place.  The restaurant staff can see you.  The diners can see you.  You’re almost “under surveillance.”  And that keeps everybody’s behavior in check.  Quite reassuring.  But it can also be used to make things more exciting.  There are lots of rules in our society against touching in public.  So when you lean across the table... and hold hands... you are breaking the rules.  And you are breaking them where everybody can see you!  That’s juicy stuff!

One of the more romantic restaurants in Verona is the All Aquila, at the Hotel Due Torri, which means “The Two Towers.”  The hotel is an elegant structure which was built on the site of a guest house for the lords of Verona since the 1400s.  The furnishings are the work of local craftsmen, some dating all the way back to the Renaissance.  One of the restaurant’s most romantic recipes is for tortellini.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  I thought tortellini only came with sauce -- but it comes with a legend.  It is called “The Noodle of Love.”  “Alla fine del 300, nel corso...”  English.  At the end of the 1200s, there was a captain of the guards named Marco, who lived just outside of Verona.  He fell in love with a nymph who lived in the river.  But the Duke’s niece wanted Marco for herself, and so she forced the nymph back into the river.  Before the nymph left, however, she gave Marco a handkerchief made of silk with a knot tied in it to remember her.  Since then, a silk handkerchief with a knot tied in it has been a symbol of love, and the people around here reproduce that in pasta.  And that’s how tortellini got started.  Now, if that legend is a little implausible for you, try this one:  tortellini is a reproduction of Venus’ belly-button, sent here from the gods.  You choose your story and you eat your pasta!

Chef Agostino Clama starts his recipe by heating a little oil in a saute pan.  As soon as the oil is hot, in goes a cup’s worth of sliced mushrooms and a little salt.  While the mushroooms are cooking, the stems are removed from two tomatoes, after which they are blanched for ten seconds in boiling water.  The boiling water loosens the skins, and then they are peeled.  For me, peeling tomatoes is always an optional process; I kinda like the skins.  The tomatoes are sliced... seeded... chopped... and added to the mushrooms.  A sprinking of dried hot pepper flakes are added.  A touch of salt goes in.  A little more olive oil.  Then a teaspooon of minced parsley.  Four quarts of water are brought to a boil.  A pound of freshly-made cheese tortellini goes in and cooks for about 45 seconds.  Then the tortellini are drained from the water and added to the sauce.  Everything heats for a minute, and the pasta of love is ready to serve.

Tagliatelli in chicken sauce... orecchietti and broccoli... linguini puttanesca... The cooks of Italy are some of the finest pasta makers in the world.  And they have a few simple rules for cooking pasta that are well worth remembering.

First of all, you need at least four quarts of water for every pound of pasta.  If you’re worried about the foam on the water bubbling out of the pot, put a little oil on top.  That will keep the foam down.  As soon as the water comes to a rolling boil, add all of the pasta to the pot at one time.  Whenever you’re cooking long strands of pasta, like spaghetti, as soon as it gets into the pot, press it down and bend it in half so it is fully submerged.  You don’t want to break pasta into pieces. It also helps to keep the individual strands of pasta separate.  Stir the water to separate those strands. 

As soon as the pasta is tender enough so you can bite through the center without hitting a hard spot, it’s ready to eat.  Then quickly drain it away from the water.  As soon as the pasta is drained, add it to the sauce.  One of the techniques that seems to be used by all of the great pasta chefs of Italy is to add the pasta to the sauce while the sauce is still in the cooking pan.  The pasta gets a better coating of the sauce, and all the food stays warmer until the moment of serving.

The next recipe is for something that any Romeo would love:  chocolate biscotti called Juliet’s Kisses.  Eight ounces of semi-sweet chocolate are melted over a pot of simmering water.  While that’s taking place, four ounces of butter go into a bowl, followed by a cup of sugar.  Those ingredients get creamed together unitil they are light and fluffy.  Then one and one third cups of pre-sifted all-purpose flour are added.  A little more mixing, and then in goes the melted chocolate.  Everything is carefully combined...  and then finally -- The Secret Ingredient (or at least the previously Secret Ingredient):  a hard-boiled egg and a hard-boiled egg yolk, which are pressed through a sieve into the batter.  A bit more mixing, and the batter goes into a pastry bag.  Inch-and-a-half rounds are piped onto a baking sheet, and then placed into a 350 degree Fahrenheit oven for about 15 minutes.  When they come out, they are cooled and given a light dusting of confectioners’ sugar.  “Wherefore art thou, Juliet?  Your kisses are ready!”

For thousands of years the land around Verona has been producing wine.  And many of those wines have become quite famous.  Soave, Bardolino, Valpolicella -- all world-famous, and all made in this part of Italy. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  That fame, however, presented an age old problem, a problem that confronts lovers and a problem that confronts winemakers -- and it’s the same problem.  It’s good to be popular.  It’s good to be in demand.  It’s good to be sought after.  But a lover or a winemaker who gives in too much to the demands of popularity can end up with a highly compromised reputation.  And that is precisely what happened here.  The winemakers gave into the demands of popularity and the quality disappeared. 

But things that go down sometimes get an opportunity to come back up.  And that’s actually been the case here in Verona.  Phillip di Belardino is an expert on Italian wine, and has kept track of this renaissance.

PHILLIP DI BELARDINO:  This is one of the most beautiful areas of Italy.  This is, of course, the Soave area, within the Verona district, and this used to be part of the Venetian Republic, which was founded about the time of the Renaissance.  And speaking of renaissance, that word certainly applies to a revolutionary winemaker, Roberto Anselmi.  He looked at his area, Soave, and went back, literally, to the roots of why this area was great at one time.

BURT WOLF:  Nice choice of words, “roots.”

PHILLIP DI BELARDINO:  And what he discovered is, when you imitate something, the way Soave was, it had to be great to begin with.  And what was great about Soave was that it was originally produced on hillsides.  In fact, to separate the new latecomers of Soave, which are produced on flatland, the ones on hillsides are called Soave Classico, and the ones on the flatland are just called plain Soave.  Now, the hillsides are essential for reducing the number of grapes per acre, which therefore makes a much more concentrated wine.

BURT WOLF:  Fewer grapes, better wine.


BURT WOLF:  Makes sense.

PHILLIP DI BELARDINO:  And the way they could tell where the best vineyards were on the hillsides, were where these -- well, they called them “chapels,” but we would call them overgrown altars.  In fact, the word in Italian for “chapel” is capella.  In fact, if you sang in a chapel, it was --

BOTH (IN UNISON):  --a capella.

PHILLIP DI BELARDINO:  Exactly.  But in local Veronese dialect, it’s capitel, is the word.  And what these altars would serve was a religious function, obviously, because the workers didn’t have cars or horses a hundred and fifty years ago, and would have to walk to the vineyards, which was over an hour.  They would stay here for the entire day, they would have lunch there, and they would also pray.  And the best capitels are Capitel Croce, Capitel Foscarino, and of course Capitel San Vincenzo.  San Vincenzo is Saint Vincent, who is the patron saint of the vinegrowers.

The English poet Edward Fitzgerald said it best -- “A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou” -- traditional ingredients for an affair of the heart.

WOMAN IN FILM CLIP:  Oh Ken, isn’t this heaven?  Nothing’s changed, has it, Ken?

MAN IN FILM CLIP:  Of course not, angel.

WOMAN IN FILM CLIP:  I’m... still a mystery to you?

MAN IN FILM CLIP:  As mysterious as life itself.

WOMAN IN FILM CLIP:  I want it to stay this way forever and ever.

The relationships between wine and food and romance are also about sharing.  And I think the actress Mae West expressed it best when she said, “It’s not what I share, but the way that I share it.”  And I hope you will share some more time with us as we travel around the world, looking at the gatherings and celebrations that mark the passages of our lives.  I’m Burt Wolf.