IT'S DARK and cold and the small group huddled outside of the cemetery bundles up their coats against the damp breeze. The first rays of the sunrise are not yet bright enough to dim the light of the hundreds of candles twinkling on the graves. Everyone is there for one reason: fun. It's a gita!
Gita means day trip in Italian and it is a much loved and used tradition. There is a gita for anyone and to everywhere for every reason. Small and large groups of friends, couples, families and even strangers gather on all sorts of informal or organized gita. There is a gita for shopping, sightseeing, religious events and anything else you can think of where you get there and back in a day.
There may be many reasons people take a gita and they go to many diverse and interesting places, but they all have one thing in common: they are all organized around eating and drinking. This should be no surprise as everything in Italy is structured to facilitate not only eating well, but to finding the time to do so.
We are gathered in the pre-dawn light at the cemetery only to take advantage of the free parking lot. Cars continue to arrive as we wait for our bus. Out of each car emerge sleepy-eyed friends, many with their even sleepier-eyed children. Soon a gigantic, gleaming blue Mercedes bus arrives -- we will be traveling in comfort.
The demand for tour buses in Italy is high. It is a small country, only about the size of Arizona, and tour groups can see many things in a short time on a bus. Group vacations and tours are extremely popular and during the summer the highways are packed with buses full of tourists from all over the world. During the off-season it is easy to find them at discounted rates making it the perfect time to organize a gita. Because tour buses are so popular the buses are also beautiful: VCR, CD stereo, large overstuffed seats, huge windows to see the view: a great way to travel.
We are off to Mantova, just over three hours away at the other corner of Lombardia from our home near Lago Maggiore. Mantova is an ancient city proud of its dramatic mediaeval architecture and of its native son and famous poet Virgil; you may remember his best seller, The Aeneid.
Within an hour the call for caffeine rings out and we stop at the Autogrill, the fast food and gas stops along the autostrada. What Italians consider food fit only for a quick bite and fending off hunger while you are traveling is a culinary wonderland for traveling Americans. Meals at the Autogrill are usually stand-up affairs where people down their meal quickly and then get back on the road. Some Autogrill even have full-service restaurants, but once you discover the wonders of panini -- the Italian version of the sandwich you learn not to bother with the restaurant.
Americans approach sandwich construction with plans as complex as the blueprints for the Sears Tower. Layers of various meats, pickles, cheeses, condiments, greens and other vegetables reach for the sky on thick slices of bread. The Italian panino looks deceptively simple compared to these wonders of sandwich engineering. It is often simply a few slices of prosciutto crudo (cured ham) on a fresh roll, but don't let appearances fool you as the intensely flavored ham only needs a few slices to make its point and combined with fresh baked bread creates an unforgettable and habit forming flavor. There are many other combinations to tempt your palate and choosing is a difficult, but a no-lose proposition.
After the bar with its drinks and panini the designers of the Autogrill are always sure to force you to pass through their gift shop on the way out. These roadside gift shops would qualify as the best Italian gourmet shop in town in the United States. The shelves are full of pasta, extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, wine, spirits, cheeses, salami, prosciutti and gigantic three kilogram jars of Nutella -- the chocolaty hazelnut spread that lucky Italian kids grow up on instead of peanut butter. Every time I go to an Autogrill, I remember a pricy Italian gourmet shop on Chicago's elegant Michigan Avenue and can only smile.
However we are not here for panini or shopping, but for breakfast -- albeit a second breakfast for most. Time of day is an essential element in Italian eating patterns and although most had breakfast before leaving home, it is still breakfast time and that means another breakfast of espresso or cappuccino paired with fresh brioche or a croissant. The Autogrill is often the first experience a tourist has with the Italian system of paying first and then going to the bar to pick up your food. First you decide what you want and then get in line at the Cassa (cashier) to pay and get the receipt, which you give to the barista who will then give you your food and drink. It's a great system that speeds up service. If you noticed that there is not a spot in this system for tipping you are very observant. Tipping in Italy is only common in public toilets.
That is another new experience Americans first encounter at the Autogrill. There is often an attendant, usually a female, whose job it is to keep the bathrooms clean. Unlike American toilets that are usually almost barricaded during cleaning, these attendants do their jobs while the business of the toilet is in full swing. Having a female attendant cleaning next to your urinal is a new experience for most American males, but don't worry, you can be sure they've seen everything before and won't give you a second glance -- no matter what you do. Outside the toilet is a small table with a basket for tips and depositing a 20 centesimi coin will do the trick. In this Autogrill the attendant brought her dog to work with her and it sat on a chair next to the tip basket looking at you with sad eyes. I left a 50 centesimi coin this time: good technique.
The fifteen minute stop for a quick espresso had expanded into a forty minute break when the last stragglers return to the bus and we get back on the road to Mantova. Braced by a second dose of caffeine and sugar the group is now fully awake and the bus explodes with the justifiably famous animated and expressive style of Italian conversation. The energy and excitement is palpable and if you can exist in such an environment without feeling a carefree spirit overtaking you it's time to check your pulse.
That last hours of the ride disappear quickly lost in the conversation, song and laughter. When we enter Mantova the bus erupts in cheers. It is eleven a.m. and there is just enough time for a quick look around the city before lunch, but more importantly there is time for an aperitivo, which, for some reason, seems to be sorely needed to spark the already voracious appetite of our group.
An aperitivo is an essential part of Italian dining and something to spark your appetite and to get your digestive juices flowing is not a bad idea before a serious meal in Italy. The list of possible aperitivi is long, but we are on the border of Lombardia and Veneto and that means Prosecco. Prosecco is a type of grape that in Veneto they use to create the charming, fruity sparkling wine of the same name. In Lombardia and Veneto it is impossible to find a restaurant or bar that does not serve Prosecco. The quality varies wildly and can range from frizzante (lightly sparkling) Prosecco from the tap to more refined bottled versions. Less serious wines are often spiked with a generous splash of Campari or Aperol for good measure.
One of the great pleasures of taking aperitivi at a bar in Lombardia is that they feel obliged to feed you even though you are on your way to eat a huge meal. Tradition means that to serve you a drink without something to munch is akin to an insult. This may mean just a bowl of potato chips during quiet hours, but in aperitivo prime time even the simplest bars can put out elaborate spreads to whet their customer's appetites and elegant bars in Milano often put out a stunning and elaborate buffet. Even our local Bar Seven (yes, the English spelling) puts out over a dozen choices that include salami, lardo, hot dips and assorted salty snacks and I am always amazed and wonder as I sip on a glass of their quite decent Prosecco, costing about $1.50 a glass, while nibbling salami: how can they afford it?
After our aperitivi and a brief walk around Mantova, the supposed goal of our gita, it's back on the bus and off to the real main event: lunch.
Whoever was in charge (something that never became clear) had selected an agriturismo just outside the city for lunch. Agriturismi have taken over the Italian countryside in the last decades and offer some of the best home-style cooking available. These are supposed to be farms that offer lodging and meals that are based on their own produce. The later being a rule that is often stretched to the limit. Never-the-less, when you find a good agriturismo you have found a real treasure and a way to feel a part of Italy you can never touch in the cities. Agriturismi are often the best way to experience the traditional country cooking of Italy's regions and some elevate the experience to such a level that they change the way you think about the restaurants in the cities with their Michelin stars.
The aperitivi had their desired effect and the group had reached the ravenous stage by the time we pulled into the farmyard. The bus quickly emptied as all streamed into the spacious dining room supported by huge rough hewn oak beams. Fortunately they were waiting for us and long tables were filled with pitchers of red and white wine, baskets of bread and plates of salami and prosciutto crudo -- all of which was gone within minutes.
We filled about half of the large dining room and the rest of the long communal tables were filled with small groups of locals out for their Sunday lunch and others, like us, on a gita. The family members of the agriturismo were running at full speed to take care of the overflowing tables. The pitchers of the light cool wine were going down in gulps and the noise level in the room kept rising; the air was full of laughter and talking. Singing could not be far behind.
Soon a stream of platters filled with steaming rice and sausage emerged from the kitchen and they began to fill our plates with huge scoops leaving many half-full platters on the table. This was not risotto. Preparing risotto for one hundred people at the same time is not something you can do: at least you can't do it right. This was rice, sausage, fresh herbs and broth cooked in the oven as you would prepare paella at home. Even as hungry as we were there was still rice and sausage left on the platters, but no problem they just fill your plates with more when they come to take them away. There seems to be a rule that all dishes have to return to the kitchen totally empty. Our group clearly intended to follow this rule.
Suddenly the sweet, rich smell of warm butter filled the dining room and a second wave of platters emerged from the kitchen filled with ravioli di zucca, the most famous dish of Mantova. While in Italian, zucca refers to all squash, in Mantova it means pumpkin and some shape of pasta can be found stuffed with it in every restaurant. The secret ingredient the pumpkin stuffed pasta in Mantova is mostarda, a specialty of Lombardia that appears on the stores only in the winter months. Mostarda is candied fruit flavored with mustard oil -- a potentially dangerous process as mustard oil is used to produce mustard gas. The mixture of sweet and hot flavors makes mostarda the perfect accompaniment to the boiled meats so popular in the area and, most of all, a tremendous match with pungent cheeses like gorgonzola. In this southern tip of Lombardia they specialize in mostarda di mele, or apple mostarda, and these sweet and tangy flavors spice up the pumpkin stuffed pasta of the area, which is then served with a simple sauce of browned butter and sage.
As you might imagine it takes a significant amount of wine to get all this food down and pitchers were emptied and refilled often. You don't have to worry about corked wines at meals like this because the wine never gets close to a cork. These were pleasant local wines; just simple IGT Mantova wines with a little fizz and a good dose of acidity sold in bulk by a local cooperative and drawn from a tap. Inspired by the wine, one of our compatriots rose to make a toast to the bride and groom and the group joins in demanding a nuptial kiss. Soon everyone in the room joined in: no one seemed to notice there was no bride or groom.
As soon as the last sweet ravioli had disappeared the next wave hit the tables. Big platters of slow roasted sausages, chicken and short-ribs all well flavored with fresh rosemary. The side dishes, contorni, included tiny roasted potatoes and bowls of simple fresh green salad dressed with extra virgin olive oil, salt and a touch of vinegar. The ribs melted in your mouth and you couldn't help but to reach for more although the pangs of hunger had disappeared hours ago.
Once again chants for a bridal kiss rang out with the particularly enthusiastic support of an old gentleman from another group in the corner and soon he received the unclaimed kiss from one of the ladies in our group who, in the process, discovered that he and his wife were there to celebrate their fifty-fifth anniversary. The imaginary bride and groom disappeared as everyone in the room surrounded the old couple and with enthusiastic sincerity loudly serenaded them with old love songs as they broadly smiled in each others arms.
After the impromptu concert all returned to find their tables full of dolce -- the desserts had arrived. Large chucks of sbrisolana liberally sprinkled with powdered sugar weighed down the tables. Sbrisolana is a kind of a cross between a cookie and a cake made from almonds and cornmeal that is the sweet specialty of Mantova and is proudly displayed in the window of every pasticceria in the city.
Espressi and grappa arrived as best wishes loudly rang out to the anniversary couple on their way out the door and soon it was time to be back on the bus for the short trip back to Mantova for a much needed passeggiata, an after lunch walk, and a welcome opportunity to see a bit more of this historic city.
Though now late on a chilly Sunday afternoon, the center of Mantova was teeming with Italians out for either their after lunch walk or for aperitivi before their dinner -- or both. The crowds added an enchanting energy to the city and the evening. Our walk took us out along the wide spot in the Mincio River that they call a lake here and on which, if you are a skilled sailor, you can sail all the way to Venezia. In the late afternoon sunlight the magnificent Ducal Palace and San Giorgio Castle look particularly imposing from the level of the riverbank. It is a beautiful city unfortunately often bypassed by rushing tourists on their way from Firenze to Venezia.
We regroup at a bar for a beer before getting back on our big blue bus and then we are back on the road. Some sing and everyone talks and before we know it we are back in the parking lot. It is dark and the hundreds of candles twinkle on the graves, just as they did in the morning when we arrived. Into each car climb our sleepy-eyed friends, many with their even sleepier-eyed children.
Time to plan the next gita.
Torta sbrisolana alla Mantova
2 cups ground almonds
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups fine-ground cornmeal
Just less than 1 cup of sugar
3 egg yolks
3 or 4 drops vanilla extract
½ lb. butter at room temperature
The grated zest of 1 lemon
Confectioners' sugar for decoration
Mix well the ground almonds, flour and cornmeal and sugar in a large bowl. Lightly beat the egg yolks and the vanilla and then add to the flour mixture. Use your hands and work until small crumbs are formed. Then add the softened butter, lemon zest and knead until it is well blended. The dough will have a very crumbly texture. Butter a 10 inch round cake pan and sprinkle the mixture evenly into it. Bake in a preheated oven at 350 deg. F for about 45 minutes. Decorate with confectioners' sugar before serving.