In praise of fare with heart, soul

Cuisine: Italian family food is rooted in peasant fare. It's simple and satisfying

January 13, 1999|By G. FRANCO ROMAGNOLI | G. FRANCO ROMAGNOLI,EATING WELL

For us Italians, food is a serious affair. For us, gastronomy is more a way of life than a way of cooking; food, the eating and the talking of it, is part of the texture of everyday life.

Since the remotest of times, Italy has suffered invasions, pillaging and the resulting famines, the harshest of times for the rich and the poor: Under those conditions, food, the idea of food, escalates to become the most important event of the day. By now, food -- the whole pleasurable concept of it -- is in our blood.

We talk of where good food is to be found, we argue about the cooks who make it better, we philosophize on how to appreciate the best. We romanticize it. The eating is just the crowning glory. We all do it.

We have been described as a nation of spaghetti eaters, which is only partially true. Regionality divides us: pasta and vegetables still dominate the southern tables; riso, polenta, zuppa and meat still command our northern ones.

Every ethnic cuisine is the result of historical, geographical, economic, even religious factors. Italy is gifted, exceedingly, in all these fields; gifts that must be multiplied by 20, the number of regions that make up the nation, and again by the number of cities and towns and villages that make up the regions, each with its own character and culture.

To speak of one Italian cuisine is an impossible task.

Within this great variety, however, the roots of all our family food are planted firmly in peasant fare. Simple, satisfying food: the juxtaposition of clear, definite tastes, colors and textures, complementing each other, blending into an unmistakable, pleasing, comforting whole. Its ingredients are few, its cooking is simple, its techniques are seldom elaborate.

And yet, while its origins are generally humble, when aristocracy and wealth appear on its pedigree, then our food is theatrical and grandiose as in a super-rich, super-layered lasagna.

Our markets offer a daily cornucopia of colors and tastes, but the menu will be decided by our mood more than by the ingredients' appeal. On a misty, chilly Venetian day, nothing will lift our souls like a bowl of risi e bisi, rice and peas; the woodsy smells of a Tuscan autumn will order for us a cacciatora stew, so that its aroma will give warmth to a pale sun, help us celebrate a crisp, terse blue sky.

Our food is pleasure and conviviality: a few black olives, a soup made of old bread, water and a few drops of olive oil will be appreciated as a full meal. Add a glass of wine, an orange and a few friends and it is a banquet. Throw in a song and it's a feast.

All this is at the heart of Italian food, and if we ignore it, we ignore the soul of any given dish. It could seem a simple trick to achieve, but it has actually taken generations to knead together humble ingredients, regional ethnicity, mood, colors, tastes -- not to mention a good pinch of tradition -- and produce the gustatory gift that an Italian dish is today.

But then, our food is not stuck in the past: A cuisine has to be alive and conform to the needs of the times, a continually developing art that produces dishes attuned to today; not a revolution, but an evolution intelligently based on our culture and tastes. A cuisine that can be called Italian: with a heart and soul, where bread is still bread and wine is still wine. Of this I sing.

Roman-Style Chicken (Pollo alla Romana)

Makes 4 servings

2 large red bell peppers

2 large green bell peppers

2 1/2 pounds bone-in chicken pieces, skin and fat removed

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 tablespoon olive oil

4 cloves garlic, smashed

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper

3/4 cup dry red wine

2 28-ounce cans plum tomatoes, drained and chopped

Char bell peppers over a low gas flame or under a broiler, turning often, until skins are evenly blistered, 5 to 10 minutes. Place the peppers in a bowl, cover and let stand for 10 to 15 minutes.

With a paring knife, remove skins and seeds. Cut the peppers into wide strips, saving any juices accumulated in the bowl. Set aside.

Pat chicken dry and season with salt and pepper.

In a large skillet or Dutch oven, heat oil over medium heat. Add garlic and crushed red pepper and cook, stirring, until golden, about 1 minute. Add chicken and cook until browned on all sides, about 6 minutes. Transfer chicken to a plate.

Add wine to skillet and increase heat to high, scraping up any browned bits. Stir in tomatoes and one-third of the reserved bell peppers and their juices.

Add the chicken. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer, turning once, until chicken is no longer pink in the center, 25 to 30 minutes. Add remaining bell peppers and cook until heated through, 3 to 5 minutes more. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.

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