Three years ago, I moved to a small town called Adria in the Veneto region of northeast Italy, less than an hour from Venice. I moved to Italy for everything from its art masterpieces to the variety of mushrooms, from going to operas in Verona’s ancient Arena to going to local saint’s day festivals that have nothing pious about them.
Adria isn’t a big city; it doesn’t have American-style cafés with take-out coffee, or supermarkets selling vegetables that have traveled half the world. Here, I am learning (a continuous process) how to live a traditional Italian life; to go to the small shops for groceries, to ask the owner of the fruit shop to recommend what’s in season, not to buy the Halloween pumpkin for cooking, to have my aperitivo in the same bar each evening, to be generous, not to split the bill.
In a small town in Italy you can live cheaply. With every sip of my $3.50 prosecco and accompanying free snacks, I toast the affordability of food and drink here. While an hour away in Venice, tourists struggle through their pre-frozen seafood wincing at the prices on the menu, here you just have to find the simple trattorie (restaurants) where the menu depends on what is fresh and available that day, and wine is rarely more than $7 for a half-carafe.
One of my favorite aspects of living in a rural area is the connection to the seasons. The first chill of a November evening is scented with the rich burnt smell of roasting chestnuts. A bounty of pumpkins in October means restaurants have special menus inventing all sorts of orange delicacies. In nearby Ferrara, in Emilia-Romagna, the local specialty is a pasta stuffed with pumpkin, called cappellacci. Nearly every restaurant serves their variation, and for about $23 you can have your starter, a pasta primo, abundant wine, and a coffee. Here in Adria, autumn means my favorite local restaurant serves risotto with pumpkin and prawns. Spring comes with another radical menu change, and has only truly begun when there is the first asparagus festival with volunteers sweating over huge pots of risotto.
The sagre, food festivals, are the best way to experience timeless Italian culture at its most raucous. A combination of long tables packed with local diners, wine arriving by the carafe, and excellent food in abundance means the tent almost seems to reverberate with noise and laughter. In one village nearby, the local delicacy is bondiola, a kind of boiled salami, celebrated by a festival in May. Last year, with friends, we commandeered a table the entire length of the marquee, and for the whole afternoon we drank, conversed in bellows, cheered the mayor’s speech, and won an air mattress pool toy in the raffle at the end.
Cooking in Italy is elemental. It’s not uncommon to make your own wine or salami here, and most children have grown up on Nonna’s homemade pasta. I went to an antique market recently and found a torchio—a press, for making bigoli, a kind of thick spaghetti typical of the Veneto region. The bigoli is made from bronze, and it’s a hefty piece of equipment. It also requires some pretty big biceps to turn the handle which presses out the thick strands of pasta. Polenta, a mash made from boiled cornmeal, is another specialty of the Veneto region, and if made from scratch that too requires hours of stirring the dense mixture with a chunky wooden spoon.
Cooking and eating in rural Italy doesn’t seem to have changed for centuries. Who needs something electronic when you can have a workout making pasta and then enjoy the fruits of your labor with friends—perhaps begging them not look in the kitchen where there seems to have been a flour explosion.
La dolce vita, the sweet life, and il dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing, are two Italian concepts we expats search for, and usually find, here in Italy. I’ve found them through “slow” cooking (often literally) and living by the seasons.
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