'Un etto e mezzo per favore'
We’re standing facing a glass counter, known as the banco della gastronomia; it's strewn with Italian delicacies from smoked ricotta, mozzarella di bufala, stracchino, goats cheese and Pecorino Romano through to Parmegiano Reggiano, aged 24 months. This is the cheese section.
Olives, sun-dried tomatoes, grilled artichokes, mackerel fillets, octopus salad and peppers pickled in brine. This is the antipasti section.
Lasagna bolognese, lasagne with mushrooms, melanzane alla parmigiana, vitello tonnato, crespelle and cannelloni fill the primi section.
We’re at the supermarket and spoiled for choice.
Looking up, staff are backdropped by an array of cured meats and to ask for them we use our knowledge of decimal maths.
The Italian Way.
Milligram, gram, decagram, hectogram and kilogram. Most of us would ask for 'one hundred and fifty grams of ham' but in Italy we stick to specific ways, especially where food is concerned. Whether it is quicker to say 'one and a half hectograms' or 'one hundred and fifty grams' is questionable, however, this is the way it is done, the Italian way.
One and a half hectograms is roughly 15 thin slices of prosciutto crudo (parma ham). Another slice and you’ll be asked if they may exceed your requested grammage. It’s all very stylishly done. Swift maneuvers of the slicing blade and placement without batting an eye. Have you ever tried successfully lifting a single slice of prosciutto crudo? Not an easy feat. Other cured meats may hold their shape, but prosciutto crudo, well, that’s another story, its melt-in-your-mouth softness makes it an affettati-nightmare to handle so yes, it takes some skill.
How to ask for ham.
In front of a wall of cured bliss, don’t be daunted by this peculiar method of ordering ham, don’t feel dismayed, “Posso avere?" Can I have? gets you many places in Italy. One can simply point at your chosen hind of ham, and when asked, “Quanto?" How much? do not fret, one gesture speaks a thousand Italian words.
Learn the 'poco' gesture, the 'continue' gesture and the 'stop' gesture. That’s pretty much all you need to get by at the food counter. Remember to look out for a little ticket machine to get into the numeric queue.
The 'poco' gesture - meaning a little
Pinch your index finger and thumb almost together.
The 'continue' gesture - meaning keep going
With your palm up and tilted, make circular motions.
The 'stop' gesture - it's international really
Your palm faces forward
With a spread like this, it's hard to remain focused. Here are our suggestions of delights to try if you're feeling pleasantly overwhelmed:
The Cheese Counter:
Burrata - mozzarella from Puglia with a creamy filling,
Mozzarella di Bufala - buffalo mozzarella,
Stracciatella, stracchino, crescenza, robbiola - creamy, young cheeses, similar but subtly different,
Ricotta affumicata - smoked ricotta, grate onto pasta or use in pasta alla Norma,
Pecorino Romano - grate onto pasta, use in pasta bakes, eat thinly sliced on a cheese board,
Tomino - small, round cheese, warm in a pan,
Dobbiaco - grill in a pan until a golden crust is formed, serve with polenta and wild mushrooms,
Parmigiano Reggiano D.O.C.G 24 months - grate into risotto, onto pasta or eat in chucks as an aperitivo.
The Cured Meats Counter:
Bresaola - salted beef, serve with rocket and shaved parmesan,
Mortadella - Bologna’s enormous polony with optional pistacchi,
Prosciutto Crudo di San Daniele - Friuli’s melt-in-your-mouth parma ham,
Roast Beef - thinly sliced and pink in the middle,
Porchetta Romana - herby, juicy, roasted pork,
Sorpressa Coppata - salami with fillet inside.
The Antipasti Counter:
Mackerel fillets in oil,
Sundried tomatoes in olive oil,
Stuffed red peppers with tuna,
Pickled caper fruits,
Taggiasche olive - small, black, flavourful olives from Liguria.
The Cooked Foods Counter:
Crespelle - stuffed crepes in bechamel,
Melanzane alla parmigiana - aubergine layered with mozzarella and rich tomato sauce,
Polpette - meatballs,
Stuffed red peppers,
Arancini - balls of deep-fried rice,
Insalata di riso - rice salad with a variety of ingredients,
Insata Russa - a mayonnaise-based salad of egg, peas, potato and ham.