“Food is our common ground, a universal experience.” ~James Beard
Let me tell you a story about one of the most incredible dinners I had while in Italy.
I went through many pizzas until finally eating the one that changed everything and ruined what options I had to choose from at home.
My host family, The Bellots, pulled into a large pizzeria just outside of Salo called Ca Dei Manni, or “House of Manni.” This 17th century renovated farm house sat beautifully framed by a large olive tree just outside the entrance, and an enticing aroma beckoned from within. We sat out back, it being a fairly hot night, with other italians enjoying themselves, drinking, eating, smoking, and chatting away.
I looked around and noticed a few surprising details; characteristics that I would soon realize further enhanced not only the meal, but the experience. Waiters, some young, others old, walked with precision, posture and small bow-ties. My host father Ezio pointed out a large mob-boss looking man sitting at a table alone in one corner. He surveyed the room with one eyebrow raised, studying his customers reactions to both food and drink. His name was Manrico, and whether he simply owned the restaurant or most of Italy, I couldn’t say. What I can tell you for certain is that he had constant care from his staff, whom he called upon to supply him with endless pizza and wine like a true Italian gangster from the old films. I was intrigued.
Though Ezio humorously scoffed at my ordering Sprite rather than beer, it was welcomingly refreshing. We were served a small order of bruschetta along with our drinks. I was ravenously hungry but knew to pace myself, though the fresh tomatoes and crunchy bread called to me like a sirens song.
The selection of pizza was endless. Most of the names I didn’t even recognize, and for a moment I verged on taking the safe route of prosciutto. But as our waiter approached, I saw it: “Quattro Stagione.” The Four Seasons.
It arrived impressively fast, complete with mozzarella, prosciutto ham, artichokes, bell peppers, olive oil, a little salt, and mushrooms.
Biting into it somehow felt like everything I’d seen in Italy had, in essence, been captured in this pizza. All the beauty, history, and excitement was somehow baked into the thin crust and hot cheese. Each individual ingredient was distinct; the ham, thinly cut, danced a waltz with the cheese; the artichokes, bell peppers and mushrooms tasted as if they had just been picked, cut and prepared. I quite literally tasted the four seasons.
It didn’t just make my memory fire with images of Italy: it made words appear. The descriptive sentences came and went, and inside I despaired at not having a pen and paper.
The side dish of calamari was crunchy and perfectly cooked without being either too chewy or soft, and acted as a nice palate cleanser to the pizza. Salty, a squirt of lemon overtop brought out the wonderfully oceanic taste.
My dessert of Tiramisu was not as I expected; Ezio informed me that every area throughout Italy does their own version of the dish and each one is unique. It was light and airy, creamy with a hint of rum. Though incredibly full, I enjoyed it to the last bite.
We ended with a wedge of fresh watermelon. I found this odd, but on that humid night it tasted like an oasis; beautiful in it’s refreshing nature, and yet discouraging as it washed away the last notions of “The Four Seasons” pizza. Someday, I promised myself, I would return to once again lose myself in palatable indulgence.