Category Archives: italy

Rebutting Radical Chic…nella Cucina Italiana

In a fit of radical chic, the Financial Times published Marianna Giusti’s interview with Marxist academic Alberto Grandi, in which the latter “debunks” (a popular activity these days) Italian food traditions, most of which are admittedly as new as Italy’s prosperity. It’s not a difficult task to take on if one has read more than online articles or cookbooks published in the last decade, and Grandi is, generally speaking, correct. But he undertakes his task with the zeal most debunking Marxists have, relishing the zingers and gotchas of slaughtering sacred cows. But where’s the beef? A few thoughts below.

Those who have followed Italian food writing for any decent length of time will also have read a few of Giusti’s lines before — but at least she has a roster of nonne and zie to call.

Italy was a poor country before the Second World War — of course no one could afford rich foods loaded with meat and cheese then. Spain is similar, of course, and I was baffled at some of the veggie-free and meat-heavy dishes on offer in Madrid a few years ago. Those of us with octogenarian Italians in their lives know that in the old days everyone just ate beans, soups, root vegetable, and, of course, bread. All the stale bread recipes! And if you don’t, you can read about it a book like La Luna e i Falò where the Piemontese peasants eat that stuff. Even in A Farewell to Arms it’s clear pasta and cheese is a big wartime luxury, although the wine is omnipresent in Pavese and Hemingway both. Primo Levi writes about fantasizing about pasta when he’s in Auschwitz.
My old haunt, Veneto Sud, is still especially strong on the soups, veggies, and stale bread menu. Maybe a few shellfish thrown in near the coast, and of course, polenta, especially the more north you go. Affettati sliced agonizingly thin to make the pork last all winter. Until recently, my Veneta (DOC) mother-in-law had never had a piadina. For my father-in-law, born in 1925, colazione was stale bread and coffee. Brioche? Mai.

It was educative for me to go to rural Balkans (which was still poor two decades ago) before Italy for see what pre-war other parts of southern Europe were like — many similar southern European food traditions, albeit with a Turkish spin, still being practiced. Most remarkable? The fridges were tiny. Not much industrial food to go in them. Basements for cans and bottles, other stuff fresh. A freezer for the annual pig slaughter.

I take some umbrage with the grouchy and puritanical Marxist point of view (also why is FT interviewing a Marxist?) that “everything dear to you is a lie, there are no traditions [left unsaid: there’s only oppression!].” These so-called debunkers are joyless, and I can’t stand Eric Hobsbawm and his quotidian ideas dressed up as something fancy. Married with the FT‘s typical neoliberal ultra-capitalist ideas that we’re all just postmodern blanks slates and life constantly mixing stuff up, it’s even more noxious.

Having said all that, I support syncretic traditions if they celebrate life and goodness. For example, I love Washington’s national mall, even if all the designs are obviously not “authentic” (taking inspiration from the same Palladian villas that dot the Veneto) and it’s a sort of a patriotic Vegas imbued with national character. “Italian” food is much the same and if impossibly rigid recipes in our time of plenty give people what they want, why not? Three cheese chicken tortellini are not to my palate anyway, so I don’t mind someone yelling about the right way to make them.

Finally, as a matter of adopted Chesapeake pride, I reserve the right to jones for at least three items which can’t (or shouldn’t) be found in modern Italy: a proper Baltimore Italian cold cut sub, meatball sub or pizza cheese steak (which I learned when I moved to Italy is a bistecca al pizzaiolo on a sub roll) — although I’m pretty sure all the Italian corner joints, still there in the nineties, are falafel shops by now. But I’ll only eat ’em in Bawlmur, hön.

M&M Enterprise Cooking, Vol. XIX

the feast

Here’s a pre-Thanksgiving Day meal complete with primo, secondo and contorno. I was most excited about the contorno and had been squirreling away supplies from the dining facility for some time for it. The primo, a dish more suited to Italy’s hot summers, came out surprisingly well, and the primo, a simple soup, rounded it out. I liked this meal so much I had it twice yesterday — or was it just that I had leftovers and it was easy to allungare the soup a bit? One or the other, let’s say.

Primo — zuppa trapanese all’aragosta


This one was made easy by Better than Bouillon lobster base. Of course the actual recipe from Trapani calls for catching one’s own lobster and then making decorative use of the claw, but here there’s that whole piddly detail of being 1400 km from the nearest port.

Simply boil water, add a tablespoon of the base, break some spaghetti up and toss it in (correct that breaking is never done, but this is a soup). I added a garlic clove and for the dinner version several cherry tomatoes. You can also put in a spot of tomato paste, or, since I didn’t have that, some tomato passata.

Secondo — roast beef all’inglese

this little piggy had roast beef

Also very easy and made possible by the rare (pun intended) appearance of roast beef at the local sandwich bar. Spread out and arrange the slices, dress with juice of a fresh quarter lemon, good EVOO, S&P, and thin slices of a grana-type cheese (I used grana padano). Cherry tomatoes are a nice addition; arugula usually works wonders, but the dining facility had run out mere seconds before.



Contorno — cavoletti di bruxelles gorgonzola e noci

eat your greens!

I found this recipe when researching how to to do a perfect pasta with gorgonzola and walnuts, and it makes use of both to liven up the kiddie favorite of Brussels sprouts. This required a bit (but not too much prep).

There is absolutely no gorgonzola here, so bleu cheese crumbles have to work.

I swiped a roll from the salad bar awhile back, let it go stale, and then it nicely crumbled into fine dustings of bread crumbs.

Big shelled walnuts are usually around, so I diced up some of those finely. (Leftover crushed nuts go well with yogurt and honey.)

By some miracle, one of the few non-depleted stocks at the Italian PX is butter from Udine. They have gobs of it.

Pre-heat the oven to 200C and use an option that gets some heat from above, as you’ll want a nice crust. (If you have a broiler, broil at the end.)


Prep the above, boil your sprouts, and drain them. As you’re transferring them into Pyrex, clarify the butter in the still-hot pot you boiled them in. Combine the breadcrumbs, cheese, nuts and clarified butter with the sprouts, give them a twist with a spoon to distribute the toppings, and bake for 10 minutes.

Eccola! There’s a pre-Thanksgiving feast worthy of the birthday of the prophet, peace be upon him.

M&M Enterprise Cooking, Vol. XVIII

Ragú Redux

rescued ragù

Ragù. Pride of Emilia-Romagna, the rich, wine-and-broth simmered stuff which is indescribably comforting on a cold, foggy day in the Valpadana. And of course, a testament to its inherent goodness is its bastardization worldwide as “meat sauce” or, in an attempt to put an “authentic” spin on it, “bolognese sauce,” or, even worse, “salsa bolognese,” which is simply wrong since a salsa in Italian is something entirely different. But I don’t begrudge the triers — if I did, I won’t be able to write this post, or eat as well as I have, twice lately.

On “Italian nights” the dining facility (DFAC) makes, of course, “meat sauce” — seems like alloro (bay leaf) and erba cipollina (chives) are key ingredients, based off of sight alone (I haven’t tasted it in its “unimproved” form). What I’ve done is ask for a heaping helping of the stuff which I then freeze and re-do in an appropriately Bolognese way. (It’s hard to get fresh ground beef out here.) I’ve been happily surprised both times.

NB: In our household in Italy, we use mamma’s (and hence her mamma’s) time-honored recipe, which is a little different than the classic ragù bolognese, and it’s on that traditional dish that this recipe is based. As I said before, Veneto Sud has the advantage of being sometimes like Emilia-Romagna, sometimes like Veneto. Best of both worlds.

First, thaw the sub-standard ragù the night before.

Make a soffritto of butter (thanks to the Italian PX, I have butter from Udine), EVOO, and finely diced celery, carrots and onions. (Celery and carrots nabbed from the salad bar at the DFAC, onions bought for me on the economy.)

After the vegetables have softened a bit, add the sub-standard ragù. (In a normal recipe one would add the ground beef and/or veal/pork at this point and brown it.) Mix well, careful not to let it burn since it’s already cooked.

Add some white wine and let it evaporate. This is crucial.

Add nutmeg (Indian stuff, sourced from Amazon — coals-to-Newcastle irony not lost on me) and rosemary.

Add a couple cups of beef broth. I had pre-fab gelatinous cubes from the Italian PX which I added to boiled water, although I’m expecting some “Better than Bouillon” beef base soon.

Turn up the heat a bit (depending on one’s timeframe — I had an afternoon meeting so couldn’t let it simmer for hours) and let the broth boil off. Pay attention to sticking and burning potential.

In the meantime, one should be boiling water, salting it liberally, and putting in some tagliatelle which are the only acceptable kind of pasta to eat with this dish. (Unless one is making lasagne, and one could make an exception for real tortellini bolognese, but one should never add southern pasta forms like bucatini and absolutely no spaghetti, please, never, no.) They should be made with egg. They’ll likely be ready in under five minutes.

Once the sauce is relatively dry, mamma taught us to add a lot of grana padano or parmigiano-reggiano and stir it in. (One can, and should, grate some over the complete dish later.)

Toss the pasta well with the ragù (eliminating this step is also not an option.)

Add more cheese and eccola, one has oneself a meal that at least begins to resemble what’s on Sunday plates all over Emilia-Romagna and Veneto Sud. It might even come close to Trattoria Annamaria on via Belle Arti, one of my favorites spots for cucina bolognese.

And thus plain old dining hall “meat sauce” was reborn, made anew and rescued. One may note that I didn’t add any extra tomato — the pre-made stuff already had enough, and one characteristic is that real ragú usually has nothing more than a nominal dash of tomato paste.

There was a chili cookoff today, and I felt slightly guilty for not going as friends of mine were competing, but I took solace in the fact that ragù is like chili in a couple of ways — beyond both being simmered meat dishes, everyone’s mom has a recipe, and everyone’s mom makes the best version of it.

Here’s how my suocera’s version differs from the traditional one:

No pancetta, chicken livers, mortadella or other salty meaty additive with the soffritto.

White wine, never red.

Grana instead of whole milk at the end.

Thinner passata instead of tomato paste.

Addition of rosemary and nutmeg, which some people have strong opinions about, but I’ve got used to it and quite like it.


M&M Enterprise Cooking, Vol. XVII

Pasta con tapenade e sgombro

Pasta con tapenade e sgombro

It was “Italian night” at the dining facility the other night so I picked up a vat of black olive tapenade, thinking I’d do something with it later, despite the fact that tapenade is a Provençal, not Italian dish, but why not? Surely there is some kind of Mediterranean goodness there to unpack.

I uncovered a recipe at Giallo Zafferano that somehow had all easily-obtainable ingredients — canned sgombro (mackerel), hot peppers, EVOO, garlic, white wine and parsley. As it ended up, I completely forgot a dash of frozen parsley, but with a bit of lemon zest, it was excellent anyway. As usual, high-quality Granoro spaghetti, mackerel and EVOO from the Italian PX made this dish better. If you’re dealing with pre-fab tapenade then this dish is even easier.

Not Espinaler… but maybe comes close?


Put on water for the spaghetti to boil in. When it comes to a boil, liberally salt it. When it re-boils, put in your spaghetti. While this is going on you can prepare the condimento.

Heat up some EVOO in one pan, toss in a garlic clove. While that’s heating, cube your mackerel. Toss it in once the garlic is browned. (Warning: it will splatter and pop, so adjust the heat accordingly, or pull the pan off the heat when you put in the fish.) Let the mackerel brown. Add salt and black pepper as you like, don’t forget the parsley, and then a dash of wine. Let the wine cook off and then take it off the heat.

two pans are better than one

Use a separate pan to make a soffritto of EVOO and spicy pepper. Giallo Zafferano has a fresh cut one, but I have some pepper spread I made here, so I threw in a teaspoon or two of that. You could probably get away with dried red pepper, too, but those burn very easily, so attenzione.

I was tempted to do all this in one pan, but I find that small details in a lot of Italian cookery — especially the simpler dishes — matter a lot. So just resolve yourself to washing more dishes. Use a big pan, too, because you’ll mix your pasta in this.

When the pasta is almost done, drain it, toss it in the pepper/EVOO soffritto, mix in the tapenade, and once it’s well-mixed, add your mackerel soffritto. For an extra touch of civility, take out the garlic clove at this point — its work in seasoning your soffritto is done.

Mix the whole thing well. At this point you can very finely grate some lemon peel over it.

Eccola, there’s your spaghetti con tapenade e sgombro.

One word of warning — either lower the heat on the pepper/EVOO pan or work very quickly. You don’t want the pasta to get too dry or fried-seeming.

If you can read Italian, don’t miss Giallo Zafferano’s evocative write up of Provence.  If you can’t, a rough translation follows:

Picturesque landscapes, sunny coasts and the blue sea: these are some of the characteristics of Provence, a land famous not only for its endless lavender fields but also for its centuries-old olive trees. We were inspired by the landscapes of this French province to compose this tasty first course.

“San Martino, ogni mosto diventa vino”

Po Valley November fog

Republishing this for the 103rd anniversary of Armistice Day —

It’s not only the 100th anniversary of Armistice, now Veterans, Day, it’s also San Martino, an autumnal feast day in Italy that celebrates not only the fourth-century patron saint of beggars, but also the maturation of new wines. The great Giosuè Carducci also wrote a poem describing a typical foggy fall day around this time of the year in northern Italy, which deserves quoting in full and in the original.

San Martino

La nebbia a gl’irti colli
piovigginando sale,
e sotto il maestrale
urla e biancheggia il mar;

ma per le vie del borgo
dal ribollir de’ tini
va l’aspro odor de i vini
l’anime a rallegrar.

Gira su’ ceppi accesi
lo spiedo scoppiettando:
sta il cacciator fischiando
su l’uscio a rimirar

tra le rossastre nubi
stormi d’uccelli neri,
com’esuli pensieri,
nel vespero migrar.

[click on the title for a serviceable translation]

no steep hills, but plenty of steep argine in Veneto Sud

Carducci moved to Bologna at age 25, where he surely became acquainted with the pervasive northern Italian nebbia, which gets more intense the closer one goes to the Po.

While there, he lived on via Broccaindoso, where, it bears mentioning, there is a pretty decent osteria, if you’re in the neighborhood.

With thanks to SE for reminding me of all of this, and for introducing me to his poetry. 

M&M Enterprise Cooking, Vol. XVI

not bad for being landlocked

Two dishes today. One is a variation on the previously-posted risotto-in-a-bag dish. It was “Mexican night” at the cafeteria Wednesday and I was generously given by the server a large quantity of cooked shrimp, presumably for use in shrimp tacos. Having lived not too far from the Sea of Cortez recently, I can’t imagine why anyone would turn down a shrimp taco, but it suited my purposes well. Not a lot to write about in terms of cooking.

Pasta gorgonzola e noci, November 11

What better way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War than with a typically Alpine northern Italian dish? This dish comes not from the old battlegrounds of Caporetto and the Piave but from further west, in Piedmont and of course Lombardy, where one remembers that Gorgonzola has its own stop on the Milan metro. This dish is a sort of variation on that old standby that got my wife and I through our impecunious post-student years.

How to do this one: the cafeteria has passable crumbled bleu cheese daily, so I grabbed a couple of containers of that and a container of shelled walnuts (known in Italian as ghergli di noci). I basically followed this recipe from Giallo Zafferano with a few modifications.

Say ghergli five times fast.

  • Finely diced the nuts, or ghergli thereof.
  • Put on the water to boil, salted it.
  • Substituted a bit of whole milk for cream, let it heat and added the cheese. Let the cheese melt and added pepper and a dash of these herbs de provence (which appear to be mainly thyme). Stirred.
  • Put in the penne (no trofie here).
  • Took pasta out a minute early from water, strained pasta and added it to the mix. Added the finely chopped nuts. Let all the moisture cook off, stirring rapidly to prevent sticking.
  • Stirred well and topped with parmigiano reggiano, pricey ($10) at the PX.

cooking down

It wasn’t gorgonzola, needless to say, but it was passable. Sweeter, stickier, not as creamy, but plenty ok for conflict zone cooking. (A colleague who knows war zones well has corrected my use of the term.)  I used lactose-free milk, which maybe have contributed to the sweetness.


Sometime back, I promised to do a literary lunches series, and mainly failed in that regard. Let me try to amend that almost three years later with a quote from a writer who loved the north of Italy.

—Have you a cheese sandwich?
—Yes, sir.
Like a few olives too if they had them. Italian I prefer. Good glass of burgundy take away that. Lubricate. A nice salad, cool as a cucumber, Tom Kernan can dress. Puts gusto into it. Pure olive oil. Milly served me that cutlet with a sprig of parsley. Take one Spanish onion. God made food, the devil the cooks. Devilled crab.
—Wife well?
—Quite well, thanks … A cheese sandwich, then. Gorgonzola, have you?
—Yes, sir.

Keeping in mind that nothing in any work by this author is an accident, let’s consult his pre-eminent biographer for a gloss of what this meal means.

“Besides serving as a parable that life breeds corruption, Gorgonzola is probably chosen also because of Dante’s adventures with the Gorgon in the Inferno IX. Bloom masters the monster by digesting her.”

Reference here.

Next up: Brussels sprouts with bleu cheese, nuts, clarified butter and bread crumbs.

M&M Enterprise Cooking, Vol. XII

Caponata Siciliana – September 17

This will be the last for a bit, as I’m off to the land of good and accessible food soon enough. I found myself with far too many good fresh vegetables and jarred items the other night, so I improvised a caponata. There are a lot of regional variations, but this is the warzone version here.

Soffritto of garlic, two non-fiery long peppers and EVOO in a high-walled pot as I cubed and sliced 5-6 eggplants, most medium, one giant. I added the eggplants gradually and, since they’re sponges, added a bit more oil each time.

Then 5-6 ripe red tomatoes. This all began to cook down well enough and to be sure, I needed the liquid in the pot.

I covered, turned down the heat a little, stirred frequently and let come together. I then raided the fridge and decided to get rid of all my green olives (pitted), black olives (not pitted, but much tastier and ideal for cooking as they have a rich black flesh that falls apart) and capers (all jarred Saclà items courtesy of the Italian PX). I also tossed in an anchovy fillet, which immediately melted and just added a salty flavor. Then a bit of unrefined sugar and some balsamic vinegar (BioItalia, amazingly available here). I was on the fence about this, as I think that white vinegar gives it the agrodolce (sweet and sour) taste that makes it so distinctive. The sugar neutralized the bite of the vinegar well enough; it wasn’t as agrodolce as previous versions I’ve made in a better-stocked kitchen, but it did the trick.

Continued to cook and stir, then let cool for at least five minutes and topped with fresh basil from the warzone herb garden.

It came out better than I expected, to be honest. I had some pecorino so I couldn’t resist grating a bit, which may be sacrilege in Sicily, but as I’ve said I’ve mainly spent time in the north, so someone please let me know if so.

It’s meant to go with meat, so the leftover half I had today, nice and chilled, with copious amount of freshly grilled chicken kebabs, was not a bad way to end this time in the ‘zone. My only regret is that I wish I’d pitted the black olives.

I’ll be back online with more ideas next month. Till then, arrivederci. 

M&M Enterprise Cooking, Vol. I

In the model of a less-evil Milo Minderbinder, I thought I’d show people what kind of food one can whip up with limited resources in a war zone.  Having a full range and stove helps, but the crucial ingredient is, of course, an Italian PX.

August 7

Starting simple — bieta (or bietola in Veneto) sautéed in a pan with garlic. Both frozen garlic and bietola from the Italian PX.

bietola saltata in padella

August 9

gamberi in padella con pomodori

Shrimp fusilli, basically a version of the Italian classic gamberi in padella con pomodoro fresco.

Not a huge success. Tomatoes sourced from the dining facility. You can clearly see that the dry tomatoes didn’t melt and form a nice sauce, as I hoped they would. I even pierced then with a fork and squashed them in the pan.

Frozen shrimp, caught in Thailand, sourced from the Italian PX.

I didn’t have long pasta which would have been more appropriate.

pasta di soia con bietole ripassate

August 13

A kind soul leaving gave me organic edamame spaghetti. I’m trying to cut carbs so I thought I’d give it a shot.

Frozen bietola boiled for a few minutes with some sea salt brought from home.

Tossed pasta in water.

Made a soffritto on the side with frozen garlic, some paprika and herbs de Provence. Threw in a can of Airone tuna.

Drained it well. Tossed in the bietola. Stirred well. Added fresh lemon juice, jarred olives, and jarred sun dried tomatoes.

It came out well. Basically an adapted version of this.

August 16

Parmigiana di melanzane

A classic on both sides of the pond. I got frozen eggplants at the Italian PX. Had the EVOO and frozen garlic. Got a burrata from the cafeteria and some of their cooked tomato sauce. Had some good Victoria passata (again, Italian PX) at home. Another kind soul had gifted me some oregano.

August 19

Due primi di pesce

For the first one (left) I brought home some scallops from the cafeteria’s weekly “surf and turf night” and had some lemon slices (usually for iced tea) at home. I also had some leftover skewered veggies from an event the previous night. I made a soffritto, this time with fresh garlic, added the vegetables, tossed in the scallops, added the al dente pasta and squeezed the lemon when it was done. I wasn’t really hungry so I ended up eating just the scallops and vegetables and leaving the pasta.

For this second dish (right) I recycled the lunch pasta. Made another soffritto with garlic and an local red pepper, tossed in Italian passata, some of the gifted basil, mixed in the spaghetti, added jarred green olives and capers (again, Italian PX) and a can of tuna someone left on my doorstep since they left post. Same nice person left me truffle oil (unopened!) and I topped with that. This dish was the clear winner.

Le elezioni

On the front pages
On the front pages

One of the many small pleasures in Italian daily life is picking up a thick edition of one of the dailies and reading through it over a strong morning coffee (or two, if one still has jet lag). Yes, such paper monsters still exist, and the thick, clotted Latinate prose and strong opinions make, as any student of the language knows, for quite different newspaper reading — frustrating at first, but with a payoff after repeated efforts. This is the third presidential election that I’ve had the luck to witness from Italy, and I’m always struck at just how much attention the foreign press pays to our elections. And why wouldn’t they? Our decisions affect many, a fact possibly lost on some of the isolationist movements coursing through democracies today. (NB: I was out with a British friend last night discussing Brexit over some pizza and beer.) So as a testament to that, witness two of the three pages of coverage that the august Corriere della Sera gave to Monday’s debate — not only the photographed two-page spread, but also a third page (not shown), plus they put it as the lead item on the front page. In the ancient times of print media, word count and page space, as well as quaint old notions like ‘above-the-fold’ (which the debate was for Corriere) and below-the-fold were bellwethers for the importance of an event — which, as if it need be said one more time, this election is.

Minute-by-minute breakdown
Minute-by-minute breakdown

For those not intimidated by the Italian journalism style, this article by Beppe Severgnini analyzing Trump’s use of the word “stamina” and Hillary’s use of “fact-checking” is a nice little linguistic diversion (print edition, bottom of p.9).

And don’t forget to vote.


Amid What Bells Do You Appear Rovigo?

rovigo2April’s poetry discovery was that Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert has not only a poem, but an entire volume entitled Rovigo, with the eponymous poem being indeed about that small town in Veneto midway between mythical Venice and sumptuous Bologna where I lived in 2007 and 2008. (Sadly the book is available only in German at Amazon, and only at the exorbitant price of $66.)

I didn’t mean to live in Rovigo. I had bigger and better plans — I was going to work in Milan, or Rome, or teach in Bologna, or at least do a fellowship in Modena. My girlfriend lived in Rovigo, but she wasn’t really from there, either — her family was from closer to Verona, and she’d grown up out on the Po Delta, and gone to school in Bologna, where we’d met. I’d gone there once or twice, to meet her mom and have lunch, and hiked along what I remembered as a humid canal path smelling faintly, not unpleasantly, of vegetation, to get back to that train station with its two windows, with yellowed photos of Piazza Vittorio Emanuele and la Chiesa di Santa Maria del Soccorso taped up, to go back to Bologna, which had trains going to Milan and Switzerland, not to the provincial destination of Chioggia and Adria.

I finished a master’s in 2007 and got to Rovigo in the infernal heat of Ferragosto, when no sane southern European works. But possibly I would not be working either: back home, financial TV personality Jim Cramer was bellowing at the Fed to “open the discount window.” The subprime crisis was happening. I wasn’t going to find a job in Milan, or Rome, or anywhere. Anywhere other than Oxford School, Rovigo branch. My temporary stopover ended up being slightly more permanent. And then, I got married. My train wasn’t going anywhere. Rovigo became my reality. I stayed a year. I go back indefinitely. I just got back, actually.

So I can agree quite well with Herbert that Rovigo is “a city of blood and stone like others/a city where a man died yesterday someone went mad someone coughed hopelessly all night.” It is, doubtlessly, a real city quite apart from the myths of nearby Venice and the feasts, architectural, gastronomic and otherwise, of Bologna. Professor Adam Zagajewski, himself no stranger to the Veneto, has more on this in an excellent essay.

There are a couple of translations going around the internet and I will post the one by Alissa Valles I found on Professor Zagajewski’s site here — I don’t read Polish, but the English-reader in me finds the unattributed translation on severely lacking. There’s a world of difference between the mechanistic “nth time” and the more intuitive, indubitably casual “umpteenth”, and “filled with love” is no comparison to “throes of passion.” And what about the gashed mountain nearby, “like an Easter Ham surrounded by kale” versus “like a holiday cut of meat draped in sprigs of parsley”? I’m less sure about that. Easter ham taps into that most sacred of Catholic holidays, celebrated with great vigor in both Poland and Italy. I’ll let the reader judge by linking to the anonymous translation above and pasting Valles’ below. As a side note, I wonder if Herbert’s gashed mountain is one of the nearby Colli Euganei?

Zagajewski’s essay in an excellent little study on how the foreigner — especially the educated and sensible one — experiences Italy:

[W]e’re only interested in those who died five hundred years ago. We’re not coming here to be reminded of the triviality of life, we’re not coming here to think of Berlusconi or Prodi, or of the reform of the health care system; we come here for the beauty alone.

But by the end of the poem,

the non-visitable city of Rovigo changes its color. […] He just mentions, nearing the poem’s closure, “arrivi—partenze,” keeping the Italian words in the text, and we understand what he means: arrivi—partenze, birth and death, beginning and end.

In the poem, Rovigo has become real, a real place in Italy where people come and go, are born and die. There’s a lot to unpack here in terms of the reality of life in small-town Europe in 2014: the Rovigo of today is, for many who work in more developed Padova or Ferrara, a bedroom community with cheaper rents and better eldercare for parents. For many recent immigrants, the neighborhoods around the train station are a cheap place to live while they go ply their trades in the bigger cities of Mestre, Padova or Venice. (Including, but not limited to, the world’s oldest profession.) As economic terms concentrate greater wealth and more features of a completely developed economy to internationalized mega-cities (of which Milan is the prime Italian, but not an especially good, example), Rodigini find themselves commuting more and more, going to work a competitive job in Milan and commuting home on the weekends. The arrivals and departures of Herbert’s poem, written over 20 years ago, back when Italy had more of an economy, are even more stark now.

One detail I will take exception to in Zagajewski’s essay is that Rovigo is a dull or boring town. Small or provincial, yes, quite likely. But it is not over-industrialized (for that the Venice-bound traveler need look no further than neighboring Mestre), and has three very finely preserved piazze — one of them Vittorio Emanuele, the others Piazza Garibaldi and Piazza Roma, known to natives as Piazza Merlin — that would be the envy of a metropolis like Milan, where a piazza is often merely a traffic circle. As my mother-in-law tells me, the Adigetto Canal until the early 1950’s used to run straight through the middle of town, down the Corso del Popolo that is today’s main pedestrian drag, and it doesn’t take much imagination to see Rovigo as a smaller, less-developed Venice.

On a clear day, when there is no winter fog or summer afa — that crushing, grayish humidity that sticks between the Po and Adige Rivers in the summer heat in the lower Veneto — from the right bank of the canal out towards Sant’Apollinare, one can see distant snow-covered peaks of the Monti Berici.

rovigo salmon map ROVIGO

Rovigo station. Vague associations. A Goethe play
or something from Byron. I passed through Rovigo
so many times and just now for the umpteenth time
I understood in my inner geography it is a singular
place though it is certainly no match for Florence.
I never put a living foot down there. Rovigo was
always coming closer or receding into distance.

I lived then in the throes of a passion for Altichiero
of the San Giorgio Oratorium in Padua and also
for Ferrara which I love because it reminded me
of the plundered city of my fathers. I lived torn
between the past and the present moment
crucified many times by time and by place
But nonetheless happy with a powerful faith
that the sacrifice would not be made in vain

Rovigo was not marked by anything in particular
it was a masterpiece of averageness straight roads
ugly houses—depending on the train’s direction
just before or just after the city a mountain suddenly
rose up from a plain cut across by a red stone quarry
like a holiday cut of meat draped in sprigs of parsley
apart from that nothing to please hurt catch the eye

But it was after all a city of blood and stone like others
a city where a man died yesterday someone went mad
someone coughed hopelessly all night


Reduced to its station to a comma a crossed-out letter
nothing just the station—arrivi—partenze

and that is why I think of you Rovigo Rovigo