Passing a small shop, its doors open, its doorway cluttered with boxes of various edibles, packaged herbs and assorted dried pasta, the mixed aromas of bread, cheese and other indecipherable smells all beckoning you to enter the alimentaria, a small grocery shop.
I first discovered the negozio di alimentari in Taormina, hidden in a street away from the throngs of tourists walking and shopping along the Corso Umberto. These little grocery shops are a bit like the old corner shop servicing the need of the local residents and therefore each has its own particular personality. My alimentaria in Taormina had the added benefit of stocking delicious and very cheap Sicilian wine.
The alimentaria is usually a small, narrow, dark space filled with the pungent scent of cheese, cured meats, olives and marinated vegetables stored at the counter at the far end of the shop. Wafting through this wonderful assault of the olfactory senses is the light, just detectable and unmistakeable yeasty smell of freshly baked bread. Part of the reason for the lack of space is because the walls leading to the counter are lined with shelves tumbling with dried and preserved produce, biscuits, drinks and other comestibles. At the foot of the shelves are crates containing fruit, vegetables and various other produce.
While there is always the trattoria or bar where spirits can be revived with an expresso, cappuccino and pastry or a light meal there is something very satisfying sitting somewhere near a beach or on a hilltop surveying the unmistakeable Italian landscape eating a freshly made panino filled with various chosen fillings.
The alimentaria appears to be usually a family business and the hours are long. I hadn’t discovered the advantages of these shops when I first arrived in Naples but I had a supermarket taste of what I would discover. I had spent the afternoon wandering through the narrow streets of Naples, which, on a Saturday afternoon, were filled with stalls that appeared to sell everything. I was later to regret not having bought more than fruit when I came to consider dinner.
In my wanderings I arrived at Santa Chiara where one marvels at the majolica work telling of various mythical stories before arriving at the galleries of the cloister where the lives of saints are told in frescoes. Among the buildings and majolica work the extent of the bombing of Naples during the Second World War becomes evident. Fortunately the beautiful traditional Italian nativity scene is intact and offers an opportunity to get in touch with the inner child.
At the supermarket on the way home, I bought bread, cheese, olives and a marinated salad mix for dinner which I ate on my balcony looking across to Castello Sant’Elmo where I intended to attend a concert dedicated to Scarlatti, Naples famous son, that evening. Buying in a supermarket means that you buy according to the dictates of supermarket packaging. In the alimentaria, on the other hand, the quantity is your choice, regardless of how much.
Having discovered the alimentaria, midday meals while tramping through the countryside or medieval towns and exploring archaeological sites, became much simpler and, of course, cheaper.
When my friend and I were walking though Tuscany, we carried our own food. In the charming town of Piombino where we stayed for several days we were fortunate to have a small apartment where we could cook our own meals. One evening I decided to cook polenta to eat with roast vegetables. I decided I would cook enough to use it for bread to carry on our walks. Somehow I misjudged the quantities and we had more than enough polenta for dinner and our planned walk the next day. We ate our way solidly through most of the polenta but several days later in San Gimignano, I revolted. I was not having another picnic lunch featuring polenta. “What are you going to eat then,” asked my patient friend. “I’m going to find an alimentaria and have them make me a panino.”
It was with guilty delight that I bit through the crust into the oil-sodden bread wherein lay cheese, marinated aubergine and artichokes with fresh lettuce and salad. As we gazed across the valley towards the towers of San Gimignano my friend doggedly set about the task of finishing off the polenta. I, on the other hand, was in a gastronomical heaven.
Standing in front of the counter in the alimentaria confronted with choice and making a decision, takes time. This is an opportunity to talk about the various cheeses, sample them and discuss which cheese will best compliment the choice of marinated and fresh vegetables. Therefore it is important to allow for the time required for the task. There were few assistants that were impatient. Indeed, most seemed to be delighted to engage in the discussion and help in the decision making. The conversation was not limited to fillings but extended to which bread would be best, there being so much to choose from, particularly early in the day.
I was very glad to have my panino, freshly made up that morning, when I stopped after a difficult and crowded walk from Monterosso to Vernazza on the Cinque Terra. I had been looking forward to a pleasant walk overlooking the ocean and exploring the towns on the way. I had imagined that by mid-September the crowds would be reduced and the weather milder. I was mistaken. The walk was made stressful because people seemed oblivious of others also walking the narrow path hugging the hillside as they walked two abreast leaving little room for the approaching third walker and indeed, appearing even unaware that there was someone approaching. I often wondered whether, if I had not hugged myself up against the hillside of the path, away from the precipitous edge that dropped down to the sea below, I might not have been plunged off the path without anyone noticing.
Vernazza was crowded so I took myself to the small bay, away from the crowds where fishing boats were pulled onto the tiny beach and as I ate my sandwich enviously watching the bathers enjoying the clear, cool water. I wished I had packed my bathing costume.
Sometimes the alimentaria also sells wine and if they don’t there is invariably an enoteca close by. This is particularly useful in the evening when planning to relax with a glass of wine and antipasto. People are keen to discuss and recommend a wine to suit your palate.
In Garbatella, originally a suburb built with socialist sympathies by Mussolini for dock workers and displaced residents of Rome, I had a spacious apartment overlooking the “Red Hotel” with St. Pauls rising in the background. After a day reacquainting myself with Rome, saying hi to old favourites or discovering new-to-me sights, what could be better than to sit on the balcony and watch the colours of the sun setting over Rome while sipping a crisp white or dense red with a gourmet platter to nibble from? Verremente, questa è la dolce vita!