One of the most popular Italian pasta dishes is Bucatini all’Amatriciana. Bucatini is a sort of fat spaghetti and the Amatriciana sauce is made with tomatoes, pieces of guanciale (a type of bacon) and onion. I learned how to make this sauce but then I decided that I didn’t like chunks of tomatoes, bacon and onion floating around in my pasta sauce. Maybe it is an American hang-up, but I wanted the sauce to be smooth. So I cooked the sauce, then put it in the blender to make it nice and smooth before serving it. I served my pasta Amatriciana at a dinner party and several Italians commented on it saying, “But what sauce is this? It can’t be Amatriciana, but it tastes like it.” I proudly and naively told them of my blender technique. They were all very diplomatic about it.
Several years later, we went on vacation in Sardinia, with one of the families that had been at that dinner party. There were ten of us altogether and Paola, the other mother, threw herself into cooking nice meals for all of us at lunch and dinner, always refusing my help. After the third day of this I said, “Basta, Paola, I am not going to let you cook two meals a day for ten people. I am cooking the next meal.” She looked across the table, gave me a huge smile and said, “I cannot trust anyone who would put an Amatriciana sauce in a blender to cook anything.” I was floored. It could not be so. How could she remember two years later?
A few weeks later, in the office, I presented my tale of woe to three Italian male colleagues, Pietro, Paolo and Gianfranco. They very calmly listened to my story until I got to the point about putting the sauce in the blender, and then there was a loud uproar. “YOU DID WHAT??!!!” they all yelled. “YOU PUT THE AMATRICIANA IN THE BLENDER!! NO!!!! IT’S A SIN, A CRIME!” I think ‘shock and awe’ would probably be the best description of their response. They continued: Pietro: “Well, at that point, why didn’t you just put the pasta in the blender too and make an Amatriciana Frappe?” Paolo: “I think you would probably make a great chef for NASA.” Gianfranco: “There is just no hope for you Americans.”
Ok, there may be no hope for us Americans, but, dammit, Italians are willing to risk even their jobs to maintain their food rules. Gianfranco is the perfect example. In Italy, everyone knows you cannot, absolutely cannot, drink a cappuccino after lunch. Cappuccinos are a morning drink. For breakfast, or mid-morning, a cappuccino is what you order. After lunch, you drink a caffe, an espresso. If you want to push the rules a little bit, you can make it a caffe macchiato with just a touch of milk after lunch, but that is it. Tourists are known for ordering cappuccinos after lunch which Italians find unbearable.
So when Sandy Macintyre, APTN’s Head of News, came to visit, we were all on our best behavior. We tried to do what in Italian they call bella figura, that is, look good, say the right things, and basically be cool. Our whole office took Sandy out to lunch and recounted to him tales of all the important stories we were covering. Sandy was able to enjoy a delicious Italian plate of pasta surrounded by his admiring underlings.
But then came the end of lunch and Sandy ordered a cappuccino. Our cameraman, Gianfranco, just couldn’t take it. “Ah no, Sandy, non si fa, this you cannot do, it is too much.” We were all giving Gianfranco dirty looks, kicking him under the table, hoping he would remember that we wanted new equipment and salary raises, but there was no stopping him. “I’m very sorry, Sandy, but it is not possible, a cappuccino, after you eat your lunch,” Gianfranco continued digging himself deeper into the hole. Now this is the cameraman who had covered the war in Bosnia and, according to colleagues, didn’t even flinch when he was approaching Sarajevo in a car and a sniper sent a bullet through the front window passing right over his shoulder.
Gianfranco gained a reputation for calmly dozing off to sleep while flying on terrifying military jets that land on aircraft carriers. Gianfranco never let a little gunfire or turbulent flights wrinkle his perfectly starched Brooks Brothers button-down shirts and a silk scarf on his neck. Let’s say Gianfranco can make a bella figura (a good impression, fundamental for Italians) when the bullets are flying and planes are swooping, but not if a cappuccino is being served after lunch! Thank goodness, Sandy has a lovely Scottish sense of humor and took the Italian food rule fixation all in good fun.