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Kilometer Zero

February 1, 2011

Mario Piccinin, of Italia by Design

“It’s a very positive idea. To eat where you live.” A journey in the Veneto takes us from farm to table.

Cristina and I followed the Piave by car up into the foothills of the Dolomites, where once had been Austrian battlements, and passed a sign welcoming us to Treviso. Green vineyards spread out around us to the left and right where beads of Prosecco grapes dangled.

“During the First World War, the Piave was full of water,” said Mario Piccinin, sitting at the steering wheel and carving the curves that wound into the mountains. Now, dams have blocked the water in the mountains for irrigation and power for factories. It wasn’t the raging river young Hemingway had known.

Piccinin knew this area well. A master sommelier and certified cheese taster, Piccinin was a fan of the food and drink produced here in the Veneto. Although he was born in nearby Milan, his mother was from here and he was raised on the flavors of the region, flavors influenced by centuries of merchants sailing from Venice into the Adriatic to exotic ports of call.

“Now you can’t see when the small village stops and another starts,” said Piccinin. “I notice these big differences in only 20, 25 years. I can’t imagine Hemingway here now. Probably he says, ‘You’re wrong. This is not my place. Bring me to the correct place.’”

Piave River Veneto Itlay

The Piave

That’s pretty much exactly what he said. He returned here four years later with his first wife Hadley to show her the geography of his glory days, the site he nearly died. Already, the place had changed dramatically. The trenches and earthworks had vanished. Only a rusty shell fragment remained to remind him of the war. The little village of Fossalta, which he fondly remembered as crumbling from artillery fire in “shattered, tragic dignity,” had been rebuilt and repainted in the bright pinks and yellows that still remain. Hemingway missed the quaint decimation he had come to love.

“I had tried to recreate something for my wife and had failed utterly,” he wrote in the Toronto Daily Star. “The past was as dead as a busted Victrola record. Chasing yesterdays is a bum show – and if you have to prove it, go back to your old front.”

I had to wonder, was I doing the same thing? Or even worse, was I just chasing someone else’s yesterdays?

Armies of invading hordes aren’t pouring out of the Alps anymore, but the attacks haven’t stopped. They come now in the form of Chinese tomato paste, cheese from Eastern European cows and German so-called prosciutto. Famous for its food above all else, Italy is seeing its agriculture suffer as farmers drop their shovels for city life. Foreign goods compete with local fare. Residential developments are muscling out cropland.

Fossalta's campanile

Not all change has been for the worse, though. Although Hemingway may have longed for the aesthetic appeal of the rubble, the people of Fossalta preferred buildings that came with roofs and walls attached. Piccinin’s mother, born in 1939 after Mussolini’s surrender in the next world war, grew up in a time of extreme poverty. She was such a sickly girl, the doctor prescribed the one thing her parents had trouble providing her: food. “People in Veneto ate polenta, polenta, polenta,” Piccinin said.

Just a generation later, he was literally paid to eat and drink. He and his wife Rachel, a Cleveland, Ohio girl, lead food-oriented trips into the Veneto for tourists, mostly Americans in search of Italian food and lifestyle. His cherubic face showed no signs of starvation. They raised their children on baby food made with virgin olive oil and a little grated Parmesan on top.

In Hemingway’s day, schools, even hospitals, were reserved for the wealthy. After the two world wars, Italy was so destitute, Italians fled to the United States, Argentina and richer parts of Europe. Now, immigrants, mostly Africans, come to Italy.

Ernest Hemingway in an American Red Cross Ambulance in Italy, 1918. Photograph in the Ernest Hemingway collection, JFK Library.

“But we have short memory,” Piccinin said, in a heavy Italian accent that, like an old Warner Brothers cartoon stereotype, affixed an “a” to the end of most syllables. “We start to become racist. Not racist as Ku Klux Klan, but we are scared of new things and new people with new cultures, new habits.”

Nearly 4 million immigrants have come to Italy from places like India, Pakistan, Morocco and Tunisia. About one in five farm workers are immigrants, taking the traditional Italian jobs modern Italians leave behind. So many Muslims are working in fields, the imam in Rome had to issue a special decree saying farm workers could drink water under the hot sun during Ramadan and not feel like they were breaking their religious fast.

The immigrants’ arrival is hardly universally welcomed. At soccer games, right-wing fanatics have taken to not just booing the opposing team, but their own players who hail from abroad. If immigrants don’t always feel welcome on the streets of Italy, though, they are welcomed in the fields. It’s just the opposite for foreign products. Consumers don’t seem to have the same animosity toward the invasion of foods from foreign countries, even as farmers have fought against them, particularly here in the Veneto. These front lines of World War I have become the front lines against the new forces of globalization.

Here, farmers have become guardians of their traditional foods and flavors. The Slow Food Movement was born in the nearby town of Bra. It was a reaction to the opening of a McDonald’s near the Spanish Steps in Rome and it took off around the world as people across the globe, from Omaha, Nebraska to Oaxaca, Mexico, realized their local dishes, crops and ingredients were endangered and worth saving.

What Slow Food did for restaurants, the Kilometer Zero movement is trying to do for farms. Started here in the Veneto by the Italian agricultural union Coldiretti in 2007, it was an effort to get people to buy their food directly from the farmers, zero kilometers from the producers. To buy from the farms. To buy from farmer’s markets. And to eat at restaurants that did the same.

“Kilometer Zero is the Slow Food concept taken to the market,” Piccinin said.

He agreed to take Cristina and me to some of his favorite Kilometer Zero places. It was a little far afield for him. Piccinin lives in Padua, and the tours he and his wife lead usually take visitors to restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts and farmhouses in and around Padua and Venice. On this trip, he was taking us into the shadows of the Dolomites. We left behind the McDonald’s, Sexy Shops and shopping malls that were spreading across the plains north of Venice and drove into the countryside above, until vineyards gave way to pine forests and meadows, and the jagged peaks, still snow-covered, appeared in the distance.

veneto cattle

La Malga Barbaria

Hemingway had described his later visits to Italy through the eyes of Col. Cantwell, a crusty old military man at the end of his days.

“Turn her around and take that road toward Treviso,” the Colonel had commanded his driver. “We don’t need a map on this part. I’ll give you the turns.” Cantwell had a good memory. Even Piccinin’s memory was failing, and so was his GPS. He carved skinny roads winding further and further up the mountain until we stepped out of the car at La Malga Barbaria. Cowbells jangled in the fields around us. Manure scented cool mountain air. A rooster called out. Dull clouds had lifted, and on the lip of the horizon, the Adriatic’s blue waters washed against Venice. “Then a wind blew the mist away from the Adriatic and we saw Venice way off across the swamp and the sea standing gray and yellow like a fairy city,” Hemingway once wrote from a similar vantage point.

“Buon giorno,” a man greeted us as we stepped out of the car. Sporting a trim black beard, a blue and red plaid shirt, a gimme cap and jeans, he could have been a Midwest farmer. Luca Gallina was a fourth-generation dairy farmer. His farm, La Malga Barbaria, sat near the summit of Monte Barbaria, a 4,800-foot peak rising above Treviso. Gallina and his family had only been here for a few weeks. They spend their winters below and wait for the snows to melt before bringing the cattle back in summer. He had been up since 6 a.m., milking the cows and making the cheese that is the mainstay for their family operation, which has made cheese for four generations. It is a family farm now, as it’s always been. Just he, his sister, two brothers and his parents handle the operation. The process hasn’t changed much over four generations. Pots of milk over the fireplace have been replaced by stainless steel vats carefully temperature controlled, but almost everything else is the same.

“Do you want to see how we make the cheese?” Gallina asked.

We walked into a room where a long table was filled with jars of milk. The cream is skimmed off for butter. The residue becomes food for pigs, destined for an afterlife of salami. Shelves in a cool storage room were filled with wheels of white cheese, aging three months to a year before they would be ready for consumption.

"Fresher cheese you cannot find."

Places like Gallina’s farm can’t just rely on locals anymore. They rely on urban shoppers fleeing supermarkets for authentic Italian flavors, and a sense of authenticity that runs deeper than taste buds. They come looking for a connection with the farmers who bring them their food, plus a sunny day in the mountains away from Adriatic summer heat and mosquitoes. “The hotter it is in the valley, the more people come here,” Gallina said. “On the weekends, families come with kids who don’t know where milk and eggs come from.”

He led us to a small dining room where visitors come for farm meals. Old-fashioned, oversized cowbells hung on the wall. Old-fashioned maybe, but they’re still used, Gallina said. He cut open a few wheels of cheese: ricotta and smoked ricotta, and farmer’s cheeses without a name.

Prego,” Gallina said, placing it in front of us.

Piccinin gently fingered the cheese and bit into it. “Fresher cheese you cannot find,” he said.

Gallina’s mother appeared in the dining room and placed rounds of homemade sliced salami before us.

“Would you like Prosecco?” she asked. Luigina was a stocky woman, tough and weathered from a lifetime on the farm. She had short-cropped hair dyed magenta, a shade I might have expected on a young woman on a moped in Rome, not on a grandmother on a farm in the mountains.

It was still morning, but how could we say no to Prosecco?

Prego,” she said, pouring the glasses.

“It is like water for us,” Piccinin joked. She poured three glasses of amber wine into glasses, releasing only the slightest trace of bubbles as it filled the glasses. Piccinin talked us through the wine taster’s ritual. He lifted the glass (by the stem, so as not to warm it with his hands) and swirled the wine to watch for tears, traces of the liquid clinging to the sides of the glass, as they should. We followed as he held the glass to his nose, swirled the wine in the glass and breathed in the aroma again. The movement of the wine in the glass magically released aromas that poured into my mouth as I drank. It was rustic, homemade wine. Not the best, Piccinin confessed, “but I like all wine.”

The cheese was delicious, and we tried each one by one, letting the flavor fill our mouths before washing it away with Prosecco and trying another.

Luca Gallina

“Which one do you like the best?” Cristina asked.

I thought for a moment. “I like the aged cheese,” I said. It was firm and salty and rich. “And the smoky ricotta. I’ve never tried anything like that.” It was dry and crumbly, not like the cottage cheese ricotta I was used to buying for lasagna, with a smoky flavor.

“I like the fresh cheese,” Cristina said. It was smooth and delicate, like the queso fresco she knew from Mexico. It went perfectly with the salami, and we bought a round for our travels.

“These are completely natural,” Luigina said. “Healthy. We have such good food and only a few people come here and eat these.”

It seemed a shame, suddenly, to think of eating anything else in Italy when food so fresh and natural was being produced.

“I’m against globalization,” Luigina said. “Our products are so good and so natural, different from products from abroad, and from local factories.”

Supporters of the Kilometer Zero movement, the Luca family hoped to get better prices selling directly to consumers than they get selling it to some supplier. Their customers hoped to get better prices than at the supermarket.

“It’s a very positive idea,” Gallina said. “To eat where you live.”

Da Ottavio

We shook hands goodbye and headed down to road to see one of Piccinin’s favorite places where a couple has taken the notion of eating where you live even farther. Graziana and Martina Spada run Da Ottavio, a tiny restaurant at the historic farmhouse where they live and raise nearly all the food that appears on the plates they serve. The vineyards that spread below produce the Prosecco. The pigs out back surrender the salami.

Graziano Spada’s father, a delivery truck driver, bought the farmhouse in 1958, but it wasn’t until 1976 when he started the restaurant. It was another bad time for Italy. Italians were looking for work elsewhere in Europe. He started looking local.

“My parents were probably the first that wanted to sell directly to the consumer,” Graziano said. “There wasn’t the word agriturismo at that time.”

Now, agriturismo signs flourish in the countryside around Treviso. Many of the places shouldn’t qualify as agriturismo, they complained. Much of the food comes from other farms. That’s not a complaint they’ve ever heard at Da Ottavio.

Agriturismo signs abound in the Veneto.

We sat at a dark wooden table under a canopy outside the farmhouse, a 1940 building covered with stone and stucco, with heavy wooden shutters. The living area was downstairs. Bedrooms were upstairs. Seed storage was on the third floor. Geraniums bloomed along the patio. Somewhere in the distance, a cowbell clanged.

Martina brought out a bottle of homemade Prosecco and a spread of thinly-sliced roast pork with salt, marbled ham and salami.

Prego,” she said.

Piccinin, who was studying to be a salami taster, handled the slices gingerly, studying the casing, the marbling the greasy texture with a critic’s eye.

She followed with helpings of pasta with ragu, beans, vegetables and polenta. “Prego,” she repeated, and filled the table with heaping plates of food.

“These are small servings,” Piccinin whispered.

The plates were too big to finish but too delicious not to make an earnest attempt. We ended up delirious from a mid-afternoon feast of food and wine Hemingway would have loved. Martina offered dessert. We respectfully declined and chatted as we digested. Martina and Graziano told us about their restaurant, living where they work, and growing what they serve.

There is a sign in Italian that says, ‘We’re not restaurant workers. We’re farmers.’ Here, you eat only what we produce with our hands,’” Martina said. “I was born here. Graziano was born here. We have a taste for the food from here, and we continue to have this mindset that was given to us from our parents. This is the continuity of the tradition. For us it’s natural.”

Their children Davide, 10, and Francesco, 7, took peeks at the strangers gathered at the table before hiding indoors. They’re less likely to continue the tradition, Martina said.

“It’s a hard job. You have to have a particular passion to do this,” she said.

We said our thanks, they said their pregos, and we went on our way.

“I like that word prego,” Cristina said. “It seems you can use it for anything.”

The vineyards of the Veneto.

Grogginess from food and wine tugged at my eyelids as we set off down the mountain. Vineyards spread in all directions as we followed the curves of the Piave downstream.

“How do you see globalization affecting this area?” I asked Piccinin.

He paused. “There’s a slow increase in big stores,” he said. “They make the small stores disappear. For example, they do a big mall in the area, an outlet, for example, that they are building for the tourists of Venice, not for Italians. I think it’s dangerous, but we can avoid it with the good education of the new generation.”

It’s tricky, though. The cousin of localism is xenophobia, and Italians have a tradition of being suspicious of outside things. Outside can even mean other parts of Italy, a holdover from its long history as a collection of kingdoms before 19th century unification. Sometimes, the wariness can even lead to suspicion of other neighborhoods. “We call this campanilismo,” Piccinin said. “It means people from under one bell tower, they hate the people from under the next bell tower.”

What makes Italy unique, though, is its uniqueness. Tourists still come to see 14th century churches and Giotto frescoes, but more than anything now, they come for food. Maybe they could find the same foods in the refrigerator case at Costco, but they seek it out here, where Italians treat food with reverence, and a lifestyle surrounds it that they can’t find back home.

Piccinin’s background is steeped in both food and what comes before the food. He started with an interest in agriculture. He ended with an interest in food, studying farm-to-table in Bologna. He went on to create Boston University’s wine program before launching Italia by Design with his wife.

“Agriculture is very important for us,” he said. “It’s the passport that we use abroad. When you speak of Italy abroad, you speak of food, wine, fashion, history and culture.”

"When you speak of Italy abroad, you speak of food, wine, fashion, history and culture.”

The Italian agricultural union Coldiretti estimates some 2 million tourists come to spend their vacations on Italian farms. More than 18,000 farms now welcome agri-tourists, twice the number a decade earlier, and more and more people, both Italians and foreigners, are buying products directly from farmers.

“This is very important,” Piccinin said. “The culture, and the style of life.”