If you imagine Italy as a picturesque place brimming over with a cornucopia of artisinal food producers and quaint eateries, Eating Up Italy is not going to do much to dispel that notion. Of course, as the author notes, modern methods of food production and distribution are becoming increasingly common there, but they haven't quite taken root to the extent that they have in some other countries.
Fort sets out at the southern end of Italy, planning to make his way north in three one-month segments. By the time it's all said and done and he winds up in the northern city of Turin, only two months have elapsed and he's covered 5,000 kilometers. A somewhat reluctant Vespa (motor scooter) rider, at first, Fort becomes more sure of himself as time goes on and eventually turns in his rubber-band powered model for something with a little more get up and go.
One point he doesn't touch on is how much weight he gained during his journey. Judging from some of the gastronomic hootenannys he describes, it surely must have been considerable. Anyone attempting a similar feat of consumption might want to consider doing it on foot to help keep the pounds off.
Food is a matter of no small importance to most Italians. As Fort puts it, "the expectation of gastronomic virtue is as natural as breathing." He discovers, early on, that much of Italy's cuisine is actually rather simple fare: "Each mouthful was a reminder of the essential plainness, and grace, of Italian food. There were no extraneous sauces, no distracting garnishes, no mint sprigs or dashes of fancy oils."
One of the first "industries" Fort encounters, in the southern part of the country, is bergamot production. Bergamot is a small citrus fruit whose essential oils are probably best known as the flavoring in Earl Grey tea, though one of the growers Fort talks to says all of his crop these days is earmarked for use by The Body Shop.
As he moves north, the intrepid eater visits a pasta producer and attempts to unravel the intricate and arcane mysteries of Italian pasta. He also determines, before long, that "Italy is the world centre for ice cream, and Pizzo is its self-declared capital."
In Naples, Fort finds that the pizza is not all that he expected it would be, experiences the relative terror of piloting a Vespa over rugged cobblestoned streets and through hair-raising traffic, and concludes that "there seemed to be only two constants...movement and noise."
Other stops include Sulmona, where they make confetti - or sugared almonds - that are a far cry from what most of us associate with the word. There's also Comacchio, "a town built upon eels and salt" and an coastal eatery in which the author's fellow diners take up the better part of a meal discussing the relative merits of different kinds of potatoes.
A potentially depressing stopover in Cremona (dingy hotel, cranky people) is salvaged when Fort happens upon a lively trade union rally, complete with an impressive selection of refreshments. As his trip nears its end, he meets - rather appropriately - with Carlo Petrini, the founder of the increasingly influential Slow Food movement.
Before it's all over, Fort decides that "the true, universal food of Italy is not pasta, but pizza." His rule of thumb for eating out in southern Italy ("the showier the restaurant, the worse the food") brings to mind Blue Highways' author William Least Heat Moon's method of ranking American diners by the number of calendars on display.
Though Fort presents some ominous stats about the shrinking numbers of agricultural workers and peasant proprietors and the rise of food conglomerates, he counters this with the observation that "Italian towns appear to have a happy knack of accommodating the demands of the twenty-first century without wholesale destruction of what went before."
Ultimately Fort concludes that "it is the passion to grow things to eat, and the casual, commonplace, everyday passion displayed in cooking them and eating them that forms the true, common individual and social currency that fuses the country together."
As if to buttress this point, he reveals that on the way to the airport, at the culmination of his journey, his taxi driver insisted on scribbling down his preferred recipe for limoncello - a lemon-flavored liqueur. And thus it ends.
Freelance food writer William I. Lengeman III maintains Tea Guy Speaks, a Web site devoted to the appreciation of tea.
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