Original sin

A culinary pilgrim in Italy succumbs to temptations far more wicked than ripe produce.

Published March 17, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

There were Weedwhackers leaning against perfect rounds of pecorino cheese, Leonardo DiCaprio T-shirts hanging over still warm loaves of focaccia, rubber girdles like the ones my grandmother used to wear surrounding sweet green plums. I stood in front of a cardboard box filled with Nivea skin cream and clutched my copy of "A Food Lover's Companion to Tuscany," trying to draw strength from its descriptions of homemade salami and baby artichokes. I had come to this market in the small Tuscan town of Panzano planning to worship at the shrine of Cucina Italiana. What I'd found instead was desecration.

I averted my eyes from the cellophane packages of men's briefs, the display of chainsaws shining in the sun, remembering how I'd prepared for this journey. Like a child preparing for her first communion, I'd spent hours memorizing the Italian for tomato (pomodoro), basil (basilico), and garlic (aglio) -- the holy trinity of Italian cooking. I'd repeated hallowed expressions over and over like a catechism: Come si fa questa piatto? (How does one make this dish?) and E possibile prepare le salse prima? (Is it possible to prepare the sauce first?).

A gastronomical pilgrim, I'd come in search of a pure food experience. Instead I'd discovered plastic ice cube trays and push-up bras lurking among the smooth-skinned apricots like the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

I surveyed Panzano's market square, looking for salvation. My 3-year-old son, Alex, was leaning too far over into the town's goldfish pond. My husband was trying to photograph a couple of elderly Italian men who possessed six teeth between them. I went to stand before an altar of pale green and yellow lettuces.

A young Italian woman in a sarong skirt was arguing with the lettuce man. Each time she shook her head, the sun glinted on her nose ring, making it look as if she were shooting off sparks. I listened to her rapid-fire Italian and understood that she was questioning the freshness of the escarole the lettuce man was shaking at her.

"Beh!" the woman exclaimed, in the eloquent Italian explosion meant to connote disgust. She was unmoved by the lettuce man's desperate cries of, "Si, signora. Fresca! Fresca!" I watched her with awe, impressed by her ability to discern the crispness of a head of lettuce from 6 feet away.

The following day, we visited the market in San Casciano -- a lovely town with warm yellow buildings and cobbled streets. San Casciano's market went on for blocks, the booths crammed with summer shifts, enormous cans of tuna packed in olive oil and cassette tapes of Italian pop music played at ear-splitting volume.

My husband stopped at a stand displaying wire brushes, pink sponges and bicycle horns. "We need these," he said, grabbing up two lemon-yellow citronella candles. Surely we would be allowed this one indulgence, I told myself, scratching a mosquito bite on my ankle with the sole of my other shoe. The night before, as we'd sat outside our rented house eating grilled sausages made from wild boar, ruthless Italian mosquitoes had devoured every inch of our exposed flesh.

In the next street, Alex dragged us over to a stall with a display of what looked like small red pumpkins. "Che cosa questi?" (What are these?), I asked the vendor, and he told me they were a kind of tomato that could only be grown in the soil near Florence. "Acido" (acidic), he said. "Non e dolce."

While Alex stacked up the Florentine tomatoes, the man explained how they should be served -- sliced thin, salted, then dragged in olive oil. His hands flew as he demonstrated the proper way to soak up the olive oil, moving in the air above my head as if he were blessing me.

A few days later, we traveled to San Gimignano for the Friday market. In San Gimignano, everyone wanted us to gusta -- taste. The roast chicken woman gave Alex an entire bag of fried potatoes. The salami man handed my husband a tall stack of fatty salame toscano. The cheese vendor, who had Paul Newman-blue eyes, bewitched me with a hunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Letting the cheese's sharp saltiness melt in my mouth, I was afraid of what the fish woman standing behind an entire octopus might offer us if we stopped by to pick up some calamari.

As we strolled through the market, I watched Italian housewives rub their fingers across the fabric of the summer dresses hanging in the stalls, testing the material the way they might test the flesh of a peach. At a booth filled with shoes, I saw them try on pumps and sneakers, placing their feet on the cardboard tops of shoe boxes to keep the soles clean. I found myself sorely tempted by a pair of sandals with gold buckles, but was able to resist thanks to Alex's desperate plea for a lollipop attached to a rubber monster finger.

The next day, we made a pilgrimage to the market in Castellina-in-Chianti to visit the stand of Duccio Fontani's Erbe Aromatiche. Heads bowed, we stood before Duccio like supplicants waiting for the communion wafer to be placed upon our tongues. He opened one of the small jars of organic herbs he dries and mixes, and held it in the air as if offering it up for divine sanction before passing it under our noses. Reverently I inhaled, and the scent of mustard, rosemary and sage sent me into rapture. Duccio moved another small jar under my nostrils. Thyme, oregano and garlic. It was a breath of heaven.

And then, just as I was bending my head to sniff a wickedly spicy mix of garlic and pepperoncini, I spied an alluring little leather bag in the next booth.

It was so pliant, so smooth, so cheap -- I couldn't resist it. That leather bag was equivalent to the first bet for a compulsive gambler, the first belt of scotch for an alcoholic. A few days later, at the Wednesday market in Siena, I practically pushed aside a picturesque old man selling packets of zucchini seeds in order to get closer to a booth jammed with summer clothes. While my husband photographed the man and Alex mixed up his seeds, I succumbed to a clingy sleeveless shift (only 30,000 lira!). Then I allowed myself to be enticed by a couple of plastic ice cube trays, reasoning that our evening Campari-and-sodas really would be better with ice.

After that, I was unstoppable. The following Saturday, at the market in Greve, I barely stopped to pay homage to a beautiful porchetta, a whole roast pig stuffed with rosemary and garlic. Instead, I left Alex soaking himself in the public drinking fountain while I bargained for a pair of white linen curtains.

After the market, the three of us sat in a cafe eating mortadella sandwiches and watching the vendors pack up. Across from us, in a stall overflowing with ravioli rolling pins and green-and-white pasta bowls, I spotted a sleek silver Bialetti coffeemaker and sent my husband over to price it.

As I watched him go, I understood that my sin must certainly be greater than Eve's, for I had given in to temptations far more wicked than ripe produce. Yet as I ordered another glass of cool Vernaccia and waited to examine my shiny new coffeemaker, I was unrepentant. Surely surrendering to temptation was the purest Italian experience.

By Janis Cooke Newman

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