Saturday, January 28, 2017

Casa del Parmigiano: Cheese and Childhood

This is the Casa del Parmigiano: an 80-year-old shop near the Rialto where discerning locals line up before holidays (above: Christmas) to buy its cheeses, meats and olives. But, as I learned the other day, parmigiano is awfully important in our house as well. 

I came home at lunchtime the other day to find our normally even-tempered nine-year-old son all in a huff. He'd pushed his chair back from the dining room table and sat glowering with his arms crossed on his chest, so indignant as to be on the verge of tears. A plate of spaghetti with pesto sauce and grated cheese sat on the table before him, to one side of him his school friend sat chewing, his mouth overflowing with pasta.

It occurred to me that perhaps my wife, also at the table, had just told Sandro that he and his friend would have to do their homework before they'd be allowed to play. This didn't seem like the kind of thing my wife would insist on, seeing as they'd just gotten out of school, but our son's fury seemed of the "How dare you deprive me!" variety.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

Jen said, "He's mad because I grated pecorino-romano cheese onto his pasta."

"So what's the problem with that?" I asked.

"I won't eat it!" Sandro declared. "It's terrible."

Beside him his friend continued to stuff his already full mouth. It was no use asking his opinion as speech was beyond him, his jaws working hard and almost futilely, like a small gas lawnmower in a field of waist-high weeds.

I nodded in in his friend's direction, said to Sandro, "He seems to like it."

Sandro scowled. 

I was hungry and cold and thus more than ready to offer my own opinion on how this plate of hot pasta tasted. I took a fork full. "Nothing wrong with it," I said. I took another bite just to be sure. "Tastes good." I tried a third, just to be extra sure. "Yep. Good"

Sandro responded only with a long drawn-out sound of contempt peculiar to Italian school kids, involving the pharynx, the mouth's soft palate, and a bit of the nasal cavity--and related perhaps to the "gn" sound that begins the word "gnocchi". Whatever its phonetic origins, it expresses at the same time both an intolerable level of frustration and a withering dismissal of any parent's attempt to appease it. And it's one Italian expression that effectively transcends any limitations of my Italian vocabulary.

Jen walked into the kitchen to check on something in the oven and I followed. Once there I said, "I'm sure he wouldn't even have noticed the difference if he hadn't seen the label on the cheese. It's just a little bit of grated cheese, and he loves pesto."

She said, "He didn't see the label. He just took a bite of the pasta and immediately asked what was wrong with it. Said it didn't taste right. It needs parmigiano, he says. Which we don't have right now."

"His friend doesn't have any complaints about it."

"No," Jen replied. "But after the first bite bite he agreed that pecorino-romano didn't go well with this pasta and pesto. Though he said he likes pecorino-romano by itself."

"Well, at least he's eating it anyway," I said, and I returned to the table to see if Sandro hadn't changed his mind. He had not. And would not. The mere thought of doing so caused visible revulsion.

Eventually we'd work out a compromise whereby I'd eat the parts of the pasta with pecorino-romano on them and he'd eat the untainted parts. 

But we hadn't gotten that far when Jen returned to the table and, exasperated, I could only mutter to her, "Sometimes he's such an Italian that it's scary."


  1. A real Bon Viveur at 9!

    1. I hope not, Andrew! Just a certain kind of Italian kid with a certain kind of relation to food that seems to still transcend class lines here and isn't taken as a sign of any particular virtue or sophistication or what-have-you. After all, he still aspires to be a mototopo driver, and after lunch he and his friend devoted themselves to watching a Youtube video about boat motors.

  2. We lived only half a year with then 2 years old son in Tuscany and he still does not eat any Serrano ham, only Parma and Coop cured ham (that is now available in Estonian Coop). I understand your kid ;)

    1. That's wonderful, Marko, and it's amazing how early a child's taste forms. And how strongly it persists.