Where snacks go to die
By Eleonora Baldwin
mericans and Brits can't live without their regular intake of nuts, whether salted peanuts with beer, sophisticated smoked almonds, habit-forming cashews, or honey-roasted variants best suited for cocktails.
Italians, on the other hand... niente.
Italians are moved by a different approach to snacking. Before it became fashionable (and a thrifty dinner alternative), a snack was an aperitivo with drinks usually consisting of a handful of unrinsed briny green olives and poorly seasoned peanuts. Sometimes, pistachios and the bizarre mais tostato corn kernels on steroids, tossed with massive quantities of MGS slipped into the picture. And that was it.
But just like watching a movie without popcorn feels wrong, so does watching sports on TV without bar nuts. Not so in Italy. Why is that, my inner 50 percent American wonders?
What is it about trashy snacks that Italians just don't get? Supermarkets sell substandard U.S. knock-offs, and the usual packaged cocktail accouterments include sad collections of color-enhanced mini Ritz-like crackers, poppy seed dusted triangles, stale sesame seed strewn stars, pretzel sticks (usually called with their Northern European moniker, "brezel") and bagged chips. All taste much the same.
The culprit for this strange rapport with nibbles may well be merenda, the classic afternoon pick-me-up Italian kids know as after-school rocket fuel. Low blood sugar is repaired through slabs of crusty home-style and sugar-dusted bread that is slathered with butter or just rubbed with a fresh tomato and a drizzle of olive oil. There's also the more "modern" Nutella fix. Another possibility is the panino culture. On the nutrition scale, sandwiching cured (usually pork) meat between two slices of bread sure beats any handful of toasted nuts.
But the fact remains that Italians, and Romans in particular, have their own vision of snacks. I've tried to pinpoint a few of these items using my son the quintessential Roman omnivore as a case study.
Pizza Bianca doesn't really qualify as snack, because al taglio (by the slice) it can easily qualify as lunch. Tiny cut squares of plain, undressed pizza (don't call it focaccia, please!) commonly shares restaurant basket space with bread slices or on happy-hour spreads. Stuffed with exquisite mortadella, you'll also find them in wee chubby hands of teething cherubs or in the backpacks of students for their mid-morning spuntino.
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