Learning How to Eat In Italy

Spending Easter with the people of Mercatello sul Metauro

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By David Hammond

Easter weekend, I was fortunate enough to be invited by the Donati family of Mercatello sul Metauro, in the Marche region of Italy, to visit them at their palazzo, one of several built a few centuries ago on the town's central square. I was there to witness, among other things, the ceremonial uncovering of the leather Jesus. This leather Jesus (made of animal skin with workable joints!) came to Mercatello in the thirteenth century.  Since then He has been annually disinterred on Thursday evening and taken up on the cross for Good Friday.

Atheist is an ugly word, and so I avoid referring to myself as such, though it's likely accurate. Still, I could not help but be moved by the people like a woman (right of frame in their first photo of the above gallery) who was clearly connected to the simulacrum, identifying with the loss, maybe thinking of a lost husband or son or daughter, flowing in sympathy with this crucifixion fiction.

On Holy Saturday, at Palazzo Donati, nine men of the wining/dining club Accademia del Padlot, got together to make us breakfast. One of them, Gianfranco, had played in the band during the leather Jesus procession through the streets of Mercatello; another, Luciano, had actually assumed the role of Our Savior, carrying the cross out of the church and into the streets of this small town.

At this breakfast, I noticed that three of the four women in attendance had no more than one or two small bites of any dish.  This was, apparently, man food (i.e., it was kind of stinky), and it was not without its challenges.

We started with coradella, which is liver, lungs, and assorted other organs (though I'm not sure if it contained heart, or cuore, as the name implies). I believe this organ meat had a slight spice rub, delicious and typical of Marche. Though this was not easy first meal of the day, the Barbaresco I drank with it was fizzy and acidic and just right to ease the guts into my gut.

Trippa al sugo was intense, basically cow stomach, finely cut, in a tomato sauce. I must admit, the parm we sprinkled on top provided an excellent counterpoint, balancing funk with funk.

As an intermediate palate-cleanser, we were served orange and fennel salad, which I was encouraged to eat for as we prepared for "a change of taste."

Fagiole con cotiche is, as Massimo Donati (a HUGE fan of Mexican food) said to me, "like Tuscan Mexican food."  It was basically red beans and pig skin in a lightly spiced tomato sauce. I ate it all and liked it most of all; even had seconds: it reminded me a lot of pig skin tacos I've enjoyed on Maxwell Street.

Our last course was snails with a kind of pesto (it contained basil and garlic, but none dare call it pesto, because that's Genovese). These were spectacular slugs, although I could tell that the local boys were just waiting for me to freak out, but I didn't, of course, as snails were really some of the more familiar foods on the menu that morning.

What touched me most throughout this meal was the communion of local folk, having an excellent time, laughing and laughing, glad to have been saved, and saving room for more.

This was one of the truly memorable meals of my life. Like so many great meals, it could not have been bought. Me, and the ladies, were the few non-members of this central Italian eating society who were ever fortunate enough to be in attendance at this gathering of good fellows. I felt extremely, um, let's say blessed to be there, unsaved but satisfied, full of good food and, much more importantly, good spirits.

Italians have taught me a lot about eating and eating this breakfast reaffirmed the principle that good taste is obviously important but good people at the table are just as important to the enjoyment of the meal.

At several times throughout the breakfast, enthusiastic members of the group broke into song. It was a beautiful thing.



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Mark O'Hare from Chattanooga, TN  

Posted: May 3rd, 2013 12:02 AM

Hi David, I'm a friend of Ben & Abby. I stumbled upon this post via a link from her facebook. I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed the piece as a whole, and especially the part where you made the play "crucifixion fiction." Excellent work. Kudos!

russell from Winthrop Harbor  

Posted: April 15th, 2013 6:36 AM

I stayed in this very Palazzo for 5 weeks in the summer of 2011 and I agree with everything that you stated here. The people in this tiny mountain town in the foothills of the Apennine Mountains were so sweet and kind, and their food and traditions are still old world Italian. I long every day to return and drink in more of what they have to offer. From the cornetto at Café Rinaldi, to the riserva at the trattoria, I will never forget my summer in Mercatello sul Metauro

June from Oak Park  

Posted: April 11th, 2013 11:08 AM

Thanks for sharing this story and the photos. It appears to be interestingly delicious!

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