Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Back to the Origin : Biscotto di Prato

If you order a ‘biscotto’ at any café in the United States, the barista will likely offer the following incorrect correction: “You mean a biscotti?” Just like the ubiquitous panini, this particular noun has lost its singular-plural distinction in the conversion from Italian to international food lingo. As my students learn in the first or second lesson, Italian nouns are either singular or plural, masculine or feminine. Instead of adding an ‘s’ as we do in English and Spanish, Italian noun plurals are formed by changing the final vowel in the appropriate way (based on the gender and spelling of the singular noun). A singular, masculine noun ending in ‘o’ like biscotto becomes plural by changing that ‘o’ to an ‘i’: biscotti. The same goes for un panino (due panini), un cappuccino (due cappuccini) and so on. (Most feminine nouns end in ‘a’ in the singular and form the plural with the final vowel change to ‘e’: una banana – due banane; una linguina – due linguine - una pasta – due paste).

So how do we respect Italian grammar and make our barista happy at the same time? Well, if you’re not in the mood for explanations, the best way to avoid a linguistic faux pas is to either get in the habit of ordering multiples - “Four biscotti, please!” – or to phrase it like this: “I’ll have one of your almond biscotti, please!”

Now that I’ve gotten this grammatical pet peeve off my chest, it’s time to turn to the biscotto itself. The second question I might be asked at my local Starbucks equivalent would likely involve a selection on my part: “Which flavor biscotti would you like?” the barista might ask, pointing to a bowl of biscuits, each about as long as a banana and an inch or so thick, “Chocolate, cinnamon or vanilla dunked in milk chocolate?” Such a question would be senseless in Italy, for a few reasons.

First of all, biscotto (plural: biscotti), simply translates as ‘cookie’, just like latte means, simply, 'milk'. (For the coffee drink, ask for un caffelatte.) So if you request a biscotto or two at a pasticceria in, say, Pisa, they would look at you questioningly and point to the display case full of cookies. Quali biscotti, signora?? Which cookies, ma'am? Secondly, the baked confection that has become synonymous with the word 'biscotto' in the States is actually a mutated version of a very specific cookie from Tuscany: the biscotto di Prato, also called the cantuccio (lit. "little corner") di Prato. Why Prato? Because it was in this lovely and lively city located only only 17 kilometers from Florence, that a baker named Antonio Mattei (nicknamed “Mattonella”) perfected the recipe for his family’s traditional Tuscan almond cookies - 150 years ago this year. The cookies are still sold in Mattei’s original bakery at 22 Via Ricasoli (Prato’s elegant shopping street), which boasts original wood and marble counters, many framed awards from the 19th century and the original painted wooded sign on the exterior.

Prato also happens to be the Sister City to Charlottesville, Virginia – my adopted home town and the home of my language and culture center, Ecco Italy. Prato’s province is home to Poggio a Caiano, native town of Filippo Mazzei – Thomas Jefferson’s long-time friend and a revolutionary in his own right. Though I respect Mazzei and the many cultural offerings of Prato and Poggio (the Medici Villa, the excellent Pecci Contemporary Art Center, a Textile Museum, Carmignano wine) I must admit my true epiphany came in the form of a blue paper sack filled with a kilo of Mattei’s finger-sized biscotti di Prato. The Platonic Ideal of the Biscotto! The Original Biscotto!
Here’s the list of ingredients printed on the side of the blue sack: farina di grano tenero (tender wheat pastry flour), mandorle (almonds), zucchero (sugar), uova (eggs), pinoli (pinenuts). That’s it! Firm and crunchy (thanks to the toasting and the huge chunks of almond), but also slightly chewy and moist (thanks to the eggs), these pinky-sized biscuits are toasted brown on the outside and golden on the inside with a strong almond flavor and a hint of pine nut. Perfection....especially, most Tuscans would say, when dunked into a glass of sweet Vinsanto wine. But I prefer to savor them solo - to indulge in the original biscotto di Prato, after so many years of bland, bloated “biscotti.”

One is definitely not enough – un chilo di biscotti, per favore!

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