Sunday, December 16, 2007

Italian gift ideas

The weather outside (at least here in Boston) is frightening, as the song says. So why not do some Christmas shopping online? Or at least do your research online, then venture forth heroically to make the real-world purchases.

An Italian-themed gift basket is nice, but hardly personal. I would either make up my own basket or give one (or a few) nice, thoughtful presents, perhaps with your own basket or container. Here are some possibilities:

For the learner of Italian: the Pimsleur course. My students tell me this is preferable to the much-publicized (used by CIA and FBI- is that a recommendation? probably not for Arabic) Rosetta Stone. Both are expensive.

For Italians, or those who know Italian well. La Settimana Enigmistica puzzle magazine. Not cheap. When I was in Italy, I enjoyed the useful and entertaining women's magazine, Donna Moderna. Oggi and Gente are lower-brow, L'Espresso and Panorama are higher-end (with more difficult Italian). Obtain through Amazon.

Sweets to the sweet. Marrons glaces are one of my favorites (candied chestnuts, in photo), but hard to find in the States. Venchi makes good 'uns, also, good chocolate. Expensive. To stay with the chestnuts, the insufficiently-known chestnut honey, which has an appealing bitterish edge. Good to pair with cheese. Also expensive (do you detect a pattern?- this is why I advised against the Big Basket approach).

For the meat lovers possessed of slicers. Forms of prosciutto di Parma or San Daniele, or the lesser-known speck from Alto-Adige (a sort of smoked prosciutto). Make sure that they are really from their respective areas.

Parmigiano-reggiano. Again, determine its authenticity.

Wine. As we are in winter and presumably eating more meat and heavier dishes, you might go with a Barolo or Brunello di Montalcino. No, not cheap. Pair this with a nice, higher-end bottle of Prosecco or two (the king of Prosecco is Cartizze), for pleasant quaffing at New Year's. Or, give liqueurs or amari.

Dried porcini. Give with box of fine risotto rice (Carnaroli or Vialone Nano). Make sure the rice is vacuum-packed. I seem to remember that Williams-Sonoma has some good Carnaroli (and other good stuff as well).

Olive oil, balsamic vinegars. The first will not be easy, if you have heard the news on adulterated olive oil from Italy. Do your reseach. And remember that real balsamic vinegar is used as a condiment, an accent, and not a vinegar as such. And therefore it is ... expensive. It will not cost ten dollars.

Specialty pasta. Again, do your research. It seems that recently paccheri have become quite chic. They are big fat short pasta shapes from the Naples area. Orecchiette from Puglia are always nice.

So. Buyer beware. Merchants will try all sorts of underhandedness, such as saying that prosciutto or pasta is "imported" when it comes from Canada. Try to find the actual Italian origin on the label somewhere. Where to find these goodies? Formaggio Kitchen. Zingerman's. And others too numerous to mention.