Italian Embassy offers Beirut a taste of home

BEIRUT: Food lovers mingled and savored authentic Italian ham, cheese and pasta, as the Italian Embassy launched a three-day cultural event Tuesday in celebration of its country’s cuisine in Beirut.

“We are launching this event [in Bou Khalil supermarket] today. Later we will have a conference [about the history of Italian cuisine] by professor Alberto Capatti and from tomorrow we will have a chef preparing different regional dishes,” Italian Ambassador Giuseppe Morabito said at the event.

A long queue of people, each clutching their festive green and red bowls, eagerly awaited the chance to try a dollop of Ristorante Canaletto chef Maximiliano Parigi’s pasta, which he prepared on the spot in a small foyer decorated with Italian flags.

Surrounding the chef were tables with samples of various Italian products, which had been carefully chosen by buyers at the Bou Khalil supermarket and imported from Italy.

People came in throngs to delight in the samples of aromatic and grainy cheeses, flavorful tuna in olive oil, tender prosciutto and, of course, pasta.

“They are very supportive and committed to promoting Italian food and cuisine in Lebanon,” Morabito said of the Bou Khalil team. “They do a great job to promote Italian products and they always look for new products that can meet the tastes of Lebanese, while combining quality and good prices, because people don’t have too much money to spend.”

Parigi prepared two sauces for the tasting session; one was a traditional tomato-based arrabbiata, made with just stewed tomatoes, chilli and garlic, and the other was a pesto-based recipe from the northern Italian region of Liguria.

Minimalism is central to Italian cuisine, and most dishes do not exceed eight ingredients. Placed on Parigi’s table, for instance, was only a bottle of olive oil, a medium-sized bowl of parsley, another of grated parmesan and some chili flakes.

“Very simple,” Parigi said as he effortlessly flipped the pasta in the giant pan, ensuring the velvety green pesto, made with basil and nuts, was equally distributed.

And while Italian ingredients and dishes are renowned for their regional diversity – nut and herb infused dishes in the north and the poached tomatoes, eggplants and artichokes of the south – there are still some, like Parigi, who are not bothered to express their partiality.

“I believe the Tuscan kitchen is the best,” said the chef, who is originally from Florence.

“I prepare all my dishes according to that system, so there isn’t too much olive oil in the sauces I prepared today, because nowadays people like to watch their weight and cholesterol.”

The quality of ingredients used in Italian dishes is crucial and chefs like Parigi rely on high-caliber products to meet their personal culinary standards and keep their customers happy.

For instance, finding the right kind of pasta was a challenge for Parigi, who extolled the quality of Barilla, one of the products on display.

Pasta in Italy is traditionally made with durum flour and cooked al dente, meaning firm and “almost crunchy,” he said. However, outside Italy dry pasta is often made from other types of flour, and produces softer pasta once boiled and cannot be cooked al dente.

“We know very well that Italian products are of the best quality, and so we will always have space for them in our shelves,” said Ramy Bou Khalil, the marketing manager at the family-run grocery chain.

“Lebanon imports a lot of food from Italy because their products are [highly] consumed, like ham, pasta and salami,” he said, adding pasta products were the most popular.

Relations between the supermarket and the Italian Embassy have always been strong, Bou Khalil said. After the chain celebrated its 75th anniversary two years ago with an Italian theme, it was contacted by the embassy to launch this event, which is also sponsored by Vintage, an Italian wine company.

Bou Khalil is also offering promotions on some Italian products until March 11 as part of the festivities.

The cultural event continued Tuesday with a lecture about Italian cuisine in the age of globalization by Capatti and will then move to the Tawlet Restaurant in Gemmayze, where Parigi will prepare Italian dishes from different regions for a discounted price of LL40,000 from March 6 to 8.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 06, 2013, on page 2.




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