The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Home is Where the Taco Truck Is, Or Distance Makes the Stomach Grow Fonder

Posted on | March 4, 2013 | Written by Janice Cable | No Comments

Heads-on shrimp and blue-check tablecloth

Among the many pieces of digital detritus I came across today was this posting from the US Air Force, which is looking for a taco truck. The taco truck, called a “Mexican Food Mobile Snack Food Truck” in military parlance, is specifically needed for the Air Force base in Aviano, Italy.

Having lived in Italy, I get it. Make no mistake: regardless of where you are, Italian food is astounding. It’s amazing, and it’s universal. Even Italian potatoes taste better, more intense, more potato-like, than their American counterparts. The bread is breadier. The zucchini will make converts out of the least loving of zucchini, and I count myself one of both the latter and the former. The little cups of espresso you drink in the grimy counter cafes that line the Aurelia will make you weep with their Platonic ideal of espresso. The tiny fresh strawberries, fragoline di bosco, burst on your tongue like perfect berry pyrotechnics.

The gnocchi you buy at the corner shop float celestial in your mouth. The cheeses you buy, the meats from the salumeria, the focaccia from the focacceria, the hazelnuts enrobed in chocolate in the bar that you get everywhere—all of it is astounding, food revelations, quotidian epiphanies. And I haven’t even gotten to the heads-on shrimp laved in red sauce and served on a bed of spaghetti at the nearby blue-checked tablecloth restaurant. I don’t even need to mention La Pineta and its Michelin starred meals of such succulent dishes from the sea. Italy is filled to the epiglottis with astounding food.

Italy has its share of strange junk food

And yet, sometimes you just want a freaking cheeseburger. A street pretzel. A bowl of matzo ball soup. A taco. Something that reminds you of where you’re from, the food that you grew up with, the food you eat when you’re tired or blue or simply meditative. This, I suspect, is where the Air Force taco truck comes in. The men and women in uniform want a taste of San Diego, Austin, Portland, even Brooklyn, and few dishes have come to embody the American experience quite as boldly as the taco. They’re cheap, they’re delicious, and they’re pretty reliable, regardless of where you are.

I admit that as a New Yorker, I’ll likely earn the scorn of readers from the Southwest of these United States. They will stand up and fight for their regional taco, and undoubtedly, they are right. The vast majority of my taco experiences, outside of the taco nirvana of a truck parked alongside a San Diego beach, have been with Gothamite tacos, which I hear are “getting better.” But despite this lacuna of legitimate taco, when I lived in Italy, I had a yen for a taco. Tacos said home to me, in some odd cultural mash-up.

So I got food from the local Mexican restaurant in Camogli, the small town on the Italian Riviera that I lived in for a few months in the spring of 2011. And it was almost entirely unlike Mexican food. It was a game of gustatory telephone, where Mexican food had been spoken at the very far end of a long chain of humans, and with each iteration, it grew further away from itself. On top of that strange permutation was the fact that you can’t get the good kind of avocado in Italy. You get the big kind that’s pale green with the giant pit, the kind that tastes somehow more like soap than avocado. It didn’t help.

Minestrone and farinata in Chiavari

The first thing I ate when I returned from Italy the first time was a lobster roll. The second time, the first thing I ate was Pad Thai. You’d be hard pressed to find either in Italy. Both dishes whispered “New York” to me, which may or may not seem bizarre, and both were about the best lobster roll and Pad Thai I’d ever had in my entire life.

Having been away from Italy for altogether too long (just over a year—I plan on returning this fall), I get struck by strange Italian cravings. A cup of that molten, almost gelatinous hot chocolate. That farinata and bean soup I used to get at that restaurant in Chiavari. The strange, almost tasteless pillow that is true Tuscan bread paired with fennel cinghiale sausage. The pizza that you get in Rome, the kind that you point at and say, “Questa,” and then they cut and weigh your slices. And, of course, my much beloved heads-on shrimp. Mediterranean shrimp have no rivals.

I hope the Air Force gets their taco truck. It’s good to eat food that reminds you of home—and to realize that reminiscence is often touched with bitter-sweetness, and that home is something you carry with you.

 

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