Pina de Gaspardis, the vivacious chef-owner of Al Fogher in Rome, who recently visited The Times during a weeklong celebration of the healthful Italian cuisine in Los Angeles, threw on an apron with a gustatory sweep and sighed as if she were drinking in the air of the Italian Alps.
"What joy there is in food. What happiness there is in sharing. How beautifully food brings people together," she exclaimed.
Which immediately tells you that food is not the only thing you bargain for when you dine Italian style.
It's the table. It's the camaraderie. It's the talk that goes on while you eat. It's the laughter, the tears, sadness and joy. It's life and soul. It's . . . it's . . . ah, yes, the phrase is il convivio, meaning the friendly gathering around the dining table.
"Italians approach food both spiritually and intellectually," explained Fredi Chiappelli, director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at UCLA.
"To fully appreciate Italian cuisine, you must understand the idea of il convivio, the food that is eaten at the table with friends. Even the tales of Boccaccio were spun in the company of dining friends without class distinction so that all life could be represented without prejudice," said the professor.
(In the Renaissance tales, there is mention of such dishes as wild herb salad, ravioli "tumbling down a mountain of Parmesan cheese" and roasted falcon.)
Well, il convivio is not a concept easily understood for many Americans whose idea of dining is driving through McDonald's golden arches, or munching meals by stopwatch.
But it is an appealing idea to contemplate, and those who are swayed to give it a try might find the dishes introduced in the following pages perfect inspirations for good conversation and good feelings.
Two of the recipes are from De Gaspardis and Alberto Ciarla of Alberto Ciarla Ristorante in Rome, both of them chefs who participated in a recent event titled "L.A. Cucina Italiana" to help publicize Italy's healthful Mediterranean diet.
And healthful the Italian diet is, despite dramatic dietary changes since World War II. According to Marcello Ticca of the National Nutrition Institute of Italy, at an interview during "L.A. Cucina Italiana" week, calorie consumption in Italy rose from 2,400 calories per capita per day in 1951 to 3,300 calories per day in 1985. "Italians are eating a new kind of diet with more fat, protein and animal products," said Ticca. "It's a result of Westernizing our diets and life styles."
Diseases of overconsumption are, therefore, on the rise, with heart disease and cancer at the top on the list, as they are in many Western countries where overconsumption is prevalent. Still, according to Ticca, the Italian diet is far closer in achieving the U.S. Dietary Guidelines than the American diet itself.
For instance, Italians consume about 35% fat and 38% carbohydrates, compared with 45% fat and 25% carbohydrates for Americans. The Dietary Guidelines urge Americans to consume 30% fat, 48% carbohydrates and 12% to 15% protein. Both Americans and Italians are today consuming 12% protein, according to data from the National Nutrition Institute of Italy.
De Gaspardis, the only female chef in the visiting group of chefs, prepared a vegetarian lasagna to highlight the healthful aspects of the Italian cuisine.
"It's the traditional Mediterranean cuisine of my grandmother, which is almost disappearing. My job is to rediscover it, cook it and bring joy to people dining on it," she said.
De Gaspardis, a former pianist who gave up music for cooking because her first love is cooking, regards cooking much as one might perform a Bach fugue. "Cucina is music of full-tones and semi-tones; a piano sonata or Bach fugue--two voices culminating in joyful reconciliation," she said.
De Gaspardis' idea of bringing music to her cooking could be exemplified in a nutritious--and delicious--lasagna made with homemade semolina pasta dough, and using sauteed leeks and radicchio as fillings and a cheese-loaded bechamel sauce to bind it all together. The cheese, of course, is the tender heart of a wheel of Reggiano Parmesan, which melts smoothly and easily in sauces, unlike American-made Parmesan cheese, which tends to lump and have a texture similar to sawdust when used in a sauce. Reggiano is now available in some gourmet food markets here.