CAMPAGNA, Italy -- On a warm evening not too long ago, I sat in a kitchen with Giuseppina Maffia. Sixtyish, a widow, she lives in Pioppi, a tiny, time-has-passed-it-by coastal village in Southern Italy. Through friends of friends, I'd been introduced, and now I was watching her cook dinner. A neighbor stopped by, and this lady, learning that I was American, wanted to make sure I knew that Giuseppina's last name was spelled with two F's.
"The Sopranos!" she said, and we all chuckled. There was a lot of laughter that night, humor being the only way to bridge the gap between their nonexistent English and my wretched Italian.
I was there trying to learn why people in this region of Italy, known as Campagna, have some of the world's fewest incidents of heart disease and cancer. I also wanted to see how what's become known as the Mediterranean diet is eaten at its point of origin. Though these ladies were happy to share their recipes, I could sense they thought my interest in their country's food was peculiar.
When I asked Giuseppina to define her diet, the first thing she'd said was "fish." After I pressed her for what else she liked to eat, it came out in this order: fish, pasta, olive oil, vino rosso, green vegetables, potatoes, beans, chickpeas, zucchini, tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, onion and garlic. I'm not sure Giuseppina Maffia knew that she'd listed the classic ingredients of the Mediter-ranean diet, a cuisine many doctors call the most nutritious kind of eating possible.
The Mediterranean diet was discovered by an American doctor, Ancel Keys, who came to Campagna after World War II to spend time with people who were known as Mangiafogli, or "leaf eaters," because they were too poor to eat meat with any regularity.
Their poverty had a rich side effect, he discovered, since the foods they had were high in dietary fiber, B-vitamins, and antioxidants, all of which are tireless disease-fighters in the human body. (Keys knew a thing or two about tireless fighters, since he was already famous, or infamous, among enlisted men for having invented "K" rations.)
In targeting cardiovascular disease, Keys compared the diets of seven of the world's regions and found that Campagna's men and women were living the longest and healthiest lives. His theory - that this was due to what they ate - was originally laughed at. Now it is accepted thinking.
Key's research is all the more relevant today as, over the last half-century, there's been a steady increase of obesity not only among Americans but also across the world. When western-style fast food chains (and their burger and fries, high fat / high salt menus) are introduced into any culture, the percentage of people who are overweight rises at all socio-economic levels. The correlation is so obvious, a new word has been coined: "globesity."
"The eating patterns of the Mediterranean diet are bullet proof," said Dr. Attilio Giacosa, who is a medical doctor and chief of the Gastroenterology and Nutrition Unit of the National Cancer Research Center in Genoa, Italy. Through its drastic reduction of red meat, and plentiful servings of fish, fruit, vegetables, nuts, garlic and olive oil, Dr. Giacosa says, "there is ample evidence the Mediterranean diet not only prevents cardiovascular disease, but can prevent future heart attacks in those who've already had one."
"Actually, the word 'diet' is misleading and unhelpful," added K. Dun Gifford, President of Oldways, a non-profit group based in Boston that advocates healthy eating and exercise. "Diet makes it seem like some punishing thing."
"What we're finding," Gifford continued, "is that when people are introduced to Mediterranean ways of eating, they can stay with it because, unlike most diets, this food pyramid will satisfy their hunger. It fills you up naturally, with healthy foods. I am a firm believer that if you can encourage people to learn why certain foods are better for them, they are more likely to eat them, and stick with them."
People in Campagna talk about food passionately, because of a shared understanding that eating is an intimate act. Italians tend to read omens into how they feel immediately after a meal. Frequently, a man will stand up from the table, press his hand to his lower abdomen and mutter, "lo fegato" -- the liver. It's almost as if this organ, not the heart, is the home of the soul.
One rainy afternoon in Ravello, I sat down to lunch, feeling glum about the dark clouds outside. As so often happened, though, my mood brightened when food arrived. A squid salad, sliced and mixed with celery, carrots, walnuts and parsley. Simple, clean and surprisingly tasty given its far from exotic ingredients. A pumpkin risotto with mussels came next. The portion size was modest, maybe three-quarters of a cup - not the bathtub full one expects at an American restaurant. Dessert was a single peach. My host suggested I slice it up into my glass, and pour on the last drops of vino rosso. The peach's sugar was mellowed by the sour tang of the wine. Delicious.
This happened frequently -- people offered "recipes" that were so simple, I couldn't believe I'd not thought of them before. Food is a sensuous, life-enhancing thing, not just "fuel." Italians appreciate this distinction, and it isn't just adults, or chefs that know this, either.
Case in point. A few days later, I'm in Palinauro, a humble seaside town, where the main street has only two establishments with a pulse: the pesceria (fish store), and the video rental shop. On the way back to my hotel from a run, two boys kicking around a soccer ball wave to me. We chat for a minute, so I ask them -- they are brothers it turns out, 14 and 12--- what they had for dinner the night before. The older answered, describing a menu of sole, green salad, and fruit for dessert. It was striking that this boy not only knew what he had eaten, but how it was prepared, describing the "sole broiled with bread crumbs and lemon."
When my week of researching the Mediterranean diet came to an end, I took a train up to Rome. My first afternoon there, I ate a late lunch at Al Moro, a place a Roman friend told me "tourists don't know about." Tucked away in an alley near the Trevi Fountain, its three small rooms are clubby, with wooden wainscoting and old black and white photographs hung high. Inside the front door, a table is laden with baskets of mushrooms, eggplants, and delicate bundles of green beans and asparagus.
To start, as I see everyone else doing (|cm SUPDLR|uh|cm SUPDLR|when in Rome), I order spaghetti al moro, which is a small amount of pasta cooked with olive oil, a bit of red pepper, and a few pieces of bacon. This meat, Italian prosciutto, is so rich and flavorful, even though there's hardly any on the plate, I leave some behind.
An attractive young woman is escorted to the table next to me. She is a brunette with tight jeans and full lips. We are so close our thighs nearly touch. She is talking quietly into her cell phone; so softly in fact, I can barely make out that she's speaking French. A girlfriend stops by her table, and they have a long chat in Italian. After her friend leaves, the brunette looks over at me, sees I'm reading an American newspaper, and so says hello to me, in English.
Stunned by her linguistic skills, it takes me a moment to respond. Alas, during this time, her husband arrives. He is much older, which simultaneously pleases and angers me. He orders for both of them. They eat.
While trying to decide on my entree (or secondi), I struggle to communicate with an impatient waiter, who is nodding along, content to bring me|cm SUPDLR| whatever. Not happy with the treatment I'm getting, the woman interrupts, explaining that I really should have scrofano acqua pazza, or fish cooked in "crazy water." Soon, a whole fish arrives, maybe ten inches long, cooked with a few tiny red tomatoes, white wine and oregano. It is, without a doubt, one of the three best meals I've ever eaten.
After her husband leaves, the brunette lights a cigarette.
"How do you spell the name of that fish?" I ask. (Though I might have looked at the menu.) She leans over, and writes on my newspaper. My lips are almost at her ear. I think to tell her that she is lovely. Instead, as I stand to go, I touch my lower abdomen.
"Lo fegato," I say, though my liver and I both felt like kings of the world.
She gave me an intimate smile.
That's amore, or eating, Mediterranean-style.
Eating Mediterranean style
Don't be obsessed with low-fat and no-fat. Instead, get some extra-virgin olive oil, and pour it on instead of using butter or other oils. Dip your bread in it. Drizzle it on steamed vegetables. Saute with it. Think of olive oil as a "squeeze of fruit." Want to learn more? Go to www. zingermans.com, and order a copy of A Guide to Good Olive Oil, by Ari Weinzweig.
Instead of potato chips or pretzels, snack on nuts.
Eat foods that are naturally brightly colored. Antioxidants in the pigments of fruit and vegetables are what keep the plants from burning up in the sun. "Plants live in a sea of ultraviolet light that would kill most of us," says Anne Underwood, co-author of The Color Code, a Revolutionary Eating Plan for Optimum Health (Hyperion Press, 2002, $22.95). An orange carrot, a scarlet strawberry, a navy blueberry - whatever catches your eye is good for you.
Love your garlic. A couple of cloves a day keeps the doctor away.
Like cheese? Of course you do, so why don't you develop a taste for feta? It's got a zingy, slightly citrus taste, and is naturally lower in fat than other cheeses.
You don't have to become a vegetarian, but eat less red meat and chicken. Think of these things as occasional splurges, like a banana split.
Get wet, eat fish. People who regularly eat seafood - especially "fatty" fishes like salmon and tuna - are less likely to suffer heart attacks. Experts say that even just one or two servings of fish a week (about 7 ounces) can be powerfully beneficial, because fish oils thin out human blood, make it less "sticky," which lessens the chance of a blood clot's forming.
Enjoy food. Slow down and savor what you eat, then eat more of what truly tastes the best. Do you really like the taste of a Pop-Tart?
Stephen G. Henderson