If I close my eyes, I can remember lying on a chaise longue at the beach, soaking up the sun on a Saturday afternoon, ignoring the children playing under the umbrella two feet away from me and the inane conversation just behind me. With the exception of Southern Italy, where beaches are rocky and wild, most of the Italian coastline is a rather different beach experience than the vast expanses of sand on either coast in the States.
Italian beaches have been colonized and, from May to September, a week-end at the beach involves renting a chaise longue and an umbrella from one of the “bagni” neatly arranged along the coast. A “bagno” is an establishment, more or less fancy, that provides the services a private beach club would provide here, with the difference that the alternative of a square of sand on which to lay down one’s towel doesn’t really exist – money has to be exchanged if you want to be there.
Around the “bagno” Summer social cliques are born, families and teenagers see each other season after season, but never back home. Rows of umbrellas and chairs are neatly arranged on the sand, with the possibility of renting them for a week-end, a day, a month or a season. Chairs and umbrellas are so close to each other that it’s impossible not to strike up conversations, exchange gossip magazines and watch over each other’s belongings while you go for a swim. Many a friendship, romances and betrayals have been hatched under those umbrellas.
Inside the “bagno” (which, literally, means bathroom and I am not too sure why it became to signify a beach establishment) one can find restrooms, food and drinks, sun lotion, ice-creams and the ever-present jukebox blaring a soundtrack that can be heard all the way to the water. Video games are a more recent addition. The merchants who rent these slivers of beach from the Government work brutally, dawn to sundown, all through the season, making enough money to see themselves through the winter.
On this rainy day I am reminded of “bagni” for two very different reasons – I am lamenting the loss of my youth which was punctuated by endless Summer week-ends (never long vacations) on the littoral an hour away from my home town and I am craving “Piadina”. While going back and forth between the ocean, the chair and the “bagno” to get a cold a drink trying to get a tan and not bake to death, hunger invariably makes an appearance through the curtain of boredom. And where else can one satisfy it while still clad in a bikini, sandy and salty and barefoot? But at the “bagno” table of course, where the food of choice is “piadina”. If India has chappatis, Emilia-Romagna has given us the piadina, a round flatbread made of flour and lard, cooked on a griddle until black bubbles form and then filled with salumi, or fresh and squirty cheese, or bitter greens. The combinations are endless.
As easy as it is to make as the dough doesn’t even need to rise, piadina has not become synonymous with Italian food, partly because it is restricted to a very specific region, Emilia-Romagna and has never cared to cross borders. Cooked in a wood fire oven is even better and, while I am pondering dinner options that do not involve battling the rain (this is LA after all and one doesn’t venture out in the rain unless it’s strictly necessary) I am thinking of scouring my books or the net for a recipe I can reproduce in my kitchen. That old bikini body of mine is not coming back but I am determined to recreate that taste of Summer. Small consolations..