I was definitely taught Italian in a classroom, sitting through intensive sessions filled with verb conjugations and vocab lists and pop quizzes aplenty. Grammatically, Italian doesn’t look all that different to French, and it shares a lot of cognates, so reading and writing came easily. Movies and music helped with listening comprehension, but when it came to speaking Italian, as opposed to merely stringing words together in an approximation of the instructor’s speech, I didn’t learn until I went abroad to Rome.
Italian is a language of cadences. Unlike French, in which you only pronounce about half the consonants in each written word, and the accents are notoriously, unabashedly irregular, Italian is phonetic, with stressed syllables falling in rhythmic patterns. The only way to learn that cadence is to listen and mimic, and I navigated the unfamiliar terrain in the same way that I navigate any unfamiliar city: I followed my stomach.
Each morning, I'd stop by the bar down the street from our program housing for coffee and a croissant: (un) cappuccino e un cornetto, learning to articulate the "r" without pushing it into a trill. A walk down the street and left at the intersection would bring me to the Trionfale Market: quattro fichi neri from Nunzia, the lady at the fruit stand, learning that "fichi" is pronounced "fi-gi." From Massimo, the butcher who cut paper-thin slices of prosciutto by hand and gave me bits of the skin (for flavoring bean soup) for free, un etto di prosciutto e qualche pezze di pelle, learning to form my mouth around all the doubled consonants. A little more knowledge with each visit to the market, consumed in every mouthful.
One windy autumn day after morning classes, I passed through the market with a shopping list on my mind. Fruit and cheese for lunch, zucchini and peppers to roast for sandwiches, and maybe a head of puntarelle to make salad dressed with anchovies, the way I'd seen it on so many restaurant menus in the city. I made it as far as buying a perfectly ripe pear and a thin wedge of Gorgonzola before remembering that I'd run out of bread and needed to make an extra stop at one of the baker's stalls.
I liked to buy my bread from a bakery in Trastevere (completely impractical in terms of geography, but utterly delicious), so I didn't have a favorite baker's stall at the market. Instead, I chose one that seemed to be doing a particularly brisk trade, joined the queue, and placed my order.
“Due ciabatte, per favore.”
The sharp-eyed woman at the baker’s stall frowned at me. Held up one of the loaves in question, and cocked her head questioningly.
“Si. Due ciabatte. Per favore.” I pronounced it as though it were French: “cha-batt,” two syllables with equal emphasis.
The woman shook her head. “Una ciabatta.” Three syllables, with a stress on the second syllable and a brief pause for the doubled t. "Due ciabatte." Three syllables again, and a crisp enunciation of the “e” on the end. Her stern expression rivaled that of my old-fashioned French teachers in its severity.
I knew what was expected of me. I took a quick breath and enunciated carefully: “Due ciabatte, per favore.” Uncertain, I ventured a smile.
She nodded - a very slight nod, but a nod all the same - before handing me my purchases in a paper sack and calling for the next person in line.
Feeling a little as though I'd just been through a particularly unexpected pop quiz, I hoofed it right back to my apartment for lunch. The vegetables would have to wait. I'd called the ciabatte by their name, and now they (along with the pear, and the Gorgonzola) were definitely calling mine.
A lean dough cooked at high heat, ciabatta is a close cousin of focaccia. The difference is that ciabatta is even wetter – eighty-five percent hydration or higher – and shaped into long, flat loaves, perfect for splitting horizontally and filling with sandwich fixings. I like this as a base for one of my favorite sandwiches ever: prosciutto and mozzarella with a mile-high stack of garlicky roasted zucchini, peppers, and eggplant, drizzled all over with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Bread is finicky, so I've given measurements in volume, imperial weights, and metric weights. For best results, go with the metric.
(A hand-mixed adaptation of Jason Molina’s Quick Cocodrillo Ciabatta Bread. Makes two long loaves, or three sandwich loaves.)
In a large mixing bowl, mix together one-and-three-quarter cups (eight point eight ounces, two hundred and fifty grams) all-purpose flour, one teaspoon (five grams) yeast, and half a teaspoon (four grams) salt. Pour in one cup (eight fluid ounces, two hundred and thirty-eight mililitres) water.
Stick a hand in the mixture and start stirring. At first, it’ll be like stirring pancake batter – no body whatsoever. Keep going. It will gradually develop into something that looks like dough.
Scrape the dough out onto a clean countertop. Get out a bench scraper – you’re going to need it.
The easiest way to begin kneading is to imitate an electric mixer: stick your hand in the middle of the mess and move it in circles. Once the dough develops more resistance, you can knead it by smearing it out on the countertop and gathering it back into a blob.
The dough is adequately kneaded when you can lift it off the countertop and it pulls away more or less cleanly. (If it moves like taffy and doesn’t want to come away, keep kneading.) When it reaches that point, oil it well with olive oil, and place it back in the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap. Leave in a warm place until it triples in volume. (Two to three hours.)
Liberally dust your countertop with flour. Take the dough from its bowl, and working as gently as possible, turn it out on the countertop. Cut it into two or three pieces, and shape the pieces into rectangles. Oil each piece, and dust liberally with flour. Leave to proof until light and puffy. (Fifty to sixty minutes.)
While your loaves are proofing, crank up your oven to 500F. Cover a baking tray with parchment paper and dust liberally with flour.
To transfer the loaves, carefully gather each loaf off the counter (use the bench scraper to help.) Don’t worry if they stick. Flip them onto the baking tray. They might look a little messy; again, don’t worry about it. Dust with more flour.
Bake for fifteen minutes or so, or until the loaves are a rich golden brown. Transfer to a cooling rack. Allow to cool before slicing.