The Italian Almanac

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a state dinner at Quirinale

Eating Like Kings

The idea of 'eating like a king in Italy' conjures up images of banquets of truffle risottos, meaty lasagnas, sauteed scallops, grilled Fiorentina steaks, tiramisus swimming in cream and other such culinary delights. The reality of Italian regal eating, however, could just as easily involve tucking into nothing more lavish than a leg of unseasoned roast chicken.

A new book by the Italian Academy of Cuisine (Accademia Italiana della Cucina) uncovers the eating habits of the nation's 15 heads of state to date - its four kings and the 11 presidents to have served since Italy abolished the monarchy and became a Republic after World War II. The publication, I Menu del Quirinale (The Menus of the Quirinal Palace), has been released as part of the initiatives to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Italian unification this year. As the title suggests, it is based on the menus served at the palace and it makes fascinating reading for lovers of Italian history and food. This is because it reveals both the riches on offer at stately dinners and the everyday diets of the nation's top dogs, which have frequently been far more somber.

For example, Italy's first king, Vittorio Emanuele II, preferred relatively simple food such as polenta, long considered a dish for the poor, roast wild boar and a lump of Piedmont cheese washed down with a nice glass of Barolo or Barbaresco wine. His successor, Umberto I, was not a big gourmand either although he did have a weak spot for a drop of Sicilian Marsala, while plain roast chicken was a favourite for Vittorio Emanuele III.

But the Savoy dynasty also knew how to turn on the culinary style when the occasion demanded, such as the wedding of Italy's last king, Umberto II to Maria Jose' of Belgium. The royal wedding menu featured the scrumptious-sounding but now mysterious Montebello eggs, lobster with tartar sauce, pheasant cooked on a spit and served with watercress and Palermo custard ice-cream.

Italy's first two presidents, Enrico De Nicola and Luigi Einaudi, mostly had simple tastes too, often opting for a grilled slice of beef or fish for supper. Giuseppe Saragat, the nation's fifth president, between 1964 and 1971, seemed to delight in a good feed though, increasing significantly the number of state lunches, with baked trout and ravioli almost ever present.

Moving more recently, the menu for the Christmas Eve dinner served to Italy's penultimate president Carlo Azeglio Ciampi in 2002 combines a first-course treat for the taste buds with an ultra healthy second dish. Ciampi, president from 1999 to 2006, started off with 'mezze maniche' pasta in a rich, tomato-and-aubergine-based Sicilian 'Norma' sauce then feasted on boiled chicken with steamed carrots, courgettes and artichokes.