Food lovers at heart, Italians are now becoming gourmets, gluttons and "gastronauts."
Rome on Tuesday opened a municipal "City of Taste" building crammed with cooking and wine tasting theaters; Turin is hosting a "Slow Food" salon with 83 nations represented by chefs or cheeses; a seven-day "Eurochocolate" festival has drawn 100,000 visitors to the Umbrian town of Perugia, while Naples dished out 32,000 plates of pasta at a four-day "Pastashow," organized by a company called Macaroni Communication.
"Food in Italy is no longer a question of your stomach. It's a question of your palate," says Rome University Sociology Professor Mario Morcellini, a juror deciding a prize rewarding "Slow Food Cities" places where fast food is outlawed and waste recycling and quality of life are encouraged.
The food fad has also become big business.
Davide Paolini, whose guidebook "Luoghi del Gusto" (Places of Taste) recently pointed to places where you can eat better for less money, estimates the new food craze accounts for nearly $8 billion yearly.
He describes himself as a "gastronaut," and many Italians are following him.
The Agnelli Foundation, in a study released this week, found that memories of visits to Italy's ubiquitous archeological and art treasures are enhanced by side-by-side promotion of wine and local food products. More than five million Italians now plan their vacation trips according to wine and food stops.
The national magazine Panorama estimates the amount will triple in the next four years.
Signs are everywhere around the Italian piazzas. A plush "Wine Academy" with cellars and oenology classes for tourists and traders has opened next to Rome's famed Spanish steps. Two 24-hour national TV satellite channels beam dawn-to-dusk recipes. Major chefs like Gianfranco Vissani hold forth daily on morning TV, weekly magazines and at social events, greeted as "maestro" or as movie stars.
The roots of the boom date back 16 years, when a group called Slow Food, whose 150,000 members wear a tiny snail on their lapels, started to patronize small producers of quality foods, authentic restaurants and to sponsor dinners and cooking contests.
Every other autumn, a vast Salon of Taste in Turin attracts more than 100,000 visitors to check out everything from Alice Waters' "Chez Panisse," based in Berkeley, California, Turkish apricots or coffee from Chiapas, Mexico. This year's version opens Thursday.
Knowing it was on to a good thing, the Agriculture Ministry announced earlier this month that restaurants outside Italy will be granted certificates of "authenticity" on the basis of ingredients, preparation and service. The pilot project will be launched in Belgium, followed by the United States and Japan.
Walking around with a wine glass inside a pouch dangling from the neck or lining up for specialties is now a common sight at many food fairs up and down the Italian boot. In the medieval town of Orvieto, a "Slow Cities" event kept more than 200 people queuing under driving rain this month to taste the result of a "salad laboratory" which produced exotic mixtures of greenery sprinkled with extra virgin Umbrian olive oil.
By Dennis Redmont
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