Killing cats is illegal in Italy. And eating them was understood to be something only done during times of deprivation. Bigazzi said as much when he explained that this was the case during his childhood in the 1930s and ’40s. (Obviously Italy is not alone. During the siege of Paris in 1870, certain restaurateurs resorted to purchasing their meats from the zoo. Writes Kenneth James in his biography of Escoffier, “there was donkey, elephant, camel … and kangaroo, bear, wolf and roe deer,” and yes, “the humble cat delicately embellished with rats.”)
So was Bigazzi being merely nostalgic or was he actually suggesting Italians today eat cat? If you ask restaurateur Dean Gold, the answer is, in all probability, yes, it still happens — not out in the open by the Piazza del Popolo, mind you, but rather in secret gatherings akin to the supper club that feasted on Komodo dragons in The Freshman.
Gold runs the highly regarded rustic Italian restaurant Dino in Washington, D.C., but in 1997 he was working for Whole Foods Market. Gold was attending Vin Italy, an international wine exhibition in Verona, though he was staying in nearby Vicenza. The staff at his hotel recommended a hole-in-the-wall establishment with the promise of authentic local cuisine. It not disappoint. “I sat at this table,” Gold explains in a phone interview, “and as [the waiter] was serving this banquet, he kept on bringing me dishes and glasses of wine and ordered my food for me and took wonderful care of me. We’re having this great old time and I’m getting progressively drunker and drunker on these expensive wines that I’m not paying for.” It was then that Gold was reminded of a famous poem:
Veneziani gran signori,
Padovani gran dottori,
Veronese tutti matti.
“The Venetians are great gentlemen,/ the Paduans are great doctors,/ in Vicenza they eat cat,/ and in Verona everyone’s crazy.” The waiter expressed embarrassment, telling Gold, “Well, you know, it was 400 years ago, we were starving…. It was better than eating the rat.” Fair enough, though the waiter goes on, “and maybe 100 years ago, when my great-grandfather was alive, maybe there were still people who did that; it was common but not real common — I mean, not everyone did it but the well-to-do did it, and my grandfather and father, they enjoyed cat, but really, these days, very few people still eat cat.” Finally, he says, “By the way, if you come back tomorrow night, we’re having a banquet and they’re serving cat in the banquet hall.”
On the one hand, Gold is a serious foodie. On the other hand, he was working for Whole Foods Market and many of his colleagues were vegans. Wondered Gold, “How am I going to explain eating cat to this group of people? And then how am I going to avoid gleefully talking about eating cat to the cat lovers?” As it turned out, Gold’s flight left the next day so he was spared from making such a choice. But suppose that flight were postponed. Would he have eaten a cat? “I probably would have done it,” he says with a hearty laugh.
Not to be mistaken, Gold is extremely conscientious when it comes to the humane treatment of animals. “We have a responsibility as thinking moral people, in my opinion, to not inflict unnecessary cruelty.” He has problems with animals raised in industrial conditions, for instance, and stopped using a brand of veal when he learned the company was lying about how they treated its livestock.
But in Italy, Gold views things a bit differently, taking into account cultural and historical factors. “In doing research [for recipes] what I discovered is Italy was incredibly impoverished after the Napoleonic invasion … and the use of spices just went away. So there’s all of these things we see in modern Italy that come out of the abject poverty of the country — that the country has by and large overcome. And I think people just don’t understand that.” It is this Cucina Povera (poor people’s cooking) that fascinates Gold: “That’s where you take old-fashioned, poor dishes and you make them modern. That’s what we do at Dino and that’s what I love when I eat.”
Not that cat stew will be appearing on Dino’s menu any time soon. • 25 February 2010