Although Italians did not invent the grill they certainly are among the cultures of the world that have perfected its use. The life of the fire, il fuoco vivo, in the gastro-history of the early Italians and their contemporaries held a special attraction. The Etruscans, Greeks, Romans and Byzantines were grilling spit roasted meats and small birds since ancient times. The tradition of grilling is still a significant part of regional Italian cuisine. Porchetta, a whole roasted pig, is one of the most common street foods in Central Italy and almost every family cook and chef has a recipe for arisoto seasoning (herbs and blended spices for grilled or roasted meat and poultry).
Lo Spiedo Bresciano, one of the city of Brescia’s signature dishes, follows an ancient tradition where small song birds (thrushes, meadowlarks, finches) were caught in nets in the countryside, plucked and cleaned then spitted, wrapped in lace fat or a bit of pork loin and grilled over an open fire. Our Nonna told us about doing this when she was a young girl in the Veneto.
In fact a word often associated with grilling (“marinade”) comes from the Italian marinare, a verb which means to put a food inside a fluid or sauce for some hours in order to let the liquid soak into the food. A traditional Italian marinade would be made using about a 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil to 1/4 cup lemon juice, red wine, balsamic or wine vinegar; adding herbs such as oregano, basil, fennel seeds, parsley, thyme or rosemary, ground black or crushed red pepper and several cloves of crushed garlic.
According to research by Kansas State University, soaking meat in a spiced marinade for an hour or more before grilling inhibits the formation of up to 87% of HCA’s (harmful compounds formed during exposure to the high heat of the grill) due to the antioxidants in the spices and the higher water content in the meat (more moisture prevents many HCAs from forming).
So before you take up with the life of the fire visit the garden, open a bottle of wine and pour yourself a glass and use the rest to mix up an Italian marinade.