A Fistful of Focaccia

Italy and America in Nico Cirasola’s Focaccia Blues [1]

In early 2001, McDonald’s opened in the small southern Italian town of Altamura. The restaurant closed in December 2002, with months remaining on the lease. Focaccia Blues (2009), a film that combines documentary elements with a fictional tale, narrates the encounter between the giant American corporation and a focaccia shop opened by a local baker nearby. Based on a screenplay by Alessandro Contessa and Alessia Lepore and directed by Nico Cirasola, this film ostensibly about flat bread engages in a much larger conversation about the effects of globalization as it pits the American fast food chain against time-honored customs held by the residents of a small town in Puglia.[2] Focaccia Blues interviews Eric Jozsef, a journalist for the French paper La Libération who was the first to report the food fight in 2006. The film also cites Ian Fisher who later wrote about McDonald’s short-lived presence in Altamura in the New York Times. He quoted the description of this gastronomic clash by food activist and retired journalist Onofrio Pepe (who appears as himself in Cirasola’s film): “Our bullets were focaccia. And sausage. And bread. It was a peaceful war, without any spilling of blood.” And Patrick Girondi, a Chicago native who had lived in Altamura for more than a decade, explained the outcome of this encounter in Fischer’s article thus: “McDonald's didn't get beat by a baker. McDonald's got beat by a culture.” (Fisher 2006)

Focaccia Blues depicts the victory of regional, local fare over homogenized products and embraces the tenets of the Slow Food movement, initiated in Italy in 1986 as a response to the establishment of a McDonald’s restaurant in Rome’s iconic Piazza di Spagna.[3] The film includes a medical perspective on eating habits in an interview with Dr. Giuseppe Colamonaco who relates the litany of health woes associated with the consumption of fast, not slow, food. Cirasola dedicates his film to Carlo Petrini, one of the founders of the movement that advocates for good, clean, and fair food for all. Based on the premise that locally grown food is superior, Slow Food attempts to curb the negative effects of globalization that occur when multinationals such as McDonald’s challenge local businesses dedicated to traditional methods of growing and preparing food. Restaurants in Italy proudly display images of the Slow Food snail, known for its leisurely pace, to signal their commitment to the movement. This insignia now graces restaurants throughout the world, including establishments run by Mario Batali in the United States. Another slow movement, Cittaslow (Slow Cities), which was founded in 1999, aims to engage local communities and town governments in the appreciation of food, respect for civic and religious life, and preservation of traditions that contribute to the richness of daily living. In Cirasola’s film, residents of Altamura affirm those principles as they perform a wide variety of artisanal work while enjoying food raised and grown locally.

In addition to focusing on the international news coverage about McDonald’s premature departure from Altamura, Focaccia Blues highlights the work of Luca Digesù, the baker who established a focacceria right next door to the fast food restaurant. He is one of many artisans of Altamura who practice ‘slow’ trades passed down from generation to generation. Cirasola’s film interviews local barbers, art restorers, pastry chefs, butchers, cobblers, iron forgers, and saddle makers who face challenges in the modern world. For example, the cobbler explains that he has much less work now that people wear sneakers, the rubber soles of which never need repairs. Focaccia Blues documents as well McDonald’s clumsy pursuit of zoning and signage permits in an interview with a town official.

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foto: Mulberry Street (ca. 1900), Library of Congress (cc), https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/8e/NYC_Mulberry_Street_3g04637u.jpg/1200px-NYC_Mulberry_Street_3g04637u.jpg