Mediterranean diet conquers EU bureaucracy
( dpa ) - Rudderless and impoverished - their government collapsed while their economy is lagging - Italians have little to cheer about these days.
But there is one thing that will always bring a smile to their faces: Food.
Al-dente pasta, smoked ham or mozzarella are cherished treasures in the Bel Paese. And now, they are also conquering the hearts of Europe's bureaucrats.
Since January, a small catering firm from the north-eastern corner of Italy, Unijolly, has replaced a French giant as the main food supplier to the Council of the European Union, one of the main Brussels-based institutions.
On a typical day, Unijolly will serve about 3,000 hot meals to civil servants from Finland, Ireland, Portugal or Bulgaria.
It also feeds prime ministers and high-ranking foreign dignitaries during their official visits to Brussels.
Its top chef is Francesco Mammola, a handsome 32-year old from Rome who has made a name for himself by appearing on an Italian adaptation of the BBC television series Ready Steady Cook.
Mammola had already been working in restaurants as a teenager before becoming a teacher at Italy's prestigious Gambero Rosso cooking school and exporting his expertise to Russia and Asia.
"Catering for so many different palates is certainly a challenge. But television has taught me that if your dishes have vivid colours, a pleasant appearance and a good consistency, the job is already half done," Mammola told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.
But feeding Eurocrats is about much more than appearances.
Daniela Piussi, Unijolly's general manager, says that when council officials started searching for a new caterer, they weren't just looking for good food, they also wanted to promote a healthier diet among its civil servants.
"As we offer a low-fat, Mediterranean diet, we were well placed to win the bid," Piussi said.
Since taking over, Mammola and his international team of 37 chefs - some of whom are French, Belgian, Slovenian, Spanish and German - have replaced butter with extra-virgin olive oil and stock cubes with real broth.
Grilled vegetables are now available far more frequently than French fries, while pizza is about to make its debut in the cafeteria of the Justus Lipsius building.
And while the antipasti may be typically Italian, Mammola's team try to offer a truly European variety of recipes - from Hungarian goulash to Spanish paella. Their sausages come from Germany while the fish, fruit and vegetables are now imported from Spain.
Overall, clients appear to have responded positively to the change.
Joal Miranda, a council official from Portugal, said the soups had improved. And while his colleague Anna Lopes missed the grilled shrimps with white rice which she used to relish, Nora Kramer, an Austrian-born translator, praised Mammola's stuffed peppers and roast potatoes.
This correspondent found that the strozzapreti pasta in a courgettes and bacon sauce was perfectly al dente and remarkably similar to the one he used to enjoy in Rome.
Unijolly says the next step is to teach its clients to appreciate the richness and variety of Europe's regional foods, perhaps by describing a product's history and explaining why it tastes so.
"Too many bureaucrats grab the first dish they see and gobble absent-mindedly while reading the newspaper. We want to change that," Piussi said.