As I was getting out of my car in the parking lot in front of Centro Italia, a beat up old Alfa Romeo came careening down the hill – gravel flying off to one side. He switched off the engine before he had parked, crunching into a spot and pulling the hand brake loudly. He slammed the door so hard the windshield rattled. He had a tan, he wore his hair longer than people normally do in Berlin and walked to the entrance of the cash and carry in long quick strides.
I can understand his urgency, it was ten to four and Centro Italia closes at 4 on saturday.Finding good Italian food is a challenge in most cities, not just Berlin (in London I recommend the River Café, Locanda Locatelli for a sophisticated glamorous approach, or Zucca). Sure you can find mozzarella with tomatoes and basil, pizza, limp pasta with arrabiata sauce or a grainy Bolognese. But that’s like pretending those refrigerated plastic trays of sushi have any relation to the real deal. Italian food is so varied and nuanced, you only have to look at the number of grape varieties they have – thousands, to understand why an authentic Italian meal proves so elusive.
I used to lament the many stops I had to make to get one meal together in Berlin, when in London I could get everything I needed at Waitrose or even better, online with Ocado. Now I am totally into it. It takes all day here to prepare dinner especially if I am using an American or British magazine for inspiration, they nonchalantly suggest crab or veal shanks. Like I could get crab or veal shanks! I found some picked white crab meat at Frischeparadies, it was €17 a tub. I turned that tube over in my hands until I had taken the chill right out of it before reluctantly putting it down in the refrigerator and moving on to vacuum packed lamb shanks. Irish the packet declared, like that somehow indicated the meat would be good (that’s like pretending that all croissants in Paris are good, because it’s Paris). They turned out to be terrible. Even with diligent browning and long slow stewing the only smell I could entice from them was one of wet wool with a strong kick of animal nudging up behind it. I binned it and suffered guilt pangs for two days.It’s best to eat what the locals eat. If that means I have to put away my fair share of flammkuchen or come up with inventive ways to use up quark (best one so far? quark pancakes with caramelised apples) then so be it.
Homemade Italian, although no more authentic to the stuff in the restaurants, is a good alternative – at least you can cook your pasta al dente. It’s amazing what you can do with a tin of Mutti plum tomatoes, garlic (not Chinese!) and basil. Or now that green asparagus is in town – try this recipe, my only change is that I pan fry the tips rather than boiling them.
Centro Italia is the place to stock up on dried pasta, canned tomato (best price for Mutti tomatoes I’ve found is at Ullrich), cheeses, cold meats, olive oil and so on. Being a cash & carry, expect strip lighting and not much in the way of interior design but if you are a Berliner, you aren’t expecting a good-looking supermarket let alone a cash and carry. Just like at Mitte Meer (the Spanish cash & carry I love) the staff are helpful and warm. Really, it’s worth a trip just to have them be nice to you and ask you if they can ‘be of any help’ when you stand perplexed in front of a shelf of dried pasta.
Centro Italia Prenzlauer Berg
Str Greifswald 80c
Mon-Thurs: 10am to 19.00
Fri: 10am to 20.00
Saturday: 10 am to 16.00 pm
Two other locations in Marienfelde and Charlottenburg check website for details