Mention Italy to just about anyone in the world and if the first thing they’re thinking about isn’t food, it’s probably a close second. At least in the western world (and possibly all around the world), I would venture to guess that Italian food may be some of the most recognizable and most replicated. And all of the hype is utterly merited. Not only are meals, and thereby the food consumed, cherished and celebrated here, one will find a rich historic culture of craft behind the myriad of foods, wines and espresso enjoyed up and down the boot-shaped peninsula. Exploring Italy through your taste buds is one of the many highlights of la dolce vita.
I speak as someone who has held a life-long passion for pasta in it’s many forms. When I was around 5 years old I told my parents that when I grew up I was only going to eat spaghetti, screw them and their chicken breasts and hamburgers and vegetables. I believe my mom said “Fine. When you grow up you can do that if you want, but for now you need to eat chicken.”
Well, challenge accepted. How do you like me now, Mama? (For the record, I also eat chicken from time to time as an adult.)
It’s par for the course that America has, well, American-ized Italian food and in my first days here I realized that many of the things I assumed about my favorite food genre were a little off base.
I’m actually a little terrified to make any claims when it comes to Italian food, since it’s so important culturally, and I’ve probably managed to misinterpret something. I truly hope not to offed any Italians in the writing of this post, I’m still just learning after all.
What I didn’t know about Italian Food
(note: this list continues to grow)
The pasta is just the beginning. Literally. Though I imagined huge dishes of spaghetti, lasagna or risotto being the highlight of the Italian meal – perhaps with a side of vegetables or a salad course to start – it turns out this is misguided. In fact, the primo or first course is the starchy pasta dish, which may mean any of the above variations or a million others. (Probably, you’e already had the antipasto, or appetizer, of course.) The primo may be about as much as I would normally eat for an entire dinner back home, but don’t get carried away and accept too many of the extra helpings which will certainly be offered. You’ve got a lot more food on it’s way.
Next comes a secondo, which will feature meat or fish and usually a side of vegetables and that salad Americans tend to eat first. This is the main course or highlight of the meal (though I’ll admit I still relish the pastas the most). Once you’ve managed to clear that plate – which by now is feeling like a bit of an achievement of willpower, no matter how good it all tastes – the fruit, cheese and nut course comes around, followed by (if you’re lucky) desert before coffee or limoncello or other late evening top-offs to aid in digestion.
Also, don’t embarrass yourself and order a cappuccino after lunch! If you prefer a little milk in your espresso, get yourself a caffè macchiato.
Nearly everyone who is lucky enough to be a guest in an Italian home has their own version of the story where they are increasingly shocked as each continuous course arrives before them. Mine includes actually drifting off to sleep at the dinner table after being overloaded following a long hot day of Sicilian tourism. There’s no way to prepare for it, and nothing to do but embrace and relish it all, because it is truly a gift from whoever your chef may be.
Everything is hyper-localized, and you’re best off sticking to what’s regionally made. I’ll admit I was a little scoffish when my boyfriend was surprised that I said I might want to try a carbonara at the osteria in Monreale, Sicily. “But,” He said, “We are nowhere near Rome…” (which is where carbonara is traditionally made.) “Well, we’re a lot closer to Rome here than Minneapolis is!” I argued back and went ahead and ordered it.
It wasn’t very good. Nothing compared to the delicious Sicilian dishes I’d been enjoying for the last week, and nothing compared to the carbonara I ate 7 months later when we visited Rome. Because down to the village or neighborhood, there’s a local kind of pasta, a different way of preparing the sauce, a very specific specialty that you really should try because they’ve been perfecting it there for centuries. Even when we were in Trapani, on the western side of Sicily, the boyfriend hesitated to order pasta alla norma, an eggplant based dish originating in Catania on the eastern side of the island. Instead we opted for a noodle very specific to the city we were in, with a fish sauce. And it was fantastic.
So, though you can find pesto (typical of Genoa) or tagliatelle al ragù (kind of what we call spaghetti Bolognese in the states) basically anywhere in Italy, when in doubt, go for the most localized specialty and you won’t be disappointed.
Your meatballs don’t belong on top of the spaghetti! This one kind of disappointed me, because, oh, how I love a good, cheesy spaghetti and meatball dish. But as described above, you’ll find your pasta serving first, then the meatballs will be served with sauce and a side of veggies, but without the bed of starch. (Though if I’m home alone at lunch time and the boyfriend’s mom has left a dish of her incredible meatballs in our fridge, I will admit to cheating and putting them right on top of my spaghetti.)
Speaking of meatballs, I read in the wonderful travel log and cultural exploration Seeking Sicily a fantastic description the Sicilian meatball and the many reasons you won’t find them in a restaurant, paramount among them being Sicilian’s general distrust. When I asked the boyfriend if this is true, he said “Well, of course.” But why, I wanted to know. “Because they can put anything in a meatball, all the bad meats and horrible things.” But, why would they? They want their food to be good, I argued. “Oh, but they probably could do this,” he said. “It’s better just to eat my mom’s meatballs. I will ask that she makes you some.”
Can’t argue with that.
“Alfredo” sauce isn’t a thing here. I’ve enjoyed watching many Italians gasp and ask me to repeat myself when I tell them about it. “A sauce? No, Alfredo is my uncle!”
And while we’re talking sauces, many of the top American brand names make no sense; Prego means “you’re welcome” and Ragu is a meaty tomato sauce typical of the city of Bologna.
The street vendor pizza tastes exactly the same: greasy. Better just make your way to Napoli and get the real thing rather than expecting to find incredible pizza on every corner.
You can put tuna on a pizza! And, provided you are a tuna fan, a tonno alla cipolla (tuna and onion) pizza is actually super delicious. (These are once again things I found first in Sicily. Have I mentioned the boyfriend’s family origins are Sicilian?”)
Most amazing of all: I have yet to gain a million pounds. I remember when a good friend of mine was on her honeymoon in Italy and she sent me a message one afternoon describing the tiny Italian woman she sat across from in a trattoria in Milan. She watched in wonder as this woman ate a plate of risotto, then a veal milanese with potatoes, as well as three glasses of wine, for lunch. “How do they stay so skinny?!” She implored, as if the boyfriend had let me in on the secret.
I have no real answers for this, though I have some theories. The food is all incredibly fresh, and I’d venture to guess filled with a lot fewer preservatives and gunk that you find in American food. I tend to get very upset stomachs when I eat out in the USA, but have yet to have a similar reaction in Italy, even to things which set me off at home. I also walk everywhere when I’m here, averaging about 6-15 kilometers per day.
Whatever the reason, I’ll go with it and relish all of the incredible gusti until my body tells me otherwise.
Even if expectations are not entirely what you get, sometimes is a good thing to be surprised, even culinarily. It probably goes without saying I’d recommend Italy, and Italian food to anyone. After all, you couldn’t possibly understand this place without relishing in the food.