Food for thought: Ten Features of Italian Food

  1. Bread. We are generally very disappointed with the bread in Italy. Crusty bread with nothing between the crust makes eating a sandwich (panino) dry and difficult, if not downright painful. Only a few examples of sliced bread were available (and scarily these last for weeks), and I’ve already talked about toast. However, we did have some lovely bread that was made in-house by a couple of restaurants, and I also liked the southern variations on panini – puccie (a puccia is like a pizza crust, cut in half horizontally, and filled like a sandwich), and piadine (a piadina is a flat bread, like a slightly thick tortilla, filled like a sandwich, and grilled or fried till it is crispy).
  2. The Italians really eat very little meat. The meat sections in most menus were very limited. In a casual restaurant, you can get slices of beef (poorer cuts) or the very occasional fillet, usually offered with a green pepper sauce or occasionally red wine. We rarely found pork or lamb on the menu – only in the Italian lakes. Bread-crumbed (much like schnitzel) veal or chicken (the only chicken you’d find on a menu) made a regular but not compulsory appearance. We thought we might have better luck in the supermarkets or butcher shops, and in the north managed to find some fillet steak at about the same price as we’d buy in New Zealand (though not the same quality), which we cooked at home to satisfy our red meat/iron cravings.
  3. Rocket and provolone. The Italians love rocket. You find it on pizzas, or on top of grilled meat, sprinkled with some grated provolone cheese.  Almost without exception, when I saw an Italian woman eatiing a pizza, it had fresh rocket scattered across it.
  4. Grilled vegetables are on almost every menu. In Spain we loved these because they included capsicums. But here, most of the time, there was eggplant and zucchini only. Delicious, but ultimately monotonous.
  5. Pizza and pasta were everywhere. We had a variety of both, my favourite pasta from Rome (a funghi tortellini), and my favourite pizza (three different types of tomato, pesto, and buffalo mozzarella) in Monopoli.
  6. The Italians don’t really go in for desserts. Perhaps because they spend all day nibbling on pastries with their coffee, or eating gelato, there were very few menus with dessert. The occasional tiramisu or pannacotta, and occasional chocolate cake or chocolate fondant, really a French dessert. Our favourite trattoria in Vittorio Veneto had a delicious pear cake dessert, but other than that, pickings were scarce. Probably a good thing, given our regular consumption of gelato. But on the few occasions when we did attempt a dessert (other than the afore-mentioned pear cake), they were 80% whipped cream.
  7. Breakfast. Cereal pickings were also scarce, with only a few options available in the supermarket. (The Husband was horrified to discover there was no weet-bix!)  Yet there would be full aisles dedicated to packaged, take-home pastries, filled with jam or chocolate cream. We decided to try one of these, in the interests of blending in. Essentially sweet bread rolls made to look like the Italian version of a croissant, a cornetto, they were not that appealing. The Food Tour guides mentioned that Italians will often, like hobbits, have two breakfasts. Both are the same – a light cornetto (not as buttery or heavy as a croissant) and an espresso or cappuccino first thing, then another mid-morning, to keep them going till lunch.
  8. Seafood is a popular choice. Italians love seafood, and it is part of the Mediterranean diet. In Puglia, the seafood antipasti offerings must be tried. You don’t need anything for primi or secondi – a seafood antipasto is enough! And I lost count of the number of seafood pasta dishes I ate.  Seafood means shell-fish, octopus and squid more than fish.  Seafood is cheap.  Fish on the other hand was much more expensive, and charged by the etti (100 grams).  The most expensive dish we had was a filleted fish!
  9. The dish I want to recreate when I get home is the pumpkin gnocchi, drizzled with just a bit of olive oil and parmesan, that I ate in the Trattoria alla Cerva in Vittorio Veneto. I can still taste it. Sigh (bliss).
  10. “Ahhh,” everyone says when you say you are going to Italy. “Italian food is so good!” And yes, they are right. Much Italian food is truly excellent. But this time we found exactly the problem we discovered the first time we visited Italy. Menus don’t really vary. Traditional Italian food is exactly that, traditional. Except in special, innovative restaurants there is no fusion of old and new ideas, little evidence that chefs here take something traditional and put a twist on it. And certainly no suggestion of a fusion between Italian and another food culture, let alone a fusion between East and West that we are so familiar with at home. The passion about food exhibited by the Italians seems contradictory to their lack of interest in new foods. Is it fear of the foreign? Is it a concern that trying something new could be seen as verging on the traitorous? Is it an inability to comprehend that food from other places, or food that hasn’t been around for hundreds of years, could possibly be any good? Is their national pride so fragile that they fear that different food might be better? Or is it simply an insular focus on what they know, the security of the traditional, and the comfort of eating only the food that mamma used to make?
La Dolce Vita pizza.  The best I had in three months in Italy.

La Dolce Vita pizza. The best I had in three months in Italy.


12 responses »

  1. What is Rocket??? Crushed Red Pepper???

    Perhaps it is the pairings with different wines that provides the variety in tastes?

      • judging by some of the other posts there are other Americans in the audience….a thought re the lack of variety…perhaps the more Euro’s you pay the better the food and variety get??? Just like NZ….meat pies, fish’nçhips can get pretty bland after the third helping!!!

      • Two things.
        1. We were not shy of spending euros on good food. If we could find it.
        2. You are equating NZ takeaway food on a student budget (the kiwi equivalent of McDonalds) from the 1970s with Italian food of 2013 (identical to food in 1998 on our first visit) in good restaurants. Oh, and these days there are national meat pie competitions in NZ, with all sorts of gourmet fillings. You should come back and visit once in a while, and we could introduce you to some of them.

  2. ouch… I wonder how many Italian toes you stepped on with this post! The only way I can think of to describe Traditional food: Nonna knows Best.
    Just like you don’t rewrite history you don’t rewrite traditional recipes….

    • Valery, I understand that. Nonna knows best is my point in my last sentence. But there’s nothing new in Italian cuisine. And restaurant after restaurant offers exactly the same fare. Same pizza toppings. Same pasta sauces. It cqn get very boring very fast. Finding some variety is great – and it is then that we find the really excellent Italian food.

  3. Words in this post that Mali needs to define for me:

    Recipe Mali must share when she learns how to make it:
    pumpkin gnocchi, drizzled with just a bit of olive oil and parmesan,

    Dean and I discovered a well-kept secret here in Bethesda — a true Italian deli. They cell frozen pastas that are so delicious and make the best pizzas we’ve had in town — maybe not real Italy-Italian pizzas, but delicious. One of the pastas we bought was a sort of pumpkin ravioli that was shaped more like a perogi than a ravioli — agnelotti? We also purchased a walnut sauce to go with that. Yum.

  4. Yes, what is rocket??

    Your observations about Italian food ring mostly true for me, at least, in terms of the Italian food I’ve had here with dh’s family. ; ) Although there does some to be some variation from region to region. Dh absolutely adores Italian bread, the crustier & even more burnt the better — his dad will often bring over a loaf when he’s been to an Italian grocery. I find some of it almost too tough for my liking, but I do like some of it.

    Not a lot of meat in the diet, but if they’re having it, breaded veal cutlets is a safe bet. ; ) Dessert is usually fresh fruit. And yes, pastries for breakfast. Dh’s family buy a certain kind of cookie & eat them for breakfast, dunking them in their coffee.

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