Think you know Italian food? A visit to its home country will surprise you in many ways. Learn 10 surprising facts about Italy’s food culture.
Italian food is my favorite to cook at home, I own countless cookbooks on the subject, I love to go out and eat at Italian restaurants and it’s my fourth trip to Italy – but still, I’m learning. Nothing compares with being immersed in the Italian culture whenever you get the chance to travel there. Your knowledge increases tenfold in just a few days. Ask questions, eat where Italians do, mingle with locals and you’ll come back home with hundreds of ingredients to taste and recipes to cook.
Here are 10 new things I learned about Italian cooking and food culture over my latest trip to Rome.
You probably heard of that one. It’s every guidebook’s golden rule. I knew this but never talked to native Italians about it. It’s their pet peeve, they really can’t stand the idea of a cappuccino during the day, especially after dinner. It may be like ordering a glass of red wine with your oatmeal in the morning. Many North-Americans are addicted to their milk-based coffees, but when traveling, why not try something different? You’ll get bonus points for blending in with the locals.
A cup of rich and strong Italian espresso.
I love Parmigiano-Reggiano and I could sprinkle it on anything. I guiltily learned in Rome that you shouldn’t have it on anything involving seafood. I know I’ve used it in shrimp risottos! Asking parmesan to go with your Vongole pasta is as bad as ordering a cappuccino at 10 pm. Just don’t do it. Since learning this “rule”, I’ve had two risottos without any cheese in them and thought it made a lot of sense: the dish is naturally creamy because of the rice and stirring method, and the delicate taste of seafood comes through much better.
My first risotto without cheese at Ripa 12, in Trastevere (shrimp and zucchini risotto).
To keep on with the “what you shouldn’t eat in Italy” theme, I was very surprised to learn that olive oil bread dipping is not an Italian thing at all. Eleonora went so far as to tell me that the idea of replacing butter with olive oil was totally Anglo-Saxon. Many restaurants will offer bread and olive oil before your food arrives, but it’s because they know you want it.
Being lactose intolerant, I always considered anything Carbonara was out of my league because it’s so often made with cream back home. Perhaps my most enlightening discovery was to find out that authentic Carbonara sauce is made only with eggs, pecorino romano, fried pancetta (or better, guanciale), black pepper, and a little cooking water from the pasta. The result is the most luscious concoction I’ve ever had. Mind you, even without cream, it’s still very rich and it’ll be difficult not to indulge frequently back home.
The best Carbonara I had in Rome, at Roscioli.
With the fierce battle to improve school lunches going on in America, I almost fell off of my chair when I learned that Italian kids attending public schools eat 100 % organic and local lunches. Parents even get a detailed menu of what their kids are going to eat over a given week to make sure they won’t eat the same thing for dinner. How great is this? This article details the initiative and quotes that “parents who send their kids to public schools pay more attention to what their children eat rather than what they read.” While both topics should hold equal importance, I say that showing such care about one’s health from the youngest age is refreshing.
“Locavore” is probably one of the most trendy foodie terms right now. When I mentioned it in Rome, eyebrows raised. Italians don’t need a trend to eat locally – it’s simply the way it’s been for centuries. Italian food is a simple cuisine based on the freshest ingredients available. You go to the market and see what’s available – then you build your menu. When I visited Rome, it was zucchini, artichokes, porcini and radicchio season. These vegetables were heavily featured in menus, on which any dish based on frozen ingredients is clearly marked. Once you know something’s not fresh, it’s difficult not to make another choice.
Fresh eggs, prunes, pears, and tomatoes at the market.
There are fewer supermarkets scattered around Rome compared to many other big cities, the reason being that many Romans still go to the market and specialized shops to select their ingredients from the merchants they’ve come to trust over the years. Big markets are open daily until 1 PM and they sell everything from fresh fish to toothpaste and clothing. Although the easily accessible one-stop-shop supermarkets are gaining in popularity, politicians, cooks, foodies and artisans are all fighting to keep the market tradition alive.
At the Testaccio market: A woman carefully selecting her vegetables and a merchant known as the “Tomato Philosopher” for his vast knowledge about tomatoes.
Having little room left for dessert is perhaps not so surprising when a typical meal consists of an antipasto (appetizer), a primi piatti (soup, risotto or pasta dish), a secondi piatti (meat or fish course) and a contorni (vegetable-based side dish). Of course, Italian won’t gobble all four courses on a daily basis, but still usually choose at least two to compose a meal. Dessert is usually something simple like fruits. Cakes, mousses and crèmes brûlées are for tourists who long for sugar at the end of a meal. Pastries and sweets seen in pasticcerias are most often eaten as a snack in the afternoon or as a special occasion dessert.
At selection of sweets at the Pasticceria D’Angelo, in Rome’s Trident neighborhood.
… by North-American standards. Even the worst restaurant in Italy serves its (fresh or dry) pasta tender but with a good bite on the inside. I’m too often disappointed by the mushy texture of pasta served by many restaurants in North-America. A generous plate of perfectly cooked pasta will cost you under 10 euros in Italy. Budget is not a valid reason eat mushy pasta. I learned that some Italian pasta companies have started to increase their cooking times indicated on boxes sold in America to please our palates. Reducing the instructed timing by one minute will usually get you pasta as Italians would eat it.
Freshly made linguine pasta at Mea, in Rome’s Testaccio neighborhood.
Just like the much-publicized French paradox, there is a similar contradiction between the Roman diet and their silhouettes. They drench their food in olive oil, drink plenty of wine, eat rich cheeses, and – most surprisingly – they love fried foods. Fried artichokes, eggplant, cheese, rice, seafood; Roman antipasti were often heavy on the stomach. Still, they manage to keep a healthy figure. Maybe it has to do with the quality of ingredients they use (even if they’re fried), the fact that they eat very little processed foods or some other mysterious reasons we haven’t figured out yet. We really need to dig deeper into this.
Rome, viewed from the Janiculum hill, in Trastevere.