Rethink one of the most popular cuisines of the world…
Be honest. When you see this blog title, aren’t you thinking: “Why an article on this topic? Everyone knows Italian food, right? You WILL change your mind after you read through to the end.
When we came back from our vacation in Italy last month, we encountered naturally curious questions like: “Did you tired of having pizza and pasta everyday?” and “Was the Caesar Salad any different?” and “Wasn’t the food a cakewalk this time?”
Ha! We had gone brimming with the over-confidence. Thought we knew Italian food as well as Indian food. Came back humbled. There was tons to learn. We didn’t know it all.
Over 16 days, travelling the length of the country, from Capri in the South through the Sorrentine Peninsula, on to Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, Ligurian and the Lombardy region of the North, we discovered the depth and variety of Italian cuisine. Our familiarity gave us a head-start, but each meal was an eye-opener. Here…try scoring your knowledge against my list.
BREAKING BREAD: first up, starters
Is bread that important a part of the cuisine? Oh yes! Eaten its separately before a meal, as an antipasto (bruschetta or crostini) with vegetarian, cheese or meat toppings, incorporated into soup and meals or a complete pick-up meal in itself.
Still want to believe that the bread is free in a sit-down meal? Sure. It won’t be on the menu as a ‘side’ and it won’t be mentioned in the bill. But how would you explain that cover charge of a few euros? That, my dear, ‘covers’ the cost of the bread!
Don’t see anyone dipping bread in olive oil at the beginning of the meal? Don’t be surprised…it’s not an Italian practice at all. See people mopping up sauces of dishes with bread? Again, don’t be surprised…it’s a done thing in all of Italy. Join the moppers gang.
Get used to no-salt bread. The practice has its origins to the Middle Ages,when salt was too expensive for the Florentines to use in bread-making… and now that’s just how its supposed to be! When you club it with the heavily salted prosciutto, you will realize it makes perfect sense. Oops, did you ask for garlic bread and receive a raised eyebrow instead? Hey, you’re in the wrong (or right) continent.
Sharpen those fangs and brace those jaws. Bread will be hard outside and soft inside. That’s a hangover from the olden days when longevity-based ingredients were a necessity for food recipes. No, its not stale!
Pasta dish seem incomplete without bread? Carb plus carb is not an acceptable combo in Italy. Re-learn the basics.
Gobbled a focaccia and still looking for lunch? You’re done! This large piece of crispy, thick flatbread, flavored with different oils, olives, cheeses, herbs and vegetables is a meal in itself in the Liguria region. In fact, focaccia was the first national dish of Italy and the pizza is said to be an evolved version of it. Feast on it.
Zapped to see sweet bell peppers on your pepperoni pizza? You should have chosen Pizza alla Diavola then. And know this – pizzas in Italy have minimal toppings, no garlic, no pineapple and definitely no chicken. My favourite topping…artichoke and I’m not trading.
PIQUED ABOUT PASTA: more surprises
Looking for pasta varieties on menu? Waste of time. You will mostly find spaghetti, tagliatelle or ravioli. Shapes aren’t important. Taste is. No red sauce? No white sauce? No sauce. Period. Italians take their pasta dry…the sauce is there only for effect. You can just about spoon it up…there’s so little of it.
Staring perplexed at the pasta carbonara because it has no chicken or bacon? Yup. And no garlic, yogurt or even cream. That’s eggs, cheek lard and pecorino cheese. Adjust.
Weird that you haven’t come across spaghetti bolognese? You won’t. It does not exist here. The real deal is bolognese sauce with tagliatelle, not spaghetti. Oh, and no meatballs.
Why you haven’t seen chicken in pasta dishes? Because you’ve probably been making right choices by eating in authentic Italian restaurants. Be happy.
Perplexed to see pasta served with fish, or stuffed with fish. Re-align your perceptions. Fish is fish. Fish is not chicken. It goes with pasta.
And all the pasta you concluded was undercooked….was not. That is how it has to be…al dente. Learn to enjoy it.
REST OF THE REVELATIONS
Can’t locate Caesar salad anywhere? Just the name is Italian. The dish is not. Make sure you try Caprese salad, though…that’s loved locally, specially in Capri.
Waiting for a bottle of olive oil for some extra gloss over your food? Why does your neighbour’s table have it? They must have asked for it. And paid for it too.
Expected to get pesto all over Italy? From basil bruschetta to basil pasta, you will have your fill of it in and around Genoa, where it originated. Try identifying the well-merged flavours of fresh garlic, olive oil, local fresh Pecora (sheep’s milk cheese), aged parmesan and pine nuts or walnuts in this traditional basil paste.
Don’t see Italians overdoing the grated cheese garnish? That’s right, the usual measure is a small teaspoonful.
Italian eat only live by parmesan cheese? Open your mind to the possibilities. You will tire of tasting and the variety of cheese will never end. The flavours are mind-boggling. You will even find cheese with truffle! Cheese platters are common as antipasto.
Think Italians can’t survive without tiramisu and other heavy-dose desserts everyday? Wrong. Dessert is simple, mostly fruits. Cakes and mousses are more for afternoon snacks or special occasions.
Strictly speaking, gelato is not dessert. Gelato is gelato. It is staple Italian. And you can have it anytime of the day, as often as you like.
Asked for Latte and got a cup of milk? Try ‘Caffe Latte’ instead. Cappuccino is not a post-dinner beverage. Espresso is. Have coffee standing at the bar like the locals. Sit down if you’re generous enough to add a couple of euros. You might as well splurge on a tiramisu, if you’re paying for the table with the gorgeous street view.
DISHY DISCOVERIES: Italians eat these too!
Arancine is a large fried rice ball mixed with cheese, meat and vegetables. You can pick up one off-the-counter and add coffee. Lunch is done!
Cold cuts and salads are popular options for lunch. In Bologna, one finds streets full of restaurants that serve only ham and cheese platters.
Grilled meats like veal, chicken and T-bone steak are very popular foods on menus. Seafood is a staple all over the country. All kinds of fish. Fish is eaten fried, whole grilled or cooked in wine with potatoes, onion and cherry tomatoes. Cacciucco is a seafood stew containing tomatoes and spices. Something similar to the French Bouillabaisse.
Vegetarian options are a plenty. Grilled vegetables like eggplants, zucchini and pepperoni are commonly available in restaurants across the country, specially in and around Tuscany. Panzanella is made using unsalted bread, vegetables, olive oil, basil and garlic. A sort of salad. Parmigiana di melanzane is baked aubergines in tomato sauce and parmesan cheese. We savoured bean burgers at a vegan restaurant in Florence and munched on vegetarian meatballs (no clue why they were called meatballs) in Bologna.
There’s polenta is made of mashed cornmeal, cut in slices, grilled or fried and served with sausages, ragù and wild game. Consider it a healthier alternative to pasta. And they have risotto cooked from thick rice, cooked with saffron, onion and butter, usually with vegetables. A variation of the pilaf or paella.
So, what’s your score now? Levelled out that over-confidence yet? 🙂