Are you really sure you know your Italian food?

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.

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Bread in a meal, or meal in a bread

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!

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Easy does it, food is following

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!

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Give us today our daily bread

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.

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The name is Focacciera

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.

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Just the right balance of crisp and fluffy. Something so ‘wow’ about this dough…

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.

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Hardly any menu goes without ravioli

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.

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The olive oil provides the flavouring

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. 

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Home-made pesto line the shop shelves in Cinque Terre
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Pick the bruschetta of your choice. Pesto in all
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Spaghetti in basil pesto. Simple, rustic, yum!

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.

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Tastes as varied as can be

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.

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A gelato a day…

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.

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One fine afternoon at the Duomo, Florence

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.

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Change for the palate
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Plates of possibilities

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.

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Cooked to perfection
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Delectable and divine

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.

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All vegan…bean burger with quinoa-zucchini on the side
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Meatless zucchini ‘meatballs’

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? 🙂

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54 thoughts on “Are you really sure you know your Italian food?

  1. I love this post… Because I love the combination of food, culture, and travel. It’s really well written and informative! P.S. I read your posts regularly… So keep em coming! 😃

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have never got the chance to eat genuine Italian food. I am pretty sure the Italian cuisines in India taste nothing like it is supposed to. If you have to eat Italian you have to visit Italy. Thanks for the post. Atleast now I know what to ask for once I reach there.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You just made me super hungry! We loved exploring the food in Italy, especially in the Emilia-Romagna region. It is surprising how different it is from what we are used to at home, but we were happy to find how amazing everything we tried was! Yum!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This post made me chuckle- I had exactly the same experiences in Italy this summer. I explored the food-famous region of Emilia Romagna and learnt so much about authentic Italian cuisine, it was surprising considering how easily Italian food is available outside the country. But of course, the real deal is something you find only in Italy.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Cool post. I’m a foodie so it was very interesting. I make some mean pasta dishes but finding Italian food around the world is not a quest for me like it is some people. I’ve had it many times in Italy and it was good, nothing stellar. However, your pictures are freaking amazing. Everything looked delicious. Really glad that you mentioned Arancine, I love them! We have them several places in the US and they do a wonderful job making them. Thanks for sharing all the facts. I loved reading it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Its not hard to find Italian, true….but there’s something about local ingredients that gives food an edge in Italy. Thankfully, we have figured out tricks to finding good food by now, and yes…everything was super yum! Glad you enjoyed the read.

      Like

  6. I love Italian food and as usual when you go to a country and eat it, it’s different to how you get it in your country. It’s always great to try the local food and see how different it is 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m having a food coma just looking at all the mouth watering photos! I have not been to Italy but have tried a lot of the cuisine and knew that some of the american versions are not the same. My mom and friend cook a lot of authentic Italian and I just love it!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I was just in Italy last month and I agree with your observations! Also, I remember the first time I had al dente pasta and I thought it was undercooked. Now I love it. It makes perfect sense with sauces and a glass of wine. Your post left me hungry!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I loveeee polenta! Tried it for the first time last year. This is a delicious post, thanks for sharing 🙂

    Like

  10. Wow its pretty clear I had no idea there was such a variety to Italian food! Now I’ve definitely gotta get to Italy. Its on my list for the second half of 2017 after moving to Europe!

    Like

  11. Thats such a great guide on Italian food and I admit I dont even know the basics. Like pizza/pasta made in India is a totally different Indianlized version of the real deal so when I went to Italy and tried those things (And more) – they tasted totally off (though thats the real deal).

    Like

  12. Love love love this post – I now want an artichoke topped pizza! My favourite too!!! Pinning this and sharing it on my FB page as I know loads of people will enjoy reading it as much as I did.

    Like

  13. Wondering how long it took you to put this together? – I liked it but thought it was a bit too long. I think a shorter version would be good in order to keep the attention span going. Good article though. Thanks for posting.

    Liked by 1 person

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