In my opinion Italian Cuisine is amongst the finest in the World, and I say that while living in France! It is also one of the most imitated cuisines in the World and can often leave the diner feeling underwhelmed when it is done badly. The variation of fresh ingredients combined into some of the most scrumptious dishes imaginable.
Italian food is not just pizza and pasta, although they will feature heavily, but some delicate blendings of meat and fish with flavoursome sauces that change throughout the seasons.
Italian food is very much about freshness, flavour and variety and will change depending on the region. In the north, near the Alps, the diet will be quite different to the southern, Mediterranean regions. What follows is a brief overview of eating in Italy.
In winter try Osso Bucco (literally bone with hole), beef shin cut across the bone cooked slowly with fresh vegetables, tomatoes and white wine. The marrow dissolves into the sauce, creating the hole in the bone, making a delicious rich dish. In summer, how about a fresh sea bream straight from the Mediterranean, grilled on the BBQ, drizzled with olive oil and served with a fresh salad of tomatoes, mozzarella and basil leaves. And one more dish for you, Saltimbocca, which translates as jump in the mouth, referring to the flavours that explode together. Thin veal slices married with Parma ham and fresh sage leaves all brought together with a Marsala wine sauce.
So what about the pizza and pasta? Italian restaurant menus are often composed of antipasto (before pasta) which can often be some olives or cured meats, primo (first course) pasta is always the first course of choice, secondo (the main course) often meat or fish and dolce (dessert) possibly fresh fruit or, maybe, something a little more decadent. Eating pasta as a first course will be a small portion and will only be the pasta dish – it will not be served with bread or a salad – and will have a light sauce. Italians do not eat pasta everyday.
Pizza is the ultimate street food in Italy and is often served from kiosks a slice at a time. However, if you venture out to a Pizzeria, pizza is considered a food for sharing with friends, although you should order one pizza per person. True italian pizza is thin crust but at the same time light and fluffy. Stuffed crusts and deep-dish are not Italian. The best pizza I have ever tasted was in Italy (surprise!) and what made it truly great was the addition of an egg in the middle as it came out of the oven – the egg white cooked with the residual heat and the yolk stayed beautifully soft and runny.
Whilst researching for this article I was surprised to learn that there are some fairly strict rules with regard to eating in Italy and I will try to summarise as best I can.
- Breakfast is composed of sweet pastries and is the only time of day you should order a cappuccino coffee. After 11am coffee is espresso – end of story.
- Pasta is served as pasta and not with garlic bread or salad. In fact Italians eat one dish at a time, so salad would be a separate course. Bread would be served with cheese or cured meats and no butter.
- Do NOT add cheese to a seafood pasta – ever!
- Never cut spaghetti. If you are 5 years old it is acceptable but after that twirl it round your fork.
- Drink wine or water with your meal. Drink beer or soda with pizza.
- If you don’t finish your pizza do not ask to take the remains away.
Just recently archeologists have unearthed a fast food store in Pompeii, after being buried in volcanic lava for nearly 2000 years. It is believed that hot drinks and food would have been served to locals who did not have their own kitchen in their home. The site is due to open to the public some time later this year. However, I suspect the menu may have changed!
If you get the opportunity to visit Italy, enjoy your food and try to avoid the tourist traps. If you find a menu with pictures, move on! Try going up a side street to a small Trattoria and do your best with the locals.