My mother’s family is Italian, and I grew up thinking I was eating traditional Italian food: lots of vegetables, pasta rather than rice, lots of fish, garlic in everything, fruit rather than sweets for dessert. So I came to Italy feeling like I had a good sense of what to expect, and I was wrong. Not entirely wrong—the olive oil is to die for, there is lots of pasta and vegetables, plenty of fruit—but there’s a lot that I didn’t expect. And since I gave a whole lesson on American food to my students, who were fascinated by pancakes and brownies, I figured it was only fair for me to talk a bit about my experiences with Italian food.
Bread: Bread isn’t something that you eat on its own like in America. Most of the time, bread is almost used as a spoon to scoop up other food. This means that the bread is unsalted and, by itself, not all that tasty. That being said, the bruschetta is fabulous—the bread grilled over an open fire and drizzled with olive oil and salt or tomatoes or garlic powder (I want to try making it with roasted garlic instead).
Meat: Perhaps it’s because my Italian relatives were from southern Italy, so they ate more fish, or perhaps it’s just because my family doesn’t eat that much red meat in general, but I was very surprised by the amount of red meat people eat here. And all kinds of red meat. There’s lamb and beef and veal and ham, of course, but my landlady got me to try a sauce made from pig’s ear, and she’s insisting that before I leave, I have to try horse. I was not brave enough to try chicken liver or tripe—they just smelled too awful for me to dare. I did try rabbit, though, and it was pretty good. And, as my title suggests, I ate pigeon as well.
Salty and sweet: I don’t tend to put a lot of salt on my food in general, but the almost complete lack of salt surprised me. I asked about it, and my landlady said that salt hides other tastes, which is true, if you put too much salt. But even when you buy crackers in the supermarket, you have to make sure you buy the salted ones, and even the salted ones have barely any salt at all. I’ve definitely started dreaming about salty snacks. On the other hand, there’s a lot of sweet food. A lot of people eat cake for breakfast, and when they say snack, they usually mean cookies. Croissants—called cornetti in Italian—are usually filled with chocolate or honey or some sort of jam. At one point, I bought a glass of orange juice at a café and the waitress asked if I wanted to add sugar to it, which, not going to lie, I found a little bit horrifying.
Fruit: It’s fabulous, of course. All fresh and local. When you buy a bag of clementines, they still have stems and leaves on them. And the fruit juice is great too. I’ve been having fun experimenting with all the different flavors that I’ve never seen in the U.S. So far, I’m a big fan of blueberry and frutti di bosca—wild berry—and pineapple. I also enjoyed a juice called esotica—which was like mango and papaya and kiwi and passion fruit. Strawberry juice was a bit too sweet for me, and apple kiwi tasted like a green apple Jolly Rancher. But I liked apple banana, and I have a bottle of peach lime that I’m curious to try.
Pizza: Because what post about Italian food would be complete without talking about pizza? It’s great. The crust is thin to nonexistent. Usually, if you order a veggie pizza of some variety, there isn’t any sauce at all, just crust, some cheese, and the vegetables. Personally, I’m a big fan of the onion pizza, which is crust and olive oil and a ton of caramelized onions. I also really like pizza marinara, which is just tomato sauce and basil, which you wouldn’t think would be that good, but the sauce is so flavorful it’s great.
There’s more I could say. Pine nut gelato and chocolate pasta and salty cake. Chicken with orange sauce, sautéed chick peas and fava beans drizzled with olive oil, artichokes with lemon and capers. Truffles. All of the truffles. Walnut pasta sauce. Fried apples with cinnamon and honey and orange slices soaked in olive oil with a little bit of salt.
Yes, I had different expectations when I arrived, and I’m sure my experience isn’t indicative of Italy as a whole, just this region. Perhaps, if I traveled to southern Italy, I would find the food of my childhood. Or I would find something entirely new . I’ve tried so many foods I never dreamed of, and yes, I’ve avoided some foods that I just didn’t think I could stomach. But I did eat a pigeon. And I’m sure I’ll try much more before I go home.