One of the joys of traveling is the opportunity to sample the cuisine of a country or region as well as the culture and rituals surrounding it. In Italy, that joy is manifold.
We learned quickly that eating a meal can be an event there. In small towns, and even for some in large cities, shops close for a few hours in the afternoon for pranzo, lunch. On one of our first extended trips to this country, we stayed on a vineyard for a month and learned why. In the main house in which our landlady resided with her family, daily at noon, the shutters would be slammed closed and for at least two hours all we would hear coming from there was the clanking of dishes and silverware.
Italian cuisine features different specialties in the various regions of the country, but what is common are the multiple courses. Differences in geography (sea, inland, mountains), climate, history, and culture including influence from bordering or invading neighbors such as Arab, Greek, French, Germanic help shape the regional preferences.
Italian cuisine tends to be simple in that it doesn’t usually use a lot of ingredients or require extensive preparation. In many locations, food shopping is still done on almost a daily basis, with visits to specialty shops such as butcher, cheese shop, green grocer, rather than purchasing everything at a large supermarket. Even in large cities, neighborhood specialty shops still exist. We once stayed in an apartment in Rome not far from the famed Via Veneto. Yet, within a few block radius was our local butcher, and individual shops featuring exclusively cheese, produce, wine, or pasta.
Italy is divided into 20 regions. Not only do favored foods differ among the regions, but also from town to town within a region. The regions inthe north tend to feature more rice and the cornmeal based polenta, with less use of tomato as a base. More common are sauces with butter, pesto, or bolognese (meat). In the mountainous Tyrol section more Germanic and Slavic dishes such spatzlé, goulash, and even sauerkraut can be found.
As you move to the central areas, the use of tomatoes begins to be more prevalent though Carbonara sauces are also popular here. The heaviest use of tomatoes and olive oil is found in the south. Why? Because here it is warmer than the north and easier to grow tomatoes and olives in abundance.
Italian meals often begin with an aperitif or aperitivo. Popular ones include Campari or Aperol, an orange based drink similar to Campari. In some eating establishments, particularly family run trattorias, it is not uncommon to be served a complimentary aperitivo as soon as you are seated. I prefer my Campari with soda and Aperol served as a spritz with prosecco, a dry sparkling white wine.
The first food of the meal is usually an antipasto: antipasti include hot or cold choices. Cold cuts, comprised of cured meats and cheeses, seafood where it is available, vegetables, crositini or bruschetta. In Tuscany, where bruschetta is popular, we made a game of ordering at least one in every restaurant to see the many different ways it could be prepared. A basic bruschetta is roasted bread rubbed with garlic and topped with chopped tomato, olive oil, and a little basil. Some places used the oil sparingly; in others, it dripped from the plate. Other options included the addition of onions, peppers, olives, or cheese. Caprese, a mixture of mozzarella, tomatoes, oil, and basil typical in the southern region of Campania, is my husband’s favorite and it is amazing how many different ways itcan be presented.
The meat and cheese options reflect regional favorites. Tuscan pecorino is made from sheep’s milk, while wonderful mozzarella bufala from Campania comes from the milk of the domestic water buffalo.
Next is the primo, or first course. Choices usually include various pastas and sauces, risottos, soups. There are many different types of pastas available in addition to the typical ones we see in the US. Pasta can come long, short, ribbon shaped, fancy shaped, very small, stuffed. On the Amalfi coast, I discovered scialatelli, a thick, wide spaghetti which I ordered whenever possible. Dry pastas are eggless, can be stored for a period of time, and by Italian law, use only durum wheat flour or semolina. Fresh pasta contains eggs.
Offerings for the secondo course involve meat and fish or other seafood. Meats tend to include more pork, veal, and chicken than beef, although bistecca fiorentina is a specialty of Tuscany. Cinghale, wild boar, is popular.
As a peninsula extending into the Mediterranean Sea with 4700 miles of coastline, Italy makes good use of seafood. Whatever is available locally is served and is usually fresh and wonderful.
A contorno, side dish of vegetables or salads is always offered. Salads in Italy are served with the main course, not before. Most waiters, though, are used to the American style and if you order a salad, they may ask you if you want it served first or with the meal. Options often reflect geographical differences based on climate, with selections such as eggplant and broccoli raab more popular in the south and more greens in the north.
Following the main food, formaggio e frutta, cheese and fruit are often offered and then the dolce, the dessert. Again, there are regional preferences and many that you will recognize as popular in Italian restaurants here inthe US. My favorite dolce is the very simple biscotti vin santo, a cookie like pastry which is dipped into the accompanying glass of dessert wine.
Caffé follows the meal. It is espresso which is served in a small cup. If you want a larger cup, order caffé americano , espresso with water added to it. Caffé macchiato adds steamed milk. In Italy, a cappuccino is ordered only in the morning.
Finally, a good Italian meal is topped off with a digesto, an after dinner drink such as grappa, limoncello, sambuca, or amaro. I consider grappa, made from the dregs leftover from making wine, to be high test. If you haven’t tried amaro, do so. It is an herbal liqueur that is also available in the US. The syrupy Ramazzotti brand is my favorite.
Breakfast, colazione, is usually continental style. Coffee with a cornetto (croissant), pastry, or biscotti. Locals often have theirs at the local bar, standing up as the coffee is cheaper than if ordered at a table.
Pranzo is traditionally the heaviest and longest meal consisting of many courses. Despite all the choices, it is perfectly all right, though, to only order two courses in a restaurant. I usually just have an antipasto and a primo. As the grilled vegetables served as a contorno are often wonderful, I frequently order them as an antipasto. Heavier desserts are usually saved for a mid afternoon snack or the evening.
Dinner, cena, although often lighter, can be the big meal of the day for some. It is served late, eightish, and it is after dinner when I really appreciate the digesto.
A word about pizza….it originated in Naples and the pure form is thin crust topped with tomato sauce and cheese. Options available include various toppings and for vegans, there is my favorite, pizza marinara, madewith just tomato sauce and garlic. Wonderful!
Wines in Italy are exceptional and choices also vary according to region. There is a classification system ranging from DOCG, the highest quality, down to VdT, simple table wine. Some of the best include Barolo, Barbaresco, and Amarone della Valpolicella in the north and Chianti Classico riserva, Brunello di Montalcino, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano in the central region. A bottle of wine is una botteglia. If you just want some house wine, order a quarter of a liter, un cuarto, for one or half a liter, un mezzo for two.
Finally, no discussion of Italy and food would be complete without mentioning gelato. Despite the rich taste of the Italian version of ice cream, it contains less fat (as well as less air) than our version. It is often flavored with fresh fruit, cocoa, or nuts and it seems that gelato stands are every half block in touristed areas. For the best experience, look for signs that say “artigianale”, and “fatta in casa”, and metal containers rather than plastic. Avoid bins with brightly colored gelato and any that are piled up high. They look pretty, but are probably full of artificial ingredients and not fresh. For something lighter and quite refreshing, try granita, similar to Italian ice available in the US. Occasionally, it is served as a slushy drink.
There are a variety of types of food establishments in Italy. A bar/café is very casual, serving coffee, drinks, and snacks or sandwiches such as panini or tramezzini which are crustless. A Pizzeria may also serve other food such as pastas. A bacaro is a wine bar offering small dishes, while an osteria is similar but with a more extensive, though simple, menu. Traditionally, a trattoria is more casual and less expensive than a ristorante,is family operated, and offers a wide menu with multiple courses. Recently, though, in an effort to appear chic, more upscale restaurants have poached this title. In a ristorante, a full menu is available, prices are usually higher, and the ordering of multiple courses is expected.
Service in Italy is good; being a waiter there tends to be more of a profession than just working one’s way through school. It is expected that one should relax and enjoy a meal. Waiters will not rush you out the door; the check, il conto, is not brought out automatically at the end of a meal; you must ask for it. It is the same when ordering a drink in a café. Yes, the drinks are more expensive than here in the US, but, in effect, you are buying the table for as long as you want. One time while staying in Lugano,(although in Switzerland, it is in the Italian section of that country), there was an evening concert planned in the main piazza. I wanted a ringside seat, so I went early to an adjoining restaurant with outside seating. I ordered un cuarto of red wine and spent a leisurely afternoon watching the world pass by. My husband joined me later for dinner and, when the concert began, we had the best seats in the “house”.
When in Italy, take time to enjoy the food….it is an integral part of the travel experience there.
Vickie is a former member of the Marco Island City Council and Artistic Director of the Marco Island Film Festival, and has been a volunteer for many island organizations. She is presently on the board of the Naples Mac Users Group. Prior to relocating to Marco, Vickie served as a school psychologist, Director of Special Services, and college instructor and also was a consultant to the New Jersey Department of Education.