Italian cuisine is the most popular in the United States. Maybe it’s because pizza and pasta are so ubiquitous. But it’s even more true when you’re in Italy. This is where I am at as I write this.
Specifically, Italian food tastes even better when you’re in the middle of the home country. Tomatoes are sweeter. Fruits are tastier. The pasta is cooked really al dente. Salads are more imaginative. Even olive oil is more deeply flavored.
For example, we stayed for a few days in the mountain village of my maternal grandparents. Even with only 3000 inhabitants, the availability of good food was plentiful. Our friend Carmine invited us to his home when we arrived. There he had set a table with large green olives, polenta torta (which he had made himself), fresh cherries, cheeses, salami and homemade sangria. Hospitality is the key word here, and good food is the vehicle.
Walking with us after church, he brought us to meet his friend Pietro, whose door had a sign saying it was a food institute. I expected a certain type of school. But no, it was a small house with a table, a sofa, a fireplace and a small kitchen on the first floor. From the ceiling hung a leg of pork and a dry salami. Pietro preserved them himself, making prosciutto with the pork. “Doing it yourself is better,” he said in his native Italian. (Of course, I thought, I’ll go home and do this.)
The table was cluttered with large jars filled with cherries, some packed in sugar and others marinated in 96% grain alcohol. The sweet cherries were left to sit for a few months, preferably in the sun, after which the sugar would extract the juice, melt and become a syrupy liquid. This could be spooned onto a cake or ice cream or eaten directly.
The pickled cherries were also an appealing part of the dessert. Savor drunk fruit while getting crushed! However, this is not at all common here. Drinking to excess is rarely done, although you can buy hard liquor at almost any store that sells food or drink, including cafes. “Going to a bar” in Italy means going for a coffee.
Pietro offered pieces of his dry cured pork sausage, liver sausage (none for me please), prosciutto and salami. Molto delicious! In fact, it was the best I’ve ever tasted, with a richer flavor and less fat.
He offered to cook us some spaghetti, but we had to go back to our accommodation. (May I admit we stayed in an elegant 14th century castle apartment? About $35 a night for each of us?) So dinner plans were made for 8:30 that evening.
We arrived to find the small table cluttered with our cutlery and the spaghetti almost ready to serve. The sauce, ladled in the middle of the mound of spaghetti, was made from fresh summer tomatoes, incredibly sweet and deep red. A sprinkle of torn fresh basil topped it off. The pasta had a perfectly cooked texture that was soft but not mushy and firm but not too hard. Pietro was truly an artist with even the simplest dishes.
The bread of Life
I’ve found that breadsticks, those crunchy little sticks of bread, are less common in restaurants now. Instead, more of them serve crispy Italian slices.
One thing my niece Nicole noticed – the bread here is soft but solid with a dark crispy crust. None of the pale, undercooked versions served in many American restaurants. Most Italian restaurants serve it in a brown bag on your table.
However, do not ask for butter. Ask for olive oil instead, but even that will be off the charts. When we asked for olive oil for our bread, the waiter put a bottle on our table, but no bread plates. We were allowed to pour drops at a time on our slices.
And road food!
Even on the highway, AutoGrill rest stops served sandwiches on a variety of crusty rolls and flatbreads – prosciutto, buffalo mozzarella, fresh tomato slices, coppacola, sausages, meatballs, and even burgers. Reheat them on the panini press or enjoy them cold. Or opt for prepared meals like breaded fish fillets, roast chicken, lasagna, grilled vegetables and pasta. Don’t skip pastries like Nutella-filled muffins, stuffed croissants, and a boatload of Italian pastries. Most salad bars have disappeared with COVID-19, but pre-made salads appeal to all tastes, from simple to sophisticated. You could go crazy just making a choice.
I tend to avoid anything that has a touristy menu or caters to non-Italians. You can find plenty of them in any popular city, especially around tourist sites – the Vatican, the ruins of Pompeii, the Ponte Vecchio.
Here you will find the spaghetti and meatballs which are really not an Italian dish. If you want meatballs (polpette), they are usually served as a side dish in sauce. On our last night in Pompeii, we had dinner at a restaurant near our Air BnB. It was openly for tourists, but we went anyway because of the convenience. My pasta was good, although too pasty, but the tomato sauce was too oily and flat. Not terrible, but not up to national standards.
If you want decent Italian meals, ask your hotel concierge or BnB host where they usually go. Explain that you want real local food, not the kind that caters to tourists. If you are in a big city, the restaurant staff can speak at least some English.
However, the further south you go and the smaller the town, the less likely English is to be spoken. Just subscribe to an online translator for your phone and do your best. Most Italians are happy that you even try.
Except when I needed roadside service, and the guy who arrived was yelling at me in Italian using words I had never heard before. Tow truck. Maintenance yard. Blown tire. The less I understood him, the louder he screamed. However, I got the impression that even his colleagues thought he was over the top.