Italian food is the most popular in the United States. Maybe it’s because pizza and pasta are so ubiquitous. But it’s even more so when you’re in Italy. Which is where I am as I write this.
Even more to the point, Italian food is even better when you’re in the middle of the country of origin. The tomatoes are sweeter. The fruits are more flavorful. The pasta is cooked truly al dente. Salads are more imaginative. Even the olive oil is more deeply flavored.
For example, we stayed a few days in my maternal grandparents’ home village in the mountains. Even with only 3000 residents, the availability of good food was plentiful. Our friend Carmine invited us to his home on our arrival. There, he’d set out a table with large green olives, polenta torta (which he’d made himself), fresh cherries, cheeses, salami, and homemade sangria. Hospitality is the operative word here, and good food is the vehicle.
Taking a walk with us after church, he brought us to meet his friend Pietro, whose door had a sign indicating that this was a gastronomical institute. I expected some type of school. But no, it was a small home with a table, sofa, fireplace, and tiny kitchen on the first floor. Hanging from the ceiling were a leg of pork and a dry salami. Pietro was preserving them himself, making prosciutto from the pork. “Making it yourself is better,” he said in his native Italian. (Sure, I thought, I’ll go home and do that.)
The table was crowded with large canning jars filled with cherries, some packed in sugar, and others marinating in 96% grain alcohol. The sugared cherries were left to sit for a few months, preferably in the sun, whereupon the sugar would draw out the juice, melt, and become a syrupy liquid. This could be spooned on cake or gelato or eaten straight.
The marinated cherries also were an appealing part of dessert. Enjoy drunken fruit while getting smashed yourself! However, that isn’t at all common here. Drinking to excess is seldom done, even though you can purchase hard alcohol in almost any store that sells food or drink, including coffee bars. “Going to a bar” in Italy means going for 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’d ever tasted, with a richer flavor and less fat.
He offered to cook us some spaghetti, but we had to get back to our lodging. (Can I admit that we stayed in an elegant 14th century castle apartment? At about $35 a night for each of us?) So, dinner plans were made for 8:30 that evening.
We arrived to find the little table crowded with our place settings and the spaghetti almost ready to serve. The sauce, ladled in the middle of the spaghetti mound, was made from fresh summer tomatoes, insanely 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 truly was an artist even with the simplest of dishes.
Bread of life
I found that grissini, those thin crispy bread sticks, are less common in restaurants now. Instead, more of them are serving crusty Italian slices.
One thing my niece Nicole noticed – the bread here is fluffy but sturdy with a crisp, dark crust. None of the pale, undercooked version served in many American restaurants. Most Italian dining spots serve it in a brown bag on your table.
However, don’t ask for butter. Instead, ask for olive oil, but even that will be out of the norm. When we requested olive oil for our bread, the waiter plopped a bottle on our table, but no bread plates. We were left to drop at a time on our slices.
And the road food!
Even on the highway, the AutoGrill rest stops served up sandwiches on a variety of crispy rolls and flatbreads – prosciutto, buffalo mozzarella, fresh tomato slices, coppacola, sausages, meatballs, and even hamburgers. Heat them on the panini press or enjoy them cold. Or go for the prepared dishes like breaded fish fillets, roasted chicken, lasagna, grilled vegetables, and pasta. Don’t skip the pastries like Nutella-filled muffins, stuffed croissants, and a boatload of Italian pastries. Most salad bars have gone away with COVID-19, but the pre-made salads please every taste, from plain to fancy. You could go nuts just making a choice.
I tend to avoid anything with a tourist menu or one that caters to non-Italians. You may find plenty of those in any popular city, especially around the visitor sites – the Vatican, Pompeii ruins, the Ponte Vecchio.
Here, you’ll find the spaghetti and meatballs that really isn’t an Italian dish. If you want meatballs (polpette), they’re usually served as a side dish in sauce. On our last night in Pompei, we dined at a restaurant near our Air BnB. It was openly for tourists, but we went anyway because of the convenience. My pasta was fine, if too mushy, but the tomato sauce was overly oily and flat. Not terrible, but not up to the nation’s standards.
If you want decent Italian meals, ask your hotel concierge or your BnB host where they usually go. Explain that you want real local food, not the kind catering to tourists. If you’re in a larger city, the restaurant staff may speak at least some English.
However, the farther south you go, and the smaller the town, the less likely that English will be common. Just subscribe to an online translator for your phone and do your best. Most Italians are happy that you’re even trying.
Except when I needed road service, and the guy who arrived was yelling at me in Italian using words I never heard before. Tow truck. Maintenance yard. Blown shoots. The less I understood him, the louder he shouted. However, I got the impression that even his co-workers thought he was over the top.