When in Italy, Eat Like an Italian

October 8, 2010 7 Comments

When in Italy, Eat Like an Italian

An Interview with Food Writer Eleonora Baldwin About Dining In Italy

Have you ever wondered where the idea of Fettuccine Alfredo or Spaghetti with Meatballs came from? Or if you have had the incredible opportunity to travel to Italy, how to find the restaurants the locals are eating at?

My wife and I honeymooned in Tuscany and although we searched for and found some wonderful local restaurants serving incredible food, most of our choices were from one of the many guidebooks we traveled with.

So I asked my friend Eleonora, a food writer, blogger extraordinaire, if I could interview her about these and many more questions I had about dining out when in Italy. I think you are going to find her answers extremely helpful if you are planning a trip to Italy anytime soon.

When we think “Italian food,” we immediately think pizza and pasta. As a foreigner traveling in Italy, do you think pizza and pasta is the “must try” or is there another Italian dish that you would recommend to really understand what Italian cuisine is all about?

Definitely try to get a full scope of what Italian cuisine is about without stopping at pasta and pizza. Italy is a small country on the map, but its regional food is diverse, varied and incredibly territorial.

Other Italian specialties that lend a clearer idea of what true and authentic Italian cookery art is, should (in my opinion) include: the many coastal seafood preparations, involving few and simple ingredients beyond the sea catch; Italy’s many breads are also very important to better understand the culture; and also noting the importance of side dishes.

Italian cuisine relies greatly on fresh, seasonal produce, and this is reflected in the important vegetable menu item of “contorno” which always complements the protein entrée in the typical Italian meal, whether home-cooked or served at the restaurant.

What pre-conceived notions and ideas about Italian cuisine and culture should we leave behind when traveling to Italy, meeting the people and tasting the food?

Number one, that Fettuccine Alfredo, Chicken Parmesan and Spaghetti with Meatballs, are not typical Italian dishes. There exist similar regional preparations that involve the same ingredients as these, but they are not iconic of Italian cuisine!

These dishes commonly associated with Italian cuisine overseas, are an evolution of these old regional preparations. They have been adapted throughout history from the Italian immigrants that in the turn of the century brought with them old family recipes typical of their homeland, and tweaked them to include new local ingredients, and to satisfy their “new” palates.

Number two, hurling spaghetti on the wall to check doneness”¦ that’s ridiculous. Who does that, anyway?

Three: Italian cuisine is not all about garlic and oregano. The Italian cookery art-whether professional or homemade-is a diversified, sophisticated and complex expression of our rich and multi-faceted culture!

Four: Italians don’t live merely by the rules of “dolce far niente” (sweet indolence), taking long afternoon siestas and eating ice cream all day, like portrayed in Eat Pray Love or other American depictions of Italian life. Gli Italiani are a hard working, elegant, intellectual and very worldly population, and especially versed when it comes to appreciating food and wine!

Many tourists rely on guidebooks and the hotel concierge for restaurant and dining recommendations, but it is no secret that by asking the locals, you will find yourself in the best food spots. What advice can you give to someone visiting Italy about approaching local Italians and seeking out food tips?

Go to the local open-air market and ask the signora shopping for groceries where to go! The best recommendations come form the average users. Ask around and be open to experiment.

Don’t be scared to attempt a few words in Italian, locals find your accent very charming! And as long as you engage them in conversation, Italians will always be hospitable and go out of their way to oblige your requests.

Try local specialties, unheard of ingredients and traditional regional preparations. Keep it simple and seasonal. Eat like the natives. Hang out in places with very little, or no tourists at all. And avoid restaurants where the food is displayed outside.

What’s less inviting that dining at a place where the pigeons are flapping furiously, fighting for the last bit of cold pizza on the outdoor display? Is that supposed to lure customers in? Steer clear of signs that read Tourist Menu. And please, avoid eating American fast food while in Italy. It’s more expensive and just as bad for your health as it is back home.

Are there any books about Italian cuisine and the Italian dining experience that you would recommend to someone who has never been to Italy?

There is a very good recipe book by a woman called Annalisa Barbagli called “La Cucina di Casa,” published by Il Gambero Rosso in 2002, that illustrates simple preparations, easy to follow recipes (1000 of them!) and employs basic utensils found in any homemaker’s kitchen.

But alas this book has not yet been translated into English. I use “Il Cucchiaio d’Argento” (the original Silver Spoon) and sometimes check if what I’m making matches Ada Boni’s opinion on her “Talismano della Felicità.”

I am a huge fan of Marcella Hazan, and always find huge pleasure in MK Fisher’s genius.

Can you tell us a little bit about what is typically eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? What do those meals usually entail, and is any one more important than the other?

Breakfast in Italy is not a huge meal like it is elsewhere. It usually includes espresso made at home with a stove top moka, milk, dunking biscuits or bread, fresh fruit or juice. If you like to have breakfast at your neighborhood café, it’s either cappuccino and a croissant, or a simple espresso, fresh squeezed orange juice (in winter, when the oranges are good only) and perhaps a savory sandwich.

I like to have my breakfast cappuccino or caffellatte (mysteriously called only “˜Latte’ overseas, there’s coffee in it, so why not mention it?) with a nice slab of plain focaccia, which we call pizza bianca here, commonly sold by weight at neighborhood forni (ovens).

Lunch is a two-course meal, usually pasta plus a protein entrée, or pasta and a salad. On Sunday, lunch is the most important meal of the day. On the other hand, if on weekdays you’re at work and there’s not much time to sit down and have a meal with wine before returning drowsy at the office, folks sometimes just have a panino, slice of pizza bianca, or a salad and a piece of fruit at the end.

Merenda-which is the typical mid afternoon ritual snack and part of every Italian kid’s daily eating routine-fills post-school playtime hours with healthy slices of home style bread rubbed with a fresh tomato, or drizzled with olive oil, or smeared with butter and then dusted with sugar.

Dinner usually includes soup of some sort, lots of vegetable side dishes and a light protein entrée, like vegetable frittata or salumi; or ricotta, stracchino, mozzarella or other light cheeses.

After the evening meal, it’s always a habit to go for a digestive stroll. In summer this is almost always a good occasion to have a gelato while you walk, or indulge in a sgroppino, which is fresh lemon granita doctored up with champagne or vodka. Very digestive!

Italy is known for having some of the best wines in the world and a lot of tourists go to Italy specifically to immerse themselves in the wine culture. Do you have any tips for finding the best local wines around the country?

Go for the lesser-known labels, ask around, and trust the locals with their everyday choices. I always encourage my foodie clients to take at least one wine-tasting class, or participate in my cheese & wine appreciation workshops. This allows them to learn about grape varieties, terroir and wine evaluation, but also about the importance of food pairing.

Another good idea is not stopping at Tuscany and Piemonte alone for Italian wine. Puglia, Sicily, Friuli, Lazio, Campania and many others of the 20 Italian regions make sensational wines, for the most part unknown beyond Italian borders.

Those who visit Italy from abroad are sure to visit the bigger and more popular cities like Rome, Venice, and Florence and so finding the best places to eat often feels like an overwhelming task because of the endless choices of restaurants. How can we narrow down the options while still feeling like we’ve had the best eating experience each city has to offer?

Experiment! Surrender to the fact that you’ll be having two big meals a day! So little time and so many restaurants, what’s the point in snacking at lunch? And, mostly, ask the locals where their favorite restaurants are, and also consider taking a cooking class in someone’s private home. There’s no better way to fully understand authentic Italian cuisine. And everyday life!

How does the culinary experience differ between big cities and small cities/towns in Italy? What are the advantages and disadvantages of dining in each?

There are no disadvantages of eating in small towns and villages! The food is more genuine, less exposed to big crowds and not tainted by overexposure. Big cities can become anonymous, and so can their cuisine.

Do you have a favorite region of Italy in terms of local cuisine? If so, which region, and what foods and dishes is it known for?

Oh, it’s hard to narrow it down to just one. I love the food and wine of Puglia (Apulia) with its orecchiette with broccoli rabe pasta, its sautéed chickory with fava bean purée; the amazing raw seafood culture (not sushi!); but also the cuisine of Lombardy (ossobuco, saffron risotto, bresaola, polenta, etc.), Emilia Romagna (homemade pasta, rich meat ragouts, prosciutto, parmigiano cheese, etc.). And Sicily with its desserts, swordfish steaks and strong Middle Eastern influences; and then there’s Abruzzo, Liguria”¦ No, it’s impossible to decide!

How can someone visiting from abroad find and enjoy great food (and wine) while traveling on a budget?

Easy, shop for local ingredients and get cooking!

Are the more expensive restaurants really worth eating at? Is the food THAT much better?

Not necessarily. Sometimes I am irritated by the pompous attitude of pricier restaurants. Smaller portions, exaggerated costs and often times careless preparations. The truly superior excellencies, on the other hand, shine beyond the zeros in the check, and those are the restaurants we are happy to spend more cash in for such divine flavors.

Italy isn’t typically known for “street food.” Is there good food to be found on the street from street vendors? Are there any specific foods that might be better eaten right off the street rather than in a sit-down restaurant?

Are you kidding? Italy is all about street food! Rome in particular boasts a revered street food scene. In fact, street food makes up for a large part of traditional Roman gastronomy. Since ancient times, Italy has always been partial to this kind of fare.

Rome, in particular was a powerful magnet for pilgrims and errant peoples treading the main consular roads headed to the “navel of the world.” Along these roads, early osterie were born: inns, taverns and carriage depots that fed their patrons.

Many of the dishes cooked and served here, had to be appropriate for travel. Much of that historical portable food has traveled down in time and greatly inspired our present eating habits and gastronomic culture.

Examples include focaccia baked in roadside ovens and sold by weight; supplì (breaded and fried risotto dumplings with a mozzarella heart); filetti di baccalà (deep fried cod fillets), fiori di zucca (fried zucchini blossoms); panini with all sorts of fillings, like chickpea flour “panelle” in Palermo, grilled sausage and sautéed broccoli rabe in Napoli, to Speck and cheese in Trentino-Alto Adige. And don’t forget gelato that is commonly much better eaten off the street in a portable cone!

Wherever you go around the world, restaurant etiquette seems to differ. From the amount of time you wait until your food is served to the appropriate amount to tip your server, we can never be sure of the “authentic” way to behave. Do you have any advice about proper etiquette when dining out in Italy?

I don’t think etiquette varies much between Italy and the rest of the world. Waiting times in family-style restaurants that cook express dishes will inevitably be longer than restaurants offering pre-cooked dishes. But these should nonetheless still uniform to the standard.

In Italy, bread and water will be the first to appear on the table. From the moment you order your meal and wine, if the antipasto is cold cuts and cheese, it should arrive promptly; and no longer than 20 minutes should pass before getting your starter!

Tipping is another issue. There is no mandatory percentage patrons are asked to pay their restaurant servers, in fact-though regularly argued and debated-the truth is you don’t need to tip in Italy in general. I will only leave a tip for very exceptional restaurant service, or will leave change when paying cash, because it’s easier not to wait for the waiter to bring back change from a 100-euro banknote on a 97-euro check. But this is a choice.

Plus, clients are probably already paying a supplement through the servizio (service charge) or coperto (cover charge) listed on the typical Italian restaurant bill.

Can you recall the best meal or most memorable meal you’ve had in Italy? What is it, and how can the tourist find it or something comparable?

The best meals I’ve had in general were the home-cooked ones. There are amazing restaurants all over Italy, and I can’t pick just one over another. I’ve had memorable meals all over the Peninsula, but each was so particular and different, that I can’t single out just one.

Again, travelers should rely on locals’ advice (see point 7), not necessarily only rely on Michelin-starred restaurants and good guidebook recommendations.

In your opinion, what would be the ultimate food and dining experience that would really represent Italy and help to understand Italian culture?

A hearty and relaxed home-cooked meal, eaten comfortably seated around a family table.

Last modified on Mon 27 October 2014 2:17 pm

Filed in: Restaurants

Comments (7)

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  1. Drew @ How To Cook Like Your Grandmother says:

    I really need to not read things like this. I want to move to Italy. Again. (I mean that I want to again, not that I’d be moving there again.)

    Drew, every time I ready anything by Eleanora I want to go visit Italy. – RG

  2. Eleonora says:

    Thank you for this wonderful interview, it’s always a pleasure to answer your stimulating and engaging questions! Ciao from balmy Roma!

    Hi Eleonora, you are welcome and the pleasure is always all mine. Ciao from a freezing Philadelphia – RG

  3. Great tips! This is really a big help to people was not yet able to travel to Italy. Your detailed information is really a good guide to for first visitors of Italy.

  4. Helena says:

    Good afternoon
    My name is Helena and I am a nutrition student from Portugal. I am passionate about food and Italian customs. I like wonder more details and have some curiosities about the breakfast: is customary to eat yogurt, muesli or porridge? and what kind of savory sandwiches the italians eat in the morning and you refere in the review?
    In the afternoon adults eat something?
    And called panino is used as a main meal or a snack?
    One last question: the Italians are known for their cheese, usually eat it for breakfast and lunch or just dessert and confection of main courses?
    Sorry all these questions and thank you for availability and watched.

    • Giulia says:

      Hi Helena, I’m Italian.
      Some Italians eat yogurt or muesli or cereals with milk for breakfast, it’s not uncommon at all.
      There was a time I had yogurt at breakfast, although my favourite one is cappuccino with biscuits or croissant.
      I don’t know Italians who eat savory sandwiches at morning, Italy is big and I think someone eats it. I don’t know what sandwiches, though.
      In the afternoon adults are working, I don’t eat anything, some of us eat a fruit or a panino, in my husband’s company there is a machine like the ones you see in American movies (and in Italian cities either), you can buy snacks, his colleagues eat them.
      A panino is both a snack and a main course. It’s a main course when at lunch we can’t go home for lunch break, when we spend a day at the beach, when we’re going on a field trip with the school, you know, when you don’t have time for a proper meal. We don’t eat any panino when we have a proper meal with first course, main course…it’s a snack if you eat it in the afternoon, in the break between lunch and dinner.
      We have different kinds of panini, I love eating piadina romagnola, I go crazy for it…only if it comes from Emilia-Romagna though.
      We don’t eat cheese for breakfast, it’s a food for lunch and dinner, The vast majority of us eat sweet food.
      Ciao 🙂

  5. Giulia says:

    I am Italian…this is a wonderful article, especially in point four.
    THANK YOU!

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