#61 How to eat like an Italian
I'm happy to welcome everyone here this week on my random little newsletter from Italy, and I can see there are a few new faces. Thanks for subscribing; it means so much to me.
On a personal level, this week has been about getting into a routine during back-to-school season in Italy. My son started high school, so seeing him dive into the buzzing yet chaotic world of Italian ‘scuola superiore’ is exciting. He fits well into the skinny jean army, a motley crew of fashionable brand-loving teens.
Every morning, I accompany my son to his new school; all I want to do is sit and watch the little circus of huddling trendy 'liceale' who seem filled with so much attitude and are all definitely too cool for school. I don't think they realise how much style, character and vibrant energy they have. I wish them well, especially since my son has become one of them.
I've been a little too busy this week to write something fresh. Still, I did come across something from my blog archive that I think is worth sharing with you. Many people have chosen to go to Italy this September, so I thought I'd talk about what it means to eat an authentic Italian meal in Italy.
If you don't already know, I have a blog titled Sicily Inside and Out, where I share my experiences and tips about living and travelling to Sicily. Since I started this newsletter, the posts have been less frequent, but there is an incredible archive to browse, and I am working on some new posts as we speak, particularly about the culture of Sicily. So please go over and take a look.
I recently saw an image on Facebook from a supposedly Italian restaurant in Australia. I was reminded of how different perceived Italian cuisine is from authentic Italian food prepared and consumed in Italy.
For example, Italians never put pasta with crumbed meat on the same plate. You will never see meatballs on top of pasta in Italy. It is never done because pasta is strictly a first course while meat or meatballs are mains.
Italians are very particular about their food; certain foods are not combined and served in a specific way. For example, it is frowned upon to put cheese on seafood pasta. Salads are never a garnish together with meat or fish; they are ordered separately as side dishes and are served on separate plates.
An Italian would be shocked to see two distinct dishes haphazardly heaped on a plate. The standards for food preparations in Italy are very high, and food is expected to be served in a certain way to respect each ingredient's unique flavour. The key is to focus on fresh tastes with seasonal products and high-quality artistic preparations with a specific tradition.
How a meal is served follows a well-defined etiquette determined by the individual's choices from the menu. Each course has its way of being served.
Aperitivo: the aperitif usually happens before a meal, where you sip an Aperol spritz or non-alcoholic bitters like Crodino or other cocktails that help stimulate the appetite. There is also the Apericena, which has become quite popular and combines the aperitivo or spritz drink with a succession of small snacks and grazing boards, which can be a light evening meal.
Antipasto: an antipasto comprises many small samples of food meant to reflect the ingredients and flavours featured in the main meal. Everything will feature the elements on the main seafood menu if you have seafood. At a trattoria or family-run restaurant, the antipasto will feature the best aspects of local cuisine in tasting plates from cheese samples, mushrooms, salami, slices of bread, fried batter, pickled vegetables and many more.
Primo: The first course is strictly a pasta dish.
Secondo: The main course can be red or white meat and seafood.
Contorno: these are your side dishes served on separate plates and include any types of salads, fresh seasonal vegetables or other vegetarian options, everything from fries to lettuce or roasted vegetables.
Bis: if you love a particular dish or antipasto, you can ask for a second helping or 'fare il Bis' (pronounced BIZ). Suppose you are lucky enough to be invited to a wedding or significant event. In that case, those serving you will automatically ask if you want a second helping of the pasta or main courses.
Dolce: The dessert in Italy is usually dictated by the seasons; if it's summer, there is a selection of gelato or fruits, and in winter, it can be a fresh pastry or cake.
Digestivo/Caffe: The digestive liquor helps the meal go down and digest. It usually consists of a shot of liquor (everything from grappa to limoncello, amaro bitters or hazelnut-flavoured noccioletto). A short espresso coffee after a meal is generally part of the ritual of a big meal. I once went to a Sicilian trattoria that offered decadent homemade chocolate-flavoured liquor like drinking chocolate-flavoured Baileys cream. Each restaurant or trattoria will have its particular speciality for you to try.
You are not expected to consume a huge meal like this every time you go out to eat in Italy.
You may have an aperitif with friends after work, usually accompanied by small snacks like potato chips, pretzels, crackers, olives or peanuts.
You can get an antipasto with only a primo or skip the antipasto and choose a secondo with a contorno.
A Bis is not obligatory, and neither is dessert or coffee. An Italian will rarely eat all of these courses unless it's for a significant occasion like a wedding when the eating is spread out over an entire evening or afternoon.
If you are going out for a casual pizza at a pizzeria, you can usually get an antipasto, then the pizza, and if you have room, a dolce or digestive.
In the United States, many dishes are marketed as Italian but, in reality, are not. Many foods have been created by Italo Americans who have adapted their Italian traditions into the culture of their new homes, in a unique cross-over cuisine that does not exist in Italy.
Distinctly Italo-American inventions which would surprise and perhaps even be shocking to Italians include:
Deep-Dish Pizza (If you want a thicker pizza, try ordering a focaccia.)
Pepperoni pizza (in Italy, pepperoni are bell peppers, not sliced deli meat; if you want something like pepperoni, try ordering a boscaiola pizza, which is salami and mushrooms.)
Lobster fra Diavolo
Chicken and veal Parmigiana
Cioppino (fish stew)
Muffuletta (a bread roll with the lot)
Spaghetti and meatballs
Italian restauranteurs are always very accommodating regarding allergies and other dietary requirements. There are often gluten-free, lactose-free, vegetarian and vegan options.
Also, while there are usually no child menus, the restaurant will offer child meal options if you ask. For an Italian child, the options typically include an antipasto of ham and cheese or other cold cuts, the first course of pasta with plain tomato sauce and a main of crumbed veal and fries.
I'm often asked for recommendations for restaurants and places to eat, but I never give any because most places you stumble on will be great. Generally, if you see a restaurant filled to the brim with locals, it's usually a sign that it's an excellent place to go.
Photo by Castorly Stock : https://www.pexels.com/photo/block-of-parmigiano-cheese-3693280/
In Sicily, food is strictly local, fresh and seasonal, which means the best ingredients are cooked in traditional recipes during the appropriate time of year.
There is something wholesome about following the seasons on your plate.
Eating seasonally gives the ingredients time to ripen correctly. It allows the fruits and vegetables to accumulate the flavours of the summer sun or the abundance of a winter's rain. It will enable the body to crave things available in certain seasons and create a subtle way of appreciating what nature provides.
Following the ebb and flow of summer, autumn (fall), winter and spring allow us to be in tune with the passing time and see the blessings of what is created by every temperature and weather. It is a chance to be grateful for the fruits, celebrations and blessings that come to us every year.
It is satisfying and soulful to be nourished according to how things have always been—a connection to an eternal cycle of human tradition and habit. The taste of a peach ripened in the summer is filled with the season's flavour, and it revives us; it reminds us of how voluptuous, warm and welcoming summer can be.
The taste of a wild mushroom gives us the hearty earthiness of autumn (fall), of how the ground cools and rests in the transition towards winter.
A hearty pumpkin soup is as satisfying as putting on a jumper in the winter. It is warm and comforting, and it makes you feel whole.
While fresh wild asparagus is one of the first fruits of spring, with its lush green sprigs, it is filled with the promise of rebirth in the sweet sunshine of early spring.
Seafood in Sicily is luxuriously prepared lovingly around the island, from swordfish, tuna, and sardines, all prepared with simple natural ingredients like olive oil and garlic.
Fresh seafood is readily available, especially in the towns along the coastlines of Sicily and Italy. At the same time, mountain villages are famous for their traditional farming products, such as cheeses, salami, cold-cut meats, fresh pork and local fruits and vegetables.
A wedding or other special occasion menu is dedicated entirely to the delicacies of the land (terra) or seafood (mare).
A Ristorante or Restaurant will be more expensive. At the same time, a Trattoria or Osteria is usually a more rustic family-run restaurant and will offer great food at a much more reasonable price.
If you are in the mood for something quick, your best deal is to get a takeaway pizza at a pizzeria; bars are cafes which offer coffee, pastries and things like pizza by the slice and arancini stuffed fried rice balls.
Even stopping at a bakery or forno will allow you to take away pre-cooked stuffed pizza pockets or mini-pizzas with bread and sweets.
A rosticceria or Tavola calda will offer hot meals for lunch and dinner, from pasta and lasagna to roasted chicken.
Most towns have weekly fresh produce markets, which offer an excellent opportunity to buy fresh fruit and local delicacies.
Generally speaking, most eateries will offer only local Italian cuisine, even though sushi restaurants and craft breweries with American-style fast food have become popular over the past few years.
Beer, wine, alcohol and spirits are sold in supermarkets and are available to purchase anywhere food is prepared. There are no laws or restrictions regarding consuming alcohol in public like in other countries, so buying a beer with your sandwich or bread roll is perfectly acceptable. If you get stuck finding a place to eat, as stores tend to close in the afternoon, especially in smaller towns, you can easily find a supermarket open, and they will make a panini on request or have some quick meals on sale. If you get stuck, any shopping centre or mall will be available all day.
It is always a good idea to buy a few items from the supermarket for a picnic in the park or at the beach, where you can happily drink a bottle of wine if you like. The legal drinking age is 18 in Italy, but consuming great wine with good food is a natural part of life on the island, so feel free to indulge.
I hate to be long-winded, so I will stop here for now.
I'll keep trying to write something here as often as I can.
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