Above: Some of the best pizzerias in Rome now often serve sauceless pies topped with freshly sliced mortadella.
One of Italy’s greatest gifts to the world is its culinary traditions. Pasta, pizza, caprese salad, osso buco, risotto, panini…
And the list goes on and on: just think of the many Italian and Italian-inspired dishes that have become part of our own culinary traditions here in the United States.
Most Americans couldn’t live without them!
When cooking Italian food at home, always look for the freshest ingredients and take advantage of the many excellent Italian cookbooks that are available today and the many Italian food bloggers who post regularly about their favorite recipes.
But there’s another Italian lesson that we can all benefit from by taking time to properly savor our food and enjoy mealtime.
Sitting down at the lunch or dinner table is a sacred event in daily Italian life. No matter how hectic the workday or how busy the schedule, Italians always put a hold on everything when they sit down to eat.
It’s a time for workers to recharge and families to reconnect.
And here’s the Italians’ best-kept secret: by relaxing and winding down at the lunch or dinner table, you’ll also digest your food more easily.
So the next time you sit down for a meal, whether at home or while taking a break from work, eat like an Italian by taking time out to truly taste every morsel.
Don’t get us wrong: we have nothing against Parmigiano Reggiano, the classic grating cheese that can only be produced in the provinces of Parma and Reggio Emilia in Emilia-Romagna.
We love topping our ragù alla bolognese or our lasagne alla bolognese with an extra helping of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano.
And we love eggplant layered with Parmigiano Reggiano, a dish that combines one of the great food products of the north with one of the staples of southern Italian cuisine.
But when it comes to the winter soups of Tuscany, like ribollita, the “twice cooked” bread soup (made with stale bread, Swiss chard, and cannellini beans), we have to insist that the dish be finished with a generous drizzle of Tuscan extra-virgin olive oil. Anything else would be sacrilege!
In the United States, we eat our salad before the first course or entrée at dinner.
In Italy, salad is served instead after the main course.
For Italians, salad — generally dressed with extra-virgin olive oil, aromatic balsamic vinegar or wine vinegar, salt and pepper — is intended to cleanse the palate and aid in digestion.
The acidity of the vinegar and the fresh lettuces refresh the mouth and tastebuds (in anticipation of dessert!).
And the olive oil helps to settle and balance the digestion.
But there’s another reason why Italians eat their salad after the main course: the acidity in the vinegar competes with the acidity in wine and can often overwhelm the palate and thus attenuate the flavors and aromas of wine.
Prosciutto di Parma, Prosciutto di San Daniele, Prosciutto Toscano, Prosciutto di Cinghiale (wild boar prosciutto, also from Tuscany)…
Prosciutto is one of those foods that defines Italian gastronomy. It’s one of the country’s most ancient dishes (dating back to Roman times) and one of its most delicious.
But what good is prosciutto if you throw it on to a Hobart deli slicer and allow an overly heated blade to ruin it?
In Italy, prosciutto is sliced using slowly run blades, often hand operated. That’s the key to correctly slicing prosciutto: if the blade runs to fast (and is not sharp enough), the resulting friction will heat the steel and consequently melt the prosciutto.
Many restaurants in the U.S. are now using reproductions of old Berkel slicers — the gold standard in prosciutto slicing. And many restaurants in Italy are having old Berkels restored and refurbished: there’s something about the blades on the old models that makes them slice better than the newer ones. Perhaps because they were beveled by hand, they never slice too thin (which would result in the prosciutto falling apart) but just thin enough that the prosciutto still melts in your mouth.
Your best bet? Ask your grocer to slice by hand.
In a lot of ways, Italy isn’t just one country. It’s actually twenty little countries.
As you travel through Italy’s twenty regions (as many of you are doing or will do this summer), you quickly recognize that in every region, the language, food, and customs are different.
There’s an old saying: the only time Italy is a united country is when its national soccer team is playing.
But there’s another thing that unites Italians from every walk of life: pizza.
And while every region has its own take on the traditional pizza recipe, you’ll find the famous Pizza Margherita at every pizzeria in every Italian city and town, no matter how small.
Some Italians — no matter where they’re from — insist that the Margherita is the only pizza they’ll eat because it’s the only “true” pizza.
Much has been written about the Pizza Margherita and its origins. While there is some disagreement as to when it was first invented, everyone agrees that it is made using buffalo’s milk mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil.
In what is possibly the longest and most tedious recipe ever written, the formula for the Pizza Margherita was officially codified in 2009 when the European Union awarded the Pizza Napoletana Traditional Specialty Guaranteed status (Pizza Napoletana TSG must be made using either tomato/mozzarella/oregano or tomato/mozzarella/basil, the latter combination being the Pizza Margherita).
It’s ten pages long!
A few years ago, the Italian government released a study revealing that pizza is the most popular Italian word beyond Italy’s borders.
And it’s no wonder: this simple, humble dish — made from flour, water, salt, mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil/oregano — seems to speak every language in the world.
So when you head to Italy for your next visit, before you order a regional specialty pizza (which might be equally delicious), be sure to first try a Pizza Margherita — where it all began.
No summer is complete in Italy without the smell of fresh pomodorini (cherry tomatoes) simmering away with basil to make a sublimely simple plate of spaghetti col pomodoro.
‘Tis the season for tomatoes and even if you can’t get the divine Pomodorini del Piennolo DOP of Campania, any good, farm-fresh cherry tomato will do.
-Start with about 2 pounds of fresh-as-can-be cherry tomatoes. Slice them in half.
-Peel and slightly crush 3 whole garlic cloves. Generously cover the bottom of a saute pan with olive oil. Yes, that means about ½ of a cup! Trust is, this is the secret.
-Over medium heat, let the garlic become golden in the oil, then pluck it out.
-Get the oil to medium high and put the tomato halves in the pan. Cover the pan quickly, as it will hiss as scream. This is good.
-After 3-5 minutes, lower the heat back to medium and salt the tomatoes generously.
-Stir the tomatoes. After about 10 more minutes, the tomatoes will probably be mushy. Start to smash them with a wooden spoon.
-Meanwhile, cook a pound of spaghetti (not too thin!) in generously salted water.
-After the tomatoes have cooked for a total of around 20 minutes, turn off the heat and add a handful of fresh basil.
-When the pasta is just harder than al dente, drain it and add it to the pan with the tomatoes. Stir it around with the tomatoes and cook it for 1 minute or two until it’s done.
-Plate the pasta and dust with a bit of Parmigiano Reggiano.
Now take a second to breathe in the intoxicating scent of simplicity and make a toast to Summer!
Photo via Wikipedia.
As you are traveling throughout Italy this summer, you will undoubtedly experience the pleasures Italian dining. Mealtime is sacred, revered. It is a time to linger and enjoy lively conversation with friends and family. There are just a few things to remember about il conto (“the bill”) when dining out in Italy that can make your meal time even better.
1. Bringing the check: It is considered rude in Italy to bring il conto to a table who hasn’t requested it. Even if the floor is being swept and all the diners have gone but you, your bill will not arrive until you ask for it. Speak up when you want to pay!
2. Pane e coperto: This is a charge you will see any time you sit down for a meal. The translation is “bread and cover,” and it’s an automatic charge for bread and service. You will pay this whether you eat the bread or not. It’s usually no more than a few Euro.
3. Tipping: Service and tax are usually included in the menu price, so there is no custom of tipping an extra set percentage. If you want to leave some change, it is not expected but certainly will be appreciated.