Let’s talk about…real Italian food
In New York City — but also in my area, Washington DC — there are few real Italian restaurants. My subjective, but experienced, opinion is that 90% of the Italian restaurants in the US are not Italian at all. If the words “Italian food” conjures up thoughts of Italian American restaurant chains or pizza with a red-purple sauce and lots of garlic powder, well… this is simply not Italian!
I personally hate that type of cooking: Italian American food is loaded with too many strange-tasting “additives.” In fact, one might even call them “addictive,” because people end up getting used to their strong, overwhelming flavor, to the detriment of the much more delicate — and healthier — taste of authentic Italian cooking.
Valid examples of it are things such as “Italian dressing,” Italian-style bread crumbs,” or “Italian seasoning,” concoctions you won’t find anywhere in Italy. And do I really need to start with pasta? For more, read here how NOT to cook pasta.
In the mind of many American, Italian food continues to be associated with the image of a pretty large guy eating spaghetti with meatballs. But reality is that, practically, no one eats spaghetti with meatballs in Italy.
Italians do have meat sauce recipes that require long and laborious preparation (including marinating the meat for 3-4 days in aged red wine), but they also have an incredible number of variations of pasta dishes cooked with vegetables or seafood. And when I say pasta, I don’t mean spaghetti only.
Again, you’ll find an amazing range of pasta shapes in all different sizes, many of which are unique to specific regions.
There is more than taste and shapes, though.
The variety of the Italian diet, the continued, widespread reliance on fresh ingredients cooked on the spot, and the extensive use of vegetables, fruit and olive oil all contribute to the generally healthy state of Italians who, on average, appear thinner than Americans, especially after they hit the age of 40. It is known, in the end, that there is a direct relationship between being overweight and the heavy consumption of over-processed foods and sugary drinks, along with the avoidance of fruits, vegetables and of a little bit of wine with your meals.
Mind, this problem is not only American, it begins showing also among Italy’s younger generations, more and more attracted by the American lifestyle.
A lot has been written about the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. Without going deeper into the matter, I would like to tell you that Italian food — that found in Italy — is not only good for you, but it really tastes great! Enjoy the adventure of exploring authentic Italian food, not only a delight for the senses but also an expression of the cultural and traditional heritage of the country.
A little guide to recognize real Italian Food
You get my idea: when you are outside of Italy, having “Italian” printed somewhere on the menu is not synonym with authentic grub. If you’re after Italian-American dishes, then your spaghetti and meatballs or fettuccine Alfredo are perfect: when well made, they can be truly delicious.
Yet, if you’re after real Italian dishes, then you have to pay attention to a couple of things, both when you shop and eat out.
Shopping to cook real Italian
Shopping to cook a proper Italian meal is actually very simple, once you are into the gist, and pretty cheap, too. Italians tend to cook everything from scratch and that means you’ll probably spend less than you think at the supermarket: you’ll only need basic — but fresh — ingredients. So, if you’re planning to turn your kitchen table into an Italian one, you should keep these few things in mind when out shopping:
- Invest in very good quality extra virgin olive oil: it’s at the heart of our cuisine and there is no reason to save on that. If you find it, do buy Italian, of course.
- Always try to cook with what’s in season: in Italy, we like to eat what nature gives us, when nature gives it to us. So, forget about zucchini in December or oranges in August. They are just not going to be at their best.
- Always keep the following in the kitchen: extra virgin olive oil, plain tinned tomatoes (without any extra flavor or herbs added), 00 flour (plain flour), dried yeast, dried herbs (oregano, rosemary, pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves), pulses like lentils, a good chunk of parmigiano, fresh garlic, a couple of onions, canned tuna, good quality pasta (wholegrain too: we’re getting big into it!) and some seasonal vegetables. With these, you can make everything you want, really.
- Dress your salad the Italian way: a dash of olive oil, a bit of red vinegar (or lemon, if you prefer it), a bit of salt. Forget about everything else.
- Eat your bread without butter!
Eating proper Italian while out
Taking care of your shopping is easy, when compared to the difficult task of recognizing an authentically Italian eatery from a bad, spurious version of it. Let’s see if we can give you a hand!
- Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity: Italian food is all about simplicity so, if a place has over complex, over rich dishes laden with cream and egg, than it’s not likely to be a real Italian place;
- Pasta and chicken just don’t go together in Italy: I am not saying it’s not nice, but chicken is never served with pasta, nor is it, in fact, flavored with pesto.
- Cream is not that popular in our cuisine: sure, we use it here and there, but if you see an “Italian restaurant” with a list of creamy dishes as long as Route 66, then you can rest assured the grub ain’t that authentic. Maybe good, but not authentic.
- Mozzarella is a fresh cheese. You can’t grate it: so, if they offer you grated mozzarella, just go. Costco imports excellent water buffalo mozzarella directly from Italy.
- We don’t do lasagne with french fries, nor garlic bread.
- Pasta is not a side dish for meat.
Here’s our little take on the difference between “real” Italian food and what its international version looks like. Mind, there’s no will to denigrate other countries’ cuisines here: in fact, there are many, truly delicious “non-Italian Italian” dishes out there. Problem is, they are not from the country they claim to be and this creates not only confusion, but also an overall problem about the way Italy is perceived and portrayed abroad. Let’s try to keep what’s inspired by Italian food separated from the real thing and we’ll certainly end up with happier, fuller stomachs!