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Monday, June 21, 2010

Eating in Italy

I recently returned from over 2 weeks in Italy. It was my first trip there and I did my best to eat as much as I could without killing myself. The food, with a few exceptions, was fantastic. Here are some observations, should you be lucky enough to find yourself eating in Italy.

  1. Italian food is very regional. You will find things in Venice (like sweet and sour sardines) that you won't find in Rome or Parma. And you will find deep-fried artichokes in Rome but not in Venice. That said, some things are found throughout Italy, like pasta with a fresh tomato sauce, pizza, or gnocchi with pesto. The pesto varies somewhat but it's still a basil sauce, after all. Be sure to seek out the regional specialities because they are always stand-outs.
  2. Veal is popular and cheap. I love veal but never eat it because it is extremely expensive in the US. It's very, very good throughout Italy.
  3. There is very little chicken on menus in Italy. Chickens are for laying eggs, not for eating. We did see it on a few menus but it was unusual.
  4. Pizza is a bargain everywhere. In Venice, panini are an incredible deal. There are sandwich shops all over Venice and you can get great Panini from 2.50 to 4 euros.
  5. Things like prosciutto and aged Parmesan cheese are ridiculously cheap by US standards. You can get 28 month Parmesan for about $7/pound in Reggio-Emilia, the home of Parmesan. I would have brought back a wheel of the stuff if I didn't have to carry the damn thing.
  6. There are far fewer vegetables on plates in Italy than I expected. Maybe it's because restaurants serve food that folks don't get at home (and as far as I can tell every single Italian grows some food for themselves if they have any room to do so). Sure, you can order a salad or a contorni (side dish) but most of the time, 2 out of 5 sides are something with potatoes.
  7. Potatoes are very popular! More so than I ever thought.
  8. Bread is regional too and forget about finding much of the whole grain variety. In Tuscany, bread is made with no salt. Not a favorite with my daughter.
  9. Italians love their pork products: prosciutto, speck, cooked ham, all manner of salami, mortadella. It's fantastic everywhere and reasonably priced if you get it at a market.
  10. Gelato ranges from very good to sublime. Best gelato of the trip was in Levanto (just north of Cinque Terre) and Vernazza (one of the Cinque Terre).
  11. It's not possible to pick a single "best" dish of the trip. There were many great dishes: risotto with apples and prosecco in a trattoria in the countryside of Reggio-Emilia, risotto with seafood in Rome, pasta with seafood in Corniglia, a frutti del mare platter on Murano (including some of those sweet and sour sardines), a strawberry cream tart at Antinori's wine's bar in Florence, and the most unexpected exceptional dish, fresh pasta purses stuffed with pears and ricotta with a walnut cream sauce at the Peroni brew pub in Rome.
  12. Eat whatever you want. When you get home, the food won't be as universally excellent and you need to take advantage of the fine eating while you can!
If you have specific questions about eating in Italy, send me a comment and I'll do my best. Obviously, we did not visit all of Italy nor do I claim to be an expert in the nuances of regional Italian cuisine.