In many ways, this blog has been a vehicle to help me expand my own understanding of Italian culture through various aspects of society. In trying to appreciate Italy more thoroughly, I’ve written about the history, the language, the politics, and yes, of course the food.
This is not a food blog but it would be impossible to explore Italian culture without a serious inquiry into its culinary traditions. I’ve mentioned this several times in other posts: foreigners come to Italy expecting to find “Italian food,” and of course they always fail in their quest. But it goes beyond the introductory understanding that Chicken Parmesan doesn’t exist or that cappuccino is only for breakfast. You have to dig a little deeper to really wrap your mind around what it truly means to eat like an Italian.
For starters, it has to do with societal attitudes towards food and the role it’s expected to play in everyday life. Television commercials always provide interesting clues into a culture and if you’ve seen some of the ads in Italy then you know what I mean. Like Americans, Italians devote a great deal of advertising space to food and eating. But that’s where the similarity ends.
Watch a food ad in the U.S. and you’ll see a sporty couple hiking through a pristine forest, wearing backpacks and munching on a super-enhanced granola bar, fortified with a year’s supply of vitamins and minerals. They pause briefly along their trek to take in the mountain view while simultaneously chomping down their fibrous wafers composed of quinoa seeds, tofu, green algae extract, volcanic dust and tree bark. Yum!
Now check out the television advertisement for Italy’s favorite yogurt where voluptuous women in various stages of undress implore the viewer to “fate l’amore con il sapore,” make love with the flavor. There is absolutely no sense of shame or exploitative marketing. The connection is already there, these ads merely hold up a mirror. No mention of fat content or calories per serving or daily supply of calcium; the focus is only on the pleasure.
But the pleasure in savoring good quality food is a serious thing in Italy and woe be to the irreverent transgressor who fails to follow proper decorum. Yes, there are rules—and very strict ones, in fact. But the rules are aimed towards increasing the flavor and enjoyment of your meals, not some fabricated, misguided nutritional formula touted by the latest Internet guru whose primary concern is their profit and not your health (and least of all your pleasure). “Healthy” should be a natural consequence of good eating, not the primary obsession. Pleasure is the “obsession” and without it, what’s the point?
Once, while dining in a pizzeria, I overheard a waiter reprimanding an American couple sitting at the table next to me. The unfortunate diners had committed the sin of asking for a box to take their leftover pizza back to the hotel, ostensibly to be consumed for breakfast the next morning.
The waiter could hardly contain his rage. “Would you eat your shoe for breakfast, too?!? Because that’s what this pizza will taste like tomorrow—your shoe!! You eat my pizza fresh or not at all!!!” He snapped the remaining pizza off the table and stormed off towards the kitchen where I’m quite sure he disposed of it properly.
But I certainly don’t judge. In fact, I openly admit that I’ve strayed from the path of righteousness myself on occasion. Once, at a fancy ristorante in Florence, I ordered one of their famous bistecca fiorentina. I asked for it “medium,” unaware at the time that chefs in Florence aren’t interested in how you want your steak cooked; it will arrive al sangue (bloody rare) regardless of your preference. My friends, I kid you not; the slab of cow that appeared on my plate that night was still mooing. Indeed, I’m quite convinced that a skilled veterinarian could have resuscitated the poor animal.
I then proceed to compound my mistake by asking the waiter if the chef wouldn’t mind cooking it a bit more. The waiter hesitated, scoffed, and then duly took my plate back to the kitchen as requested. I sat back, had another sip of Chianti, and waited for the steak to return. Instead, what returned 10 minutes later was an unrecognizable hunk of charcoal.
Yes, the chef had taken offense to my request, and now, in a game of wits, he was daring me to complain further. I wisely relented, not wanting to test the degree of his ire. He had a kitchen full of sharp knives, after all, and all I had was my indignity.
How to Eat Like an Italian
I wrote an article a while back entitled, “Five Italian Food Rules that Foreigners Need to Know.” The post was quite popular and it inspired me to dig deeper into this phenomenon. As I observed the eating habits of Italians with an increasingly critical eye, more and more of these “rules” began to emerge. The topic is rich with humorous anecdotes and so I decided to expand on it further by launching a new website, appropriately called, “Eat Like an Italian,” where I exalt the benefits of a Mediterranean Diet while ridiculing the imposters of Italian food.
Obviously it’s about food and cooking, but not as foodie or chef might look at them. There are no glossy photos of ripe tomatoes and juicy melons spread out across the pages like a Playboy centerfold. (“Food porn” being the overused buzzword of the decade.) Not too many elaborate recipes requiring an industrial kitchen and a culinary degree from Le Cordon Bleu. And certainly no sanctimonious preaching about the dubious benefits of a gluten-free, dairy-free, taste-free, raw-vegan-paleo diet (kill me now).
No, instead I’ve kept it quite simple: just a dash of folk knowledge, a pinch of common sense, and as always, a healthy measure of good humor. Buon appetito!