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!
The Rocco Siffredi Diet
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.
(So just ask yourself, “What does Rocco Siffredi eat in Italy?”)
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!
I asked for pineapple on my pizza at a small pizzeria in Vicenza, Italy. The server hushed me fearful that the owner would hear me, and then replied “Italy invented pizza, and we never put pineapple on it.” “Oh”, I said, “but I am American , and we tend to improve on things.” Thankfully she laughed as did I, still no pineapple haha.
Oh, boy. You’re lucky that you encountered a tolerant server! Some would have physically assaulted you, or had you excommunicated, at least. Ha, ha!
LOL. My boyfriend always kids me when he sees “my friends” (AKA: Americans, it doesn’t matter that I don’t know them) who ask for boxes for their pizza. In Firenze many places are accommodating due to the amount of American students. I just wish people would try to adapt or realize a whole pizza isn’t as bad for you, as say, the 10 drinks they consume afterwards. 😉
GREAT point! It’s like the folks who go to McDonalds and get a DIET coke with their double quarter pounder and xl fries, as if those 40 extra calories will make a difference. And yes, many places in Rome will give you a box, too, but if they do, you’re probably eating in the wrong place. Thanks for the comments…ciao!!
Awesome post Rick! Yeah the French don’t like when you try and make substitutions either. They’ll generally do it, but not with a pleasant attitude. They ain’t your happy go lucky Macaroni Grill or Ruby Tuesday’s server 😉 So given that you live in one of the world’s food meccas and you’ve authored “How to Eat Like an Italian,” Bell and I would love if you (or any of your readers) entered our recipe competition to win a 200 euro apartment credit!! 🙂
Wow, what a great contest, Alex! Yes, I would encourage anyone reading this post to enter, and I’ll share this on my social media platforms, as well! Thanks for letting me know about it…ciao!
Thanks Rick! That’s most appreciated! 🙂 We’re really excited about this leading up to TBEX next month. Are you coming to Dublin for it? Cheers!
Hey Alex, no problem, always a pleasure to connect with you guys. I wish I was going to TBEX…we’ve got a new bambina in our house, so I don’t think I’ll be going anywhere for a while. Have fun…I hope to hear about your experience in Dublin….ciao!!!
Huge congratulations to you and your wife on your new bambina, Rick!…Too bad you won’t be at TBEX but yes you have a pretty good excuse. Look forward to having a couple drinks some other time, in Europe or Florida. Slainte! 🙂
ps: And a big thanks again!!!
Il piacere e’ tutto mio (the pleasure is all mine)!!
Absolutely, Alex! I look forward to that!
Rick, another winner! The bistecca was too funny…glad I won’t have that problem, it’s the only way to go! Oh boy, don’t get me started on the gluten-free bandwagon…for god’s sake…I just hate these fads, first it was eggs, where does this sh.. come from? I guess what annoys me the most about it all is that there are people in this world who would kill for some pasta or bread! What the hell are we thinking! As far as the learning about cultures by watching T.V. here’s a post I wrote about our experiences doing just that http://oracibo.com/4611/food-networks-are-everywhere/ hope it brings a smile! Check out the links too, some of my favourites are there!
Great article, Phyllis! Makes me want to YouTube some of those old cooking shows. Some of the ones today are just too contrived, a mix of game show and “reality” TV. Thanks for your comments, as always…buon appetito!
Glad you liked the blog Rick…another favourite, of course was Julia Child…I just loved her shows…she was so wacky in an endearing way! I wish Keith Floyd was still with us! Great to hear from you, looking forward to more of your stories…they make me laugh a lot! I sent the “How To Dress Like An Italian” to my Italian teacher who Roman and she loved it!
ha ha! the resemblance with Rocco is amazing! leaves me wondering about the rest of you……. jokes aside – yes! Never, never, never ask for a well-done Fiorentina, never ask for a cappuccino after dinner and never ask for ketchup! 😉 I enjoyed your article, thanks!
Ha, ha! Yes, so many “rules” to remember but it’s all part of the fun! Ciao!
the first time I’ve seen an American ask for a cappuccino after lunch I was stunned.
But how is it possible to drink a cappuccino in the afternoon??
In my opinion, a cappuccino after 11 am is a crime against humanity, should be prohibited by law!
That’s right, Silvano! But what’s worse, I’ve actually seen people drink the cappuccino WITH their lunch! Che schifo!
Eeeew! Cappuccino with their lunch….eeeew! Pazzi tourists!
Si, hai ragione, Phyllis!
Italy must have the highest diagnosis of gluten intolerance in the world, everyone now is gluten intolerant here as their local family doctors are all jumping on that bandwagon and every little belly cramp is gluten intolerance and I must say the trend I see more than anything in italian restaurants is over-cooking any meat you want to name and over salting foods to boot-has to be saporito you know.
Great point, Dwight. It never ceases to amaze me how the media (or social media) and marketing can obliterate common sense. Where were all these “gluten-intolerant” people a few years ago? (Sure, there are some people with celiac disease, but it’s less than 1% of the population.) It’s really gotten out of hand but I’m certain that, like everything else, the “panic” will die down after “gluten-free” has had its 15 minutes of fame–or infamy. Thanks for a great comment.
Hi Rick, I’m an ex colleague of Jessica, we met one time in TRS. After your pic like Rocco I can say that you are the number one. I’m reading your blog and it’s very interesting and funny. Congratulation also for your babe. Hope to meet you and your new family again also if now I’m living in Paris.
Good luck and how we say in Rome “Daje”.
Ha, ha… thanks Davide! Wow, you’re living in Paris now?!? That’s great, we’re really happy for you. (How’s the food?) Maybe we’ll visit one day…I’ve been promising Jessica that we’d see Paris sooner or later. For now, we’re just working around the clock to feed the bambina, but we’re having fun! Ciao e grazie per il tuo commento!
Hi Rick the food is a more complicated here, I mean that you will never find a Fiorentina or Pasta cacio e pepe (which are done by very simple ingredients), but the good thing is that here i can found all the necessary in order to do pasta, pizza, cotoletta alla milanese and so on.. 🙂
Great post, while Mexico is not quite as ridged there are a lot of similarities. The main meal or Comida is eaten in the afternoon, we were guests at a Comida on Saturday arriving at 2pm and leaving at 7pm, great food, drinks and conversation are important, not the time. One of the joys of a foreign culture.
Totally agree, Tom. If you’re constantly fretting over the time (or calories), then you might as well stay home and eat a granola bar.
OMG you have really nailed it about the bistecca! I was laughing so hard just picturing the whole scene I can hardly finish reading your blog. But I did and love it. Can’t wait to read your book ‘Eat like an Italian’ so I don’t make the same faux pas!!! Salute Rick.
Thanks so much Joce! Glad I’m not the only one who has committed such a grave sin against the “sacred cow” of Florentine steaks!