Find me one person who doesn’t like Italian food. Then find me someone who completely understands it. THEN bring me some Italian food- because it doesn’t really exist.
Italian food is one of the world’s most sought out cuisines with an astounding amount of history and complexity which one could spend their who life to study and never get past the first chapter.
What about misconceptions around Italian food? I have a few perspectives as being a lifelong food lover and Italophile while being dedicated to understand both (food & Italy). And failing from time to time.
Thankfully, there are tons of bubble-gum pop publications like the Huff Po and Buzzfeed who put out click-bait articles warning people against fettucine alfredo, chicken parmigiana and cappucino after 11. I prefer observations which are a little less superficial.
Italian food doesn’t really exist but rather regional cuisines define the map of Italian cuisine. There are undoubtedly Italian foods and they are usually born from one region and twisted/reproduced in others. An example being sheep’s milk cheese pecorino. Pecorino Toscano, Romano and Sardo are all from sheep’s milk but all with varying techniques and flavor profiles- not to mention variations within the region (i.e. Pecorino di Pienza).
Pasta of course is Queen in the Emilia-Romagna, but differs from region to region. You see more egg-dough pastas in the north and water/flour dough pastas in the south. Flatbread too. I.e. Schiacciata vs pizza bianca vs focaccia. Balsamic vinegar is Italian, but home in Modena. Emilia Romagna isn’t the only region which makes balsamic vinegar but they are the creator who coined the umami sludge.
Especially today, not all Italian food is organic, seasonal and local. The claws of globalization and industrial/commercial food production are eroding this romantic notion. More often than not, bags of flours are a Russian roulette of non-Italian sourced & grown grain. I see plenty of non-seasonal produce in the markets- even the special outdoor food markets. There have been several reports of foreign milk being mixed up with once prestigious mozzarella cheese.
It is not always warm in Italy. This is not necessarily a food myth but it leads to one. Italy has 4 seasons- and it needs all of them for a robust, dynamic agriculture. Tomatoes aren’t deliciously available year round. You find them thanks to greenhouses, but never like their summer versions. The cold is good- where it can happen! Cold squashes the bugs which would otherwise cause damage to future yields. The cold also helps plants stay dormant and regenerate.
Vineyards especially benefit from harsh, cold winters. Just like humans, we need some struggle to produce resilience. The last few years in Tuscany, the winters have been mild and wet (little freezing). I have overheard some farmers say this is part of the reason why those pesky flies came about the and wrecked havoc in the olive groves in 2014. So while we have enjoyed some mild weather, it is suggested these comforts affect local agriculture in small big ways.
Italian people don’t eat pasta, cheese, pizza, cured meats and bread everyday. And if they do, it’s in tiny quantities or its one or the other. I often get asked “how can Italians stay so slim if they eat like this?” Part of this is because: meat is not eaten in large quantities everyday. Italians take pride in how they take care of themselves. Portion sizes are controlled.
Pasta, even if eaten everyday, is consumed in small quantity and not doused on ragu or heavy sauce but rather a simple tomato sauce or sauteed vegetables. For a meal, perhaps one would eat some steamed/boiled vegetables and a small piece of meat. A salad, even! A rice dish! A panino with one or 2 slices of prosciutto.
But the way tourists eat, as they rightly should since its your once-in-a-lifetime visit, is not how everyday Italians eat all the time. These banquet marathons are reserved for special occasions. In fact, (allow me if I may say) Italians can be quite judgmental when they see people eating in excess/indulging in unnecessary richness as a sort of slothfulness.
Italians care less about food than you think they do. Well, this is a bold statement (and not just the font). This is based on a various observations and factors: generation, economics and globalization. I was listening to a podcast on Heritage Radio Network with Katie Parla and she said something which has been an observation of mine as well. That is, when going to the grocery store on the rare occasions, I suss out what’s on the check-stand conveyor belt and see my shopping neighbors have pre-packed food items and rarely whole foods and individual ingredients.
The worst is the frozen pizza. I cannot fathom why one would spend 4-6 euros on a frozen pizza when they can spend more or less the same on a fresh baked pie in minutes, albeit a usually disappointing one unless you plan your pizza attack. I notice this at food gatherings with my Italian friends. Unless they are also “foodies” and in the industry, they are quite fine making dry pasta and jarred sauces and drinking soda and boxed or bulk vino sfuso wine.
The beauty remains is while younger generations may not be so concerned/interested in continuing the gastronomic traditions their grandparents rolled out in every sheet of handmade pasta- they still retain the culture of community and being together/hosting meals.They also can recognize good food thanks to their parents and/or grandparents. I worry about future generations who won’t be coddled by their great-grandparents homemade goods. Will they be able to recognize good food- even if they don’t make it from scratch themselves?
A concept which is hard for new world cultures to grasp is Italian food is influenced by history- and will stay the same even if doesn’t taste great. Tuscan bread aka “tasteless” bread for example, has a few historical legends and one commonly told is the result of feuding between Pisa and Florence and the spiteful blockade of salt distribution from Pisa to Florence- thus creating a saltless bread. So when people turn their nose up at some Italian foods, they don’t realize there is an intention behind it or a curious legend. They write it off to lack of technique.
All first courses are pasta and its impossible to visit Italy and eat Italian food with food allergies/special diets. No! Especially in Tuscany, we have things like Ribollita (peasant vegetable and leftover bread soup) sformatino (pecorino cheese souffle/flan usually with seasonal veggies, chickpea soups/flatbreads, polenta, meaty mains, bean sides, seasonal salads, nose-to-tail mains…hardly just pasta! Plus desserts made with almond flour, gelato sorbet made without milk and other random confections.
There are probably many other misconceptions, but to me these are the most interesting ones.
What are some common misconceptions you’ve seen around the web regarding Italian food? What are some questions you have about Italian food? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
In a never ending hunger for Italian food,
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