Growing up in suburban America, I thought I knew what real Italian food was. And before you say it, no I’m no talking about Olive Garden. Having frequented countless ‘authentic’ trattorias I was pretty sure I’d seen the width and breadth of Italian cuisine, but a recent trip to Northern Italy immediately changed that perception. I was surprised by a lot of things, from traditions I didn’t know existed to foods I had never heard of before, but these were my most surprising Italian food moments.
1. Espresso – Ok, I knew espresso was big in Italy, I’m not that naïve. But I don’t think I ever appreciated the magnitude of espresso culture. Espresso cafes and bars are everywhere, from train stations to small neighborhoods and they always seem to be packed with people in for a quick jolt of caffeine. And quick it is too, almost everyone walks up to the bar, orders a small espresso, drinks it in less than a minute and they’re gone. The drink costs on average 1 Euro and really is a fantastic way to warm up in the winter or get that extra boost of energy any time of the year. At first I was a little hesitant and I absolutely made some etiquette mistakes, but by my third day I was slamming down the espressos with the best of them. Be careful though, Italians simply call these baby drinks coffee, ‘un caffè’ to be exact. And as I learned on day one, if you want to sit down and drink it you’ll have to order through a waiter and you will definitely pay more.
2. Arancino di Riso or Rice balls – I walked up to the stall in the Christmas market hungry and looking for something filling. Then I saw it, a small oblong bite of golden fried goodness, a totally new food for me. Arancino di Riso or rice balls come filled with a variety of ingredients, but I opted for the four-cheese filling with rice and peas. As with any great example of street food, the first bite was the best and the steamy center was the perfect antidote to a chilly winter’s afternoon. I was also surprised at how very filling they were, after one I was well sated and ready for a nap. Not bad for 3 Euro. I enjoyed the arancinos several times while in Northern Italy and even though I’d never seen them before, I hope our paths cross again sooner rather than later.
3. Pastries – One of the great pleasures of traveling in Europe is the quality of food, the likes of which we don’t often enjoy here in the US. Pastries in particular are manna from heaven, available in every form imaginable and as delicious as anything you’ll ever eat. I did not find this to be the case though in Italy, at least Northern Italy. Don’t misunderstand me, there were pastries everywhere and while they looked alright, the quality and taste just wasn’t there. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by travel in France, Belgium and Germany where pain au chocolate is the stuff of legend, but the Italians clearly do not cook from the same recipe cards. Every pain au chocolate I tried was filled not with melty chocolate, but with chocolate pudding. Not only was it a mess to eat, but the taste was strange. The Italian pasties I tried also lacked a certain inherent sweetness, usually found in the dough of great bread products. Italian pastries weren’t inedible, nothing quite that bad, but not as good as I had hoped they would be.
4. Rethinking foods – As I’ve said a few times already in this post, I think most Americans have a good idea of what Italian food looks and tastes like, at least we think we do. But as I traveled around Northern Italy I constantly found myself trying foods that were familiar in name but certainly not taste. In the US I have always shied away from the deli meat mortadella, mostly because of its appearance more than anything else. At a meat tasting (yes this exists) in Bologna everything I thought about the deli meat was turned on its head when I tried the authentic bite. The Emilia-Romagna region is the home of mortadella, a meat made of finely hashed or ground, heat-cured pork sausage. Be careful though, Americans who call this ‘bologna’ will get a bad look or worse. The luncheon meat we Americans have named after this wonderful Italian city couldn’t be anything further from the real product. I loved it and found myself going back for more. A similar experience happened with balsamic vinegar. I’ve had a thousand salads and so I thought I knew what to expect. But after visiting an artisanal vinegar producer in Modena, everything I thought I knew about this condiment was turned on its head. A high quality, aged balsamic vinegar is like nothing else I’ve tried. The explosion of flavors from the smallest of drops was an introduction to the rich nuances of Italian food and how something as simple as a vinegar can completely alter the flavor profile of a dish. At 60 Euro or more for a bottle however, it’s not something I’m likely to find in my local grocery store.
5. Breakfast – I like to think that I’m a fairly worldly individual and accepting of cultures no matter how strange they are. I’m also not one to hang on to my own customs when I travel, instead preferring to experience life like a local. The one exception to this rule is breakfast. I love a well done breakfast and I can say without hubris or exaggeration that Americans are the best when it comes to the first meal of the day. There are other countries that do a good job as well, most notably a full English or Scottish breakfast. Continental Europeans however lack this gene for breakfast creation, but I can usually get by thanks to the high quality of pastries. I was not though overly impressed with the quality of pastries in Italy and as I walked around Milan every morning I didn’t see that many people actually eating breakfast, instead they seemed to get high on espresso and called it a morning. I don’t usually eat a large breakfast at home, but when I travel I always make sure I have something so that I have the energy to get through the day. No matter what we tried though I just couldn’t find a quality breakfast, instead I resigned myself to strong coffee and mediocre croissants.