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.
19 thoughts on “Five Foods That Surprised Me in Italy”
I loooooove rice balls.
Sorry, getting a bit too excited here.
They’re just so hard to find in Belgium so when I see them abroad, I have to get one:-)
They really are filling. I like the ones with mozzarella and a bit of meet. Mmmmmm!
They were new for me and I fell in love :)
I am Italian and I was forced to rethink a lot of food also. My husband came home an espresso and red wine drinker. Wouldn’t touch it before. I learned the proper way to say and make bruschetta and I still can’t get chicken liver spread off of my mind the way Italians do it. I learned I cook my pasta way too long and I learned that Italian food doesn’t make you fat in Italy. We both lost weight. Now I wish though I would have eaten more pastries.
I also love lightly fried risotto balls – made with any leftover risotto. I had a memorable gorgonzola and pear pizza in Italy too.
Pear and gorgonzola go so well together. I make a cooked pear paste served with gorgonzola. Luckily none of my friends like it so I get the lot :) Never had it on a pizza though.
Yes, they’re a great combo
This post is SO true! Love it!
Some of the pastries in Italy are filled with Nutella. They eat it at every possible manner.
I somehow managed to miss those rice balls, and unbelievably, I stillhaven’t had one, not because I don’t want to, it just hasn’t put itself in my path!
I was surprised by Chianti. I am not a wine snob by any means but I always thought of it as a rather ‘poor relation’ rather rough sort of wine. Learning how to drink it (it is a table wine to be drunk with food not by itself) and what to look for in an authentic Chianti taste really opened my eyes.
I love experiences like that – I had one in Mexico when a tequila expert showed me the ropes. Amazing how the experience changes when armed with just a little knowledge.
Thanks – lovely article and you got some fantastic photographs of the food and the shops !
Thanks so much!
Hey Matt. The reason you did not find any nice pastries or sweets is that you did not travel to the South of Italy, which is just as steeped in history and has some wonderful places to visit as the North. Sicilian Ricotta filled Cannoli are an absolute blast of flavour! Speaking of Sicily, if you liked the Rice Balls they are traditionally from there and are called Arancini. One of the best places to try one is on the Ferries used to get across to Sicily from Calabria.
Some of the other sweets to try are the Nutella filled Croissants and the Brioche filled with Gelati, which is essentially a Gelati “Sandwich”! There’s also “Crostoli”, Sugar “Zeppole and various “Biscotti”.
I better stop now as I’m getting tremendously nostalgic for things I won’t be able to eat.
So, next time you’re in Italy I strongly recommend travelling to the South, it’s well worth it! : )
Thank you for sharing and you’re right, I really need to spend some more time in the south of Italy. I can’t argue there!
Absolutely, 100% agree about the quality of pastries in certain European countries (most notably France). The pain au chocolat is less dense and more rich. Julia Child talked about the differences in flour between France and the US in her book…wonder if that’s the key?
Great insider’s tip about the un caffè!
Hey great post! I discovered “marocchino” coffee wich gives you just a tad of milk and a sprinkle of cocoa powder. Mini cap;)
I too agree that the croissants are not so impressive here but the small bignets and mini pastries at pasticcerias are to die for!!!!
Anyway loved your article and agree that the arancini are traditionally from the south and best eaten there!
Great article! I’m 100% Italian, born and raised in the province of Milan, and I agree with you that pastries in cafes are generally quite poor – nowhere close to the Parisian standards. But, as Anna says, in northern Italy good pastries are not found in cafes – you need to go to an actual Pasticceria. Only very few cafes get their pastries from a pasticceria, most get some half-baked crap and just finish them up in the back… those pastries are very oily, filled with things like Nutella, and super heavy on the tummy as a result. On your next trip, make sure to ask around for the best pasticcerie, and give them a try :)
Good tip and thanks! Been to Northern Italy a couple of times now though and have never seen one of those shops. Will have to hunt on trip 3 LOL
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