Tips on Food & Eating in Italy

Italian_salamiOk guys. Time for me to vent. Pet peeve numero uno comin’ at ya.
It really rubs me the wrong way when tourists arrive in Italy and expect to find the same dishes (cooked the EXACT same way) they enjoy in Italian restaurants at home. Most ethnic cuisine that has made its way to America ends up changing a fair amount on our shores. In Japan, for example, I highly doubt they serve the Philadelphia roll. And a chimichanga is something that has never graced a real Mexican table. So while Italian food in America is, without a doubt, inspired by the food in Italy, there are things on an American-Italian menu that just don’t exist in Italy (at least not EXACTLY as they do at home).
 
I was reminded of this over an English lesson with a friend who works at a local Florentine restaurant. She and her fellow waitresses laughed at the idea of spaghetti and meatballs. You heard me right. Possibly the most Americanized Italian food ever, the quintessential spaghetti and meatballs really doesn’t exist in Italy (well at least not in a version that any American would recognize). Another famous dish that stumped the waitresses is the well-known (in the good old USA) fettuccine alfredo. There is a restaurant in Rome where this dish was invented and while it has really taken off the States, it is rarely on menus in Italy.
 
Now, there’s nothing wrong with these items being ordered and enjoyed (I mean pasta covered in melted cheese is hard not to like), but you should be aware that if you go to a restaurant in Italy that makes them (with the exception of Alfredo’s restaurant in Rome), chances are they’re just doing it because they get asked so often or because they are appeasing American tourists. Let’s keep in mind that it’s a big country with a wide range of gastronomic traditions that vary dramatically in cities barely 50 miles apart. In fact, most Italian-American cuisine is based on food from only one city, Naples. Perhaps in Naples you’ll fit right in, but don’t expect any Florentine to tell you that there is not “that big of a difference” between these two culinary traditions. For Italians, the difference is huge!
 
So this week, I want to try and get some better food knowledge out there. Now this is really to follow up on my intro information on how to pick the place to eat, how to order and in what order to eat all these delicious things in our Top Ten Tips for Studying Abroad blog. If you’re lost, perhaps start there.
 
Below is a list of food items that are:
#1. Unknown in the Italian gastronomic world (so take note if they appear on an Italian menu and maybe consider not ordering them).
#2. Fake friends: words that sound like an English word we would expect to find in food and yet are not at all what we think.
Or #3. Food items we rarely see on American menus but are often the most delicious ingredients on an Italian menu and sadly get skipped for lack of familiarity!
I hope in the course of this list to also impart some important Italian cuisine knowledge so while you’re here you are sure to eat some REAL Italian food.
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Sandwich Wars: Il Cernacchino

Battle No.5
The Challenger: Il Cernacchino
For rules, regulations, and a fascinating review of sandwich history, see here. For our current rankings, see this blog’s side bar.
 
Just when you thought I couldn’t eat another panino…Sandwich Wars returns!
Quick review: The ranks didn’t change much after last month’s battle with Gustapanino. All’Antico Vinaio is still in first place with their outright ridiculous Finocchiona panino. Da’Vinattieri remains close behind with their super salty, and downright addictive, porchetta sandwich. I think they’re getting a little cozy up there at the top, don’t you?
Florence_paninoThis month I needed something new to shake things up. I started asking my friends established in the gastronomic scene here in Florence where they were getting their panini these days. Someone mentioned a place called Il Cernacchino, on Via Condotta, right in the center of Florence, just off Piazza della Signoria. I had never heard of it and I was skeptical. My first thought was, it will be crazy crowed. Nope. Ok, well then it will definitely be overprized. Not at all. Alright then, get ready for a disappointment taste-wise. Wrong again.
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Novità: Brunch in Florence

All things new.
They may not be new to Florence, but they’re news to me.

Brac_FlorenceI admit that in that last few years I have almost entirely converted to the Italian breakfast of an espresso coffee and a pastry over the American toast, bagels, bacon, sausage, eggs, and drip coffee. I’ve come to look forward to my simple and delicious sweet treat and its eye-opening companion. However, every few months, there comes a day (usually a Sunday) where I need something more. I need the saltiness of lunch, the sweetness of breakfast, in the portion size of most people’s dinner, at an atypical time, and I need to wash it all down with a coffee, tea, smoothie and/or a mimosa. What I need people, is brunch, and I assume I’m not alone.
 
There is no word for brunch in Italian, which should tell you all you need to know about trying to find the aforementioned meal in this country. In my English-Italian dictionary it explains that “brunch” is a unique blend of breakfast and lunch, but gives no one-word translation. If you want to ask an Italian friend to join you for this unique feast, you would simply say “Facciamo un brunch?” This always seems a bit silly to me, but it’s a genre of meal that is clearly not Italian and calling it by its original English name maintains the separation between diverse cultural mealtime choices.
 
There are a few places that have popped up in Florence to help feed this deeply rooted (I’m talking DNA deep here) need for brunch. Want a bagel or a muffin (or, for holidays, a pie)? Go to Mama’s Bakery. Need an enormous omelet or eggs benedict with American drip coffee or a cappuccino smoothie and a side of french fries? Go to The Diner. But if you want classy and affordable (but also manageable size-wise) pancakes, french toast, Italian inspired salty crepes or egg scrambles with fresh smoothies, juices, and an impressive list of teas, all in the quiet, hidden courtyard of a bookstore? Well then there is only one place you can go: Brac.
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Sandwich Wars: Gustapanino

Battle No.4
The Challenger: Gustapanino
For rules, regulations, and a fascinating review of sandwich history, see here. For our current rankings, see this blog’s side bar.
 
Sandwich Wars continues!
Quick review: Currently in first place with their huge and mouth-watering Finocchiona panino is the Via dei Neri favorite, All’Antico Vinaio. Coming in at a close second, we have the salty and super flavorful porchetta sandwich at the tucked-away-treasure known as Da’Vinattieri. The competition is steep. Can our newest contestant squeeze into these tight numbers?
 
After last month’s killer competition, I just didn’t see how anyone, without some serious effort, was going to be able to push into the top two or three spots on the board. I always have my fingers crossed, so this month I went back to an old favorite, Gustapanino. I remember this sandwich spot as being one of my go-tos about two years ago. I used to look forward to stopping here every Sunday for a salty treat after perusing a flea market or taking a leisurely Sunday stroll in the gorgeous Piazza Santo Spirito. There is almost always a small line, longer around lunchtime, and it remains consistently a mix of American students living in the area and locals looking for a quick meal. The panino shop makes up one part of a three-part establishment, including Gusta Pizza and Gusta Osteria, all three of which are very popular. So I decided it was time to go back with my now more educated sandwich palate. I think sadly, I may be overly educated.
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Sandwich Wars: All’Antico Vinaio

Battle No.3
The Challenger: All’Antico Vinaio
For rules, regulations and a fascinating review of sandwich history, see here. For our current rankings, see this blog’s side bar.
 
YES! It’s time for Sandwich Wars again!
Quick review: after the first throw down between Fratellini and Da’Vinattieri, we tossed in the first challenger, The Oil Shoppe. Sadly, they fell a bit short leaving Da’Vinattieri as the reigning champ with their killer Porchetta sandwich going into Battle #3 with Contestant #4.
 
I was really rooting for someone to come along and make a solid grab for the title this month. In the hopes of just such an event I was forced to face an old foe: the small but popular sandwich spot known as All’Antico Vinaio on Via dei Neri. This place has had lines and crowds in front of it since I first came to Italy in 2002. Like those people who avoid Harry Potter, I thought I was too cool (read: scaredy cat) for a place that was so clearly awesome. No surprise, as with many things that are popular, this place is popular for a reason. Like me, you’ll just have to learn to suck it up, jump into the fray, and elbow your way to the front like the old Italian ladies. It is more than worth it.
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