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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What is in Season: Black Cabbage (Cavolo Nero)

Cavolo_Nero_RecipeThe cold weather is here in Italy and all those hearty winter veggies are starting to show up at my local market. One of my favorites—for its flavor, health benefits*, and versatility in the kitchen—is the great cavolo nero, also known as black cabbage.
 
Before coming to Italy I had never even heard of this leafy green vegetable, though I may have unconsciously seen it wedged in with the other dark winter greens. I probably thought it was some unknown kind of cabbage or even kale. In fact, the great black cabbage goes by a slew of other names that echo this easy-to-make mistake, including Tuscan Kale, Tuscan cabbage, Italian kale, and, my favorite, dinosaur kale. The “dinosaur-ness” of the dino kale is not in reference to the plant’s size, which, by the way (overlooking my rather modest sized bunches), can be up to 2 feet long! The dinosaur refers to the leaves’ very particular texture, which is distinctly bubbly and rippled and in fact, rather t.rex-like. Once I learned this, I had a hard time seeing anything other than the skin of a triceratops sitting in my fridge, but I am working on moving past that and the below recipe has really helped.
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What is in Season: Zucchini Flowers (Fiori di Zucca)

This month I tackle: Zucchini Flowers.
Before moving to Italy I had never even heard of zucchini flowers (aka fiori di zucca), let alone seen one. Perhaps I missed them at the grocery store. Perhaps they were in a special aisle. Perhaps they were too implausible for me to comprehend. Or, more likely, I thought they were simply decorative and not edible and conveniently designed for stuffing with cheese. Had I known this, I assure you, I would have made every effort to find them. Luckily, once I moved to Italy, these decorative AND delicious treats became a reality and one that I looked forward to every late spring and summer.
These yellow and green flowers grow out of the side of the zucchini like enormous claws. When they’re in season, you can either buy the zucchinis with their flowers still intact or, at certain stores and markets, just the flowers. Since I cannot imagine getting through the quantity of zucchini required to yield the quantity of flowers I desire on a daily basis, I usually go for the pre-separated flowers. Quality-wise they are roughly the same and cost less without all the extra zucchini attached. Once you’ve found them, purchased them, and brought them home, the question is, of course, how to make these beautiful blossoms into a delicious dinner.
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What is in Season: Fava Beans

A few weeks ago I posted a photo of the week of some seasonal roman cauliflower and later some super fresh artichokes from the local market that – somewhat unintentionally – transformed into mini cooking adventures. It turns out that while I am by no means a “chef,” I can read a recipe and improvise reasonably well in the kitchen (who knew?). It also turns out that doing so is quite rewarding. More than that…it’s empowering! I used to avoid the fresh artichokes in my grocery store. I looked at them as foreign, unknown, and as a potential threat to my cooking confidence. I fear them no longer. As soon as I noticed this amazing transformation, I started to look around my grocery store and see veggies I had never tried before just waiting to be cooked, eaten, and conquered. So I made a deal with myself. I decided that I would try to always buy what is in season, find out the best way to eat it, and well…eat it. If I am feeling frisky I may even try a recipe of my own, but let’s not get too crazy. For a full list of what vegetables are in season when see this site. For my own simplified list of what is in season in Italy, scroll to the bottom of this blog. OK. Onto the first veggie victim.
This month I tackle: The Fava Bean.
 
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