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.

Spaghetti & Meatballs
Sad but true. While I love this dish at home I would never order it in Italy. North of Naples you can’t. And even the Naples version is simply a thicker meat sauce where the meat forms small chunks (or perhaps, yes, occasionally balls). In the north, what you’re dealing with are really two things: a pasta dish in tomato sauce (of which there are a ton of different kinds depending on where you happen to be dining) and a meatball (polpetta), which is usually rather large and served along with a sauce but never pasta. Also important to note, a pasta dish is typically served as a primo, or as your first dish, whereas polpette would be served as a secondo or main course. So technically, if you ordered a pasta dish and then ate polpette immediately afterwards, I suppose you could manage to beat the system. If you decide to do that, try one of these delicious types of “spaghetti*” in tomato sauce:
Arrabbiatta – spicy tomato sauce. The name literally means “angry” sauce and I am “angry” when I don’t get to eat it.
Amatriciana – typical of Rome, tomato sauce with cheese and pork (namely guanciale, see below)
Amatriciana from one of our favorite spots in Rome! Amatriciana from one of our favorite spots in Rome!
*Tip: Keep in mind that “spaghetti” is a very general term in the states but a very specific thing in Italy and is not favored over any of the other varieties of pasta. There are so many kinds of pasta I can’t keep them straight, but most sauces have certain pasta that they go better with. For example, sorrentino (tomato sauce with mozzarella melted on top) is often served with rigatoni or else on potato gnocchi. My favorite are pici, super thick spaghetti served mostly in Tuscany (oh yes, pasta is regional too!).
Fettuccine Alfredo
Nope. Not outside Rome at least (and barely there). While it does have a great story of how it got over the ocean, the basic concept here is pasta and tons of melted creamy cheese. There are some other great pasta dishes that are easier to find and are just a cheese sauce, if that’s your thing. By far my favorite is also a Roman specialty, namely, cacio e pepe.
Cacio e pepe – Tons of creamy melted pecorino Romano and black pepper. Simple and delicious.
Garlic Bread
This is also a bit of an American invention, at least the way we make it (thick toast, somehow infused with garlic flavor, and covered in cheese). The real Italian garlic bread is called either bruschetta biancha or fettunta and involves grilling bread, often on an actual grill, rubbing it with fresh garlic (that literally melts like butter into the hot bread) and then drizzling it in super fresh olive oil. While it doesn’t look as “exciting” as the ones covered in cheese, it is really delicious, I assure you. This is also one of the best ways to enjoy real olive oil, which in Italy is NOTHING like anything you have ever tasted at home. If you try anything in Italy, try really nice olive oil.
Peperoni (peperone, singular)
This is not the pepperoni you find on American pizza. This is a pepper, as in the veggie. The peperoni we put on pizza is really a kind of salami, of which many different varieties exist, some of which you can find as pizza toppings.
Futti di mare
This phrase literally translates to “fruits of the sea” and you will often see this expression on your English translated menu. It’s important to read between the lines of these overly literal translations (for example, ricotta is sometimes translated as “cottage cheese,” which could not be further from the truth). It really should be translated as “mixed seafood” and is always, always (with the exception of people who suffer from shell fish allergies) a good thing. They put it in pasta, in risotto, and even on pizza.
Pizza covered in seafood! Thank you Cinque Terre. Pizza covered in seafood! Thank you Cinque Terre.
Frutti di bosco
Same issue here. This is a sweet jam mix that is referred to as “fruits of the forest.” It really should just be “mixed berry” and is also always a good thing. You’ll find it in desserts, croissants, and other morning pastries.
3. UNSUNG HEROES: Food not very well known outside Italy and worth the trip alone
Bistecca al sangue.
Bistecca just means steak, which in Florence is served in enormous thick slices. The part I want to highlight, however, is the “al sangue” bit. This means “bloody” and refers to the way this steak is usually cooked. The large piece of meat is flash cooked on a grill to get a great crispy outside while the inside is left raw (aka “bloody”). It. Is. Scrumptious. When you order one it is a give-in that it will be served that way (they will ask you since it tends to freak Americans out). Don’t be nervous. TRY IT!
This is basically Italian bacon (pork belly), so yes, it is amazing. But don’t think crispy strips that go on a BLT. This is usually served cubed and added to pasta dishes. The most famous dish you find this in is pasta alla carobanara (raw egg, which cook over the hot pasta, cheese (Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano, see below for the distinction), pancetta, and black pepper). I am hungry just thinking about this.
Another delicious pork product, this can often be substituted for pancetta and they look pretty similar when served in pasta dishes like the above described carbonara (and the below photographed alla Grecia). However, instead of pork belly, it is pork cheek. Some amazing dishes to try this in:
Amatriciana (mentioned above) – a tomato sauce with guanciale and pecorino Romano cheese
Grecia – This is like cacio e pepe (mentioned above) with guanciale added in. Why not, right?!
Pasta alla Grecia sporting some serious guanciale! Pasta alla Grecia sporting some serious guanciale!
Chicken Liver.
You heard me right. Sound gross? I thought so too. But my world has been turned upside down by a classic Tuscan treat known as a Crostino Toscano: chicken liver pate spread on toasted bread. It is just scrumptious. Now, I didn’t think so right away so I won’t judge if this is not your thing. But not all chicken liver pate is created equal so keep trying it. There is—I SWEAR—a reason that almost all Florentines eat this stuff regularly.
Lardo (as in lard).
Now this one may be a harder mental hurdle for some of you. Sometimes it is eaten in slice form on its own (usually for the high quality variety), but you can find it often on a piece of toasted bread (right next to the Crostini Toscani, mentioned above). It is basically like a kind of melted cheese on toast. Ok. Ok. I know it isn’t really cheese, but if you PRETEND it is and try it, I think you might be pleasantly surprised. If not, at least you can brag to your friends that you tried lardo! It’s practically a rite of passage. Like haggis in Scotland. This took me a while too, but now I am a total convert. Though, for both the above two crostini my one rule is I only order them at above average restaurants.
Stop. Everything.
Of all the delicious things mentioned, this item changed my life by far the most. Let me explain. This is like mozzarella, except better. The word literally means “buttered” and refers to the deliciousness inside. Technically, it was invented as a way to use the discarded scraps of mozzarella, which are mixed with cream and put inside a case of mozzarella. It is a very soft cheese that usually is served as a ball and then cut open and eaten immediately. Sometimes it’s also used on pizza, but usually goes on after the pizza is baked so it remains either cold or lukewarm. It is one of my favorite treats and I have never found anything that comes even close in America.
The three shred-able cheeses:
Parmigiano Reggiano.
This is what we call parmesan in the States. It is a hard cow’s milk cheese, ideal for shredding and is often served pre-shredded but is best bought in a large wedge and grated fresh. Cheeses called parmigiano MUST be from the region Emilia-Romagna and are typically made in the towns of Parma, Modena, Bologna, and sometimes Mantua. The name comes from a combination of Parma and the region’s name. It is aged an average of two years.
Pecorino Romano
This is a hard sheep’s milk cheese, also ideal for grating. The name comes from the Italian word for sheep, “pecora” and was originally made, as the name suggests, in Rome and around Rome, the region Lazio. It is now also made on the Island of Sardegna. This cheese ages between 5 and 8 months and can range in its hardness depending on its age. Tip: there is also Pecorino Toscano, which, you guessed it, is totally different!
Grana Padano
This is very similar to parmigiano, but with different production regulations including a wider region of production. It is also ages for slightly less as long. It is not quite as salty as parmigiano but is one of the most widely sold cheeses in Italy (and the States!).
Finocchio, also known as Florence Fennel.
In America you would rarely see a fennel salad on your menu or have roasted fennel along with your other roasted veggies, but here in Italy the bulb of this herb is treated as any other vegetable. They serve it raw and cooked and it is just lovely. Also, the seeds are a wonderful spice and, while I realize this is the vegetable section, one of the best applications of said spice is in a type of salami known as finocchiona. It’s all you need for the world’s most perfect panino.
A finocchiona panino. It needs nothing else. A finocchiona panino. It needs nothing else.
Italians know their artichokes. I never ate them when I lived in the states and now I wait eagerly for the season to come around again. In Rome they are especially good. They have the sott’olio (under oil) variety that we also get in the States (though they are WAY better!), but then they also have fried artichokes, known as carciofi alla giudia (technically “Jewish artichokes,” so head to the Jewish quarter for the best version).
Rocket (aka Arugula).
We don’t tend to use arugula as the entire basis of a salad, but here in Italy it is very common. The rocket, as it is often called in Italy, has a strong tangy flavor that, with the right combination of tastes, just sings. One of my favorite salads is a bed of arugula, freshly squeezed lemon, fresh olive oil, and shaved parmigiano. It is simple and fantastic. It is also wonderful on pizza!
Fresh rocket tossed on hot pizza, so delicious. Fresh rocket tossed on hot pizza, so delicious.
Seppia, aka Squid ink.
One of my favorite firsts when I moved to Italy was eating seppia pasta, a.k.a., squid ink pasta. Usually called Nero di Seppia, and used with either pasta or risotto, this amazing dish is literally black! It is cooked with ink produced by squids. The fresh stuff is hard to find outside Italy and comes in a liquid form, but there is also dry pasta and risotto pre-infused if you have trouble finding it. The taste is actually not fishy at all on its own, but wonderfully salty. Also, eating food that is such an intense color is strangely satisfying.
Ok, technically this is fungus. Sounds like a boring mushroom, right? Not so! It’s as if mushrooms drank a magic potion that made them super mushrooms with a totally new texture and an indescribable taste. Oh and a mind-blowing price tag. They come in white and black varieties and are found with the help of special dogs or pigs (I mean, come on. That is just cool). In Italy they are usually shaved in paper thin slices and served on pasta, meat, and even, if you’re adventurous, on ice cream! The taste is truly unique and really must be tried to be fully understood. However, you can also buy oil that is “infused” with the aroma for a more affordable introduction (note: these almost never have any real truffle in them). Careful, once you’re hooked, you’re hooked for life. (Ready for your mind to be blown? You can get burrata WITH truffle in it. BAM!)
A few gorgeous slices of truffle is all you need if it's the real deal. A few gorgeous slices of truffle is all you need if it’s the real deal.
So get on that plane and get ready to be adventurous! Try some things you’ve never heard of and be open minded! These guys know what they are doing, trust them!
Buon appetito!

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