Italian Foods: Myths And Must Eats

by Brittany Rock

The most difficult part about dining in Italy is deciding which dish to choose out of the many delicious offerings on the menu. The country and food have become synonymous, but the country has much more to offer than pasta and tomato sauce (you’ll never hear the term spaghetti sauce in Italy). Italy is home to some of the most celebrated cuisines in the world. However, for those experiencing true Italian food for the first time, the menu may be surprising. While looking down the list of dishes, it becomes quickly apparent that there is no fettuccini alfredo, chicken parmesan, spaghetti and meatballs, or greasy slices of thin crust pizza.

Gelato, Rome, Italy

The dishes most people from the United States would refer to as “Italian food” are actually very Americanized versions or simply not found in Italy at all. Instead, Italians eat meat as a separate course from the pasta course, heavy dishes such as Alfredo and the breaded and smothered Parmesan-style are never seen, and pizza pie piled high is reserved for America.

What you can expect is delicious seasonal food that is usually locally grown. In fact, the cuisine varies in each region of Italy. While studying abroad in Italy, in addition to a sample of the region’s wine, be sure to check out the local specialties.

When in Rome

A pasta dish particularly unique to Rome is cacio e pepe. This pasta dish is very simple, but mouthwatering. Its ingredients are pasta, cheese, and grated black pepper. Rome is also known for its Jewish neighborhood that offers amazing fried artichokes.

A chef cooking a pizza

When in Naples (Napoli)

While pizza is delicious everywhere in Italy, nowhere takes it more seriously than its birthplace. The city actually has an organization that provides authenticity certifications to pizzerias if they meet the stringent code. True Napoli pizza has some telling characteristics that should be looked for when choosing a slice.

A true pie is cooked in a wood fire oven and will have a speckled crust created by the darker areas where bubbles have popped. Plus, the center is usually soupy from sauce and juices. Contrary to American varieties, toppings are used sparingly. The crust is treated as the lead character and will never be smothered by layer upon layer of extras. Pick from one of the many amazing pizzerias sprinkled throughout the historic city center and start with the classic Margherita then work your way through the selections.

When in Parma

While prosciutto is available throughout Italy, it is best enjoyed straight from the source. This thinly sliced, dry-cured but uncooked ham is often served wrapped around melon slices and used as an accompaniment. If you are lucky enough to spend the fall in Italy be sure to attend the annual prosciutto festival, Festival del Prosciutto di Parma, and see the local treat in all its forms plus learn about its history and production.

When in Sicily (Sicilia)

Searching for something sweet? Then try a Sicilian Cannoli. This crispy pastry tube is filled with creamy ricotta cheese, in place of the custard typically used in the American version. They often include additional toppings such as nuts or dried fruit. They are especially easy to find during Sicily’s carnival season.

When in Milan

Risotto alla Milanese is a saffron risotto whose creamy goodness will fill you up and delight the taste buds. The rice is cooked slowly in broth until the two nearly combine then cheese and seasonings are added. It is traditionally made with ox marrow but may be made with butter as well.

Risotto

Other “Must Eats”

Some things just must be tried and it doesn’t matter where in Italy you are. There are certain dishes that simply cannot be replicated outside of this tasty country.

Suppli

These fried balls of risotto can be called suppli, arancini, or palline di riso. Often the rice is cooked in tomato sauce and wrapped around mozzarella before being deep-fried. They sometimes contain vegetables, meat, or both. Filling and affordable, expect to find them in most pizzerias as an appetizer.

Espresso

This dark beverage is important to the Italian diet and very delicious. Un caffé (a shot of espresso) is served a variety of ways that could include a side of chocolate or a glass of water. Don’t believe the myth that espresso is more caffeinated than a cup of coffee in the United States. One shot of espresso is equivalent to a cup of American coffee in terms of caffeine content. While there is more caffeine per ounce in espresso, you probably won’t be ordering an eight ounce cup. Drinking espresso is a quick experience. The beverage is served warm, but not too hot to drink. Patrons order their drink at the bar standing and gulp it down in one or two sips before running off to work.

Gelato

Don’t forget this creamy delight. There are actually differences between gelato and ice cream. Gelato contains less fat but is more dense and seems creamier because it is churned at a lower speed. Try eating a different flavor of gelato at a different gelateria once a day every day. You will find the regular flavors like chocolate and vanilla as well as some oddities such as licorice, apricot, and rice. The options are almost limitless and it will be a long time before they are exhausted.