Are You Eating Like An Italian Or An American?
Everybody in America knows that Italians eat huge meals that consist of lots of pasta swimming in meaty red sauces, right? There's lots of garlic bread and salads with rich, creamy Italian dressing. And of course there are decadent desserts to top it all off. We've seen it on TV and in the movies and we've all been to Italian restaurants, so it must be true, right? Ehhhh.....not so much.
In the interest of sorting out the way Italians really eat from the way Americans think Italians eat, let's try a little quiz.
We'll start with pasta. Pasta is something Italians eat in great quantities, usually on huge plates with a lot of tomato sauce and meatballs heaped on top. Sometimes instead of tomato sauce, Italians substitute rich, creamy Alfredo sauce and add in chicken or other meats, seafood, or vegetables. Such dishes are usually considered the main course of an Italian meal.
And if you think this is true, you are thinking like an American.
The Italian meal progression is set up much differently than its American counterpart. In America, a meal generally starts out with a salad or a soup and progresses through an entree or “main course” that consists of a meat and one or more side items – usually a starch and a vegetable – and ends with a dessert. Under these circumstances a tossed salad, a large plate of spaghetti and meatballs and a dessert like cannoli or spumoni ice cream qualifies as an “Italian” dinner. But it's a dinner no Italian would actually eat.
In the first place, Italian meals are served in several small courses, usually starting with an antipasto, or an “appetizer” of cured meats or cheeses or perhaps bruschetta. These are small bites, not intended to be a whole meal unto themselves. The next course is the primo course. This is where the pasta comes in, or perhaps risotto or soup. The secondo follows the primo and is the meat or seafood course. Next are the contorni or the vegetables. A contorno is seldom served on the same plate as a secondo. Pasta is never served as a “side dish” to meat or vegetables. And the dolce or dessert course that concludes the average meal is usually something light and sweet, like fresh fruit.
In the second place, spaghetti and meatballs are not served as a single entity. You can have an order of spaghetti and you can have an order of meatballs, but you'll only get them together in places catering to American tourists. And there's no such thing as “Alfredo sauce” in the Italian diet. It's as American as apple pie. So is the custom of cutting up chicken or whatever, throwing it into a plate of pasta, and dousing it with sauce. Chicken Alfredo? Sorry. Not in Italy.
As kind of a side note on the topic, let's talk about bread and salads for a minute. I hate to break it to you, America, but bottled “Italian” dressing is an American creation and garlic bread – the kind soaked and slathered in garlic butter – is straight out of Little Italy, not “big” Italy.
It's true! È vero! Italians don't “do” salads the way Americans do. At an Italian table, the salad is not a precursor to the meal. Instead, salad is served as a palate cleanser after the main course. And rich, creamy “Italian” dressings are non existent in Italy, where salads are generally dressed with extra-virgin olive oil, balsamic or wine vinegar, and salt and pepper.
As far as bread is concerned, Italians love their bread. But they eat it with a meal, often using pieces of bread to “fare la scarpetta” or “make a little shoe” with which to soak up excess sauce on a plate. Bread isn't its own course, served before a meal as an appetizer. Even Italian restaurants that give you bread and “dipping oil” before dinner aren't being completely authentic. The only time you'll see bread as an appetizer is if it's an actual appetizer like bruschetta or crostini. And there's no such thing as “garlic bread.” Italians, especially southern Italians, aren't big on butter to begin with and they don't soak or slather their bread in it. Instead, Italians will toast up some slices of bread, rub them lightly with a clove of garlic and brush them with olive oil. That's real Italian “garlic bread.”
Now let's talk about portions. Italy is noted for its abbondanza lifestyle and Italian meals are huge affairs with tables groaning under the weight of enormous platters of food. And there's that American thinking again.
Don't believe everything you see on TV. Except on rare special occasions, Italians just don't eat that way. Sure, your local spaghetti house or red sauce joint will load you down with enough pasta to herniate a horse, but that's because it's a question of image. Americans have so come to expect gigantic portions that if an Italian eatery in America were to serve authentic quantities of food to its clientele, the customers would be terribly disappointed and would likely eat elsewhere as a result. When I eat at an average “Italian” restaurant, I order from the children's menu. That way I'm only getting twice as much food as I need as an individual rather than enough to feed a small Italian family. An authentic portion of pasta, for example, is never more than a cup or so. Steaming plates piled high are unheard of for just one person. And the concept of “never ending” anything never occurs to Italians.
And while we're discussing pasta portions, be clear about this: if you think a big pile of plain pasta on a plate swimming in a quart of tomato sauce that has been poured over the top is the way Italians serve pasta, you're thinking and eating like an American again.
Italians view sauce almost as a condiment: the pasta is the “star” of the dish. Italians never pour huge quantities of sauce over the top of plain, cooked spaghetti, for instance. Instead, the spaghetti is cooked in salted water until it's almost done, then it is removed from the water and actually cooked in the sauce for a final minute or two in order to allow the flavor of the sauce to permeate the pasta. Then it is plated with just enough extra sauce to dress the pasta. If you have a puddle of sauce left on the plate after the pasta is gone, you've oversauced the dish.
Now that we've talked about pasta, let's focus on that other Italian staple, pizza. Pizza is everywhere in Italy, from fancy pizzerie (that is the proper plural of “pizzeria:” you don't just tack an “s” onto a word to make it plural in Italian), to street vendors to home tables, everybody loves pizza. Yes and no. While it's true that pizza has spread from its southern roots to encompass most of the Italian peninsula, the pizza experience in Italy is quite different from what Americans have come to expect. In fact, most American travelers are rather stunned by real Italian pizza. In the first place, there's no such thing as pepperoni pizza. The sausage-like pepperoni Americans load onto their pizza is an American creation. If you order “pepperoni” in Italy, expect to find red or green peppers on your pizza because that's what “peperoni” means in Italian. If you want spicy sausage, you might try ordering salsiccia piccante, but don't be surprised by funny looks because Italians just don't load a lot of junk on their pizza like Americans do. Meat lovers? Forget it. Italians don't mix meats on pizza (or much of anywhere else.) Pizza purists in Naples – where modern pizza was born and raised – only recognize two varieties, marinara and Margherita. The marinara is made with a traditionally thin crust topped with tomato, oregano, garlic, extra virgin olive oil and basil. The Margherita consists of thin crust, tomato sauce, mozzarella di bufala, fresh basil, and extra virgin olive oil. Unlike the long-cooking “spaghetti sauce” type of tomato sauce commonly ladled on in America, vera pizza Napoletana is lightly sauced with a fresh, light, raw sauce made from San Marzano tomatoes.
Chicago-style? Not in Italy! I doubt an Italian pizzaiolo would even recognize such a concoction as pizza. Same goes for so-called “California-style.” Chicken and kale and vegetables and such all have their place, but it's not on pizza. And Hawaiian pizza? Please! (shudder)
A few other things that set the Italian pizza experience apart from its American cousin include the way pizza is served. Gigantic, enormous pies meant to feed either a large crowd or one or two hungry college students are unheard of in Italy. The rule there is one pizza per person, a pizza being about the size of a small dinner plate. Pizza does not come sliced up into individual wedges like it does in America. Italian pizza is served whole and comes with a knife and fork. You cut it yourself and use the utensils for the first few bites until you get the slice to a manageable size you can pick up, fold slightly and finish off.
The only real pizza in Italy comes from wood-burning brick ovens. The gas or electric powered conveyor-belt ovens common in American pizza joints would be viewed as dispositivi dall'inferno (devices from hell). This dedication to wood and brick is also why there are very few “home baked” pizza options in Italy. No home oven can approach the correct temperature, about 900 degrees. And Italians would sooner eat the packaging from a frozen pizza than the actual product – and would likely find very little difference between the two.
While pizza is an anytime food in America – even consumed cold for breakfast – it is generally a dinner food in Italy. It is seldom eaten for lunch, unless you grab a slice and eat it standing up at a bar. And the beverage of choice to accompany pizza is either beer or acqua frizzante (sparkling water), although due to American influences, soft drinks – most notably Coca Cola – are making inroads among younger people. And there are no leftovers, no “take-out” boxes. Anything not eaten is simply left behind.
Which brings up another big difference between eating like an Italian and eating like an American: “to go,” “take away,” “take out,” “drive thru,” and the like are foreign concepts in Italy. Most Americans view food as fuel; something they need to have in order to keep functioning at their daily breakneck pace. They're perfectly fine with getting “something to go” and stuffing it down their necks as they sit at their desks or travel from point A to point B. Not so in Italy where food is taken much more seriously. About the only thing you'll ever see an Italian consume “on the go” is gelato, which they'll eat as they take a walk, or fare un passeggiata. Not even coffee is served in a “to go” cup; you drink it while standing at a bar. (You're actually charged extra to be seated while drinking your espresso.)
Meals, even common daily lunches and dinners, are events; times to be savored and appreciated, to talk and to socialize. (That means put down the phone and converse with the person sitting across from you, in case you need a definition.) And quality, not quantity, is the important thing. It's not hyperbolic or braggadocious to say that Italian food and Italian ingredients are the finest in the world. Italians know it and they like it that way. At home, Italians keep a few staple items in the pantry and shop almost daily at small local markets for their meat and seasonal produce. American-style “supermarkets” are just not an Italian thing, nor is weekly shopping to “stock up.” It's all a much slower-paced and generally more healthful way of eating than the frenetic grab-it-and-go lifestyle lived by most Americans.
Speaking of meals, mealtimes are different in Italy than they are in the United States. For one thing they're later, something common to most of Europe. Pranzo, or lunch is never eaten at noon as it is in America. An early lunch might be one o' clock. Two is a fairly average lunch time. And dinner, or cena, is usually served around eight or nine p.m. Which, by the way, is commonly expressed as venti or ventuno (20 or 21): also like most of Europe, Italy tells time based on a twenty-four hour clock, so there's no “a.m.” or “p.m.” As appropriate for the time of day, lunch is usually the bigger meal and dinner is smaller and lighter fare, generally opposite of the American way. Italians aren't big breakfast eaters. The common bacon and eggs and hashbrowns and toast and pancakes and juice and coffee that many Americans enjoy would be mind numbing to an Italian, who is most like to have a pastry – called a cornetto – and coffee for colazione (breakfast). Italians eat a lot of eggs, to be sure, but they do so at lunch or dinner. Eggs are just not an Italian breakfast “thing.”
None of this is meant to imply there's anything “wrong” with the American version of eating like an Italian. And I'm not some snooty purist who looks down his nose at Italian-American fare. I like a red sauce joint with fake grapevines and chintzy checkered tablecloths as much as the next guy. But you need to know the difference, especially if you ever plan to travel to Italy. It'll kind of help lessen the culture shock when you discover that fettuccine Alfredo, chicken Parmigiana, and stromboli aren't on the menu. Besides, although all that rich, meaty, creamy, saucy over-portioned Italian-American food is undoubtedly delicious, the real thing, made from high quality, fresh, seasonal ingredients, is so much more so – and it's healthier to boot.
La vita è troppo breve per mangiare e bere male, quindi mangiare come un italiano vero! (Life is too short to eat and drink badly, so eat like a real Italian!)