A Culinary Affair: Foodie Experiences in the Heart of Italy

I spent time in Italy this June. I’ve never done anything like this. I left my office at home, completely and took off to Italy to fill my heart, mind and soul with friends, laughter, crazy driving on cobblestones and food, lots of food.

I discovered some interesting things as a foodie traveling in a country known for its food.

Italian Food is Simple

Everywhere we went the food was very straightforward. Absolutely deliciously simple, honest and exactly what you’d expect from Italy.

You could really taste the tomato in the pasta sauce. The cookies weren’t sweet as much as they were flavored by the ingredients, like anise or lemon. The gelato was terrific everywhere we went, and we tried a lot of gelato. All of it lasted like cream and the fruit or caramel or coffee they were using to create the flavor. That’s it.

There were a couple of food experiences that really brought simply and delicious home for me. In Umbria we took a cooking class. We had simple Picci with tomatoes. We had delicious fried sage in the lightest batter. We made a tart with a simple dough (by hand) and local preserves as the fruit filling. The simplicity of ingredients and the way they were featured in the dishes was really something.

Italian Food is Regional

I don’t think we as Americans truly understand how regional the food is until we go somewhere like Italy. Take lemons for example. The “Amalfi Coast” vs. the “Sorrento”, both are on the Sorentine Pennisula. These two towns are rivals for the best lemons. Amlafi or Sorrento?  They share the same land just opposite sides of the hill. Beauty and sunshine is everywhere. Who cares who has the best? They do. They are very proud of their lemons.

Then there are the DOP-protected foods. DOP stands for Denominazione di Origine Protetta (literally “Protected Designation of Origin”). This certification ensures that products are locally grown and packaged. It carries down to the grass the Parma cows eat has to be from Parma for the cheese to be called Parmigiano Reggiano. Ditto for the Parma Ham (pigs raised and fed in Parma from food grown in Parma) and the Balsamic Vinegar from Modena (specific grapes grown only in Modena).

They take local food to the extreme in the dished they serve as well. Cocio de Pepe is from Rome, so is carbonaro. All Italians know that is where it is best. Restaurants may serve it elsewhere but only the tourist places. The restaurants in Bologna make bolognese, everywhere else it’s called a Ragu. It’s used only on big wide noodles and in lasagna. Not on spaghetti.

It is this way all over Italy. Florence has the Florentine steak and they serve it rarer than I have ever had a steak. Simple seasoning and it tasted like steak, not like a marinade or a rub even, just beef. Umbria has Picci pasta and a dried bean that only grows in Lake Tresimeno and they have wild boar. Everywhere there are wild boar in the countryside roaming the hills. It ends up on the menus for that very reason. Wild boar stew, which as I found out is literally meat and broth. That’s simplicity. It was strangely simple and delicious.

Italians can Eat

Yes, Italians can eat a lot. It’s not heavy food though. Let me tell you what I mean.

In Bergamo, we went to a pizza place. Every person had their own 15″ pizza. I’m not kidding. Each person ate an entire pizza. And the pizza had 3 or 4 fresh ingredients and a super thin crust. Every bite was delicious.

In Florence we saw a well-dressed mature woman in heels get off her scooter, buy a foccacia (again fairly big cheese-oozing baked dough) and proceed to walk down the street just feeding herself while she strolled. I love their zest for food and life all wrapped up together.

Then there is the gelato (I know again with the gelato), but seriously everyone had one in the afternoon. Small cups, big triple scoop cones. Just gelato everywhere. They had no thoughts like I had one of these yesterday, I should cut back, save gelato for a special time. Not at all. More like they were thinking today is a good day for gelato, again!

Italians love Apertivi

I love apertivi too. An apertivo is a drink, usually alcohol (ie Aperol  Spritz), and a snack served mid-afternoon to dinner time (10 pm). Yes they can go out to start dinner at 10 pm. Apertivi is many people enjoying.

Here was our first experience with it.

Day 1 in Italy-We sit down and order 2 glasses of white wine, the vino de la casa (house white). The waiter appears with 2 glasses of wine and a tray of chips, crackers and nuts and what we later found out was our bill (a piece of paper with the number 12). We’re thinking he’s made a mistake, we didn’t order snacks etc.  Then 10 minutes later, he places more snacks on our table, little focaccia bites and olives. We’re not sure what is going on. We finish our wine and find out the paper was our bill, so both glasses and snacks. 12 euro for everything. That’s around $13 US folks. It was a fabulous way to start out our trip.

Photos to prove I had fun in Italy

Laugh as you like. We had a great time. I didn’t miss my computer at all. I felt like I was with my people, walking, eating drinking and walking a lot more and really enjoying myself to the fullest.

Jen and the Cheese maker in Parma
Jen The Sauce Goddess and The Cheesemaker in Parma
The beginning of Parmigiano Reggiano in the whey
The beginning of Parmigiano Reggiano
casks of modena balsamic
Casks of balsamic vinegar in Modena
Prosciutto de Parma hanging in the aging cooler
Prosciutto de Parma hanging in the aging cooler
Pasta with quid inks, clams and tomatoes
Pasta with quid inks, clams and tomatoes.
The Sauce Goddess at BBQ restaurant in Florence
The Sauce Goddess at a BBQ restaurant in Florence.
Fried Sage on a plate
Fried Sage on a plate.
Bowl of Picci in Umbria.
Bowl of Picci in Umbria.
Apertivi in Bologna, the home of Mortadella.
Apertivi in Bologna, the home of Mortadella.

What I brought back from Italy

I slowed down a bit. I realized food can be more simple than I have been making. I also realized our spices and sauces are basic staples that can make a great meal on their own. I love that. I like that our America flavors are ok because they are pretty unprocessed for processed sauces and spices.

Oh, the other stuff I brought back, 3 wedges of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, Lake Trasimeno beans, Lake Trasimeno olive oil, Modena Balsamic vinegar, and a mind full of new recipe ideas. You’ll have to wait and see what we create next.

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