The 'Mediterranean' Diet is classified as one of the healthiest (according to the U.S. News & World Report) yet pasta every day with wine sounds decidedly decadent! So what's the secret?
Italians are notorious foodies who love a morning coffee and sweet treat to start the day and then look forward to lunch (or another coffee). Popping into the same bar at the same time every day means bumping into the same people, who are doing the same as you! Un caffe al banco (a coffee standing at the counter) is not meant to be a lengthy affair - just a quick, tasty pick-me-up, a catchup on local news and a break from the workplace, whatever that may be. Lunch is typically at a certain hour every day and this is usually eaten sitting down at a table and in company. Experts at the Nutrition Society confirm that we function better with meals taken at the same time, helping better cholesterol and insulin levels. In our house (as in many Veneto families') mezzogiorno is the beginning of lunch-time, when midday church bells toll as a sign to workers who used to traditionally clock off for lunch, tummies begin to rumble so someone puts a large pot of water on to boil and starts making a pasta sauce.
Have a read of our blog post 'The Order of Things - A Day in Italy's Culinary Life' for a look into Italian food culture.
Pasta and More
Doesn't pasta every day for lunch sound tediously boring? And how do you eat 'Italian' but still eat healthy?
Italians are known to consume more pasta then any other nation with a record 63% of them eating pasta every day. If it's not pasta, it's rice or gnocchi but usually a starch, known as a primo is what comes first. Because after the primo, comes the secondo! Meats, fish and poultry make up a secondo with cooked vegetables and perhaps a salad on the side. There's always bread on an Italian table - its purpose is to mop up the sauce, known as fare scarpetta with a 'little shoe' motion. The idea is to have a well-rounded meal every lunch and dinner time but you'll find increasingly fewer Italian households cook pasta as an evening meal, opting for a lighter dinner of winter soups or minestra (vegetable or meat broth - an old Italian fave) or cheeses and salads in summer, saving the primi for midday and secondi for evening meals, but this isn't always the case, especially if you're going out or celebrating or enjoying Sunday lunch, in which case 'everything' goes!
The Joy of Food
Food takes up a lot of thought, time and conversation in Italy and is always a good reason to get together and celebrate! Autumn brings foraged mushrooms and chestnuts - perfect for porcini risotto, a roaring fire and a group of friends to help roast the chestnuts. An abundant pumpkin harvest signifies batches of pumpkin gnocchi being rolled out or ravioli cutting, the perfect job for a misty autumnal afternoon. Every season brings a bounty of new flavours and ingredients and because Italians generally 'eat seasonal', every year we celebrate new fruits and vegetables in favourite recipes and every time they come around, we're reminded of how much we love them.
Yes, Italians get excited about November radicchio di Treviso and tangy new wine as well as zucchini flowers in May, ready to stuff with ricotta. Our fruit and vegetable seller, Nadia, says you should make a wish for good luck with every first bite of every new year.
Autumn in Italy - Foodwise is all about the gorgeous ingredients and dishes we look forward to in this season.
Time to Eat
Meal times are known to be loud around a table in Italy where the TV may be showing lunchtime news or the radio is on but this never dulls conversation, it simply makes it louder! These are cherished moments in the day to relax and enjoy good food with time to eat and talk. A coffee after lunch may be sipped a little slower allowing some extra minutes to savour the delicious flavours of La Pausa Pranzo (lunch break) which can be up to 3 hours long.
Allora, why the big rush?
Seasonal and Regional
It may sound strange to focus on these foods as much as we do on this blog but to eat 'Italian' means to eat seasonal and regional.
Why? Because food becomes cherished and appreciated at its prime.
A tomato grown under lamps in winter can never match up to one grown under the Napolitan sunshine in summer, take it up a notch and make it San Marzano. San Marzano tomatoes are one of the most prized in Italy. Chosen for pizza sauce, the world-famous Napolitan pizza must be made exclusively with these. They are grown in a small designated area near the rich, volcanic soil of Mount Vesuvius and are protected geographically with DOP (PDO) status.
Ask a Napolitano - there is no other tomato.
What makes that Italian pizza the best? Those regional tomatoes and that regional Campania Buffalo mozzarella (also PDO protected).
If food culture is 'big' in Italy, the pride of its heritage shines through every dish creating an identity for every village, every province and every region. Tiramisù is international, but who does it 'belong' to? The Trevigiani.
Find burrata on brunch menus as far as New York, but where do its roots lie? The high plains of Puglia.
They say that Italy is a country made up of provinces - it certainly is, foodwise!
'Chi mangia solo, muore solo'
Who eats alone, dies alone - an old Italian proverb which, quite frankly, sounds very dramatic, but it is true here that people love good food with good company. Well, who else can you exclaim to with that first delicious pasticcino?
When Going Solo in Tuscany, eating alone at restaurants was challenging for this very reason, with nobody to say, "Wow!" to, I guess I must have looked impressed because passing waiters would catch my eye with a knowing smile and nod, everyone knows how good Tuscan food is...
Besides shows of appreciation and sharing the love of your dish, having someone to chatter with is always a good idea even if you saw each other for breakfast and will see each other for dinner, even if your dinner partner is a 2 year old toddler, and if you can't share your meal with someone, then 'Mmmmm!' and 'Ahhhh...' to your heart's content to the dog, the cat or the television!
Simple is Best
With so much care taken to produce the best quality of foods, adding a sauce can be thought of as offensive. Your frutti di mare will be served with a slice of lemon but you are not expected to squeeze it. According to many, if the fish is fresh, nothing needs to be added except a drizzle of fine olive oil and seasoning of salt and pepper during the cooking process. Same goes with steak, same goes with potatoes. The most you'll find here is ketchup and mayonnaise in the sauce department but these are reserved for chips, chicken strips and burgers or mixed together and served as a pink sauce (named salsa rosa) beside a toasted sandwich. Prepare for an outrage if they go anywhere near pizza.
Alla fine, it doesn't really matter what you eat, it doesn't even matter when. The most important is 'how'. How to eat 'Italian'? Take your time, savour your food and start thinking about the next meal while sipping a digestivo.
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