When the vast majority of people think of Italian food, they think of two obvious things. I won’t patronise and say what they are, but they do both start with the letter ‘P’ and end in the letter ‘A’! Whilst these two carb based delights are indeed Italian and can be absolutely delicious, they’re just the tip of the Italian culinary iceberg.
The thing about eating in Italy is that in all the big, touristy cities, you can eat very well, but also very badly. It tends actually to be rather easier to eat badly for one simple reason: Tourists. A wise man (probably my AHA tutor Steve Nelson, as he is the source of most of my accumulated wisdom) once told me that one should never eat within 200 yards of a major tourist attraction or piazza in Italy.
The reason being that in these kind of areas, the restaurants, osterias and trattorias are so flooded with tourists that they do not need to make any real effort to turn a substantial profit, and even if they were committed to serving great food, the sheer number of people pouring through the doors would make it impractical to do so. As a result, sit down for lunch outside The Colosseum, or anywhere near Brunelleschi’s Duomo, and you’ll be hard pushed to get anything other than Spaghetti Pomodoro, or a Margherita pizza smothered in so much oregano that it’s like eating a very fragrant slice of cardboard.
Look a bit further however and you’ll find the best, and most diverse food you’ll ever eat! One of the wonderful things about Italian food for me is the diversity of styles and ingredients available. The reason for this diversity is pretty simple; Italy has only existed as a single entity since 1861, when Victor Emmanuel unified it. Prior to this point all the major cities were states in themselves, only loosely bound together. Travelling from Rome to Naples, as Baroque painter Caravaggio famously did to escape arrest, was like going to an entirely different country – although in fairness, it still is today! Consequently, so many different styles of cooking arose that it is hard to define exactly what Italian cuisine is. As I previously mentioned, everybody seems to think that all Italian people are constantly digging into a bowl of pasta, but this really isn’t the case. In fact, in the north-western regions of Lombardy and Piedmont, pasta is eaten very rarely, with the favoured source of carbohydrate tending to be either polenta, or rice in the form of risotto. Likewise, whilst you can get pizza everywhere in Italy, go to an authentic trattoria in Florence and ask for one, and you’ll probably get kicked out, or slapped!
Italian people are incredibly proud and protective of their regional cuisine. For example, I was having dinner in Siena once (as you do!) and someone I was with asked for a certain pasta dish, but with a different type of pasta. In most restaurants in the world, they’d probably say yes, whilst privately cursing you in the kitchen, but in this particular place, the waiter and owner took particular umbrage to this request, and launched into a near five minute long rant about how such and such pasta should be served with the sauce, and that to put any other pasta with it would be an abomination. We all found the sight of an angry Italian ranting and raving about pasta quite amusing, but to be fair, you had to admire his passion. I can’t imagine a restaurateur in Britain reproaching someone for asking for chips with their bangers rather than mash. The passion and drive for quality held by Italian food producers is really inspiring, and that is why I love it. Put it this way, if I was forced to eat only one type of food for the rest of my life, it would be Italian, and I think that says a lot!
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