Posted on 08/21/2012 at 07:10:54 AM by Student BloggerBy Jessica Currier
As I ventured to Italy to begin my one-month stay, I couldn't help but wonder what cultural differences in cuisine and nutrition I would encounter. Upon my arrival, I immersed myself in the Italian culture, aiming to taste every type of dish I could. Before long I began to wonder how was I going to be able to control myself with such enticing dishes at every meal? Candied pastries for breakfast, a panini for lunch, pasta or pizza for dinner, and then a cannoli or gelato for dessert. I responded to my own inquiry with “My, oh, my, will I have to hit the gym when I get home!”
Italian cuisine is much more than mouthwatering pasta and their infamous pizza. Mealtime is cherished within the Italian culture. It is a time to talk with the family, catch up with friends, and relax with a glass of red wine straight from the hills of Tuscany. Italians typically buy their food fresh each day. I caught onto this custom the first time I went grocery shopping in Florence. The grocery stores are smaller, compared to the United States, and usually have only one register to service its customers. As an American, I figured I would try to stock up on food so I wouldn't have to return to the grocery store each day. As I was checking out at the register, I glanced behind and realized there was a huge line backed up, filled with unhappy expressions! The grocery stores have limited snack foods, a very small frozen food aisle (mainly containing frozen vegetables and gelato), and definitely no candy aisle like we're used to. For beverages, soda was noticeably more expensive and there were only a couple of brands to choose from, like Coke and Fanta. Juice was sold freshly squeezed at Italian cafÉs and restaurants.
The best places to buy food in Italy were the markets. In Florence, there was an ample market Monday through Friday, where you could purchase almost anything needed for a meal. There was a large selection of meats: prosciutto, salami, and sausages were prominent; along with a large assortment of seafood including octopus, squid, mussels, and sea bass. Spices, homemade pasta, handmade sandwiches and salads, fruits and vegetables, olives, sundried tomatoes, nuts, and dried fruit were all available at the markets too.
The market in Florence, Italy
Italy's cuisine is diverse depending on the region you are in. I mainly traveled in the northern and central parts of Italy. For example, the North is known for their risotto, polenta, and game meats, and Central Italy is famous for their wild boar, cured meats, and rich tomato sauces. Southern Italy is notorious for their olive oil, seafood, and pizza. As I visited the streets of Rome, Verona, Pisa, Venice, and Florence, one common theme prevailed, the freshness of the food. Even “to-go” restaurants did not hand you something that was moments ago frozen. The majority of the food in Italy was hand prepared and did not contain preservatives. Take-out and French fries were far out of one's reach in this country. Coffee was to be enjoyed sitting or standing at the espresso bar, chatting with friends, and not in a “to go cup.”
Breakfast in Italy usually consists of a small croissant or pastry and of course that robust Italian espresso, making you ready to tackle the day ahead. A typical Italian dinner is held later in the evening and lasts for hours. A meal begins with antipasti, which is a selection of thinly sliced meats, vegetables, and seafood. Next is the primo pasta, which is a small portion of pasta. This may be tortellini, ravioli, gnocchi, risotto, spaghetti Bolognese, or tagliatelle. Following the primo pasta is the secondo entree, consisting of meat or seafood with vegetable or potato. Most of the meat is cooked in olive oil, laden with spices like rosemary and basil, served on the bone, and washed down with a glass of Italian wine. Lastly, it is time for the dolce (dessert). Irresistible tiramisu, panna cotta, cannolis, and fruit tarts were frequent on the menus where I traveled. You probably are thinking that this sounds like a lot of food, but Italian proportions are much smaller than what we have in the U.S. I recall at the beginning of my stay in Italy, thinking to myself, “How am I going to be full at the end of this meal?” Come to find out, I always was. I ate leisurely and embraced the slower pace of life that Italy offered.
After dinner it is time for the evening walk. Couples, families, and friends stroll through the streets of Italy. Many apartments do not have living rooms, and are typically not designed for entertaining. Italians use walking as a time for social engagement.
Italian agriculture is mainly small, family-run farms; they take pride in their locally-grown produce. Italy is a founding member of the Slow Food Movement, an international grassroots membership organization that counters the rise of fast food, fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people's dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world (1).
One of my favorite Italian traditions is they live off local foods and animals that come from their land and sea. I learned this while I was in Cinque Terre, five remote villages on the Ligurian Sea. The scent of basil and lemons drifted in the air, from the gardens and lemon trees terracing the hills of Cinque Terre. A local woman told me that they have to produce their own food because of their remote location. Due to this, seafood, fruits and vegetables, and herbs were prominent. Pesto was a signature in Cinque Terre, made from fresh ground basil leaves, pine nuts, olive oil, and pecorino cheese. While I was there, I sat down at one of the family-run restaurants and ordered pesto gnocchi. I indulged in the luxurious tastes that Cinque Terre offered, adapting quite well to the epicurean lifestyle that Italy has mastered so well.