8 Rules about Italian food

17 May

We tend to think of Italians as carefree, sunny and full of a chaotic joie de vivre.  But there is at least one area where Italians are deadly serious – food.  Actually, others areas might be clothing, football and driving; but we’ll save those for another blog post!

For many who have traveled to Italy, the topic of food brings back many vivid recollections – of a 3-hour long lunch lingering in a sunny piazza, of a rustic wine served at the table of a local vineyard, of passionate grandma-chefs urging you to have just one more serving (which you happily oblige!).

I’ll never forget, when traveling solo in Rome 5 years ago, wandering into an empty little enoteca in the Jewish ghetto. I managed to order, with the only 3 words in my Italian vocabulary, a glass of red wine (and such a lush glass of wine it was!).  The proprietor, with his 3 words of English, inquired whether I’d like something to eat.  I declined, and yet he brought me a dish with massive chunks of aged Parmesan, drizzled with reduced balsamic vinegar.  I had a momentary dread that this was one of those situations where you are charged for food that you never order, but is nonetheless brought to the table.  But I opted to trust my instincts, and go with the flow and what I sensed to be the genuine generosity of my host.

While the afternoon wore on, and I wrote increasingly incomprehensible entries in my journal, the proprietor noticed that I was in the sorry predicament of still having cheese, but no wine; and without a word he poured another glass.  And when some wine remained, but I had sadly finished my snacks, he brought another plate.  Finally after the 3rd glass of wine had disappeared I declined all further offers.  In the end, he brought the bill to me – for one glass of wine. Certainly, this generosity of spirit exemplifies the vision that we have of Italians and food.  Joyful, abundant and generous.  On a slight tangent, it saddens me to see so-called Italian restaurants in my native Toronto stand at the polar opposite.  While I am not an advocate of sheer quantity of quality, I despair of the trend of Italian tapas-style Toronto eateries.  Recently I visited the new Terroni’s on Yonge Street in Summerhill/Rosedale, and was unimpressed by its portions that would serve as amuse-bouches in other restaurants.  Their miserliness is an anathema to the spirit of Italian cooking.

But I digress.

Italians possess a unique relationship to food that seems to be unmatched by anyone in the world, with the exception of the Chinese. They are passionate – and serious.  Which can be seen in this news article out of Tuscany – where a scuffle involving 4 people and ending in the hospital ensues at a local market regarding the thickness of ham slices.

As someone who fully bought into the “Italians are carefree” myth, the many rules and seriousness that Italians assign to the preparation and consumption of food were news to me.  Were you aware of any of these Italian edicts?

  1. Cappuccino is strictly a pre-noon drink, and is basically seen as a substitute for a solid meal. Italians would never order a cappuccino as an end to a meal. Oh, and by the way, a bar is a place where you order panini and coffee, not beer and nachos.  Every time Alessandro tells me that he is at a bar with his 6-year old daughter I still have to mentally adjust.
  2. Polenta is only for winter.
  3. Fish and dairy can never be served together. A violation of this will thoroughly disgust the most cosmopolitan of Italians.  So no parmesan on your seafood pasta.  Further investigation, however, reveals that there are exceptions to this, such as zucchini flowers stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies.  Apparently there is some permissible exceptions if the dairy product in question is very mild.  I’m still learning this rule. But its OK to slop a raw egg on your pizza.  Go figure.
  4. Garlic matches with fish, and should be used sparingly in other cases.
  5. There is an elaborate system of rules that govern which sauce matches with which shape pasta.  This rule still vexes me. One night while discussing dinner, Alessandro informed me that he needed penne pasta to go with the kind of sauce he would be preparing. I suggested that we use rigatoni, which I had at home.  Besides, they are both small, tube shaped pasta; in my opinion, the only difference being that the ends of the penne are cut on an angle, and those of the rigatoni are cut perpendicular to the length of the pasta.  Alessandro’s response to my suggestion: sharp intake of breath, and a stern, “you must be joking,” as if I had made the most absurd suggestion ever in the history of food preparation.
  6. Food in Italy is strictly regional.  You might as well expect a grandmother in Rome to whip up a nice dish of green kaffir lime curry as expect that she would make pesto pasta (which is from the north).
  7. The word “trattoria” is pronounced TRAT-to-RI-a, not Trat-TOR-ia.
  8. Pasta must be consumed immediately after preparation or something bad will happen. I’m not entirely sure what.  This always causes a stressful moment at dinner parties featuring the pasta served by Alessandro’s hand.  We like to pause when the food is served at a dinner party, take a few beats to appreciate the spread, and to toast the chef and friends, while Alessandro waits in agony as the seconds pass by and his uneaten pasta dries, unappreciated in its truest moment of glory.  Personally, I think it still tastes great.

Let me know if you have any others to share!


9 Responses to “8 Rules about Italian food”

  1. Tammy May 17, 2011 at 4:55 pm #

    Trattoria is one of those words that makes me dance. (I should send a video) So fun. I was recently at a an Italian restaurant in Oakville called Il Forno and left hungry and broke. I can totally relate to your comparison.

  2. fergus May 17, 2011 at 6:27 pm #

    Have copy of Bon Appetit in front of me and its the annual Italian addition. Loved your article – think it would make a good addition to the magazine…..you should think about submitting it.

    Glad to see how well things seem to be flowing for you….big hug

    • A Life in Rome... May 18, 2011 at 7:37 am #

      Thanks so much Fergus, I will do that! Baci right back to you ….

  3. Wahine Michelle May 24, 2011 at 4:25 am #

    re: rule #3 – haha! just flashing back to getting scolded on simone’s hawaii kai lanai when grating a bit of parm on alessandro’s awesome shrimp pasta …

  4. Georges May 27, 2011 at 11:36 pm #

    Bella Carla,

    Thank you for publishing the 8 Rules about Italian food and your editorial comments. I love it. As you know, the French have similar rules and rigidity about food so I can relate.


    • A Life in Rome... May 28, 2011 at 9:08 am #

      Giorgio – considering how wonderful the cuisine of France and Italy is, the rules must be a good idea! Baci xoxo

  5. Terry June 19, 2011 at 8:25 pm #

    Carla….have you submitted any of your articles?
    Take it from Marla’s Mom – you know who – do it!!
    I LOVE your blog Bella.
    Love and hugs.

    • A Life in Rome... June 19, 2011 at 11:22 pm #

      You are really sweet, Teri; thank you! I actually have no idea how to submit my articles, I will look that up. Sono contenta that you enjoying reading this! A grande embraccia….

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