Why Italian Cuisine is a Myth
Spaghetti Bolognese, lasagna, pizza: Of all the cuisines, Italian is probably the one people feel most comfortable with in their own home. However, it can be a different story when you’re in Italy. For a start, spaghetti Bolognese doesn’t actually exist and there is no such thing as Italian cuisine.
Italy has clung onto its regions, a historical hangover from before unification in 1871, but that’s another story. What matters is that the food is also regional, rather than united nationally. So, the food you eat will depend on where you are. For example, the traditional dishes in Rome are:
- Spaghetti alla Carbonarra,
- Supli (a fried rice ball seasoned with meat sauce and mozzarella),
- Carciofi alla Giudia, (A dish dating back to ancient times, it’s artichoke heart fried in oil) and,
- Maritozzo with cream for dessert.
This article from The Local will give you a head start on different regional foods.
Below are a few pointers to help make sure you get the best from where ever you are.
There are a few guidelines that will guarantee you a great authentic meal in Rome without paying tourist prices.
These guidelines come straight from locals and a few experts in the field and have withstood extensive testing by yours truly.
You’ll notice there’s different names for different eating establishments. Here’s a very quick rundown:
Ristorante – Most formal of the options. Professionally run business. Cuisine is more contemporary, but still seasonal. Usually more expensive than other options.
Taverna – Old fashioned wine bar with traditional food. Often small with a short menu as the focus is on the wine.
Trattoria – Less formal, usually family owned and run. Focus is on traditional, regional cuisine. Usually a little less expensive than a ristorante.
Osteria – Traditionally this was a bar with a limited menu geared towards local workers to have a quick vino and meal at a communal table. Today the word seems to be applied to just about every type of eating establishment, perhaps to evoke the old-world nostalgia.
Bar – Strictly speaking it’s a coffee shop and there’s no age limits. Many serve wine and some spirits too.
If there’s a person out the front calling to passers by to go into their restaurant, keep walking and don’t look back. Italians are proud of their food and know if it’s worth eating, so the really good restaurants don’t bother shouting at strangers.
Never eat close to major tourist spots. Walking just a few streets away can make all the difference in the standard of food as well as the price.
There are several things to be on the lookout in the menu:
- Languages: If the menu appears in more than Italian and English, you’re running the risk of inferior food.
- Pictures: If there are pictures of the dishes, then leave. I think this is true of any menu anywhere in the world.
- Translations: If the English part of the menu is poorly translated, you can expect good authentic food, examples include an offering of “chef’s balls” (meatballs) or “fresh Italians” (type of pasta).
It’s hard to tell if you’re getting a good price if you are new to a place and have nothing to compare, so here’s some very basic guidelines:
Aperol Spritz – The most popular aperitif in Italy should be no more than 5 Euro, maybe 6 Euro if you get some nibbles with it. If the price is any more, walk away. I saw one in Florence for 10 Euro – he’s dreaming.
Pasta – A pasta dish usually costs 8-9 Euros in a nice place. At 12 Euros I walk away. If you’re where the locals eat you can pay as little as 4.00 Euros.
Pizza – A Margherita should be around the 5 Euro mark, sometimes less. If it’s 7 Euro or more, walk away.
Dessert – Generally 6-7 Euro is reasonable for a restaurant quality dessert.
Listen to the chatter in the restaurant, if you hear a lot of Italian, then you are in a good spot.
Italians eat late. They often start lunch around 2.00pm and dinner at around 8.00pm. This can cause issues for some travellers whose bodies are screaming for dinner by 6.00 pm. This is where the magic of Aperitivo comes in.
Aperitivo in Italian culture is our version of pre-dinner cocktail hour with nibbles, however you can work it to become a cheap dinner.
The standard Aperitivo is your drink, Aperol Spritz is the best, which is served with salty snacks: nuts, crisps, olives, or pretzels. However, hit the right bar and you’ll see the option to include the Aperitivo buffet. This option usually costs 5-12 Euros and includes your drink and the buffet, which can be quite extensive including: cold cuts, cheeses, breads and soup.
Aperitivo is traditionally served from 6.00pm, but many places offer it from around 4.00pm.
It’s as Italian as pizza, but the place is riddled with inauthentic stuff masquerading as the real deal. Gelato is different to ice-cream. Gelato uses milk, not cream, flavours are all natural, and it’s made fresh in small batches. There’s also much less air in gelato, so the texture is more dense and flavours are more intense.
Walk away if you see the following in the window of the gelateria:
Bright colours – Clearly additives and flavours have been used. Pistachio is a good rule of thumb: it should be brown, not green.
Unnatural flavours – All authentic gelato derives flavour from fruits, nuts and herbs, not from Oreo cookies. Chocolate is natural.
Piled high – If prepared well, gelato has only 30% air and is served at -13 degrees. This means it does not cope well with being piled high in the display cabinet with no lid. The best gelato will have lids on to preserve the temperature and because different ingredients melt at different rates – the lids help manage the melt point.
That’s all I have for now, but let me know if you have any tips about eating in Italy we could learn from.