“How was your trip?” we eagerly asked. “Did you have so much fun?”
“Well, yes, it was beautiful,” they said gravely, “but we would never go back. The food in Italy is awful.”
Stunned silence from Bill and me.
“Why, we couldn’t even find spaghetti and meatballs at a single restaurant,” said Mrs. I-Probably-Shouldn’t-Ever-Leave-the-United-States-of-America. “And one day we ordered their fresh fish of the day and it was some little scrawny fish that we didn’t even recognize.”
Yes, and probably pulled out of the Mediterranean Sea that very day. Sigh.
I don’t think it’s particularly uncommon for Americans to be surprised at the cuisine in Italy, or, in fact, the entire dining experience. What we call Italian food here in the United States is entirely different from what you see while traveling in Italy. I assume when Italians immigrated to the United States, they couldn’t find the same ingredients and life was just busier and cultures were intermingling and food just changed. So, no, you won’t find spaghetti and meatballs in Italy. You will find spaghetti cooked with tomatoes and garlic and basil, and you can order polpetti – little meatballs – on the side, but you won’t find any pasta drenched in red sauce and topped with meatballs the size of a baseball.
Don’t get me wrong. I love spaghetti and meatballs and order them often. It’s just that you can’t go to another country and expect to get the same food as you get here in the United States. That’s one of the reasons you travel – to learn how others eat. Right?
In Italy – and really all of Europe – you dine late in the evening. That took a bit of getting used to for us. We are used to dinner around 6 or 6:30. In Italy, dinner is around 8, or even later. We had some embarrassing experiences before we finally learned that lesson. But I’ve been told about a friend of a friend who went to Rome and dined EVERY SINGLE NIGHT OF HER VACATION at the Hard Rock Café because most restaurants didn’t even open until 7 or 7:30 and she wanted to eat at her regular time.
I began thinking about some other things that are on the menu of most Italian restaurants here in the U.S. that you wouldn’t find in Italy. Garlic bread is a good example. You get bread in Italy, but not toasted and no garlic. In Tuscany, the traditional bread is baked without salt, so the bland flavor takes some getting used to. And it will not be served with butter but instead, you will be given a plate for olive oil and balsamic vinegar. You can get butter if you request it, though the waiter will grimace.
And no Italian salad dressing. For the most part, if you order a salad in Italy, it will be served at the end of the meal. It will consist of mixed fresh salad greens, and you will be given olive oil and red wine vinegar.
Fuggetaboutit if you are looking for a pepperoni pizza in Italy. In fact, if you order a pepperoni pizza, you are most likely going to be given a pizza with pepperoncini — those spicy little yellow peppers. Italian pizza is absolutely delicious, but I’ll bet lots of people are surprised when they get their pizzas. Very little cheese, if any; very little sauce, if any; fresh ingredients and herbs and greens such as basil and arugula. You can get salami, but I never saw pepperoni. The pizza is baked in a wood-fired oven and it takes about 7 minutes. My mouth is watering.
I began thinking about this because my recipe for today is from one of my Lidia Bastianich cookbooks – Lidia’s Italy in America. In this cookbook, Lidia traveled around the United States to cities with large Italian American population, and writes about just the sort of food about which I’m blogging today – the food that immigrants began cooking after coming to America. One example is Caesar Salad, and Lidia’s recipe is such a good one. Try it once and you will never again buy the bag!
Caesar Salad, courtesy Lidia’s Italy in America, by Lidia Bastianich
2 c. ½ inch cubes of country bread
½ c. red wine vinegar
Yolks from 2 large hard-boiled eggs
3 garlic cloves
4 anchovy fillets
1 T. Dijon mustard
1/3 c. extra-virgin olive oil
½ t. kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
3 heads (1 package) romaine hearts, cut into 1-inch pieces crosswise
½ c. grated Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Scatter the bread cubes on a baking sheet, and toast until crisp throughout, about 8 to 10 minutes. Set aside to cool.
Blend the vinegar, egg yolks, garlic, anchovies, and mustard in a min-food processor. Process until the dressing is smooth, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. With the processor running, slowly pour in the oil to make a smooth dressing. Season with the salt and pepper.
Put the romaine and croutons in a large serving bowl. Drizzle with the dressing, toss well, sprinkle with the grated cheese, and toss again. Serve immediately.
Nana’s Notes: Bill and I aren’t crazy about croutons, so we didn’t bother making them. A sacrilege, I know. Also, I didn’t hard-boil my egg (I halved the recipe so it only involved one egg). Instead, I coddled it, which means I brought water to boil, then dropped in the egg and cooked it for about a minute-and-a-half. Traditional Caesar salad calls for a raw egg, so I thought this was a nice compromise.
One funny story about Caesar salad. Bill and I had friends for dinner one night, and I made a homemade Caesar Salad. It wasn’t this recipe and not quite as good. Anyhoo, my friend, upon learning I was making Caesar Salad, begged off, saying she couldn’t ABIDE the flavor of anchovies. I assured her there was not a single anchovy in my salad, as this particular recipe didn’t call for anchovies. She was doubtful, but agreed to try. She tasted it, pushed it aside, and insisted there were anchovies in the salad. I couldn’t convince her otherwise. Later, after they left, I looked at the ingredients for the Worcestershire Sauce that WAS part of the salad dressing, and, sure enough, one of the ingredients is anchovies. Finely tuned taste buds, that one!
Buy Lidia’s Italy in America from Amazon here.
Buy Lidia’s Italy in America from Barnes and Noble here.