“Hey, you’re back! How was Italy?”
“It was incredible! I—”
“How was the food?!”
I totally get it. No need to dance around the juicy stuff. Especially if that juicy stuff is the greatest steak I’ve ever eaten in my entire life from the Ristorante La Spada in Florence. And I’m grateful too, because I honestly don’t know how to begin answering the question “How was Italy?” It’s a bit difficult to summarize except to say it was the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. But even that’s an understatement.
Food, though. I can talk about food.
PC: Kayla Meehan
During my time in Italy, I lived in a hotel room with no microwave. No matter, though. Frozen dinners just aren’t a thing over there & apparently neither are leftovers. As a result, I ate out for nearly every lunch & dinner. Most of these meals were not cloth napkin affairs as I had to stretch my meal budget to last a full 30 days. And, though I definitely ate more 2€ pizza slices than anything else, I also got a taste for the finer things every now and then.
As far as breakfast goes, a complimentary breakfast is the only thing I look for in a good hotel. It should probably be location or cleanliness or something like that, but if there’s a waffle machine in the dining room and I find a roach in the shower, we can call it even. So, naturally, a complimentary breakfast was provided at every hotel I stayed at during my journey through Italy. Let’s start with that.
PC: Brooke Braun
Light would be the word to describe breakfast in Italy. Light portions, light in your belly, and light on nutrients. Which is fine for a lot of people, but I’m like a hobbit. Even if they served bacon and eggs in Italy, I’d still be hankering for second breakfast shortly thereafter, followed by elevenses.
But, they don’t serve bacon and eggs in Italy. Alas, breakfast in the old country is as insubstantial as it is delicious.
There are always croissants and coffee cakes, always thin slices of salami, and usually some kind of fruit. Also, always Nutella. Those people are nuts about Nutella. It’s like watching Americans eat ketchup. No … Chik-fil-a sauce! The croissants are mere vessels with which to consume the sinfully decadent chocolate goop the Italians brilliantly disguised as a commonplace condiment. It’s scandalous!
In short, I started every morning with a sugar rush.
Only Italian breakfast could leave me that unsatisfied & completely content.
Everything Not Breakfast: Pizza, Pasta & Gelato
In other words, the three main food groups of the Italian diet. I know that sounds awfully stereotypical, but it’s true. When you’re at a sit-down restaurant, you begin your meal with a first course, which is always always some kind of pasta dish. In theory, it could be risotto, but let’s not get carried away. And, if you’re not having a proper two-course meal, then you’re probably eating pizza.
As far as the gelato goes, there are as many gelaterias in a single city as there are churches. Talk about devotion.
Here’s the scoop on these Italian staples.
PC: Kayla Meehan
The closest I came to fast food in Italy were pizza-by-the-slice joints. And I’m not saying they don’t exist, but I did not spot a single drive-thru restaurant while I was there. I liked that. I liked that because, even though you had your food in your hands in a matter of minutes, you still had to sit down to eat it. There was no steering with your elbows as you work your soppy burger from its wrapper. No passing greasy paper bags to the folks in the back seat or having dinner conversation with the back of someone’s head. You face one another. You pause. You enjoy. Even if you get your food to go, you’re strolling to a destination other than your parked car. These shops don’t have parking lots. They share their walls with the business or the house next door. Even in the big cities. Even McDonalds. It was a good kind of different.
One of my favorite places to get pizza-by-the-slice was this little bakery right down the lane from my school building. Their specialty was homemade focaccia bread, which they used as the crust for all their pizzas. I usually sprung for anything with mushrooms (or corn—try it, I beg of you), but when you get pizza-by-the-slice, what you see is what you get. No menu—just four or five whole pizzas waiting for you to take a hunk out of one. Sometimes the choice came down to whichever pizza looked the freshest, because once a pizza was out on the counter, it stayed there until it was gone. No waste. I didn’t mind that though—it was the norm. They’d just toss your slice in the oven for a minute to heat it up. Still, the fresh ones went fast because melty mozzarella is a siren of the soul.
Though focaccia crust was my favorite style of Italian pizza, the most popular pizza I encountered used a Neapolitan style crust—a much thinner, unseasoned flatbread akin to a large, flaky tortilla with pockets of air. These super thin pizzas are brushed with olive oil, often in place of tomato sauce, causing the toppings to slide right off the soggy centers. As a result, I often folded my slices, which was probably a food sin worse than comparing the crust to a giant tortilla. Apologies to Italian and Spanish cuisine. My American is showing, but I adore you.
To be honest, I was bracing myself for Italian pizza to mess me up like a first love. For it to make me forget every pizza I had ever had before and ruin all future pizzas for me thereafter. That’s what people always say anyways—that Italian pizza will wreck you. But that’s not the case, at least not with me. I mean, I definitely had some really good pizza in Italy, but I’ve also had really good pizza in the United States. They’re just different. And to avoid committing another food sin, I’m going to refrain from stating which I prefer, but let’s just say I was relived that pizza and I didn’t lose our special spark upon my return to the States. Because I’m grad student and pizza is my sustenance. I’m actually eating pizza right now, I will probably dream of pizza tonight and I’m contemplating putting a photo of pizza and I on my Christmas cards.
Yeah, it’s pretty serious.
PC: Alaynee Fink
Travelers don’t really harp on pasta like they do pizza, so I was woefully unprepared, but homemade pasta really did mess me up like a first love. Upon my return, I started buying bags of dried egg pasta at the grocery store even though it’s triple the price of “normal” dry pasta in a desperate attempt to get that feeling back. Total rebound. Still, I carry a torch for the fresh stuff.
In theory, I could make my own fresh pasta. It’s just flour, salt and eggs. But like I said, I’m a grad student and pizza is my sustenance. If I cave in to the heartbreak though and give it a go, I’ll let you all know how it works out. Or doesn’t.
The best pasta I ate in Italy was penne with fresh basil pesto from a restaurant called La Spada in Florence (yeah, the same place that serves the best steak ever). The penne wasn’t even fresh, believe it or not, but the pesto more than made up for it. I now have a basil plant soaking up rays on the tiny balcony of my apartment. You could say Italy’s growing on me 😉
Why do dad jokes only work when dads say them? Anyways, fresh pasta: 10 out of 10 recommend. Typically menus feature a mixture of fresh and dry pasta dishes. My advice is to always go with the fresh. And, if your preferred dish features dry pasta, you can always ask if they’ll swap it for the fresh stuff. The restaurant business is very competitive in Italy (especially in big cities), so the servers are usually more than willing to make those kinds of accommodations.
PC: Alaynee Fink
There are nearly as many gelato places as there are pizza places in Italy. In fact, our Italian hosts told us that, during the summer months, it’s not uncommon for people to eat gelato in lieu of dinner. Respect.
Most gelaterias make their gelato in-house, so it’s smooth and scoopable with no freezer burn taste whatsoever. Frozen things, it would seem, can actually taste super fresh. I’m lactose intolerant (with the except of mozzarella cheese for some bizarre & merciful reason), so my options in terms of flavors were quite limited. However, the fruit flavors at most gelaterias were dairy-free, so I still somehow managed to eat gelato every day. My fellow travelers and I called it the gelato diet: a stringent wellness program in which one must consume at least one gelato every day, no cheat days, no exceptions. It was tough, but we held one another accountable.
Thank God for supportive friends.
The biggest difference I noticed between Italian gelato and American ice cream is the variety of flavors. The most popular flavors of ice cream in the U.S. use a base of vanilla or chocolate with toppings mixed in; flavors like cookies and cream, moose tracks, fudge swirl, cookie dough, etc. Our more exotic flavors consist of mint chocolate chip and black raspberry chunk. In Italy, on the other hand, there’s a much larger variety of base flavors. Pistachio, stracciatella, dark chocolate fondente, tiramisu, coconut, licorice, almond. They’re not one for toppings, but with so many interesting flavors to choose from, who really needs a cherry on top? Often restricted to the fruit section, I still got to choose from flavors like mango, kiwi, pineapple, and melon, which I’ve never laid eyes on in an American ice cream parlor.
On the whole, I much prefer Italian gelato to American ice cream. The gelaterias, like most restaurants and businesses in Italy, are small, family establishments that take pride in their products. As a result, Italian gelato tends to be fresher, smoother, and bolder than anything I’ve found in an American supermarket or chain.
Just looking at those colorful mounds of silky smooth gelato made me happy. So, you can imagine my joy when I found a dairy-free dark chocolate fondente flavor for the first time.
Or you can just look at this photo:
PC: Brooke Braun
On second thought, that might be my Christmas card. ‘Tis the season of joy, after all.
So, those are a few of my thoughts on the most basic (and universally popular) foods you can eat in Italy. Pizza, pasta & gelato: the cornerstone of the Italian diet. It sounds safe, and you can certainly play it that way, but my advice to you is don’t. Order the sausage and potato pizza to discover it’s actually topped with hotdogs and fries. Try the jet-black, squid ink pasta from Venice, because, well, it looks cool. Get the flavor of gelato that you have no hope of pronouncing correctly.
Food is the most fleeting thing we spend our time and money on—just have fun with it! You’ll win some and lose some. You’ll surprise yourself. In Italy, the restaurants are small, the ingredients are fresh, and the flavors of even the most basic foods are bold if you’re bold enough to try them.
[Gelato photo cred: Michael Lee]
This post is featured on the monthly link up party Our Growing Edge—an online event inspired to connect foodies & bloggers. And food bloggers. This month’s series on travel is hosted by Sophie from Cooking Trips.