Italians eat Italian food.
Excellent deduction, I know. What I mean to say is that Italians pretty much only eat Italian food. This came as quite a surprise to me and my American classmates. In the U.S., our options for food are as varied as our people. Melting pots were made for the kitchen, after all. I currently live off the main thoroughfare in an incredibly average Mid-Western city—famed for being the quintessential American town in social studies. Within a mile of my apartment, I can have dinner at a Mexican, Thai, Chinese, Mediterranean, French, Indian, Japanese or Italian restaurant. And I’m not talking Taco Bell or Olive Garden here (though those are signs of civilization in all fifty states). These are local, family owned establishments that put their own unique twist on authentic cuisines.
In addition to burger joints and pancake houses, ethnic food is American food. It’s cultural appropriation at its tastiest.
So, after eating pasta and pizza for a couple weeks straight, we Americans decided it was time for a change. None of us students had access to a microwave in our hotel, let alone a kitchen, but our professor did. He opened his apartment and kitchen for us to make dinner one evening. Craving something closer to our borders, we decided to make chicken tacos.
Two of my friends and I left for the grocery to gather all our ingredients. Prior to that point, we never had to shop for groceries in Italy; we had no way of cooking after all. The times we did pop into a shop, we would head straight for the snack aisle, grab something paprika flavored (the cool ranch of Italy) and duck out of there.
After paying, of course. Felt I should clarify that.
Shopping for a complete meal, especially an ethnic one, turned out to be a quite different experience. During our previous snacking adventures, we noticed that Italian grocers don’t bag your purchases. Customers must bring their own reusable totes to carry their groceries home, or buy totes in the store.
We brought a tote. We thought we were prepared.
Our problems began in produce. They had tomatoes and they had onions, but we stopped crossing things off the list there. There was no cilantro, so we bought parsley. No jalapeños, so we bought bell peppers. No limes, so we bought lemons.
We also bought mixed soup beans instead of black beans, pita bread instead of tortilla shells, and risotto instead of Spanish rice. A tiny jar of chili powder was closest thing we found to taco seasoning, so we nabbed that too.
The entire grocery store was about the size of the produce and deli area of your average Walmart, so it wasn’t a huge undertaking to search every aisle. We did, but chicken and avocados were nowhere to be found. There was a small cooler where the chicken might have been once upon a time, but they had most likely sold out of poultry for the day. They don’t stockpile food in Italy, not in the store and not in the home. And about the only thing you can find frozen is gelato—you know, things that are suppose to be that way.
I mean, how essential is chicken to chicken tacos anyway?
So we left with what was now a very heavy tote (We had to get stuff for sangria, too. Arriba!). We took turns lugging the tote as we paced the cobblestone streets in search of a butcher. We eventually caved and used Google Translate to ask for directions. It was a tiny, unmarked shop right across the square from the grocery store where we first began. Go figure.
We bought a couple chicken breasts, then made a stop at two produce stands for avocados before finally arriving at the apartment, sweaty and in no mood to cook.
Needless to say, we made the sangria first.
The finished meal was … okay. Not bad, but definitely not great, which was kind of a bummer considering the amount of time we spent shopping and cooking. As it happens, dried risotto and soup beans do not cook fast. And, figuring out a way to make our homemade salsa and guacamole more flavorful was a process of trial and error. There’s really only so much you can do with salt and pepper and chili powder.
Still, our efforts were appreciated by those at the table and we learned a very valuable lesson about Italian food in Italy:
Because it’s delicious and you really don’t have much of a choice.
I hope my mediocre Mexican food experience does not in any way imply a lack of culture. Far from it. “Uncultured” is the absolute last word I would associate with Italy. Rather, the prevalence of purely Italian food in Italy speaks more to Italians’ relationship with food than with other cultures.
Italians buy fresh, whole ingredients and they do so every day. You’d be hard-pressed to find ingredients that aren’t indigenous to the area, which is why we had to get quite creative to whip up those Frankenstein fajitas. No, they don’t have near the variety of American restaurants and grocery stores, but between our treks to the butcher shop and multiple produce stands, we knew that our food was fresh.
It’s a trade of quantity for quality. A trade of near-limitless options for what’s raw and real. The whole of Italy is one giant farmer’s market. And the hippie in me thinks that’s really rad.
[Photography by Brooke Braun]