Tuesday, January 23, 2007

ITALIAN/NOT ITALIAN...or DELICIOUS BY ANY OTHER NAME

As you might imagine, we have lots in common with all the other expats living in Italy. Obviously we have more in common with other Americans living in Italy, since we have a common background. We make some of the same discoveries and observations as other expats, and I’m sure veteran expats can’t help but smile as we write about our newest “discoveries”.

Like most other Americans, expat or not, we grew up with many Italian foods. Spaghetti and meatballs. Pepperoni pizza. Ceasar salad. Even that grated cheese in the green can! Because of this I wasn’t too surprised to read another American expat blogging about these foods. Valerie, who writes 2 Baci in a Pinon Tree, wrote about these foods and more just after I’d made spaghetti and meatballs at Art’s request.

Art always prefers his spaghetti with meatballs, rather than with plain tomato sauce or with ragu (meat sauce). Spaghetti with meatballs is NOT an Italian dish! As we were eating, we too discussed how Italian food is different from Italian-American food.

I’d love to be able to find spicy Italian sausage here in Italy. Or pepperoni pizza….but for that I’d want an authentic Italian pizza, thin crispy crust, just a bit a sauce, fresh mozzarella, but with good ole American-style pepperoni. In Italy pepperoni means peppers, as in green or red peppers.

And lasagna here is different…not as much tomato sauce, no gooey, rubbery mozzarella. Just thin layers of delicate pasta combined with ragu and fresh cheeses. And the ragu, as made Bolognese-style, has very little, if any tomato sauce, and a touch of cream or milk at the end. It really is ‘just a meat sauce.’

Garlic bread, which I guess is supposed to substitute for bruschetta, falls waaaaaaaaaaaaay short. And those puddles of olive oil that some restaurants have started serving? Definitely NOT something Italian, and from what I’ve tasted, most of those restaurants should be ASHAMED to serve the sludge they call olive oil. REAL olive oil, GOOD olive oil is wonderful all by itself with just a sprinkle of salt, but still, it’s not an Italian tradition.

Just as the United States has regional foods, so does Italy. In Italy however, it’s not quite as easy to find dishes from one region in others. But think about it…..would you really order clam chowder in Alabama, or grits in Wisconsin? Maybe in the states we have easier access to foods of other regions, but they’re always better in their home.

In Italy, just like in the states, regional cooking is based on what’s most plentiful in the area. Over time, and with the increased availability of foods in all areas and all seasons, the United States has lost some….maybe even most?.....of its regional distinctions.

In Italy the south tends to have simpler foods, a more Mediterranean type diet, while the northern part of Italy has richer, more complex foods. North of Bologna you’ll find butter used quite often, and pesto, and more meats. The south tends to have less meat, and only olive oil. Certainly things are changing, and even Italy is seeing people move from one area to another….something not very common in the past. Even so, regional differences are still quite distinct.

Here in Umbria we’re known for pork, for cinghiale (wild boar), and sausages made from both. We’re also known for truffles and olive oil and red wine from Montefalco and white wine from Orvieto. We have plenty of pecorino cheese made from local sheep’s milk. We have saltless bread like the Tuscans, a tradition begun hundreds of years ago to avoid the Pope’s tax on salt. Our food is a mix of north and south, still simple and rustic, but including plenty of meat.

When the waves of Italian immigrants arrived in the states in the early to mid 20th century, recipes were adapted to use ingredients that were available. Certainly there were Italian delis and mom and pop groceries who imported specialties from Italy, but still, change was inevitable. Gradually pizza became deep dish, and mozzarella was no long made from buffalo’s milk. Tomato sauce, called ‘salsa’ in Italy, became known as ‘gravy’ in Italian/American homes.

For us, now exposed to both cultures and both cooking styles, it’s nice to be able to enjoy the best of both worlds. To remember how it used to be, and to be brave enough to make changes…sometimes for necessity, sometimes for convenience, sometimes just for creativity. And so, gradually, Italian cooking becomes Italian-American, and northern Italian cuisine blends with southern Italian. And hopefully, we can enjoy the old with the new, appreciating each for its uniqueness, and for its good taste. After all, isn’t that what it’s all about?

2 Comments :

At 1/24/2007 04:50:00 AM , Blogger Gil said...

This post reminds me of the time I met a friend for lunch at the best Chinese restaurant in Hartford, CT (at the time) and he ordered broiled trout. Claimed it wasn't as fresh as the ones he had caught during the previous fishing season.

 
At 1/24/2007 07:43:00 AM , Blogger Bryan and Autumn said...

You can get pepperoni pizza here. Just order a diavolo! My favorite is diavolo con funghi! Yummm!

 

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