Italy is home to some of the most world-renowned food of all time. Everyone is familiar with classic Italian staples like pizza, spaghetti, ravioli, etc. As an American, one of the biggest motivators for me coming over to Italy was to have a chance to finally savor and enjoy the food. Back in America, Italian food was my favorite style of food. I’d always take a delicious pizza or pasta over almost anything else. Even when it gives me indigestion, I savor every bite! However, I had always heard that true Italian food could only be found back in the homeland— the food in America was simply a cheap facsimile. As such, I decided to see if the rumors were true.
Is Italian food really that much better than its American counterpart? Or have Italians simply been gassing up their own country for the sake of national pride or tourist dollars? For the rest of this blog, I’ll discuss Italian dining habits and how it differs from what you might see in America.
Freshness is King
Perhaps one of the first things one will notice when coming from America to Italy is the quality of ingredients. Italians pride themselves on utilizing fresh local produce and products in their cooking, much more so than Americans. As a result, much of the normal food you would eat in America just… tastes better here. Even the hamburgers you might find at a local restaurant taste better!
I find that this holds especially true for bread. Italy is home to some of the best bread I’ve ever eaten my entire life. All of the bread here has this level of freshness and authenticity that you just can’t find back in the States. I’d go to the local butcher to get a pork sandwich, and the bread even there would just be delicious. If you enjoy eating bread, you will love Italy!
One of the most peculiar aspects of Italian dining as opposed to American dining, is how much the actual format of the dining differs between countries. In America, you typically order an appetizer followed by the main course with some sides and then a dessert. In a traditional Italian restaurant, however, there is no such thing as sides. Italian meals are set up in four stages: antipasti, primi piatti, secondi piatti, and a dolci. You don’t have to eat every single stage— in fact most people don’t. But it’s very unusual for one to start with a secondi piatti and then order an antipasti.
A photo of a menu from a Michelin star restaurant within 5 minutes of my apartment
Before any food is served, you will likely receive a bowl of bread. In Italy, every table in a restaurant is given an ample supply of bread, but with no butter! The bread is typically something you eat throughout your meal. It’s very typical for one to dip the bread in the sauce of a finished meal so that it isn’t wasted.
The first dish, the antipasti is roughly equivalent to the appetizer. Typically, it’s a light dish like soup or bruschetta (effectively diced tomatoes on a piece of toast). Primi piatti means first plate, and obviously refers to the first real course. Typically, the primi piatti is preserved for pastas or other foods that focus more on carbs. While they may include some meat or meat sauce, the meat is not the focus of these types of dishes. That is reserved for the secondi piatti, or the second plate. Here you will find dishes with steak, lamb, hamburgers, seafood, etc. Finally, there’s the dolci, or dessert. Some typical Italian desserts include gelato (ice cream), tiramisu, and torte (cakes).
One of best dishes I’ve had since I got here: All of the ingredients in this ravioli dish were just perfection!
If you are a fan of eating big, hearty breakfasts in the morning, beware! Italy might not be the country for you! Italians tend to eat very lightly for breakfast if they even eat anything at all. The most common and important Italian “meal” in the morning is simply a cup of coffee. Italians don’t typically take their coffee with all the sugary and bright flavors you might find at a Starbucks. Here, they take them dark. Drip coffee is almost nowhere to be seen either; espresso is an Italian invention, and they are proud of it. Since I’ve been here, I’ve learned to love the taste of a cappuccino with no sugar. Here’s a tip, though if you still aren’t used to it drink your coffee with a sugary pastry! Italians often accompany their breakfast drink with pastries, like the croissant-like cornetto, or the tart-like sfoglia. These pastries often come with fillings of chocolate, honey, or marmalade.
Italy is a food lover’s heaven, but it’s different from America! There are several differences you need to take into account when you are planning out a trip here. There are so many different dishes and quirks to talk about that I could keep writing here forever, and I haven’t even talked about the wines! Just as long as you keep in mind and accept the differences, you will absolutely have a fantastic time here in Italy!