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Finding Authentic Cuisine in Italy

Carol Plantamura

A food-lovers inside tips on dishes that are available only in Italy and only to travelers who know how to find them.

Eating in Italy is about much, much more than spaghetti, meatballs and pizza. In truth, there is no such thing as "Italian food," because each region boasts its own unique cuisine. Italy is a treasure trove of tastes that will send any adventurous food lover into rapturous delight.

In an attempt to fight against the tide of homogeneity that seems to be infecting dining around the world, I give you tips on how to find the traditional foods and distinct cuisines of each of Italy's regions. Not by listing restaurants or dishes, but giving you a few guidelines that will have you eating like an Italian no matter where you roam.

I want to offer those who travel to Italy in search of authentic Italian food a method of knowing what to look for, where, and in some instances, why. I lived in Italy for many years, made friends of a host of wonderful Italian cooks and fussy diners who opened my eyes to the incredible quality and vast variety of the local foods. So, I'll give you some insight into understanding the way Italians approach food, Then you too will know what every Italian knows about the restaurant around the corner.

While it is lovely to be able to eat spaghetti without buying a ticket to Italy, when you are in Italy it is silly to eat anything other than the traditional dishes of the area. For example, when in Tuscany eat as the Tuscans do and when in Venice eat like a Venetian, etc. And the variety of foods is vast - far beyond the hundreds of different pasta dishes.

To have the finest dining experiences when traveling in Italy, you'll need to pay attention to three things: the time of year, the history of the area, and the lay of the land around you. Each of these factors has a major impact on which dishes you should order.

The Time of Year

Let's consider the last first: the time of year. Italians always eat fresh foods, especially seasonal fruits, and vegetables when they are at their peak and plentiful. Italians want to eat fruits and vegetables as near to the time of harvest as possible and aren't particularly impressed by foods that are out-of-season or that have been shipped a long distance. Rarely will you find restaurants serving asparagus in December or figs in early spring. During winter, cold weather keeper-foods like cabbage, winter squash and beets are on the menu. Naturally it is best to travel when the most delicious foods are available.

For example, to experience the epitome of what Tuscany has to offer, be aware of the timing of your trip. However, keep in mind, as is the case with most of Italy, that it is best to avoid the unbearably hot and sticky, tourist-jammed months of July and August. You'll be much happier in spring or early autumn when the Tuscan countryside is filled with an abundance of fresh spring vegetables or the bounty of the fall harvest and when wild mushrooms - especially truffles - are gathered and fresh first pressings of olive oil and grapes are offered.

The History of the Area

Knowing the history of a region is important, too, because for most of its history there was no true Italy. After the fall of Rome in about 465 AD until 1860, Italy was just a geographical expression of "the boot" occupied by a succession of warring countries. City-states ruled by powerful families from Austria, France and Spain were the norm. Naturally these occupiers were devoted to their own food traditions, many of which still lurk somewhere in the make-up of dishes served in Italy today. You'll find the influence of French cuisine in Piedmont and Liguria, of Austria in Emilia Romagna and the Veneto (where you'll find Venice), and of Spain in Campania (Naples is its capital).

The Lay of the Land

The geography and climate of a region also dictate what is best to eat. Habitat and weather are critical. When in hill country eat lamb, goat, and boar, because sheep, goats and wild boar live there. Boar and other wild game are also found in sandy country and in forests. On the other hand, a river valley produces lush green fields. Where there is grass for grazing there are milk-producing cows and lots of pigs, too. This is a good spot to look for cheeses and the multitude of pork products that Italy is home to. A hot, damp climate will produce different vegetables than a dry one. Observe and ask yourself, "What would logically grow or live here?" Take a look around before you order.

An Example in Emilia Romagna

Let's put this to the test in Emilia Romagna, a region filled with food treasures: cheeses, vinegar, sausages. Emilia Romagna's geography is a primary reason for this great food. Anchored by the slow-moving Po River, the Val Padana - the Po river valley - is one of the richest and most heavily cultivated lands in all of Europe. The Po generates such humidity that it creates the unusual foschia or ground fog. It is also responsible for the vineyards, the cows, the pigs, and the fields that create a food lover's paradise.

Contained somewhere within its borders are ideal growing conditions for the Trebbiano grapes of balsamic vinegar, the cows' milk for the world-class Parmegiano Reggiano cheese, the fat pigs that produce more varieties of succulent salumi than can be imagined, the soft (as opposed to the more common hard) wheat for distinctive pastas, the plump Arborio rice used in risotti, and vegetables, fruits and herbs both wild and domestic that complement hundreds of dishes.

When to visit? Spring and fall, of course, but you might consider a winter trip to because Emilia Romagnans have mastered the art of cooking with winter squashes and aged pork.

Eating in Tuscany

Geographically and gastronomically, Tuscany is the most varied area in Italy with its evocative rolling hills, its sandy beaches and marshes, it barren southern areas and its mountains and river valleys. It's no wonder Tuscans are obsessed with food. Their varied area produces the best known of the Italian regional cuisines. Its mouth-watering hearty pastas, succulent bistecca alla fiorentina (the best from a very particular breed of cattle called Chianina), fennel-flavored salumi, and its pecorino cheese make Tuscany a food lover's paradise.

Hints for Ordering

A term to keep in mind is casereccia, or home-made. Italian restaurants that specialize in traditional cuisine - home-grown and provincial - will term their style of cooking casereccia. Only in the last twenty years or so will you find dishes like spaghetti alla vodka in Italy. Traditionally, Italians cook with wine, not Russian liquor. Nor will you find spaghetti with salmon. Salmon live far from the waters off Italy and therefore have no place in traditional Italian cuisine. Italians respect the quality of their products. Preparation of food is simple. If you're by the sea, you'll find fresh fish that's been simply prepared with olive oil and grilled. If you want to eat casereccia, and believe me you do, then you'll connect directly to the Italian past and learn how food connects to the land.

You may have a special dish in mind when you go into one of these restaurants. Most of the time you'll find it. But if they don't make what you're looking for, but offer a version of their own, by all means order it. You may be pleasantly surprised. And be sure to look for dishes on the menu that specifically name the region or town that you are in. Don't order something alla Fiorentina while you are in Rome, but be certain to order that dish in Florence.

By all means follow your nose! I've had the most marvelous dining experiences after following an irresistible aroma around a corner, down a windy side street the width of a lane, and into a small restaurant the size of a couple of tables. This is definitely something you'll want to try. Allowing yourself to be "led by the nose," you may discover some truly gastronomic treasures. And follow the Italians. If a restaurant is crowded with natives, slip inside. It is quite likely they are onto something delicious.

I hope you now have some tools to help you locate the best places to dine, shop and savor the exquisite traditional foods of Italy. Now you'll be able to judge every restaurant on its own merits and determine whether it deserves your time, your money and most importantly your taste buds.


Slow Travel Photos: Photos of meals, restaurants and caffes in Italy.

Slow Travel Restaurants: All about restaurants in Italy - how to order, sample menus, tipping, paying the bill.

Carol Plantamura is the author of "When in Italy" and "When in Emilia Romagna", the first two books in a travel series for food-loving travelers. These books can be found at www.movabletypebooks.com. Carol is a college professor, a professional singer, a fine cook in her own right and a proud Italian-American. She is an unabashed lover of food and especially the authentic regional foods of Italy. She currently resides in San Diego where she and her three cats host frequent, well-attended dinner parties.

© 2005 Carol Plantamura

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