Both before and after my trip to Italy, people didn’t ooh and aah over me hiking in the Dolomites or doing yoga in Tuscany. They drooled over the food I’d eat. And let me tell you: it didn’t disappoint.
While you’d assume that pasta factors heavily into the cuisine in Italy, it’s much more than that. Yes, I ate a ton of pasta, but that was by choice. I figured I should get it from the source. As a result, I’ve sworn off of dried pasta back in the States. It just can’t hold a candle to fresh pasta. Anyway, there was a lot more to my culinary experience than the amazing pasta. Here’s a peek at what I consumed.
I like mushrooms, but the ones in Italy — particularly in the Dolomites — blew my mind. They were huge, meaty, and tender. I had them on polenta in the Dolomites and in the best damn tagliatelle I have ever eaten in Lucca. My only regret is that I didn’t bring home a pack of dried mushrooms to try to relive the experience.
If you’re not familiar with polenta, read this after you finish my post. I promise that article will have you running out to the store and buying polenta. Anyhoo, it’s essentiall ground cornmeal cooked the way you cook oatmeal. You can top it with sauce, meat, cheese, mushrooms, anything really. In the Dolomites, we’d order it with melted cheese and mushrooms on top. One time I got it with “grilled cheese,” which, unlike what you’d think, did not include bread. It was just cheese. Grilled. Yum.
Polenta is hearty and flavorful, and makes a great alternative to rice or pasta. In fact, I’ve made it since I’ve been home and put a touch of truffle sauce in it. Perfetto!
I’d be remiss if I didn’t include pasta. Yes, it’s stereotypical Italian cuisine, but for good reason. There is so much more variety in types of pasta in Italy than we ever see here in the US. So it’s fun to try local types. Like trofie, which is only served in Liguria (the northwestern part) with pesto. But no matter what kind of pasta you get, it’s always fresh. I liked to picture a little nonna in the back, hand cranking her pasta machine for my meal. Who knows? I might not have been far off base.
4. Aperol Spritz
While not technically a food, I have to give a nod to my new fave cocktail, the Aperol Spritz. Now, frankly I’m surprised I like this drink because it’s a little bitter, and I’m not a fan. But the bitter — that’s the citrus-flavored, neon-colored Aperol — is offset by prosecco. And as we all know, everything’s better with prosecco.
In most of Italy, they serve Aperol Spritz for about $3 (I know, right??) with a chunk of orange on the rim of the glass. However, in Italy, they serve it with an olive. I’m not sure why, because olive juice does nothing for the drink.
Yes, yes, I know. Another fully-expected item on my list. But listen folks. Pizza is different in Italy. It’s not this greasy, pepperoni-laden junk we eat here. It’s delicate. It’s diverse. It’s thin. I had pizza with gorgonzola, spicy sausage, onions, mushrooms, mozzarella, walnuts, you name it (not a single pizza!). Pizza is a tool to get creative with food. I’m thinking I might buy a pizza stone and try some of my own concoctions at home…
I wouldn’t have said I was a dumpling girl before this trip, but Tyrolean-style dumplings are another matter entirely. Because the Dolomites are so close to Austria, you get a lot of crossover cuisine, including these bread dumplings (often with bacon, or speck, as they call it there). They’re not soggy. Sometimes they’re served alone, others with broth. They’re on my cook list now!
Another thing I wasn’t crazy about before the trip was tiramisu, though Debbie loves it. But I fell hard for this coffee-laced dream of a dessert long before I attended a cooking class in Tuscany and watched Maria Angela make it. We didn’t get many opportunities to indulge in dessert; you’re simply too full after every meal to even consider it. But it’s something I’ll definitely order when I do eat dessert in the future. I’d even make it; she made it look so easy.
8. Smoked Meats
It was pure irony that my yoga retreat outside of Lucca had only (amazing) vegetarian cuisine. Lucca and its environs are known for their meats! I’d had great speck in the Dolomites, which is great with a roll and some cheese when you’re hiking all day. But the salumi and other meats in Lucca had them beat.
One day one of the retreat attendees went rogue and brought a log of salami back from Lucca. It was so heavenly, I decided to get my own on our next trip into town. Unfortunately I found out that you can’t take cured meats back to the US, so I and my friends would have to eat it all while in Italy. Darn!
I found a shop specializing in truffle sauces that sold truffle-infused salami. Oh. My. Goodness. The dried meats we get here are just that: dry. But this one was surprisingly moist, and the truffles added the perfect hint of flavor. Great. Now I’m craving it!
I’m not sure why I thought grappa was Greek, but it is 100% Italian. The traditional grappa is basically firewater: something that will burn your esophagus. Not for me. But in the Dolomites, you find dozens of different flavored grappas, from pine (not tasty) to hazelnut and basil. They’re the perfect after-dinner shot.
Grappa’s okay, but I adore limoncello. This tart and sweet digestif comes in shot form, though if you’re like me, you prefer to sip it. It tastes like Italy to me: bright, cheery, and full of citrus. Our yoga instructor, Lisa, hadn’t had it before, so I made sure on the tail end of a very long lunch in Vernazza in Cinque Terre that we had it.
Food (and drink) in Italy are certainly something to behold. I’ve found that since I got back, I’m still eating Italian foods! If it ain’t broke, eh?