Italy and food, it’s like beach and sand. It just goes together. It’s almost like they’ve invented it, and then all the rest of the world just thought “Oh eating!? Sounds fun! Let’s try, too.” At least that is what you could think when talking to Italians.
Italians are so incredibly obsessed with their own culinary culture, it sometimes can get quite annoying. Don’t get me wrong, Italian dishes are awesome. But so are others as well. Yet, most Italians will tell you that their cooking reigns supreme over the rest of the world, which is quite funny since a lot of them never really come out of their comfort zone and try new things. So how would they actually know? Sure, as the world is becoming more accessible to everyone – more people today are able or often even required to travel, and cultural exchange is furthered also by social media – things are slowly coming to a change, and we started having pubs, coffee shops and sushi restaurants even here in the deep European south. Still, Italians and their obsession with food, that’s some very special snowflake.
Now, here is a little bit of my opinion and experience regarding the Italian cuisine, and what eating in South Italy is like.
What you eat in Italy obviously depends a lot on where you’re staying. Pasta and Pizza is Italy’s number one, but how they are made and what ingredients are used can differ quite a bit from place to place. For example, pizza can be soft with a high border (Neapolitan style) or thin and crispy (Roman style). You’ll find polenta only in the north. In Abruzzo, although located on the sea, you’d probably go for some lamb instead of seafood. And a carbonara is something you should eat when in Rome.
Calabria, too, is famous for a few things. Typical calabrian products include red onions (nope, no garlic), bergamot, liquorice, red peppers and, of course, olives.
But what about everyday life? Well, here in South Italy, what’s on your table usually varies with the seasons. Though there is a great amount of food available all around the year, most Italians stick to their local food market and greengrocer’s, and hence buy seasonal products. Some even go out and pick food straight from nature, like wild asparagus, chicory, oregano, fennel, mushrooms, olives and oranges. Local farmers will stand on the side of the street and sell whatever it is their fields end gardens are offering right now. Then you’re going to eat these particular fruits and vegetables till they’re coming out of your ears. But in the end, fortunately, a new season brings new variety to the table. So, yes, I really love this very genuine, traditional and also environment-friendly side of the Italian cuisine.
On the other hand, not everything here is so healthy and traditional. First of all, the meat. Like in most western countries, in Italy, too, the consumption of meat has increased drastically along with the high standard of living. Though one would think fish and seafood is the main dish in this Mediterranean country. Even if the latter is of course a big part of the local cuisine, it is not eaten on an everyday basis, meanwhile you’ll find meat almost everywhere: salami on your pizza, bacon with the pasta, some ham or stew as a second course.
Another quite unhealthy part of Italian culinary culture is their huge, yet understandable, love for chips (meaning French fries). Italians totally adopt them as one of their own. You can have chips as a starter, as a side dish, just as a snack, or even as a topping of your pizza. Chips are just everywhere.
When and where
So, I already talked about regional and seasonal differences. However, those are not the only ways space and time have an influence on food choices. One quite obvious difference is because between what one eats at home and what at the restaurant. Pizza, for example, is something you rarely prepare at home. And usually it is not eaten at lunch, except for maybe a slice as a take-away. Pasta, on the other hand, is mostly the main dish at home.
Traditional restaurants (Trattoria or Osteria) often have only a small menu with few choices, and you’re probably going to eat a little bit of everything, going from antipasto (after which one is generally already full) to pasta, meat or fish with some side dishes, as potatoes (maybe chips!) and some vegetables, and in the end a little dessert if you’re still able to sit up straight and breath.
However, where I live, a very different type of eating place has established itself during the last couple of years: the pub. Pubs down here most often provide a mix between Italian foods, like pizzas and Panini, and dishes you’d generally expect there, like steaks, burgers and, of course, chips.
The Mediterranean diet
You might have heard already about the Mediterranean diet. The term, coined in the 1960’s, describes a traditional food model that characterizes (or characterized) most of southern European countries such as Spain, France, Greece, and of course Italy. Today this diet is part of UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Originally, the MD is:*
a dietary pattern rich in plant foods (cereals, fruits, vegetables, legumes, tree nuts, seeds and olives), with olive oil as the principal source of added fat, along with high to moderate intakes of fish and seafood, moderate consumption of eggs, poultry and dairy products (cheese and yoghurt), low consumption of red meat and a moderate intake of alcohol (mainly wine during meals).
Sadly, a lot of today’s Italian cooking and everyday food differs from the MD. Or as stated in Public Health Nutrition:*
However, the traditional MD is now progressively eroding due to the widespread dissemination of the Western-type economy, urban and technology-driven culture, as well as the globalisation of food production and consumption, related to the homogenisation of food behaviours in the modern era.