We can all agree that Italian food is some of the most delicious in the world but eating in Italy is about much more than the food itself. I started writing this post with the intention of suggesting some healthy options for food in Italy but found myself discussing something completely different. I’ve told you about all the amazing and delicious foods here, but you can’t live on just pizza, pasta, and cheesy rice balls, and you shouldn’t. Eating out and discovering your favorite intricacies of the Italian diet is incredible, but there’s more to be discovered about Italian food than the food itself.
When I first arrived, I thought that eating healthy in Italy would be next to impossible. The Italian (tourist) diet consists of an abundance of carbs and cheeses with the occasional tomato. So, I went searching for some healthy options: I did some research, found some recipes, visited some markets, and I ended up learning something much more important. Eating healthy was definitely difficult at first, but the food in Italy is not all carbs and cheese. Italians use a lot of fresh vegetables like zucchini, artichoke, and mushrooms in their cooking. American Italian food is surprisingly different from actual Italian food. For example, I was shocked to discover that chicken parm is not Italian. It’s an American take on the original Italian eggplant parm, which is rarely served with pasta like chicken parm is.
The groceries in Italy are often much fresher and less processed than those in the USA. This is likely attributed to the greater population and transportation necessary of food in the USA. In Italy, fresh produce, meat, and seafood is much more accessible. While they do have typical supermarkets, they also have a lot of independent produce stands and markets—practically around every corner. There is a little produce market across the street from my apartment and I can see them taking in the deliveries and setting up the stand every morning while I’m getting ready for school. These markets are often independent and family owned, which is manifested in the level of care they take in their business. It’s nice to see the produce laid out and know that it was produced nearby and delivered that morning. The merchants are always kind and welcoming, helping me choose my produce and throwing in a free banana here and there. It gives the food a close and personal feeling, which also contributes to the eating culture of Italy.
Italians eat more at home, less in quantity, and more slowly than we do in the states. Cooking and eating is an intimate and significant part of Italian culture. Food permeates just about every part of the Italian lifestyle, including family, business, friendships, and more.
Being from Albania, the significance of food is familiar to me. I have memories of sitting in the kitchen as a child and helping or watching my mom make dinner before we all sat down to eat together. When our extended family got together, I remember watching all my aunts cooking together while chatting and laughing. Us children sat near them and watched the beauty that is cooking. This is a common tradition in Italy as well. The time spent at home revolves around cooking and eating. When they arrive home, Italians don’t just get takeout. They spend time together preparing and enjoying the meal. The culture that surrounds food creates a bond amongst those who share it, whether it be family or friends.
Italian dinners consist of a few hours of talking, drinking, laughing, surrounded by some eating. They spend a few hours at dinner, taking in their food around the conversation. Eating is a social activity, and sometimes even a business transaction. Business in Italy is often done over long lunches where the parties get to know one another and establish trust. This really illustrated to me the significant of food in Italy. It’s not all about how delicious and amazing it is, it’s about the culture surrounding the food. It’s about the connections formed over that plate of pasta, and the conversations around bites of pizza. Italian families are so close because they share the intimate rituals of cooking and eating together daily. I feel this intimacy with my family as well, and I now understand it is because we spent so much time together sharing the experience of eating.
It’s understandable that a lot of people do not grow up cooking and eating with family and it may seem daunting at first, but it really is great. Cooking is such a great skill to have and it really brings you closer to the people with whom you eat, and closer to yourself. As you learn to cook, you learn what kinds of flavors you like, and you expand your knowledge of the world through food. The best part: the more you cook the better you’ll become at it.
I hope you’ll try to cook more and get to learn something about yourself in the meantime. Until then, buon appetito!