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August 28, 2015

10 Facts about Italian Cuisine

1. Pasta – al dente or not al dente?

Entire chapters can be written about pasta! After having eaten overcooked pasta over and over again, especially abroad, I would say that the biggest sin about pasta is probably overcooking it. Not only doesn’t it taste well, overcooked pasta is also harder to digest.

Even Barilla, being the biggest exporting brand of pasta ‘encourages’ (e.g. the packages sold in the US) indirectly to overcook it by stating a time frame as cooking time, instead of one exact time.

Have you ever seen or heard about the trick as to how to check if the pasta is ready to be eaten, by throwing one spaghetti against the wall? I wonder who invented that :)) And if it sticks on it, apparently it’s done! Ok, so now I would dare to add a little side note: When the pasta truly sticks on the wall like glue, it is not ready. But it is way overcooked. ;) Ok, seriously, set the timer, with the correct cooking time (if a time frame is given on the package, make sure to consider the shortest cooking time), and the pasta will be fine.

And, last advice: It’s very important that the water boils first, before throwing the pasta inside!

2. Which pasta sauces and salad seasonings are the biggest “crimes”?

Cream, ketchup and salad dressings.

The only thing that ketchup has in common with a tomato sauce is the tomato itself. As far as the cream is concerned, there is only one dish that I can think of that comes with it. And that is pasta with salmon. 

For whatever reason (e.g. in Germany) they put cream in almost every pasta dish. Often in such big quantities that you literally need to fish the pasta out of the plate. Especially in the Carbonara and theLasagne. And then people say that pasta makes you gain weight.. No wonder. It’s the sauce that makes the difference! Isn’t that actually great news? I promise, the dish will still taste delicious, and it will be so much healthier and lighter!

While the salads are served with a light vinaigrette style dressing only. In other words, olive oil, vinegar, salt and a few herbs such as oregano is what is mostly used to season a salad.

3. Do Italians really eat pasta every day?

The answer is yes. They do. Of course busy schedules and younger generations open up the doors for other alternatives. Fact is, that Italians can be very picky and traditional about their food habits. For most Italians pasta is still a mandatory meal that can be neither replaced nor skipped for no reason.

I have been asked this question with misbelief. I assume it’s because people think that all we eat is pasta with tomato sauce and one or two other ones. Day in day out. Believe me, I would get bored with that menu after two days! Pasta is eaten with vegetables, meat, fish and so many other things. It can come in so many variations, that I would dare to say to be enough to eat a different pasta dish for almost every single day of the year!

Oh, btw, one of the few combinations I have never seen before is pasta with chicken. I can’t think of any Italian dish that combines these two ingredients.

4. Do pasta shapes really matter?

I could see a big astonishment on people’s faces, including my husband’s, when I told them how ‘important’ it is not to combine the ‘wrong’ pasta shape with the ‘wrong’ sauce! :)) Didn’t I already mention how picky we can be about food? ;) Although all shapes consist of the main ingredients and they do taste the same (ok, sort of), it really does make a big difference! For instance you don’t wanna eat spaghetti with beans, or the tiny little shaped ones (e.g. risoni) with a tomato sauce. So, why not? Well, it just doesn’t match! :)

5. Is pasta a starter, a main or a side dish?

Oh, I haven’t seen more confusion and debates than this one! Actually it’s very simple to remember: There are two main dishes in Italy: pasta and risotto. They are not a starter, and not a side, either. I don’t blame anyone for getting confused if even some Italian restaurants abroad display it wrongly on their menus, pretending to serve authentic Italian cuisine.

And, being a main dish, it is served by itself, only. No bread, no salad.

6. Who is Alfredo?

Well, I got introduced to Alfredo during my visits in the US. It was impossible to overlook ‘him’. I learned that Alfredo comes in all kind of versions: chicken Alfredo, Alfredo sauce, Fettuccine Alfredo, etc. And I kept wondering: Who is Alfredo?!

When my husband’s nephew asked me whether I could make some chicken Alfredo for him, I told him that I had no idea what that was.

Considering its popularity and the fact that it is being promoted as something Italian, that surprisingly in Italy probably no one has ever heard of, I was intrigued to find out more about this phenomenon. It turns out that Alfredo was a restaurant owner in Rome ( about one century ago. Later on American celebrities were among the guests of that restaurant. So, in the 70s they introduced Alfredo’s recipes in a new restaurant opening in New York City. And that was the beginning of its success. Now that’s interesting! But should you go to Italy – outside of Rome – I do not recommend ordering anything under this name. As long as they haven’t been to the US, they won’t understand what you mean.

7. What cheese does really go on a pizza? And what is ‘pepperoni’?

I remember a little story that happened to me in Germany at an Italian restaurant. I ordered a pizza margherita, and knowing that most of the time you don’t get the pizza served with mozzarella, I asked to make sure that I got mine the way a real margherita should be made. And that is with tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil. The outcome was a red pizza with four tiny little white spots (btw, the owner added, that they made an exception for me, as usually mozzarella is charged extra…needless to say that that place would shut down within 24h, if they applied that strategy on Italian territory..).

Well, I understand trying to economize with buffalo mozzarella, being more expensive. But with a regular one? 

Long story short: Mozzarella is the main cheese that is used on a pizza. 

Restaurants often sell the margherita, being the cheapest one and being made with some way too greasy cheese imitation. It makes me furious to see that the one that is sold as ‘Pizza with tomatoes and mozzarella’ costs a couple of €/$ more, and is nothing else than THE margherita itself!

As far as ‘pepperoni’ is concerned, ‘peperoni’ – with one ‘p’ – means bell pepper. I was puzzled in the States when I heard about pepperoni pizza, as I didn’t know what it was. Nor will they know in Italy if you try to order it that way. Or the only risk you will run is to get a vegetarian pizza instead ;)

8. The importance of not skipping meals

Living in Germany made me notice one of the main culinary differences between Germans and Italians. I am truly convinced of one thing that actually sounds like a contradiction: You learn more about your ownculture by traveling abroad! By being faced with habits, traditions and values of a different culture, it makes you realize even more how it is back home.

So, going back to my first thought, I noticed that Germans are so much more flexible as far as (e.g.) lunch is concerned. When I walk through the shopping mile in downtown around lunch time, you run into Germans literally everywhere. They have absolutely no problem grabbing some fries here, or a sandwich there, eating on the go, or even meeting friends to have a coffee at whatever possible time during the day.

Italians instead, oh Italians…don’t take away their lunch! It’s sacred. It will be hard to find an Italian who will suggest to meet you downtown around lunch time, if no lunch out is included. The importance of that meal becomes even more evident in the villages. At a certain time the streets get empty! And when you walk through the streets in the summertime, you can hear the noise of the dishes and silverware coming out of the open windows ;)

Germans, for example, are very flexible, and they couldn’t care less about fix times. They eat whenever they feel like it. Of course at work they have their schedule and tend to eat very early compared to Southern Europeans (btw, it’s almost impossible to beat Spanish eating time habits..).

What I’m trying to say is that there are exceptions everywhere, of course. Nevertheless, there are some generalities that become very obvious when observing different cultures. Sometimes I wish Italians could be a little more flexible with their schedules (it would just make life easier, at times..), while I wonder if Germans would enjoy cherishing more the values of a meal, sitting around the table with the family, and yes, even for hours.

9. Espresso, Latte & Co.

Espresso – as the name says, it can be defined as an express coffee. They drink it for breakfast, after lunch, at home or quickly at the bar, at the counter. There are different versions of espresso coffee. Just to name a few: cappuccino, ristretto (concentrated coffee), lungo (a longer-style), corretto (with a little shot of liquor).

You won’t find shots of vanilla, nor any other kind of extras added to your coffee. Nor will you find any ‘latte’. Latte means milk. And the one that corresponds to the ‘latte’ in the US is the caffellatte or latte macchiato. Ordering a ‘latte’ in Italy might get you a glass of milk ;)

One thing you will probably never see in Italy is someone drinking a cappuccino with a meal, or right after a meal. The locals drink it most of the time for breakfast, only. Maybe matched with a cornetto (croissant).

And talking about breakfast…this will take us to the last point.

10. The Italian breakfast – not really a big deal at all (besides the coffee)

No eggs, no bacon, no cheese nor ham. A coffee and a cornetto on the go, or maybe a cup of milk with some cookies at home. As you can see, breakfast is not the main meal in a typical Italian day. It’s quick and simple. And sweet. Which could be the reason why lunch is such a big deal instead.

Having only an espresso or a croissant in our stomach for several hours, by the time we reach lunch time we need more than a simple sandwich ;)