Italian Food and Drink
Italy is famously blessed with a wonderful cuisine. Practically everybody likes pasta and pizza – but there are other things to eat in Italy too! The climate is conducive to growing flavoursome fruit and vegetables and, being a peninsula, Italy also has great fish and seafood to offer.
Italian food and drinkThe Italian diet is very healthy. Italian pizza is much lighter than the American-style pizza usually eaten in Britain and pasta is not inherently stodgy: it is the sauce on it that makes the difference. The Italian style of cooking, with its homegrown extra-virgin olive oil and abundance of vitamin-packed tomatoes, is good for everyone’s body.
Italian food is perfect for picnics. You can buy slices of cold meat/sausage – salame, mortadella, prosciutto crudo – and all sorts of marvellous cheeses, made from cow’s milk, sheep’s milk, goat’s milk and buffalo’s milk (notably mozzarella). Add some of those Italian tomatoes and you have already got a lot of good stuff to put on your pane. Bring a nice bottle or two of wine, acqua minerale and some juicy peaches and you will be set for a beautiful afternoon on the beach or mountain-top.
At lunch and at dinner, Italians traditionally have at least two savoury courses. Although modern families with two working parents are tending to opt for faster food these days, it is still common to have several courses for a normal dinner or weekend lunch. Generally, the meal consists of a pasta dish, followed by a meat or fish dish and then the vegetables or salad. It seems strange to Brits to eat what they consider to be the side dishes after the main course but this is what Italians traditionally do. If you are in a ristorante (or very lucky) all this may be preceded by antipasto (literally: before the meal), which is a plate of mixed salumi (ham, salami and so on) and some sundried tomatoes, artichokes or similar preserved vegetables.
Italian puddings are becoming increasingly popular amongst the British. The gelato (ice-cream) is famous, as, these days, is tiramisù (literally: pick me up). If you like these, try zabaglione (Italian custard), zuppa inglese (Italian trifle) and panna cotta (literally: cooked cream, served with a bit of runny jam – delicious!). And there is always plenty of fresh fruit.
If you are invited to an Italian home for dinner, the thing to take with you is not a bottle of wine but a tray of dolci (mini cakes and tarts) that you can buy from the pasticceria.
As mentioned above, Italian tomatoes, filled with Italian sun, can be wonderful. They go very well with mozzarella and a few leaves of basil, in the popular three-colour salad often known as insalata caprese.
Green salad is also good in Italy – particularly, in my opinion, if it contains rucola.
Italians tend to dress salad pretty simply, with good olive oil, a pinch of salt and sometimes some balsamic vinegar.
Italian coffee is generally considered to be the best in the world. It is truly excellent and there are many forms in which to enjoy it. Mid morning, it is luxurious to go into a bar and have a cappuccino or latte macchiato. After a meal, it is traditional to have what the Italians call simply caffè, what we call espresso. It is very short and can be rather bitter, so you may need sugar in it. (Do be aware that if you ask for caffè or even if you ask in English for “coffee”, you will almost certainly not be asked to specify but will receive the little espresso.)
Italian grapesItaly is the largest producer of wine in the world and there are many, fabulous Italian wines to choose from. Try some out before you go, so you know what you like, then you can experiment around that theme once you get to Italy. In an Italian restaurant, the house wine is usually a pretty good bet and may well have been made from grapes grown just down the road. (See the regional pages in the Visit Italy section for some local recommendations.)
Be sure to try the dessert wines too, they are sweet and strong and totally luxurious.
There are some good Italian beers out there as well. If you are eating pizza with Italians, drink beer rather than wine – that is what they will do.
In general, Italians drink little compared with Brits. Going to a bar in the evening is a very different experience from going to a pub in UK; it is not about getting sloshed, it is about being sociable. Perhaps because Italians are naturally chatty and gregarious, they seem not to need much alcohol.
Although almost everywhere in Italy it’s safe to drink the tap water, it often doesn’t taste all that nice. For this reason, Italians tend to drink bottled water as a matter of course – and if you ask for water (acqua), for example in a restaurant, it will be assumed that you mean a bottle. It’s not very expensive and I recommend you just go with it. You need to specify naturale (still) or gassata / frizzante (sparkling); you don’t need to say minerale because, as I say, this will be assumed. You may then be asked whether you want grande (a litre) or piccola (half a litre).