Italians debunk food “science”

In a recent conversation, my grandmother was describing the new diet recommended by her nutritionist: small portions, all whole-wheat, no cheese, low-fat yogurt, no trans fat, etc.  As she recounted the litany of dieting tips, dos and don’ts with the melancholy of losing old friends, I started becoming very perturbed with this “dietary specialist.”  My blue-eyed grandmother is an honorary Italian-American, cooking up delicious home-cooked meals for my Italian-blooded grandfather for over fifty years.  She is a fabulous cook that has fed her family since she was a teenager with traditional recipes and new tasty experiments, and to me, she is my personal Martha Stewart, without jail time, of course.   Who is this dietary specialist to tell my grandmother to not eat cheese?!

Since when do we need someone to monitor what we put into our bodies?  What is missing from our alimentary common sense that makes us cling to new fads or these “dietary specialists” that claim to know no more about our own bodies than our nosey neighbors?  Two renowned European examples for culinary expertise and slim waists are the Italians and the French, cultures that traditionally don’t skimp on the fat when necessary.  In Italy, as one strolls past the alluring scents of the bakeries, glazed cakes in the pastry shops, and glistening displays in butcher shops and cheese stores, all the while watching these hearty Italians scarf down personal pizzas and bottles of wine, one poses an interesting question: with this delectable food culture, how do they stay so slim!?

We already know the answer to this question: They have a food culture.   The question comes down to education and an innate understanding of the organism (us) related to what we put into our bodies, more or less the history and future of our food.  Italians live by the phrase, “you are what you eat,” quite fitting for the highest omnivores on the food chain, don’t you think?  Italians are born with this close relationship to all of the nutritional sources that make up their cuisine, and it doesn’t take an expert chef to tell you the ingredients of every traditional Italian product or dish; my twelve year-old Italian students could tell you.

Food is their passion, and the regional specialties are connected with the local history and unique landscape.  The quality of the products is craved and demanded, and in many cases, it is controlled by quality and geographical standards established by the EU.  Since I have moved to Italy, I have been ever fascinated with the food culture that is worshiped in this country, and I have now begun my own journey to salvation via the Italian forchetta (fork).  Its great flavor and goodness are found in the pure simplicity of natural ingredients, all of which are distinguishable in the supermarket.

As I gaze at the multitudes of products aligned on the supermarket shelves in America, I am instantly inundated with brands, labels, promotions, varying claims of negated fat, different shapes and sizes!  The head-spinning options create confusion, and I can’t distinguish what is the real substance behind all of this processed “food”!  In the end, I waste a lot of time trying to figure out what it is, what is the difference, and where it is from?!

In contrast, a stroll through a normal Italian supermarket (although increasingly affected by the food industry) is a liberating experience because despite problems in translation, the choices are much more limited, and the lack of superfluous information is relieving to the hungry shopper (for example, most only carry two brands of chips!).  The provenance of foods such as meats and vegetables are clearly identified and are usually local or Italian; it is pleasing to know that this information is clearly made available to the customer.  Italy is also the leading producer of organic or “biologico” products in Europe.  Outside of the supermarket, I always prefer the farmers markets, which are always colorful, exciting, and alluringly nutritious!

Street Markets

Although I tease the Italians for their haphazard sense of organization, we Americans lack the roots and common food sense that these Italians utilize to maximize the quality of their agricultural output and demand for the “made in Italy” stamp.  In return, they eat better, and their food tastes generally better.

It’s all a question of priority: Recognizing good quality, as I said before, is the main characteristic that drives and determines their cuisine, and all Italians flock to a good meal.  Are you looking to go to a good restaurant in the city?  A fail-proof way of finding a gem is by choosing the most crowded restaurant; they Italian patrons are all experts!  In the same way, an Italian will tell you which olive oil is best, which tomatoes have had a good season, and why they will eat pesto only if it is from Pra, near Genova, where the best basil grows.  Can we Americans match this local food knowledge?

Folks, in the end, the Italian style can be boiled down into five main concepts:

  1. Food education: know your ingredients
  2. Food appreciation: demand high quality
  3. Food application: simple natural products in tasty combinations
  4. Food priority: eating good food is important; love the experience
  5. Food consciousness: stop when you are feeling full

Michael Pollan, a leading writer, NY Times journalist, and advocate for food awareness has masterfully delved into the art of eating food, from its origins in the market today to the way in which we can be more aware of our own eating habits.  I highly recommend reading all of his books, starting from “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” in the order in which they were written.  He focuses on breaking down the spam of food myths, the massive influx of food information and nutrient marketing into simple explanations.

Pollan encourages us to think about how our great-grandparents cooked before our supermarkets quadrupled in size.   One way to stay on the right eating track is to avoid highly processed products that contain bushels of corn syrups, forget about the soda, eat green, and go local for your food!  As many Italians profess: go easy on the butter, use a dash of milk instead (an Italian mom’s secret).

In a world in the midst of an economic crisis, it is surprising that we haven’t taken our nutrition into our own hands, demanded quality products and organic production from our own American soil.  As for these dietary specialists that tell us how to eat, I say ignore them and get back to basics!  Let’s not obsess over weight loss and nutrients, carbohydrates, and fat.  Forget about the food science, don’t look at the calorie count, and eat healthy products!  Let’s enjoy a balanced meal for what it is—good food prepared with love.  Wash it down with a glass of wine, for heaven’s sake!

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Pour on the Gravy Milan!


Explaining Thanksgiving to Italian can be an interesting venture.  It is not that Italians aren’t curious about our heritage holiday, but it is the total concept of the holiday and the meal that is intriguing to the curious Italian.

For starters, lets talk about the history.  Well, there were our Pilgrim Fathers that shared a harvest festival with fellow Indians in a joint proclamation of thanks, peace, and partnership.  The astute Italian could then possibly respond, “Now at what point did you kill them and boot them out West?”  For those not well studied the New World origins, sometimes I skip this small paradoxical detail and explain the modern significance of thanks and family that this holiday inspires in us turkey-stuffing patriots.  This usually provokes a nice reaction.

The second lesson is the importance of the ritualistic meal.  The idea of a traditional meal is by no means a stretch for this culture focused around the dining table; I would dare say that our devotion to the Thanksgiving staples does not even come close to the year-round observation of their sacred and distinctive gastronomic heritage.   However, as the eclectic star spangled banner waves above our Fatherland’s purple mountains, it will suffice to say that at least one day out of the year, Americans are 100% devoted to serving up a truly traditional American-grown meal (in 1621, yes—now, probably our food is coming from Mexico or Brazil).  Besides patriotic ambitions like the hamburger or ketchup, I believe that this holiday is the most well-balanced, non-greasy example that we have representing our unified culinary roots.  So it’s important!

Ingredients of the Meal:  Given that Italians rarely ever eat turkey, this would lead to the greatest misunderstanding of the cooked dishes; they usually assume that it tastes like a dry chicken, and the turkeys tend to be smaller.  “Mirtilli” is a word in Italian that means all kinds of berries that look like blueberries, and therefore, there is a discrepancy as to what actually are cranberries.  Their attempt at cranberry sauce usually uses dubious “mirtilli,” and the fruit used is definitely not cranberries!  Their corn is not as delicious as our summer corn, and for this reason, they are not good judges (The only time this will escape my mouth).  Sweet potatoes can be found here, but I don’t believe many know the brown-sugar glazed goodness of Thanksgiving sweet potatoes.  Glorious stuffing in its traditional conception is misunderstood with Italian variations of “ripieno” or stuffing.  For the corn bread, I have no clue (I usually make it from a box, admittedly).  Last but not least, gravy is unheard of here.  What?

The gravy concept segues into the next difficult conception of the sauce drizzled on the  “whole” heaping plate.  Italians have a lovely way of eating a long meal in many courses, including an appetizer, first course, second course, sides, and desserts, which neatly separate the pastas, meats, veggies, and sweets.  The idea of literally shoving everything on one plate and drizzling steaming gravy on the heaping pile of cornucopia goodness is definitely a new experience.

Gluttony:  Although this term is easily associated with appetites for the Italian cuisine, Italians usually stop at a reasonable level of satisfaction.  This holiday is created specifically for the stuffing of the human to his brimming limits, mimicking Mr. Turkey.   We are giving thanks for the fact that we can be together and gorge on our feast, pour gravy down our throats, unbuckle our belts, and doze off on the couch in an uncomfortable, hard-breathing slumber!

The next satisfying certainty about our holiday is that we will be eating leftovers for a week!  As I was cooking my own Milanese Italian meal, I was reprimanded with the amount of food I was preparing.  This is coming from a culture that is appalled at the idea of a doggy bag, and they usually make or eat enough to avoid leftovers.  I respond, “This is the POINT! My meal, my rules!”

So there you have it.  This year, I went to the macellaio, or the butcher, and I ordered my special Thanksgiving turkey.  Two other fellow American expats also had placed their orders in patriotic duty.  I cooked up my feast for two days, and I whispered sweet nothings to my lovely turkey, Mario, as he was sizzling in the oven.  The courses were topped off with an American cheesecake and “mirtilli,” specifically blueberries.  My Italian friends were great sports: they piled the food on their plate, family style, we ate like pigs, and we all poured on the gravy, American style, in Milan.

Books and their covers: Rana Pescatrice

Prince Charming

Flashback: The pungent odor pervading the air led my curious nose to happen upon Venice’s fresh fish market, the Mercato di Rialto, in the midst of the vending commotion.  I was enraptured by the colorful sights, textures, and smells lifting up into the neoclassical loggia structure, and the bustle of busy shoppers and curious tourists was almost too much for my camera lens to take!  At a certain point, I pointed my camera at the “pescivendolo” (fish seller) to capture some fish-gutting and chop-sui action when the monocle eye caught a hideous slimy slug-like fish plopped on the display table!

I jumped back in disgust and strange wonderment at the Jabba the Hut-like creature staring at me with its googly glassy eyes, oversized head, fatty wide mouth and its antenna protruding from its head.  It almost looked like a sci-fi “Eatn’ Park” cookie with its big old gaping smile.  I exclaimed to my sister, “Oh how NASTY, don’t tell me that anyone takes this home and eats this creature!”  We both agreed that neither of us would ever ingest Jabba, but my sister had the courage to touch its dark slithery skin.  I took a picture of the poor fellow, so brutto (ugly) when compared to its other fished marine companions.  I read the name, “Coda di Rospo” or (Toad Tail).

Fash Forward:  I accompany my boyfriend and his family to a lovely rustic restaurant in Arenzano, a quaint Ligurian costal town located just above Genova.  This was a casarecco (home-style) place with a limited menu written on a hanging chalkboard, an automatic guarantee to leave contented with a loosened belt.  As I squinted to see the menu, my eyes fell on “tagliatelle with ragu di pescatrice.”  Given that I love ragu’ sauce of any kind, my boyfriend encouraged me to try this fresh homemade pasta with a fish stew sauce.  Yumm!

This course was served, and the pasta drenched in its savory seafood sauce literally melted in my mouth!  This phrase may seem trite, but there is no other English way to say it!  Although I don’t claim to be a food expert (yet), I am a connoisseur of the gastronomic experience.  My stomach started singing hallelujah, I ignored my company, and I floated to the seventh culinary heaven where I tried to make it last, forever.  It was only until later that I asked my friend, “What was the fish used in that delicious ragu?”  The response shocked and appalled my ears!  Rana Pescatrice is another name for Coda di Rospo!  Dust my ears deceive me?

Fun Facts: The Rana Pescatrice or the Monkfish, can be found both in Northern European and Mediterranean waters under the alias of Lophius piscatorius, and his counterpart, Lophius americanus, hanging around in the Western Atlantic Ocean.  Both species offer up quite popular dishes, so much so that it is now difficult to find.  The monkfish is known variously attractive pet names such as a goosefish, angler fish, bellyfish, frogfish, all-mouth, or sea devil; it is a bottom-dwelling creature where its spine ends in a flexible, extendible cord, which it dangles to lure unexpecting prey.

Monkfish used in the kitchen provides delicious meat that is dense, boneless, sweet and often referred to as “Poor man’s Lobster” for its delicate flavor and texture.  Besides its liver that is primarily sold to the Japanese for sashimi, the muscular tail is the only edible part of the fish (Its head is too big!), and it splits cleanly in two nice filets.  The membrane surrounding the meat must be removed before cooking! This ugly duckling also happens to be a great meal for weight watchers!  It is a low-fat, low-cholesterol source of Protein and Vitamin B.  Who would have known?!

Due to over-fishing, the Rana Pescatrice is difficult to find in Italian restaurants, and I imagine also in the USA.  However, I have heard it may pop up in your Whole Foods market.  In any case, I would like to introduce a recipe for a ragu sauce of “Rana Pescatrice” with fresh Tagliatelle pasta:

Ingredients:  (for 2 people) 45 min.

  1. 200g Monkfish meat
  2. ½ onion
  3. 1 small carrot
  4. 1 celery stalk
  5. 8-10oz Dry white wine
  6. Fresh thyme and parsely
  7. Ex Virgin Olive Oil
  8. Salt and pepper to taste.
  9. Vegetable or fish broth.
  10. 10. 200g of fresh Tagliatelle pasta.

Before starting, make sure that the membrane of the tail fillets is removed, and if possible, save the head to boil in order to create a fish broth.  If not, a vegetable broth will work well.  Cut up the fillets in small cubes and put aside.  Mince the onion, carrot, and celery stalk and place in a skillet that is lightly covered with 2 spoons of EV-Olive Oil.  When the chopped vegetables are simmering and softening, reduce the flame and add the monkfish cubes.  As the meat is cooking in the stew, turn up the flame and add some white wine.  When the wine has evaporated, add 1 ladel of fish broth to flavor the sauce.  Regulate the salt, add fresh ground pepper, and add chopped fresh parsley and thyme.  Let the sauce evaporate and cook together on a low heat for another 5-10 min and turn off the flame.  Add sea salt to the boiling water in the pot. Cook the fresh tagliatelle for a small amount of time (2-3 min), one minute prior to being cooked al dente.  Drain the pasta, add it to your skillet, and restart the flame.  Have the noodles cook in and take on the flavors of the sauce.  Serve.

I enjoyed this recipe because it recalls the ragu that I ate in Genova.  It is light and very tasty! One may substitute it with a white fish such as cod or halibut.

I have learned my lesson, a lesson applicable to all of our daily judgments based on appearance.  Mary Shelley would not be pleased with me, and this is one Frankenstein that deserves a chance!  This fish might not be the bell of the ball, but it certainly is yummy!  My initial revulsion has past, and I am opening up to the awkward beast with open arms, into my kitchen, stomach, and ultimately, my heart.  Next ugly fish served…Scrofano, better know as the Scorpion Fish!

Agritourism’s Allure

A journey from the buzzing city of Milan culminates with a rugged gravel road that winds up to the hill’s summit. As we continue to ascend, the outstretching vistas of the Umbrian landscape slowly reveal their natural splendor in the late afternoon sun. The warm autumn colors contrast with the soft purple-blue undulating waves of the peaks receding into the distance. Textures abound with olive groves spotting the terrain, green wispy pines sprouting vertically, and vineyard lines glowing yellow and red after the season of the vendemmia, or the grape harvest. Off into the distance, we can indicate cities such as Perugia, Assisi, Todi, Orvieto, and Spoleto: vibrant witnesses to the region’s Etruscan roots and rich cultural heritage.

At the end of this road, our car finally rumbles into the parking lot at our destination: a small 13th century quartz monastery complex, complete with a humble stony church, the old observer of time over the bucolic landscape. As guests on our weekend getaway, we receive a warm and casual welcome, and we are given a tour of the surroundings. Even though the panorama is overwhelming, I am eager to explore the quaint building whose materials reflect their local origins. The refurbished sleeping rooms are complete with rustic creamy stone interiors finished with handcrafted wooden rafters, a cozy fireplace, small Byzantine replica paintings, and a bella vista of the hills beyond the window frame. A delightful breakfast is on the house in order to energize guests for a day full of simple relaxation, hiking, or a full itinerary of the scattered medieval borghi and castles to be discovered in the area.

At night, stars and Orion sparkle over the distant lit webs of civilization, and the muted indigo blues are inhaled as we return from our daylong journey, fatigued, but not in spirit. Entering inside from the night air, we find ourselves in the old renovated stall of the monastery with five other couples whose conversations hum above lit candles. Soft music serenades tables furnished with local Umbrian wine from Trasimeno, while the typical plates of the “contadino’s” or farmer’s kitchen are served in four courses. At this particular place, vegetarian cuisine is offered, to the great joy of Albertina, the name that I gave to their beautiful bovine beast who roams the territory. Even though I am a fan of meat, especially when close to the motherland of the Florentine steak, there is no need for dismay. Especially during the season of the prized white and black Tartufo (Truffle), this cuisine provides a pleasant change from heavier meals.

Located in the natural park of Monte Tezio, “il Romontorio” is a restructured agritourism establishment that offers a peaceful R&R experience in the heart of Umbria. Although this particular destination purposefully requires a more rugged journey, many similar places are scattered throughout the region.

You might ask, what is agritourism in Italy?

Agritourism or agricultural tourism is an increasingly popular phenomenon in Italia that appeals to local rustic tradition, hearty appetites, and the discovering of the simple pleasures in life while surrounded by the quiet environs of nature. An agritourism institution distinguishes itself by providing a combination package of enjoyable, didactic and unforgettable experiences that create a greater appreciation for the labors of passion, seasoned expertise, and time-tested processes which reveal the goodness of earthen fruits locally inherent to the landscape and to the culture itself.

Agricultural tourism was initially born years ago as a form of simple hospitality and accommodation offered to travelers by peasantry of the rural countryside. It was organized in old farmhouses where these farmers or ranchers would offer joint sleeping arrangements as well as provide a chance for the visitor to experience the produce of its land and livestock. Even in these primitive years of agritourism, the desire of travelers to come in contact with nature far from the city limits was the primary catalyst driving the service. Following the agricultural crisis after WWII, the activity became a more diffused method for farmers to preserve their way of life. In the face of modernism and changing economies, agritourism has gradually renovated its look to promote a more organized and comfortable conception of hospitality focused on the regional characteristic and cultural setting and tailored to the needs of today’s tourists. The regions that are most populated by agritourism are Tuscany, Tentino-Alto Adige, and the Veneto region, but you can discover many in every region.

Today, agritourism continues to thrive in Italy as an attractive destination that is prescribed by law to be solely managed by independent farmers or agricultural companies in their preexisting rural edifices, utilizing and promoting their individual agricultural initiatives to the general public. In many cases, the line that separates certain family-owned trattorias and agritourism outposts can be thin and easily misleading. However certain guidelines can help us distinguish the two relatively rustic experiences. While a trattoria may provide you with a delightful gastronomic evening of casalinga home-cooking, it is solely a dinner destination, sending you home with gluttonous contentedness and an exploding waistline. Agritourism is inspired by its roots, and in addition to its culinary and cultural attraction and orientation, it offers you the complete hospitality package that usually includes lodging to its travelers.

It is a home away from home that boasts of providing you with a unique opportunity to sample site-specific homemade products, which includes meals that present you with delightful recipes constituted primarily by the yield of their business and traditional kitchen flares. They are required to offer you the unique products characteristic of the territory, seasonal ingredients, and of course its approved specialties by authenticity branding: DOP, IGP, DOC, etc—all titles attesting to the controlled and protected origins of the products, based on regional, natural, and human processes to maintain the quality of the famous Italian stamp. Wow! Complicated, but rightly so–these Italians are masters of their trade, trained by ancestral techniques; it’s not packaged American transfat cheese folks!

One of the most alluring aspects of this stay is that visitors may have the opportunity to have up-close and personal encounters with the land and its goods. This usually family-owned business takes charge of organizing tastings of company products, for instance, wine from their vineyards that rest safely and preserved in stone wine cellars!

On a more didactic level, many agritourism farms offer services to welcome students and interested groups to witness and understand the different aspects of business, including the preparation of many foods, such as wine, olive oil, honey, cheeses, salami, ect. Encountering a product helps you appreciate it on a new level, comprehend its function in our diet, and also value the hands that labored with love for the sake of quality and tradition. In addition to understanding the family business, most places also offer many recreational, leisure, sporting and cultural events that also enrich the vacation. For example, these popular package activities can include hiking and horse-back riding, picnic rendezvous, baths in the swimming pool, bike rides, hunts for chestnuts, mushrooms, or berries, and cultural tours of the area.

If the guests don’t already have enough to do, they can also take advantage of the amazing surrounding cities and sites. The possibilities are endless considering the incredible heritage of the country and the fact that you can always choose to be located close to Italy’s characteristic mountains, lakes, hills or the glistening Mediterranean Sea–or all at once depending on your position! So whether you are an eno-gastronomic specialist, an artist, an impassioned lover of tradition and beauty, or just in search of a quiet and economic getaway in the peace and tranquility of a home away from your own—I’d say it’s a perfect bet!