In June, I traveled to Italy for the first time and yes, there was The David with his fabulous butt in Firenze and The Pieta at the Vatican (which, for the record, did make me cry), but for me, the trip was all about the food. A friend calls himself “Un Buono Forchetta,” a good eater, one who has a good appetite and enjoys his food. Certainly I am that. I have friends who confess over spider rolls and agedashi tofu, “Oh my god, I love eating with you.” That’s because I enjoy my food and I like to try everything.
I went to Italy to be a una buona forchetta: I wanted to experience Italian culture through my mouth. I wanted to eat offal and squid ink pasta and anything with anchovies. What I ended up eating was far from some Anthony Bourdain-inspired orgy, but it was memorable. Here are the highlights:
The memory of eating this creamy cured pork fat slathered on bread came to me just the other day. Someone asked me if I’d ever eaten a lard sandwich, which truthfully, sounds terrible, but I ate lardo in Italy and it was a revelation. Think of it as cream-colored butter.
Caccia e Pepe
Pretty much just pecorino and pepper tossed with olive oil and the fresh pasta, here served in a Parmesan cheese bowl. It’s creamy and yummy, with a little bite. A classic Roman dish.
This dish was called “Cow’s Tail” on the menu, which is why I ordered it, thinking of something snake-like, stewed with the skin on, but of course it’s just ox tail, which is beefy and full of silky marrow. YUM.
Pizza Margherita with Arugula
Anyone who puts fresh greens on a pizza is good by me. The arugula in Italy is peppery and doesn’t seem as frail as the stuff you get in the States; it has a kick.
And while we’re on the subject: Pizza Bianca, which is not the round kind of pizza, but a kind of foccaccia bread that is salted and oiled, and baked with cheese. You order it in sandwich shops and because the bread is so flavorful, it tastes spectacular with some meat and cheese or greens and tomatoes, without goopy dressing or heaps of mayonnaise. My favorite sandwich meat was mortadella (what those who do not know better call “italian bologna”), which I ate as a kid at my grandfather’s house. The mortadella in Italy was a revelation (as in, prosciutto-who cares?)–buttery, with a rich, but mellow pork flavor.
Truffles + Balsamic Crema
I do need to say a word about these two things, both of which I ate and ate. My friend Elizabeth turned me on to the latter; we drizzled it over salad, on top of tomatoes, and one afternoon, over saturn (donut) peaches with chopped basil. The crema is thick and pungent, and can be infused with flavors such as fig and garlic. A little goes a long way. In terms of truffles, my most memorable experience was at La Casella, an agriturismo in Umbria. There I ate a truffle and potato timbale held together by a silky mixture of cheese and cream. The dish was an incredible combination of earth and air, rich truffle and light whipped potato. That was my “Oh my god” Italian food moment.
I did buy some fantastic salami from a lovely man in Campo di Fiori (I kinda think our noses look the same). He let me try a dozen salamis before I decided what I wanted. I was looking for wild boar salami, but fell in love with one cured in Barolo and another thinner variety, larded with huge veins of fat.
Later, I took my search for Wild Boar to Orvieto, where I was told I must eat the Ragu di Cinghiale, but we arrived late, so settled for this Wild Boar instead.
My best pictures from Italy are of food. The shops and markets offer more color and texture and flourish than even Rome’s best baroque art. I mean, look at this!
By the way, my art historian friend Giulia says that baroque art creates such a spectacle that she’d be a believer if she worshipped in one of its churches.
Pictured here, The Church of Pasta alla Firenze.
What did revelation about food did my trip bring? Only this: Remember to Taste the Food. Everything I ate combined simple fresh ingredients in a way that foregrounded whatever was on the plate: beans, truffles, pasta and ragu. Nothing was hidden benath a canopy of spices or drenched in heavy sauce. Italians trust food to be good. They eat it in season and then move on.
Of course now I only want to go back to Italia and eat more food–food I missed, food I don’t know about, food that tells the story of the people and the place where at least part of me is from. Buon Appetito!