Food Again….In Europe this time

Posted August 9th, 2004 by Deepa and filed in Travel
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One of the things that I was looking forward to the most when I was in Italy was to sample authentic Italian food and to compare the taste with Indian-Italian and American-Italian varieties. Several guidebooks advised us to go off the beaten path and avoid touristy places to enjoy the real Italian food. The question was how far away from a known tourist spot is the beaten path. The places we visited were so swarming with tourists that it was really difficult to get away from them all and given the fact that thieves and pickpockets are rampant we were not eager to go to a secluded spots. However we did try to compromise and avoid the real tourist traps. At least I would like to think so. Our first culinary lesson in Italy was that a quick-bite does not figure in the Italian vocabulary.

The Italians begin their meal with Antipasti (appetizers), which may be cold or hot dishes. The main course is actually divided into the first and second course (primi piatti and the secondo piatti). The first one generally being the pasta and the second one is the meat or fish course. The salads or insalata are generally served as a side order (Contorni) or even as a third course, rather than as an appetizer. Desserts (Dolce) or a selection of cheese round off the meal. Generally, there is a selection of wines to accompany each course.

Some of the appetizers, like the ones below, were common to almost all the cities that we visited.

Prosciutto e Melone, which translates into ham with melon, was the ubiquitous appetizer all throughout Italy . The ham was generally half cooked slices of specially cured parma ham, salty in flavor served with slices of cantaloupe.

Formaggi , which is generally an assortment of cheeses.

Bruschetta. Slices of toasted bread topped with fresh tomatoes, olive oil and a bit of parsley. Bruschetta served as our first insight of how the American version of Italian food differed from the original. Americans invariably add cheese to the toppings in Bruschetta, but this was missing in most Italian restaurants.

The primi piatti is the main pasta course. There is a wide variety of pasta to make your selection from like the penne pasta, the fettuccine, the gnocchi, the spaghetti or the linguini. These differ not only in the shape and size but also in the type of sauce that accompanied it. The marinara, which is tomato based with olive oil was a popular choice as was the carbonara cheese based sauce with ham in it. In some places, like Venice the list of pasta were supplemented with rice dishes or risotto.

Seejo with the Antipasti, PrimoPasti and Secondo Pasti

Primi Piatti
Different varieties of Pasta .On the left is Fettuccine al Limone

One of the oddest things that I found was that the second course was served only after you finished the primi piatti. Which means you ate the pasta by itself without the meat/fish course. The second course was either a meat (carne) or a fish (pesce) course. In coastal areas like Venice and Capri , we got excellent grilled fish dishes. The fish varied from lobsters to cuttlefish to the seabass or whatever the local fish was. The meat dishes was primarily pork in various forms, Game food was present in certain restaurants like pheasants and wild boar. Chicken was conspicuous by its absence. We hardly found it in any of the restaurants, except in those catering for tourists.

Wild Boar meat in gravy

The side dishes were typically salads of various kinds, the mixed salad or the insalata mista or grilled vegetables like eggplant and zucchini. One of the best side dishes we ever had was the Caprese salad in Capri . It consisted of slabs of Mozzarella cheese, covered with slices of tomato and sprinkled with olive oil and basil. This extremely simple dish was made extraordinary by the freshness of the ingredients used.

Salad Caprese

Gelatos!!

The crowning glory of every meal, the dessert, had various options. Chocolate truffles, Cannelloni, Tiramisu and an option of various fruits. But more often than not we skipped the dessert in the restaurant in order to have the gelato in a nearby gelataria. These gelataria have ice cream tubs of different flavors, some gelataria had more than 100 different flavours. You can chose between cup or cone and the number of flavours upto 4 different flavours. The trick is to mix and match the flavours such that you get the best taste. (Interesting titbit. Pineapple in Italian is called Ananas I applied the same logic and asked for Anguria once. But things are not always logical..I got watermelon instead of grape!!)

And I have to mention the most important Italian culinary export, the Pizza. The Italian Pizza is quite different that both the Indian one and the American one. For once the cheese is less and the Italians believe in the ‘less is more’ policy as far as toppings are concerned. Anchovies, mushrooms, basil and sausage seemed to be the popular toppings. Cheese was kept to a basic minimum.

Pizza with sausage

Pizza with Funghi (mushrooms!) and prosicuito (ham).

Of course wine lovers would go on about the various kinds of wine. But I am not one so I will stop here.

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