Let’s talk about Italian food

Obviously, one of the first things that comes to your mind when you think of Italy is the food. I can’t lie, I do love a good trip to Olive Garden, but what I experienced in only two weeks in Northern Italy  and Rome is so far beyond amazing that it is hard to describe. However, I will try my best. Here are some of the highlights (in alphabetical order, it was the only way that seemed fair).

Bresaola sandwich in Dongo, Lake Como
Bresaola sandwich in Dongo, Lake Como

Bresaola: This is a thinly sliced beef that has been salted and air-dried for two or three months to a dark, almost purple hue. Similar to American chipped beef, this is common in far northern Italy, including the Lake Como region. I had it by itself, in sandwiches, and even on pizza. One of the most popular ways this meat is served as an appetizer with rocket and parmesan cheese.

Pasta with cuttlefish ink in Venice
Pasta with cuttlefish ink in Venice

Cuttlefish ink: The cuttlefish is a member of the same family as squid and octopus, and serving it in a sauce of its own ink is a traditional Venetian specialty. Although it looks a little strange due to the deep black color, the taste is very mild and a little salty. The flavor is not too fishy or overwhelming. Pasta made with cuttlefish ink is another option, with the black color of the pasta providing a unique look to regular spaghetti.

Hazelnut (top) and Disaronno gelato in Rome
Hazelnut (top) and Disaronno gelato in Rome

Gelato: No doubt you have at least heard of gelato, which is basically ice cream. The process of making gelato is bit different, and it is a little lower in fat than traditional ice cream. While not a huge fan of ice cream, I did appreciate gelato for the wide range and uniqueness of flavors available. I tried cream, pistachio, coffee, hazelnut, Nutella, salted caramel and a few other flavors. My favorite was a Disaronno (amaretto) flavor.

Panzerotti: Kind of like a softer fried meat pie or calzone, this was one of the specialties in Milan. We tried the classic tomato and mozzarella and were not disappointed. Although it can be messy to eat this “pizza donut” (as Chelsey calls it) would be right at home at the Iowa State Fair. These are also available at Italian McDonalds.

Pecorino: A hard Italian cheese made from sheep’s milk, pecorino is a common staple on cheese boards, breakfast buffets, and sandwiches. Although occasionally gritty, it has a nice, smooth flavor that stands on its own, as well as blending with meats, honey or jam.

Truffles: A member of the fungi family, truffles have long been treasured for their complex flavor. We were very lucky that we were traveling through Tuscany, the heart of Italy’s truffle production during truffle season. Especially in Siena and Florence, dishes with truffle were prevalent on many menus. The woody, mushroomy flavor of truffles added to gnocchi (potato dumplings), risotto, and pasta was truly amazing. Truffles come in both white and black varieties, with white being rarer and, therefore, more expensive.

The biggest advice I can give about food in Italy is not to be afraid to try something out of the ordinary. As with most cuisine types, the actual food is very different from what we have Americanized it into being. Don’t stick with the turisto menu of lasagna and spaghetti Bolognese; try something new. If something is specialty in the area where you are, try it! There is a reason it is a specialty, it’s probably delicious. Try the strangest gelato flavor, the weird-shaped noodles and the dishes you’ve never heard of. After all, you can have as much chicken ziti as you want next time at Olive Garden, but who knows when you’ll be in Italy again.

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