I spent the last two weeks traveling through Italy, eating my way through various provinces. Along the way, I was floored by the quality of food Italians enjoy. You can check out my photoset to see a glimpse.
Eating in Italy is both liberating and intoxicating.
Americans are afraid of food. We scrutinize our diets, contemplating levels of saturated fats and questioning the origins of every ingredient. Italians simply eat. And eating simply is eating better.
Italian food is the most loved food in the world. Whether you’re in New York or Norway, you’ll find people dining on some form of spaghetti or pizza. There are three factors to the success of Italian food: freshness and locality, simplicity, and umami. Yes, I’m using a Japanese concept to describe an old world European cuisine. I’ll explain soon.
Freshness and Locality
When you eat in Italy, you are eating locally. The Italians have an unparalleled level of respect for their ingredients. Each morsel of produce encountered is the best it can be.
During my trip, I’ve tasted impossibly sweet tomatoes, deeply savory slices of prociutto, and rich creamy scoops of gelato. Each bite was bittersweet, because no matter how you slice it, Italian produce is just better than the rest of the world. The produce in California, arguably the best in America, even pales in comparison.
So what’s the secret? Some say it’s the air, others say it’s the water. Italy is just naturally the best place to grow many types of produce. Whether it’s tomatoes from Napoli, milk and cream from Emilgio-Romagna cows, or olives from the Amalfi coast, Italian cuisine has an advantage even before heating up the skillet.
But more important than the quality of the local ingredients is the Italian philosophy of eating fresh and local. Chefs in Italy are fiercely dedicated to using local, fresh, and in-season ingredients. Through this commitment, the foundation of Italian cuisine is firmly rooted in quality. This is the reason why simple dishes like bruschetta are sublime when the ingredients are right, and disastrously dull when they are not.
Italian chefs, wherever they are, will turn to using local ingredients. One thing to remember is that even the tomato, which we strongly associate with Italian cuisine, originated from the New World. Only after pioneers brought back the plant did Italians incorporate it into their cuisine. It turns out tomatoes grow exceedingly well in the Italian climate. It’s a real testament to the Italian philosophy of incorporating local ingredients that grow well.
Italian food is simple. It’s an honest cuisine that let’s the produce and ingredients shine. You’ll be surprised to learn that a lot of Italian dishes only comprise of three or four ingredients. Bruschetta is tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and bread. Bolognese sauce is chopped root vegetables, beef, pork, and wine, slowly simmered.
In the US, we like to overcomplicate Italian food. We overstuff, oversauce, and overdo classic Italian recipes. For example, a typical lasagna in the US explodes with thick layers of mozzarella, meat, sauce, and other random ingredients.
In contrast, the classic Bolognese lasagna is comprised of Bolognese sauce, bechemel sauce, spinach sheet pasta, and parmesan cheese. Each layer contains a balanced and spare amount of these ingredients. Italian chefs understand that one component of a dish should not drown out all the other flavors. After tasting how delicate a lasagna could be, all the other versions I’ve tasted before felt heavy and overburdened.
Italians are masters at lacing their food with umami, the delicious savory fifth taste that is associated with the presence of glutamates. This is different from MSG, which is basically artifically injecting glutamates into foods.
The foundational Italian ingredients naturally contain very high levels of umami: ripe tomatoes, parmesan reggiano, prosciutto, porcini mushrooms, ragu. The aging process in parmesan reggiano in particular produces one of the highest levels of glutamates found in any naturally made ingredient. This is the reason why parmesan is a staple in pantries across the world.
With this trifecta, there is no surprise that Italian food is revered, eaten, and imitated across the world. It is said that Italians, even at their poorest, eat better than the richest countries in the world.
After my trip, I’m hoping to emulate as much of their philosophy as possible. You don’t need to be in Italy to cook great Italian food. You just need to remember to use the freshest ingredients around you to create an honest meal. Any Italian grandmother would approve of that.