Italy 3: The Food.
A long write up on the health, shopping, cooking, and dining out in Italy. I have included a few of my favorite recipes developed on this trip as well.
I stared at this blank word doc for a while not knowing where to even start explaining the food….
I mean THE FOOD!
The Food Culture
First, lets get discuss the cultural eating style The whole eating style in Italy is different. Italians pay little attention to breakfast. There was a study that just came out about how breakfast might not be as great as previously thought. Who’s to say really. Nutrition is a new science and will always be changing. There are so many factors that go into these studies and so many reasons why a morning meal will or will not work for each individual. I like to tailor nutrition to each person. Personally, I love breakfast. So it was a challenge for me to be in Italy and realize, there is no breakfast! Just espresso or cappuccino and a biscuit, cookie, or small pastry typically eaten on the go. I dashed into a grocery a found a yogurt to consume - more about the grocery shopping experience in a bit. Lunch is a larger, more social meal comprised of many courses and dinner is lighter. Of course, for vacationers, lunch and dinner tend to be larger.
Let me pause for a moment and say that Italians are tiny people. Tiny people feasting on copious amounts of meats and cheeses. Seems wrong right? I mean I immediately felt fat in Italy. Its like lining up at the start of a triathlon. Doesn’t matter how fit you felt leading up the event, there will be at least a hundred people who look amazingly lean and toned in their spandex. Even the most fit person can feel fat at a triathlon. This is how it felt in Italy. Everyone was tiny! Short, thin, and fast moving. They definitely are not suffering from the same ‘epidemic’ as Americans. Maybe it’s the skipping breakfast or the high protein diets. Maybe it’s the excessive caffeine or the smoking (they do smoke a lot!). Maybe it’s that they generally move more; walking to shops, commuting on bike, and of course, talking aggressively with their hands. Maybe it is all of those things combined. Honestly after being there, eating, and shopping the local places... I truly think it is the lack of sugar that really contributes to the difference in weights... but that is another topic.
Dining Out Italian Style
It’s Italy, it is a place known for the food. Lets forget about ‘Olive Garden’.. and all other American chain restaurants that pretend to serve Italian cuisine. Because they don’t. Those overflowing, never-ending bowls of penne in cream sauce have nothing to do with the food served in Italy. I was on vacation here and even a healthy vacation includes its fair share of dining out.
Dining out basically goes like this:
Apertivo – my favorite way to consume alcohol. This is the practice of going out for a pre-dinner drink. The Apertif is consumed before a meal to stimulate the appetite. It is a small amount of liquor (such as Cynar or Campari or something of that sort).
Anitpasti – Appetizer. Meats, seafood salads, cheeses, olives usually make up this selection.
Primi – This is the first course. It is a small serving of a pasta or risotto.
Secondi – Second course. Typically the meat or seafood dish served with a vegetable.
Dessert – Either a dessert or a caffé or alcohol.
Beverages are either mineral or flat bottled water with table wine; red and white.
Again, it is vacation, so you order all the courses… I know I know, you’re thinking ‘whoa girl that’s a lot of food….’, but no, it isn’t. The courses are small and the food is fresh and simple. You do not leave the table stuffed. So that is how it works, now onto what the food is. While in Italy, my diet was made up of mostly meats, cheeses and olives. These are things I typically limit, well the meats and cheeses anyway. But even when you order a dish that sounds like it will be a salad or vegetable type meal, it turns out to be meat topped with a bit of veg or a salad with mozzarella, tuna and olives. This isn’t a bad thing. The meats, seafood and cheeses are absolutely delicious here. The mozzarella is so soft and creamy I couldn’t get enough. I ate a whole ball for breakfast one morning…oops…. I was expecting more of a Mediterranean style with tons of fruits and vegetables… but this was Northern Italy and there was not a big reliance on produce. There was plenty of cured meats, tins of fish, fresh seafood, olives, and cheeses. And wine. Lots of wine.
Grocery Shopping in Italy
This leads into the grocery shopping. There are tiny grocery stores and large supermarkets. I visited as many as I could and took it all in. The differences were wonderful. The smaller stores had limited produce. Very small produce sections actually. There were no bananas, no potatoes, no onions or even apples to name a few missing things. We get so accustomed to having all of these items at our finger tips in the US. But in Italy, there were figs and fresh currents along with a pineapple or two. For the fresh vegetables, tomatoes, zucchini, and eggplant were plentiful. You buy what is there and use that and that is okay, because those items are fresh and ripe and so flavorful. The larger stores had produce of all types, even bananas! But still not as large as I was expecting. In America the produce sections compete with bottled beverages of colorful healthy touting kombuchas, smoothies, juices, teas, and coffees. There was none of these in Italy. Not a cold pressed juice in sight. Instead, fresh pasta, tomato sauce and pestos crowded up against the bagged lettuces. The largest section was the meats. Sliced charcuterie of all types filled deli counters and cold cases. These were definitely the most popular way to eat your protein in Italy. The fresh meat counter was limited, even in the larger stores. By limited, I mean in size. The variety was there. Forget beef. You could get pork, chicken, goose, rooster, even Equino (yes that means what you think it means). I was not feeling that adventurous (although it is a lean meat!) so I moved onto the seafood counter. There were fish and seafood that I had never seen before. It was very inspiring to have a entirely new set of ingredients in front of me. No salmon in sight, but plenty of trout, octopus, tuna, and mussels filled the case. The inner aisles were similarly filled with packaged products; cookies, chips, dried pastas, cereals… The biggest difference being the overall variety. Again, in America we are so accustomed to having a huge assortment of goods. There are not only tortilla chips, but 12 different varieties of tortilla chips (maybe more). In Italy there are no tortilla chips. You’re just out of luck with that. Not a jar of salsa in sight either. There is however a very large selection of cookies. Italians love their cookies! Another noticeable difference is the ‘health’ selection. There is no aisle of organic products in Italy. At least not in any of the 6 grocery stores I visited. Organic is ‘Biologico’. Some packages feature this word, but it isn’t super obvious or differentiated in any other way. I did not see any produce claiming to be biologico. Another ‘health’ claim I did notice was ‘Senza’, meaning ‘without’. This term made it very easy to find allergy friendly products such as pesto without nuts, sauces without lactose, and pasta without gluten.
Gluten Free in Italy
I am gluten free. Have been for roughly 6 years. So the thought of going to Italy has always bummed me out a little. No pasta for me! What would I eat?! Would I starve? Be miserable? Have to pack a suitcase full of GF substitutes?... Not exactly! It's always tougher to be GF (or on any special diet) while traveling because you're out of your element, likely on other people's schedules, dealing with other cultures dining habits, and have limited resources of cooking equipment and food stuffs. But Italy would surely be the worst for a gluten free diner right? I did some research. Turns out there are many GF options in Italy. It is actually a very GF friendly region as the condition of Coeliac (european spelling) has been a thing in Europe long before it became a trend in the US. Italy government actually provides a stipend of $100/mo to diagnosed sufferers to assist with the additional cost of the specialty products. How nice of them. America... are you listening!? That info alone let me know that it is an important issue to Italy. Many restaurants have GF options of pizza and pasta. I had the most delicious pasta with seafood I've ever had while at a family style casual diner in Italy. Another plus is that they know their food. It isn't a food culture of pre packaged 'stuff' with hard to read ingredient labels or mystery ingredients. The cooks and waitstaff are truly involved in the food. They know where the food comes from, what goes in each dish and if there is or is not gluten in it. What a concept. At each restaurant I was provided a GF substitute without the eye rolling or up charge that is typical in America. I even was given GF crackers since I couldn't eat from the bread basket being passed around. It was so nice to get to dine out and get to eat the local foods without having to sacrifice or worry too much. One thing I did learn is if you are going to Italy and need GF, try planning your restaurants ahead of time and giving advanced notice of your GF needs. They appreciate this and as they prepare the dishes fresh to order in small batches, some of the items are not able to be made GF on demand. At one place, I was desperate to order pizza and the menu had a GF crust. However when I tried to order... no such luck... you need to give 24 hr notice. Oh well, I had to suffer through a platter of grilled vegetable and seafood. Bummer... ;) At the grocery there were options for bread, pasta, crackers and sauces. Just look for the words 'Senza Glutine' (also the magic words to tell your waitress or waiter) and you know it is 'without gluten'. They had many local GF foods as well, such as GF croissants! I did not try them, but was amused to see they existed. One thing I did try was the Gluten Free beer! They had Peroni, the Italian favorite in a GF variety and I have to say, it was good! So, if you're Gluten Free, go to Italy! I highly recommend it.
Cooking in Italy
When traveling for more than a couple days, it is always nice to have a kitchen. Not only will this help you stay on track with your healthy eating habits, but it will also give you a good opportunity to dive in to the local cuisine and recipes. If you can’t stand the thought of cooking will on vacation, hire a personal chef (like me!) to come with you and take care of it all. During this trip I had several opportunities to cook. Post cycling meals were a must and preparing large group dinners kept me very busy in the kitchen. Check my previous post for recipes on my 2 favorite post cycling meals that I developed on this trip: Tonno Pizza + Italian Toast.
My top tips on cooking for groups:
- Choose a buffet style, it is easier to have everyone help themselves instead of trying to plan a full service.
- Cook up several dishes. Some might like fish, some might hate it and things like that. Tastes vary. Cook up many options to have something for everyone.
- Check for dietary issues. Do you have a GF person in your group? A seafood allergy? It is crucial to know what you're dealing with and provide options.
- Put out a tray of appetizers. This helps everyone mingle and graze on healthy bits while you get the cooking done.
- Try to make at least 1 dish that doesn't require constant attention. Risotto needs constant stirring, you can't do that and do other dishes at the same time and expect everything to taste great. Opt for one dish in the oven so its out of the way for a decent chunk of time.
Baked Trout + Potato
+ 4 whole trout (roughly 4-6 pounds) Cleaned/Gutted
+ 1 pound baby potatoes, halved
+ 1 pound yellow tomatoes, halved
+ 1 stalk Leek wash and slice into thick pieces
+ 4 Tbsp Olive Oil
+ 1 c Water
+ 2 Tbsp Garlic, diced
+ Fresh Parsley (flat leaf)
+ 2 Lemons, sliced
+ S + P
In a large backing dish, toss the potatoes, tomatoes and leeks in 2 tbsp oil. Season with s+p. Bake at 350 for roughly 30 minutes. Add the water to the pan and bake another 30 minutes until the tomatoes have burst and potatoes are close to tender. Meanwhile, rub the remaining oil on the fish. Place the lemon slices inside of each fish. Season them with s+p. Add the fish to the top of the vegetables and turn the oven down to 325. Sprinkle with the garlic and let cook another 40 minutes, until the fish flakes apart. Serve from the platter for maximum wow factor.