There are a lot of myths about Italy and its food culture spread throughout the world.
Some food habits considered “typically Italian” aren’t actually true; they may be related to Italian food, but in Italy they are unknown.
I am going to tell you about what actually happens in our “Bel Paese”, our beautiful country so that you won’t be deceived.
I don’t think Italian food is any better than food in other countries, but it is definitely delicious, natural, simple, and healthy. In fact, there’s a whole industry promoting “The Mediterranean Diet,” which is much modeled after Italian food customs.
Just a few ingredients make exceptional dishes. Local dishes have a stronger, better taste if they are eaten in their birthplace. The history, landscapes, friendly and “loud” people, and easy-going, rustic lifestyle might be the main reasons for the overwhelming success of Italian food.
So, let’s debunk a few myths. Keeping it all simple is the main point.
- We are fond of abundance, just not of condiments
In Italy, we are “a lot” and we are “too much,” but when we eat, we like simple tastes without too much sauce.
When I go to the US, I always taste local food, and the first difference I notice are the condiments. In the US, food is richer, more abundant, more flavorful, and often just too much in quantity. What I mean is that pasta should be seasoned with tomato sauce, not the contrary where the sauce drowns out the pasta! We like tomato sauce but in the right quantity, and we like mopping our plates with a little bread, even though Galateo, who wrote the rules of polite behavior in Italian society 500+ years ago, said that it wasn’t good manners.
2. Having coffee all day long is not what we do
We live in a land of good coffee, but we don’t walk around with a cup of coffee all day long. We have it after main meals, sitting at the table, or standing at a bar counter. We don’t walk and drink because we are focused on where we are going. Italian streets are quite old and dilapidated and we have to be mindful of where we are walking.
3. Plenty of garlic and spices; we like simple flavors
Garlic is one of the main ingredients in our recipes, but it is never intrusive, save for a few local traditional recipes. Simple and natural flavors are preserved where no one taste overpowers the others. Eating is a sensorial journey. Garlic and spices are used in moderation.
How about butter? Although it is very tasty, we are afraid of using it because we believe it to be bad for our arteries. We use a little butter, which is hidden in some dishes (we use plenty of olive oil), but we never put it on our table; it could be life-threatening to someone.
4. Season the pasta with meatballs: it is delicious, but not Italian
Pasta with meatballs is appetizing, but it is not something you find in Italy. These are two separate Italian dishes. First, we have pasta and then meatballs with sides.
5. We don’t eat from the same plate; we like using several plates
You won’t encounter a main course unless you have a peasant soup with grains and vegetables or a rich, mixed salad. We usually have different courses, each one on its own plate, in order to not mix the different tastes. See my writing on 10 questions about Italian Food Habits for more info.
In addition, we eat pasta in a soup bowl and meat with vegetables on a dinner plate.
We hardly ever use disposable plates or cutlery; we do the washing up or use the dishwasher. Often we inherit nice tableware from our grandmas and moms.
6. Oil, salt, and vinegar on the table to season our dishes
A big difference between Italy and other countries is that here you won’t encounter any condiments, mayo, ketchup, or mustard, on restaurant tables; you will only find olive oil, salt, and pepper, and a few toothpicks. Flavorful dishes can be adjusted with salt and pepper to taste; just make sure the cook isn’t watching. Grated Parmigiano cheese is only taken to the table when you order some pasta. You don’t add it to other courses.
7. We don’t season our dishes with cheese
Yep, the cheese! We only sprinkle grated Parmesan cheese on pasta. We never season food with cheese, unless the recipe calls for it. That’s why it is super tasty but not too rich in calories.
8. We eat a lot, but we usually have moderate servings
We eat a lot of different dishes in moderate servings. However, we don’t often eat a large amount of the same food. A typical lunch is composed of a little pasta, some meat or fish (protein), a side dish, and, sometimes bread and fruit. It may sound like a lot, but the servings are moderate. We don’t always have big lunches. During the week, we have lighter and faster meals.
Servings are quite small, for instance:
- About 3/4 cup (60-80g) of pasta for women, about 1 cup (80-100g) for men;
- 3.5 oz. (100g or ¼ lb.) of meat for women, (5 oz. or 1/3 lb.)150g for men;
- 1 1/2cup (80g) of lettuce for women, 2 cups (100g) for men;
- 1-2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil to season;
- About 2 slices (50-70g) of bread;
- 1 medium piece of fruit about 150g;
- A lot but just not too many calories.
9. We eat only seasonal products
We normally eat according to our seasons, so if something is not seasonal, we don’t buy it. Of course, the supermarkets provide us with all kinds of products all year long, but we are not fond of out-of-season fruit and vegetables. For example, we are suspicious of strawberries at Christmas; we eat them only in May. We don’t buy cucumbers in winter; we only have them in our summer salads. And we only eat Panettone, a bread-like cake, at Christmas. We wait for the right food at the right moment of the year.
10. Italian food makes you fat
It mainly depends on the serving sizes, on the extra condiments, and on extra snacks. Sunday lunch is usually quite big, but during the week, we have lighter meals.
We have cake on the weekend or when we want to celebrate something special; it is not an everyday treat.
Moderation is the keyword. And keep in mind, Italian food comes to the table directly “from the farm.” As a result, it is fresh, natural, and organic. It is tasty on its own without a need for much additional seasoning.