Italian food inside of Italy is different than what they call "Italian food" in America. It is truly one of the most diverse in the world, and in any region, or even city and village you go, there are different specialities. For instance, it could be only misleading to say that Northern Italian cuisine is based on hearty, potato and rice-rich meals, Central Italian cuisine is mainly on pastas, roasts and meat, and Southern Italian cuisine on vegetables, pizza, pasta and seafood: there are so many cross-influences that you'd only get confused trying to categorize. And in any case, Italian cuisine, contrary to popular belief, is not just based on pasta and tomato sauce - that's only a tiny snippet of the nation's food, as in some parts of Northern Italy, pasta isn't even used at all, and rice, potatoes, lentils, soups and similar meals are very common in some parts of the country. Italian food is based upon so many ingredients and Italians often have very discriminating tastes that may seem strange to Americans and other visitors.
For instance, a sandwich stand might sell 4 different types of ham sandwiches that in each case contain ham, mayonnaise, and cheese. The only thing that may be different between the sandwiches is the type of ham or cheese used in them. Rustichella and panzerotti are two examples of sandwiches well-liked by Italians and tourists alike. Also, Italian sandwiches are quite different from the traditional Italian-American “hero”, “submarine”, or “hoagie” sandwich (which by the way mean nothing to any Italian). Rather than large sandwiches with a piling of meat, vegetables, and cheese, sandwiches in Italy are often quite small, very flat (made even more so when they are quickly heated and pressed on a panini grill), and contain a few simple ingredients with rarely, if ever, lettuce or mayonnaise. The term panini may be somewhat confusing to travellers from Northern Europe where it has erroneously come to mean a flat, heated sandwich on a grill. In Italy the term is equivalent to "bread rolls" (plural) which can be simple rolls or sometimes with basic filling. However instead of a sandwich why not try piadinas which are a flat folded bread with filling, which are served warm and are typical of the coast of Emilia-Romagna.
Americans will notice that Italian pasta is usually available with a myriad of sauces rather than simply tomato and Alfredo. Also, Italian pasta is often served with much less sauce than in America. This is, in part, because pasta in a restaurant is usually regarded as the first course of a three- or four-course meal, not a meal in itself.
Structure of a traditional meal: Usually Italian meals for working days are: small breakfast, one-dish lunch, one-dish dinner. Coffee is welcomed at nearly every hour, especially around 10:00 and at the end of a meal. At the weekends and in restaurants (for other occasions), a meal typically consists of: antipasto (appetizers: marinated vegetables, mixed coldcuts, seafood, etc), primo (pasta or rice dish), secondo (meat or fish course) often with a side-dish known as contorno, and dolce (dessert).
Like the language and culture, food in Italy differs region by region. Pasta and olive oil are considered the characteristics of southern Italian food, while northern food focuses on rice and butter(although today there are many, many exceptions). Local ingredients are also very important. In warm Naples, citrus and other fresh fruit play a prominent role in both food and liquor, while in Venice fish is obviously an important traditional ingredient. As a guideline, in the south cuisine is focused on pasta and dessert, while at north meat is king, but this rule can be very different depending on where you are.
A note about breakfast in Italy: This is very light, often just a cappuccino or coffee with a pastry (cappuccino e brioche) or a piece of bread and fruit jam. Unless you know for certain otherwise, you should not expect a large breakfast. It is not customary in Italy to eat eggs and bacon or that sort of foods at breakfast - just the thought of it is revolting to most Italians. In fact, no salty foods are consumed at breakfast, generally speaking. Additionaly, cappuccino is a breakfast drink; ordering one after lunch or dinner is considered somewhat strange and considered a typical "tourist thing". A small espresso coffee is considered much more appropriate for digestion.
Another enjoyable Italian breakfast item is cornetto (pl. cornetti): a croissant or light pastry often filled with jam, cream or chocolate.
Lunch is seen as the most important part of the day, so much that Italians have one hour reserved for eating (and in the past, another hour was reserved for napping). All shops close down and resume after the two hour break period. To compensate for this, businesses used to stay open later than in most other European towns, often until 8 pm. However, this is no longer the case and now the business hours of a typical italian day are much shorter than in the rest of western europe and certainly a lot shorter than in north america or asia. Good luck trying to find a place open during the so-called "pausa pranzo" (lunch break), when visiting a smalltown, but this is not the case in the city centers of the biggest cities or in shopping malls.
Dinner (i.e. the evening meal) is generally taken late. In the summer, if you are in a restaurant before 8pm you are likely to be eating on your own, and it is quite normal to see families with young children still dining after 10pm.
In Italy cuisine is considered a kind of art. Great chefs as Gualtiero Marchesi or Gianfranco Vissani are seen as half-way between TV stars and magicians. Italians are extremely proud of their culinary tradition and generally love food and talking about it. However, they are not so fond of common preconceptions, such as that Italian food is only pizza and spaghetti. They also have a distaste for "bastardized" versions of their dishes that are popular elsewhere, and many Italians have a hard time believing that the average foreigner can't get even a basic pasta dish "right".
A note about service: do not expect the kind of dedicated, focused service you will find in American restaurants. In Italy this is considered somewhat annoying and people generally prefer to be left alone when consuming their meal. You should expect the waiter to come and check on you after your first course, maybe to order something as second course.
You should consider that Italy's most famous dishes like pizza or spaghetti are quite lame for Italians, and eating in different areas can be an interesting opportunity to taste some less well known local specialty. Even for something as simple as pizza there are significant regional variations. That of Naples has a thick, soft crust while that of Rome is considerably thinner and crustier.
When dining out with Italians read the menu and remember that almost every restaurant has a typical dish and some towns have centuries-old traditions that you are invited to learn. People will be most happy when you ask for local specialties and will gladly advise you.
In Northern Italy at around 17:00 most bars will prepare for an aperitivo especially in cosmopolitan Milan, with a series of plates of nibbles, cheese, olives, meat, bruschetta and much more... This is NOT considered a meal and should you indulge yourself in eating as if it was dinner, you would most likely not be very much appreciated. All this food is typically free to anyone who purchases a drink but it is intended to be a premeal snack.
An interesting piece of trivia mostly lost on tourists and locals alike, is that the tomato did not make its way into italian cuisine until well into the 18th century. The tomato plant is native to South America and as such, was not "discovered" by europeans until its introduction in the late 1600s and early 1700s. No, Da Vinci didn't eat pizza with tomato paste and Michelangelo didn't dine on pasta with tomato sauce.
Almost every city and region has its own specialities, a brief list of which may include:
Pizza is a quick and convenient meal. In most cities there are pizza shops that sell by the gram. Look for a sign Pizza al taglio. When ordering, simply point to the display or tell the attendant the type of pizza you would like (e.g. pizza margherita, pizza con patate (roasted or french fries), pizza al prosciutto (ham), etc.) and how much ("Vorrei (due fette - two slices) or (due etti - two-tenths of a kilogram) or simply say "di più - more" or "di meno - less, per favore"). They will slice it, warm it in the oven, fold it in half, and wrap it in paper. Other food shops also sell pizza by the slice. Italians consider those a sort of second class pizza, chosen only when you cannot eat a "real" pizza in a specialized restaurant (Pizzeria). Unlike North America where pizza by the slice is ubiquitous, fresh and cheap, pizza by the slice or pizza al taglio in Italy is not fresh [i.e. reheated], expensive and thus rarely good value for money. This usually comes as a surprise for most first time visitors to Italy. Remember, getting your meal on the run can save money--many sandwich shops charge an additional fee if you want to sit to eat your meal. Also, in many parts of the country pizzas have a thinner base of bread and less cheese than those found outside Italy. The most authentic, original pizzas is found in Naples - often containing quite a few ingredients.
The traditional, round pizza is found in many restaurants and specialized pizza restaurants (pizzerie). It is rare to find a restaurant that serves pizza at lunchtime, however.
Take-away pizzerias (pizzerie da asporto) are becoming ubiquitous in many cities and towns. These are often run by north african immigrants and quality may vary, though they are almost always cheaper than restaurants (€4-5 for a margherita on average) and are also open at lunchtime (a few are also open all day long). Some will also serve kebab, which may also vary in quality. Though take-away pizzas are also considered "second-class pizza" by most italians, they are quite popular among the vast population of university students and they are usually located in residential areas. This is not to be confused with the ever so popular "Pizza al Taglio" shops in Rome. These are a sort of traditional fast food in the Capital City and can be found at every corner. Quality is usually very good and pizza is sold by the weight; you choose the piece of pizza you want, then they put it on the scale and tell you the price.
In Italy you can find nearly 800 kinds of cheese, including the famous Parmigiano Reggiano, and over 400 types of sausages.
If you want a real kick, then try to find one of the huge open markets, which are always open on Saturdays and usually during other days, except Sunday, as well. You will find all types of cheese and meat on display.
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