In the end, one of our biggest takeaways from Italy was something that we’ve come to know right at home: Food matters. Food in Italy takes center stage, and eating in Italy will make you wonder at the standard American diet.
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Certainly my family is making an attempt to eat differently. I expect you are, too, if you’ve made your way here. But while we talk of “skipping the junk” and changing our habits to achieve a better, healthier way of eating, it seems to be innate in Italy. There is no junk. Or at least, there’s very little. Local food is readily available pretty much everywhere you look.
Interestingly, though, you don’t see a lot of organic food – or at least it’s not labeled as such. Perhaps in part because there’s a strong coalition in Italy working to prevent the cultivation of transgenically modified organisms.
One thing we noticed: Those of us who are typically wheat intolerant had no trouble at all with the pasta and pastries we ate in Italy. Curious, no?
Eating in Italy means eating local
We traveled primarily by train during our trip, which gave us a chance to see the countryside, and in many cases people’s backyards. And nearly every one had a garden. Rows of artichokes and kale. Tomato plants stretching out of their handmade trellises. Beans vining along the fence. And beyond the vegetable garden, larger yards had a small vineyard and olive trees.
On the few days that we traveled by car, we noticed the same thing: Homes had gardens.
But we also spotted numerous roadside gardens, unused space that had been seemingly reclaimed to grow food in Italy. Guerrilla gardening in the Italian countryside? (Let me pause here to offer thanks to my husband who patiently pulled over at least five thousand times so I could look at just one more garden.)
Of course, these were rural areas where there was space to grow, even if it was just a small garden. In the more urban locations we visited space was at a premium, but even so, window gardens overflowed from upper stories. City dwellers were not consigned to crappy food just because of their location, though – no food deserts here.
In every town we visited, markets popped up seemingly daily. Some were outdoors. Others were inside big warehouse spaces. Business hours for these markets were hard for us to pin down, but the local residents somehow knew exactly when to be there.
A person could survive on the fresh market fare alone. Produce (gorgeous fresh produce), cheese, cured meats, butter, honey, bread, vinegar, fresh pasta, wine, and fresh butcher shops. We had a very hard time refraining from buying more than we could eat in our short time in each locale. Eating in Italy was an absolute delight!
I asked our host at our first stop just how much of the produce we see grows locally. “Everything,” he told me. “Except for things like bananas and pineapple, it’s all grown in Italy.” And even at that, another of our hosts explained that growers in the warmer regions are experimenting with growing tropical fruit.
Food in Italy — at the grocery stores
There are grocery stores in Italy, of course, and some even qualify as a recognizable supermarket. But generally speaking, the quality of food far exceeds what their American counterparts offer. America has aisles of packaged cereal, power drinks, Lunchables, and a small “gourmet” section. The few grocery stores we shopped at in Italy carried much more “real food.”
I quite literally just stood in the dairy/produce section of one store with wide eyes (and possibly an open mouth), ogling the extensive options until my husband ushered me along. The fresh pasta section rivaled our cereal aisle in size. Prepared marinara sauce? Hardly any. But there was a huge selection of tomato products, roasted and pickled vegetables, and herb sauces. Many of these were offered in glass rather than plastic.
We survived our first few jet-lagged days on eggs scrambled with roasted vegetables and garlic preserved in oil; super simple fare but it was delicious, not to mention incredibly inexpensive.
In addition to grocery stores, there are specialty shops galore, some in store fronts, others utilizing space at the fresh market. Pasticcerias for pastries, the forno for breads, and the prosciutteria for, well, prosciutto. There were shops dedicated to freshly made dried pasta, bulk dried beans, tea, and olive oil.
The people of Italy take their food seriously. They savor it over leisurely evening meals. They indulge in fresh pastries that somehow far exceed the quality of even our best bakeries.
And restaurants strive for regional cuisine. How regional? Fish is prevalent on the menu at seaside locations, but not inland. If there is fish on the menu at inland restaurants, it’s fresh water fish caught in a nearby lake.
Food in Italy is not trucked clear across the country – or from out of the country. In fact, during the course of our stay we spotted fresh baked goods being delivered both by bicycle and in the little three-wheeled delivery trucks that are commonly used in Italy.
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Food in Italy
My son asked the question that was on all of our minds: “How did we go so far wrong?” The excellent food we were eating in Italy made all of us keenly aware of just how far wrong our food system in America has gone.
And it’s made us redouble our efforts at producing our own food in the space we have, both for our own use and to share throughout our little community. It means more work in the garden (which I love), as well as breaking habits (that part is hard). We like tortilla chips and rice and apples, but these things don’t grow here. Shipping them thousands of miles just so we can have things we like doesn’t make sense, especially when there are locally produced options.
Grazie mille, Italy, for the gentle reminder that we need to get back to the basics.