Some friends tell me I hit the jackpot when I started dating my boyfriend. Not only is he Italian, with all the passion and sexy-accent-ness that entails, but he’s a fantastic cook with a penchant for parmigiana. He makes a different pasta dish every weekend and I swear that every weekend he eats it like he was starving and says, “Ahhh, bolognese! I needed this!” or, “Ahhh, risotto, I needed this!” Sounds like the Eat from Eat, Pray, Love, am I right?
Well, until we started eating together regularly, I didn’t realize how many Italian eating habits aren’t revealed in chick flicks and European love stories. Here are a couple of the most surprising things I learned, and a not-so-surprising one.
(Okay, before I even start this, I feel I should let you know that my boyfriend is from the south. Apparently, food attitudes differ widely between the north and the south. The north is much more eat-on-the-run, while in the south, nothing is more sacred than the food on the table. So some of these tidbits may be more true for southerners. Nevertheless, here we go.)
1. Italians Always Eat in Courses
Growing up in America, I thought courses were reserved for only the fanciest of fancy occasions, when elegance and hoity-toitiness are called for. Not so in Italy. They eat everything in courses. It’s like sacrilege to mix savory and sweet flavors. This has caused a few moments of consternation in our relationship, like when I went to a lot of effort to cook my boyfriend a real American breakfast. I kept imagining how enlightened he’d feel, like, “So THIS is what breakfast can be! How have I been missing out on this my whole life?!” Instead, he tried to eat it in courses. He wanted to eat the sausages first, with bread , and then eat the pancakes. And he had no idea how we could happily drown our food in that atrocity I called maple syrup! There may or may not have been tears involved in that misunderstanding.
Another moment of cultural aggravation came at the end of a magnificent Thanksgiving feast, all lovingly prepared by the hands of my friend Emily — a remarkable achievement in any country, but especially in a non-United-States country. My boyfriend enjoyed the food but commented, dabbing his mouth with a napkin, “It would have been better if we’d eaten the macaroni and cheese first, then the potatoes, then the turkey, then the…” Agh no! Just stop.
Now I’m used to courses, though, so there are no more problems. Incidentally, if you want to eat in courses, the first is always something like pasta, a vegetable dish, soup, or a salad, while the second is the more substantial food: a steak, chicken, fish.
2. Italians Don’t Eat Bread With Pasta
Early in our relationship, my boyfriend and I sat down to the first course of dinner one day. He had prepared tortellini, but I noticed he’d left the crusty fresh bread in the kitchen. I went to fetch it, and as I sat down, munching my bread and my pasta, I noticed him looking at me.
“Yes?” I inquired.
“Nothing, just… usually we don’t eat bread with pasta,” he said. His tone was neutral, but you could tell he was secretly a little horrified. I guess the mamma drilled this Rule of Life into him at a young age.
“Oh,” I said, a little disappointed because I love bread with pasta. “Why?”
“Pasta is starch. Bread is starch. You don’t need to eat starch with starch.” Yeah… I guess that makes sense. (Although I don’t buy his reasoning that breadsticks with pasta is the reason America has an obesity problem.) So from then on we always saved the bread for the second course, like good little italiani .
3. Italians Always Cook With Fresh Ingredients
Okay, this one maybe isn’t much of a surprise. But I wanted to include it because of what a huge impact it has on the end result. Always cook with fresh ingredients, people, whenever you can. It makes a difference. My boyfriend’s mamma can work magic with a couple of newly-picked vegetables and high-quality olive oil.
And that’s it! Follow those three simple rules and you are well on your way to eating like an Italian.