A travel post on a food blog might seem ill-placed, but if you think about it, getting to know what and how people eat can teach you a lot about a culture or country. I just recently returned home from my trip to Italy, and I learned a lot about Italians, Italian food, history, and that whatever you do, don’t go in June, July, or August unless you love sight-seeing in humid, 90-degree weather.
Being a major foodie that claims pizza, pasta, and wine to be a few of my favorite things, obviously a vacation to Italy was a dream-come-true. I got to see the sites and taste the foods in Rome, Orvieto, Venice, Florence, Montecatini, Siena, Cinque Terre, and San Gimignano.
Pasta is my all-time favorite food. Rigatoni, spaghetti, linguine, I’ve never met a pasta that I didn’t like. I also love all the different types of pasta sauces. Puttanesca, amatriciana, and a creamy pesto are some of my favorites, but I have a new favorite to add to my list – Cacio e Pepe, which translates into “cheese and pepper”. This is a classic Roman dish that is very simple, but truly amazing because the ingredients really get to shine. Cacio e Pepe is made with a long, skinny pasta like spaghetti or linguine, Pecorino Romano cheese, pasta water, and lots of freshly ground black pepper. I wasn’t leaving Rome without trying this indigenous pasta, and I have to tell you, it was everything I wanted it to be. The hot pasta water combined with the Pecorino Romano cheese transforms into a light, yet velvety sauce that pairs beautifully with the spicy bite of fresh black pepper. So good!
Some things I’ve learned about food in Italy:
Pasta in Italy is NOTHING like the pasta in the United States. The texture of their pasta is different because it’s fresh. It’s slightly chewy and not as dense as our dried pasta is. It’s quite lovely.
Italians don’t smother their pasta in sauce like we do, they combine cooked pasta in a pan with some sauce and toss it around until it gets a light coating. Now that I have eaten pasta in Italy (the way it is supposed to be) I may be forever longing for the amazing fresh stuff that’s cooked and sauced perfectly.
Like pasta, the pizza in Italy is nothing like how we eat it here – it’s better. Way better. For one, the crust is simply amazing. It’s chewy, slightly crispy, not too thin, and not too thick. They sauce their pizzas perfectly with a light tomato sauce that is super simple. It tastes like it’s only made with tomato and maybe salt and pepper, but somehow, it’s perfect. The cheese they use to top their pizzas is so fresh and creamy, it seems to melt better and taste extra buttery. The crust, sauce, and cheese in Italy is so good, you honestly don’t need any toppings. Order a simple Margherita pizza or if you really like cheese, a Quattro Formaggi pizza.
If you order a salad in Italy, you will get a bowl of lettuce. Just lettuce. If you ask for salad dressing, they will probably look at you funny. Just ask for oil & vinegar, because ranch dressing doesn’t exist there!
Like their salads, the bread that they bring to your table when dining out comes bare; sans butter or anything else we Americans like to smother on our bread. Just ask for oil & vinegar and make a dipping oil on your plate with some salt and pepper.
Sweet tooth? You’re in luck. On what seems like every street corner is a gelato shop. I saw gelato shops in every single town I visited. The flavors ranged from your traditional sweet offerings like vanilla, strawberry, and coffee, to savory flavors like basil and olive.
An Italian Way of Life
Italians believe in the wonderful philosophy of “Enjoy today. Worry about tomorrow, tomorrow”. A fabulous ideal if one doesn’t have to worry about deadlines, bills, traffic, or other American stressors. They actually take a siesta each day where they close up shop and go home to their family for a couple hours to relax or take a nap, then return to work. Probably because of their siesta, Italians eat late dinners; around 8:00 or 9:00pm.
Italians don’t really believe in breakfast since an espresso and croissant is their typical morning fare. Being an American, I would wander to the breakfast buffet looking for our typical breakfast foods: eggs, sausage, bacon, etc. and most places had nothing like it. In fact, the buffets in Rome and Venice offered lunchmeat and deli cheese!
If you drink coffee, I hope you like it strong as they don’t serve traditional American drip coffee. You can order a Caffe Americano, but it is extremely potent since most Italians drink espresso.
Rome was the city that I was most looking forward to visiting. I love history and getting to see historical sites like the Colosseum that are almost 2,000 years old was unreal. I mean, how did they build such beautiful structures without cranes or modern technology? Inside the colosseum, you can see what was below the stage, which is where the gladiators would wait for their turn to fight.
- Take a walking tour of Rome to learn the interesting history of the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, and other amazing and beautiful pieces of art.
- Women, wear a cross-body purse and men, keep your wallets hidden. Rome is known for these things being stolen in busy areas.
- Eat Cacio e Pepe before you leave Rome, you won’t find it on the menu in other cities. I ate mine at Piccolo Arancio and it was to die for.
- The best white wine I’ve ever had was actually the house wine at a restaurant called Iari the Vino. It’s close to the colosseum and has a nice outdoor seating area. The white wine that I loved was on draft because it’s a local, fresh wine made by Cesello. It’s slightly effervescent and super refreshing!
Orvieto is an adorable little town on the top of a hill. When I was there, the lift that gives you a ride to the top was out of service, so I had to take a motion sickness-inducing bus ride up to the top. Let’s hope the lift is working when you go because this town is worth a visit. They have tons of shops selling ceramics and pottery made there in Orvieto, lots of little cafes, and beautiful views from the side of the hill.
- Try a porchetta (roasted pork) sandwich. They are famous in that area.
- Pay a small fee to enter the Duomo Di Orvieto, a stunningly beautiful cathedral with amazing frescoes painted on the walls and awe-inspiring architecture.
Ahhh, Venice. This city is really special because there is nowhere else you can wander around, happily get lost for a couple hours and still find your way back where you started. Whether you are taking an over-priced boat taxi, an over-priced (but necessary) gondola ride, or are strolling around on foot through the alleyways, there are only so many different directions to take. Ditch the map and just “get lost” in Venice.
I was in Venice when I first heard about the cocktail “Spritz”, an aperitif, which is a drink you drink before a meal (although I drank them all day long). It’s a glorious combination of a bitter, prosecco, club soda, ice, and an orange slice. They might have an acquired taste, but I loved them from the get-go. Although very popular in Venice, I ordered them throughout Italy for the duration of my trip!
Something else I loved about Venice were all the shops with windows that displayed ready-made food for taking on the go or dining in. There were gorgeous sandwiches on crusty baguettes, pizzas, freshly baked loaves of bread, desserts, you name it. It was fast-food for Venetians because they walk everywhere they go. If Americans had access to that kind of good food, fast, we wouldn’t be spending nearly as much time in a drive-though!
A beautiful town on the Italian Riviera that is comprised of five different villages, each one requiring a train or boat ride to explore. This area has beautiful cliffside views and tropical plants that are unlike any other part of Italy I’ve seen. My favorite of the five villages was Corniglia. Wear your comfy shoes and climb the steps up the mountain. Once you get to step 375 stop at La Posada Ristorante and reward yourself with a fantastic lunch of pasta and what else, a Spritz!
Below: This photo was taken from our lunch spot, La Posada Ristorante. Had a fantastic pasta lunch and you can’t beat the view!
If you’ve ever seen the movie Under the Tuscan Sun, like me, you’ve probably imagined Tuscany to be a quaint little town in the rural, Italian countryside with farm houses interspersed between family vineyards and olive farms. Really, Tuscany is a large region of Italy spanning many cities. Of them, I visited: Pisa, Florence, Siena, and my favorite, San Gimignano.
You go to Pisa, you see the leaning tower, or “the mistake” as Italians call it, and you leave. Check in the box. If you’re really into art and/or want to see famous sculptures like Michelangelo’s statue of David, Florence is your scene. However, Florence feels like a regular city in Italy, and not at all like the Tuscany I’ve been imagining.
Siena was cute and historically, a very old city. Siena has a huge fortress from a war centuries ago when Florence and Siena were rivaling to be the dominant ruler…Florence won. I had a wonderful cheese and salami tasting plate pictured below at a place called Pretto. To me, it is exactly what a Tuscan plate of food should look like. Isn’t it beautiful?
San Gimignano, like Orvieto, is a hill town. It was by far, my favorite Tuscan town. It was exactly what I imagined when I pictured what Tuscany would be like. It has the rolling hills with vineyards, homes scattered here and there. It’s beautiful and relaxing.
San Gimignano is also very cool because it’s a walled town made of medieval architecture, as seen in the building here in my photo.
And one last photo. Another gorgeous display of fresh items for sale. This display comes from San Gimignano. I ate one of those cannoli :)
Maybe what they say is true – if you throw a coin in the Trevi Fountain, you will return to Rome one day. We’ll see….
Read A Foodie’s Trip to Palm Springs, here.