When Italians sit down together for dinner, a special joy combusts from their mutual love of good eating: the flavors, the steam, the memories, the dreams…the edible heritage. Food is a favourite topic of conversation. And it seems every Italian has an opinion about American food.
During one long Italian meal, my friend Claudia says she loves American food. Her favourites include BLT sandwiches and “chili soup.” She’s charmed by our breakfast culture and that we “meet for breakfast.” She says you would never see families going out for breakfast in Italy.
But she notes that in the U.S., size matters more than quality, and says that some dishes try too hard. She points out that the average number of ingredients in an American restaurant salad or pasta is eight or ten—double the ingredients in the typical Italian salad or pasta. And she can’t understand our heavily flavoured salad dressings. “If your lettuce and tomato are good, why cover it up with a heavy dressing? We use only oil and vinegar,” she says. When I try to defend the fancy dishes as complex, she says, “Perhaps ‘jumbled’ is a better word.”
My Tuscan friends laud the virtues of their regional cuisine. In Florence, I join my friend Manfredo and his girlfriend Diana for dinner. She sets a big plate of bruschetta in front of me. Each slice of toast looks like a little brown ship, with a toothpick mast flying a garlic clove, as it sails over its oily deck. We hungrily destroy the tidy flotilla. Ripping off a mast and rubbing the sail on the crusty deck, I tell them, “My family eats bruschetta at home. But we all agree it’s best in Italy.”
“Real bruschetta needs real Tuscan bread,” Manfredo says. “This is made with only flour, water, and yeast. No salt. It is great today. Hard like rock tomorrow.”
Diana explains that, as Tuscans have long had to make do with little means, and the local bread gets old quickly, many regional dishes are made with yesterday’s bread.
In unison, they labor through a short list as if it were long: “Minestrone di pane, ribollita, pappa al pomodoro.”
“Ribollita is for the poor,” Manfredo explains. “You cook and always stir together beans, cabbage, carrots, onions, old bread, and olive oil for at least two hours. Very filling. It is not good with fresh bread.”
Manfredo picks up his knife, eyeing the lasagna on the big plate in front of him. “In America, a restaurant is not looking for what is good food. What is good is what sells.” He sticks his knife through two steamy inches of lasagna. “Real lasagna is only this thick. In USA they make it twice this thick,” he says, flipping another serving on top, “and they fill it with mozzarella.” Then he says, “There is no mozzarella in lasagna.”
Diana chuckles in agreement.
After a swig of wine, Manfredo continues, “If you go to an American restaurant and say the food is bad, you get a coupon for a free meal. More bad food. If you say the food is bad in a restaurant in Italy, you get kicked out. To get free food here, it is vice versa. You say, ‘This is the best beefsteak I ever eat.’ Chef will then say, ‘You must try the dessert.’ You say ‘Oh no.’ He says, ‘Here. Please. Take it for free.’”
“In a real Italian restaurant when you complain,” Diana says, “the chef will tell you, ‘I cooked this as a boy the way my grandmother cooked this.’ It cannot be wrong.”
I ask them what they think of French food.
Manfredo, peppering a puddle of oil on a small plate, responds, “The French make fine sauces to help the taste of mediocre ingredients. With the French there are two things great: their wine and their art. Since the time of Napoleon, they think only of their wine and their art. In the south they are like the Italians. But from Paris and north, they are so proud they are boring.”
Tearing off a piece of bread and dabbing it in the oil, Diana says, “For me, the French cheese, it is the Italian cheese with mold. If we have cheese that doesn’t sell, it gets mouldy. After some days, it is perfect for the French.”
Raising my glass of wine, I offer a toast to Italian food: “To cucina italiana!”
Manfredo follows that, saying magnanimously, “To bacon and eggs!”
We all agree that American breakfasts are unbeatable.
“Omelets, hash browns…” Manfredo reminisces with a nostalgic sigh. “On my last visit to New York, I gain four kilos in three weeks.”
Raising our glasses filled with fine vino rosso, we all say, “To American breakfasts!”
This article was adapted from Rick’s new book, For the Love of Europe.
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European guidebooks, hosts travel shows on public TV and radio, and organizes European tours. You can email Rick at email@example.com and follow his blog on Facebook.