How to eat in Italy: Enjoying foods that are off-limits to many Americans

After 10 days in Italy, I believe it is impossible to have a bad meal! This was my 5th trip to Italy and on each trip I enjoyed the following…almost every day.

My morning cappuccino

Cappuccino with whole milk

Rustic white bread

Tuscan bread

Pizza

Antipasto with salamis, prosciutto, and pate

Pastas made with white flour

Whole milk cheeses

Red wine

For many Americans these foods are off-limits, yet Italians have one of the lowest rates of obesity of any European country while enjoying foods that many Americans consider “bad.” Italians can teach us a lot about how to enjoy foods.

If you’ve not travelled to Italy and think Italian food is what is served at American-inspired Italian restaurants (like, Olive Garden), think again. No meat lover’s pizza or unlimited salad and breadsticks in Italian restaurants. And, although we were in two different regions, where the foods are different, we saw very few fast food or street food.

Ostia Antica

Italy has a long history of celebrating food. Just look at this fresco from an ancient tavern advertising their offerings…food, drink, and music. The tavern is found in Ostia Antica, described as Rome’s first colony, it was founded in the 4th century BC. For history buffs, consider making the quick train trip to Ostia when you are in Rome. Buried by mud and silt preserved the site and once it was excavated it gave visitors a glimpse back in time. My favorite were the mosaic tile floors of the market stalls….the pictures revealed the merchants. Baskets for grains and dolphins for fish and all things related to the sea…the original infographics!

Fast forward thousands of years and Italians still enjoy simple, in-season foods. My husband and I took cooking classes alongside our friends in Tuscany and noticed the liberal use of fresh herbs, most picked from the kitchen garden hours earlier. Basil, rosemary, thyme, and oregano were used throughout cooking to give depth of flavors to dishes without a heavy hand with salt.

Seasonal ingredients are abundant, but canned or jarred tomatoes are used when fresh isn’t available. I tend to rely on jarred pasta sauces but have switched to making my own pasta or pizza sauce by sauteing garlic in olive oil and adding a can of peeled tomatoes. Once the tomatoes cook down, the result is flavorful sauce without the added sugar and salt of commercially prepared marinara sauce. (For more on the health benefits of canned tomatoes, click here.) And, while pasta is a mainstay in Tuscany, the portions are more reasonable than what we eat in the U.S.

Stuffed pasta with breadcrumb topping

Speaking of olive oil, stay tuned for another post on choosing good olive oil. (Spoiler alert: I learned I was using crappy olive oil but now know what to look for and what not to buy!)

Tuscan bread is delicious when it is fresh but because it has no preservatives (and often no salt) it is used in many ways to avoid food waste. We had Tuscan bread soup, simple and delicious, and breadcrumbs made from stale bread that were used in many dishes. In this pasta dish, the topping is toasted day-old breadcrumbs to give the dish a bit of texture and crunch.

We also learned to make pizza! The secret is to use good quality yeast, letting it rise for many hours (or overnight) and using a hot, hot oven. Since most home ovens don’t reach high enough temps, and not many of us want to build our own back yard pizza oven, we tried baking pizza on our gas grill. The result was a great, crispy crust. We also learned that we use too much sauce, making for a soggy crust. So, light on the sauce, use whole milk mozzarella cheese, and easy on the toppings. Americans favor pepperoni pizza, but in Italy, peperone, means “pepper,” the green and red varieties of a vegetable. What we call pepperoni is a dried, spicy salami and it is not the favorite topping of Italians. They prefer simple tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, and fresh basil leaves, the classic Margherita pizza.

Pizza making and pizza eating!

Maybe the biggest difference was the enjoyment of mealtime. Meals are an occasion meant to be shared with family and friends. No television in the background and kids playing games on their phones at the table! Each dish is savored, often with a good wine, and isn’t hurried. Eating is an event, not a race to the finish.

Enjoying meals with good food and friends

Italians also walk, a lot! Tuscan hill towns are really on steep hills, so the locals get plenty of exercise by walking. We were in Cortona, of Under the Tuscan Sun fame, and the town has only one flat street! So, if you go to Italy, make sure to wear good, sturdy walking shoes, experience the joy of simple, fresh foods, and share meals with your travel companion.

Hilly streets of Cortona

Chris Rosenbloom is a registered dietitian and professor emerita at Georgia State University. She is the co-author of Food & Fitness After 50. Follow her blog on all things optimal aging by clicking here.