I know that the French are supposed to be the kings of cheese, but move over France, Italia has you beat. The plethora of divine cow and sheep creations would be enough to make any American mind begin to question why our animals can’t make this kind of magic. So many types and styles, every day I was introduced to a new, equally as great, cheese:
Creamy and acidic Stracchino, made from “tired” cows, is delicate and rich. Apparently moving the herds up and down the Alps make for some unearthly cheese. And all hail to the glorious whey Ricotta; the best by-product of cheese a gal could pray for. Pecorino, and it’s many variations, comes in so many different flavors and textures it’s versatile enough to grate over a steaming bowl of fresh pasta, or to start or finish a meal; which means sampling seven types of salty, buttery, and nutty sheep cheeses that are all stacked up on a platter with honey and pears.
From Asigao, to Mascarpone, to Parmigiano-Reggiano, to Fontina, and Mozzarella di Bufala, it’s no wonder I’ve found a new appreciation for superior quality cheeses. So much so, that I would venture to say that my heaven might just be made up of clouds of their cheese, rather than those fluffy white things we love to daydream into.
As my Italian boyfriend and I dined out in Florence, a couple of things became immediately clear—things that really surprised me. First off, Italians don’t eat cheese with seafood. Why you ask? Anyone who’s tasted these cheeses could make the argument that their intensity detracts from the main flavors that should be focused on in the dish. Too overpowering. Since we Americans aren’t spoiled in cheesy goodness, it is no wonder why our pallets might not ‘get it’. The bagged garbage we pick up at the grocery store and have grated on our plates can’t touch the real stuff. So we slather it over our seafood chowder, shrimp linguini, and thighs. Another thing that you might be laughed at for is asking for some Alfredo. Soon a tanned, short Italian man would exit the kitchen saying, “Si, Si, I’m Alfredo.” They don’t know of our creamy-cheese sauce and probably wouldn’t care to. Did I mention that overall Italians are thin? Maybe they know something we don’t.
Walking around Italy, it seemed every other storefront window was packed with panini, gelato, and pasticcini. Layer upon layer of different textures to lure me and other admirers into the wonderful worlds of uncontaminated colors. I’ll admit that being with a local I was taken to the “best” dining places in Firenze—ones that he and his family had been frequenting for years. I was an insider. But in all reality, I’m sure that most of the places I strolled by were miles away, literally and figuratively, from what I have in Florida. For the past six years I’ve been living in a world of shopping plazas and outlets malls, chain restaurant after chain restaurant, all lined, or squared up, and ready to disappoint.
In America we have become accustomed to the cheap prices and the quick service of Carrabbas and Romano’s Macaroni Grill, to name a couple. Some might consider the food and these restaurants to be kind of amazing. But if you told me that now, after experiencing Italia first-hand, I might cry a little inside. I have felt amazing, I have tasted amazing—and so I know that amazing is having the first course arrive and absorbing each element of its flavor, ever…so…slowly. Amazing is being sad that you’ve eaten it all but being even more excited for the next course to arrive. Amazing is forgetting about your eagerness to eat because of the characters surrounding you, and the laughter and love seeping down from the tile rooftop. Amazing is appreciating the culinary art that’s been placed in front of your face, but not inhaling it, rather, inviting each and every bite to coat every corner of your mouth. That is what an impressive dining experience should consist of.
In Roma it was the Spaghetti ai Frutti di Mare, or “Fruits of the Sea” with clams and mussels, in all their buttery, mild fishiness, which made me fall in love. A thin sauce that was flavored with parsley, white wine, and a hint of red pepper, is what really did it for me. Although the traditional dish has calamari, shrimp, and crawfish, all I needed was those two hard-shelled sea treasures and my world began to revolve around each bite.
While dining out in Italy is much more expensive than in the States (15-45 Euros’ per person) it is also reserved for special occasions. Unlike most Americans, when Italians dine out they make it a three to four hour event. A journey into culinary greatness; plated up and served for the consumer’s enjoyment. You are paying not only for the high quality of produce, but you’re also renting out a table. That’s one of the reasons servers don’t make their money from tips. Reservations are required if you ever want to hold a table. No ‘turn and burn’ in Italia. I’ll add here, that Italian servers, in general, were completely ageist. While not so different from Americans in that regard, I question what their motivation is for giving better service to any group of people over another, when they’re still getting paid the same?
In the States I seek out hidden culinary treasures. Of course the time when I drive thirty minutes to try out a place that has rave reviews on Google, I am most often disappointed. When I watch the server make my sangria with maraschino cherries and I see her add water! When I pay $22 dollars for a plate of completely over-cooked salmon, although it was requested medium-rare, and baby food pasta. When my boyfriend’s plate is served swimming in a sauce that he’d asked for on the side. When the waitress has the audacity to say, “Lets just pretend like this didn’t happen, and start again.” When I consider that I should have just stayed home and saved my money by making a better meal myself, I am disheartened to keep trying to find a pot of cooked gold at the end of Interstate-4.
To backtrack for a moment, I should acknowledge what must be going on in some people’s minds as they read this. I realize that many would never imagine spending twenty or more dollars for a plate of food, and then there are perhaps others who are thinking that I shouldn’t have expected a miracle for food so “cheap.” Whichever side you stand, I have to say that no one should have to go broke finding great places to eat, whether in America or Italy. I think each of us deserve to believe in amazing American food. I refuse to lower my expectations, because when I do find astonishing dishes I can be enthralled. I believe it’s about finding bright, beautiful, natural produce that thrives in the region we’re eating in. That’s what should be served up at local restaurants. Not frozen shipped foods that are defrosted and slathered in butter and fat. Those dishes don’t do anything but make us fat. It’s about finding strength to give up on colorless and crappy, high-fat foods. That is what I fight for while I cook my meals.
I have found hidden wonders in Orlando; chain restaurants that have impressed. I have taken a first bite that has made me sit back and admire the layers of flavors, I have had moving culinary experiences, and so I know that it is not unfair to crave or expect fabulous food. One thing I truly admire about the Italian dining experience is how you never have to ask for “that on the side.” You wouldn’t dare ask for “this instead of that.” Maybe because diners have more confidence that the food they’re being served has been well thought-out, been cooked with the freshest ingredients, as well as spirit and love, and that it’ll be executed flawlessly. To live in a city where you know you’ll always love the food you eat, because the food is fresh, because the dishes are designed impeccably, is where I hope to be in the near future. Florence, ti amo.
In Firenze it was every dish that I fell in love with, but the one that made my heart race was Gnocchi; with breaded, crispy fried red onions piled high on top. The thick sauce, that coated the glorious little balls of potato, was complemented by chunks of the sweetest tomatoes. A culinary wet dream—yet I couldn’t have dreamt this dish up if I tried. A sauce so good, so light, it made me appreciate why Italians don’t eat all their bread at the beginning of a meal: so they can use it to soak up any remaining sauce from their plates.
When you dine out you are meant to absorb every fiber of the evening: Feel the table cloth draping across you legs, the ceiling fan’s draft against your shoulders cooling you down from the heat of the red pepper oil that’s been drizzled on your pizza. It’s about listening to the different, unique sounds of laughter and language from the crowds gathering for good times, smelling the creations being built behind the kitchen’s wall, letting the wine color your lips and blush your cheeks.
I say, “to know good food is to know a good life” although I’m sure it’s been said in some similar form before. For those of you who are sweet on having great-food experiences, you’ll hear me when I say that real Italian food is love.