One of the biggest differences between Italian and American diets lay in the starches they consume.
While living in the states I got used to eating packaged bread. There was whole grain bread, plain ol’ white bread, pumpernickel, rye, bagels and English muffins, all packaged in cellophane. The number of breads and rolls available went on and on.
Before I jump in here, let me state that we can get packaged bread very much like what we get in America (minus rye bread which is not eaten, ditto bagels and English muffins). Italians use these breads to make a type of sandwich called a ‘tramezzino.’ These are made out of tuna, ham, cheese, shrimp salad, salmon and other sandwich fillings. They look a little like the sandwiches you get from vending machines in the States except that a tramezzino is made, cut in half and is served in half sandwich increments. What we Americans consider one sandwich is actually two tramezzini. Judy and I use this bread to make grilled cheese sandwiches and French toast.
The ‘real’ bread that people eat with their meals is very different.
First of all, it’s made fresh every day by a baker in a wood fired oven. Bread is very different from city to city so I’ll stick with what I know, the breads of Rome.
There are two basic shapes, pagnotta and filone. A pagnotta is round, thick and quite large. A whole pagnotta is a lot of bread and will feed about 10 at dinner. It has a thick crust and is airy and soft inside. Most people wouldn’t buy a whole pagnotta. A quarter is generally enough for Judy and I for three days or until it goes off.
Filone is longer and thinner (somewhat like a French Baguette although much thicker in shape).
Both types are sliced in the kitchen and put out on the table. Sometimes people cut their own slices off the loaf. The slices are then torn apart by the diners and eaten in smaller pieces. Bread is eaten with salads, soups, meats and fish, but not with pasta. Eating two starches together is considered rather heavy, although a piece of bread can be used to mop up the last of the pasta sauce left at the bottom of the dish.
These breads are now available made from whole grain flour as well but I’ve gotten so used to the traditional taste of bread that the whole grain versions don’t taste right to me.
One can also find rolls, the most popular of which is the Rosetta which is all crust leaving the center empty for whatever your sandwich filling is to be. Also available are Tartarughe (Turtles, Rosetta-like with but with more bread filling), Pannini al Olio (longer than the Rosetta with a smooth hard shell), Medaglioni (round soft rolls that look like American hamburger buns but taste very different) and Cirioli (long rolls that had disappeared for a while but can now be found again). There are also bread sticks and crackers, though crackers are less common.
Pizza can also be used as a bread. Pizza Bianca (known also as focaccia) can be bought in slabs and used to make sandwiches by cutting it into smaller pieces, opening these pieces down the middle and stuffing them with whatever you like. My favorite is prociutto crudo and figs.
None of these breads are made with preservatives so they go off after two or three days. Because of this the Italians have a lot of recipes that use stale bread, like Panzanella, Gnocchi di Pane and Pancotto. There is even a tradition in poorer areas to use stale bread ground into crumbs as a garnish for pasta instead of the more expensive parmigiano cheese.
Because home ovens are not suited to this kind of baking, few Italians bake their own bread.
Bakers lead an existence at the edge of society. They go to work at 1 or 2 am in order to be ready to distribute their goods early in the morning to food stores and restaurants. They also make cornetti (breakfast rolls) and pastries. As a young man I knew the locations of many of these bakeries and would often be waiting outside at about 4am to buy fresh-from-the-oven breakfast rolls. Occasionally I still find myself outside Panella (one of Rome’s premier bakeries) early in the morning smelling the unmistakable perfume of fresh breakfast pastries.
Pizza is a different animal. Although most bakeries will turn out pizza bianca and pizza rossa (white and red pizza), a good pizza is better ordered in a pizzeria.
Interestingly, this quintessentially Italian dish is not common throughout Italy. Ordering Pizza up north is not the thing to do: Pizza is best ordered from Rome on south.
There are two basic schools of pizza, Roman and Neapolitan. Roman pizza is made with a thin crust. It’s very light and if one is very hungry, it’s conceivable that they might be able to eat two. I myself have trouble putting away one. Neapolitan pizza is made with a thicker crust and is much more filling. These are both round, single serving pizzas made to order while you wait and are usually consumed at the pizzeria.
There is also pizza rustica which is more like our take out pizza and is sold by weight.
Toppings range from the simple Marinara (tomato, oil, garlic and oregano) to the classic Margherita (tomato, mozzarella and basil) and Napolitano (tomato, mozzarella and anchovies) to the Capriciosa (tomato, mozzarella, artichoke and olives) and on to wherever your imagination may take you.
There are other dishes normally served in pizzerias such as calzoni (a meat and cheese filling wrapped in pizza dough and cooked in the oven), crostini (pieces of bread with different toppings) and other fried dishes.
Incidentally, Italians don’t eat Pizza often. It’s considered an inexpensive dinner out with friends or family, something that can’t easily be made at home.
Of course no discussion of starch is complete without a mention of pasta.
Pasta, the most Italian of all foods can be roughly divided into two types: pasta asciutta and pasta fresca. Pasta asciutta (dry pasta) is packaged pasta made from durham wheat. Pasta fresca is freshly made from flour and eggs. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because it’s freshly made, pasta fresca is superior to pasta asciutta. They are two different animals. Pasta fresca is used in making lasagna, filled pastas (tortellini, agnolotti etc.) and sometime fettucini, while most of the other types (spaghetti, penne, mezze maniche etc. etc. etc.) come out of a package. Very few Italian housewives have time to make fresh pasta every day.
The seemingly infinite types of sauces and the equally countless local variations make any discussion of pasta sauces impossible here. Sauces can be ridiculously simple, Spaghetti Aglio Olio e Peperoncino (Oil, Garlic and Hot Pepper Sauce), common place, Spaghetti al Pomodoro (Spaghetti with Tomato Sauce) exotic, Fettucini ai Funghi Porcini (Fettuccine with Porcini Mushrooms) to the downright sinful: Tagliatelle con Burro e Tartufi (Tagliatelle with Butter and Truffles).
Since pasta is usually eaten as a first course the huge portions common in America are not usually found. 180 grams of pasta is a normal restaurant serving. When eating at home a pasta dish can be stretched to a full meal with the addition of a salad or a cooked vegetable.
Rice (in the form of risotto) is also eaten. As a matter of fact, risotto is a more common first course than pasta in northern Italy. They take more work to prepare, but their velvety smooth consistency make them a wonderful alternative to pasta.
All of these starches are carefully balanced with fresh vegetables, meats and fish. I never see chicken used in the preparation of pasta sauces. Except for Chicken Tetrazzini (which I don’t believe is an Italian dish) I know of no pasta sauces that use chicken.
The fact that Italians rarely eat fast food means that, despite their intake of pasta and pizza, their consumption of starches is well balanced, and whereas we Americans tend to eat starchy deserts (cakes and pies) and breakfasts, the Italians don’t. Deserts are eaten only occasionally and the traditional Italian breakfast consists of a cornetto and a cappuccino.
Which holds people over till their lunchtime tramezzino. The pizza usually has to wait till dinner.
Rome March 15, 2013
©Paul Goldfield 2013