When I'm not pissing off readers from Dallas and Houston, my day job has me leading tours to Greece and Italy for academic and alumni groups. Traveling for work is not always as glamorous as it sounds, but I've never had reason to complain about the wonderful food I get to eat while overseas. During my most recent trip through Italy, I compiled the six Italian culinary rules that, if implemented here in the States, would go a long way towards revolutionizing the way we think about food.
Americans pay idiotic amounts for wine.
It’s hard not to fall in love with the Italian culture's love of wine. If you're eating dinner at a restaurant in Italy, there’s wine on the table. There’s a good chance it’s there for lunch as well. They drink it like Americans drink soda, except that Americans haven’t been drinking Coke for three thousand years.
I don’t claim to be a wine expert, but my travels through Italy have convinced me of one fact: The high price of wine in America keeps us from drinking it. Sure, I’m willing to drop $9 for a glass of wine when I’m dining downtown, but I’d never order a glass to go with my pizza. It just costs too much.
I don’t claim to be a wine expert, but my travels through Italy have convinced me of one fact: The high price of wine in America keeps us from drinking it.
While we American are happy to find a glass of wine for under $10, your average glass in Italy hovers around 3 euros ($4). You can get a bottle at the grocery for the same price, meaning that wine will follow you home after dinner as well. As a rule though, it’s rare to see Italians buying wine by the glass at dinner; they generally go for a carafe.
The secret here is a little something called house wine. House wine is highly drinkable. It's rarely tart or musky, and you can go glass after glass without falling off your chair. The secret? It's watered down. This is a good thing.
The Italians have been watering down their wine for millennia, dating back to the days of the Romans (drinking your wine straight was for the barbarians and the drunkards). And rather than diluting the flavor, having a higher water content in your wine can actually release otherwise trapped flavors
When wine is less expensive and more drinkable, it becomes an integral part of dining. Wine is the drink of the common man in Italy. In the States, we don’t bother with the cheap stuff, which more often than not means we don’t bother with wine at all.
Give cheap wine a try. I’m not advocating Franzia
, but do give Ste. Genevieve
a try. Their “Red” (no, you don't get a specific grape variety) runs $3.33 at Fiesta, making it the perfect wine to open over lunch.
Good pizza should never be more than three minutes away.
Pizza should not be as hard to come by as it is in the States. Thirty minute delivery is far from a luxury; it’s a sin. And the pizza we get after thirty minutes is greasy, flavorless and chock-full of calories.
In Italy you can get two kinds of pizza. Your classic Italian pie, cooked in a wood burning stove, is the most idolized. It’s delicious, and even the neighborhood joints do it better than most American restaurants.
Pizza should not be as hard to come by as it is in the States.
But the pizza I’m referring to here is not sold by the pie, but rather by the kilogram. It’s called pizza al taglio
— pizza by the cut — and it’s never more than a quick reheat from being ready to serve. Sure it’s Italian fast food, but we’re a far cry from wrapping the slice in a Dorito
Pre-baked in a rectangular pan, this thick style pizza has more similarities to a flatbread than to your classic Italian pie. Toppings range from artichokes to mushrooms, and the whole experience has a very clean taste to it. No grease, no goopy cheese.
To order, you simply indicate how big you want your slice to be, they reheat it and you’re on your way. You’re also only out a couple of euros.
It’s fast food with real ingredients, real execution and real taste.
Love sweets and treat them with respect
To judge from their pastry displays, the Italians must be an obese lot. The decadence of their sweets shops is Willy Wonka-esque, from massive meringues to elaborately detailed chocolates. But for all of their celebration of sweets, it’s not the Italians who have the weight problem.
When you eat crappy candy, you eat a lot of crappy candy. No one eats four Skittles. Instead, we spend a little money to eat a lot of crap that we only enjoy a little bit. The Italians reverse the equation. They spend a fair amount of money for a small amount of dessert that is absolutely wonderful.
The contrast couldn’t be any more stark. Desserts, candy, chocolates: These are things that we are told to avoid if we want to be healthy. In Italy, their collective sweet tooth keeps them healthy. And by having a proper time and place for indulgence, they have developed a true culinary tradition that Hershey could never rival.
So eat your sweets. Support good desserts, savor the richness of the taste, and whatever you do, lay off the sour straws.
Red meat is not the enemy
Americanized Italian food goes heavy on the pasta, so we don’t generally think of the Italians as big meat eaters. But up in Tuscany, steak is king. Having lived my whole life as a proud Texan, I’m not ashamed to admit that the Tuscans have us beat when it comes to steak.
In Tuscany, the steaks don’t scrimp on the fat. Just as Texans prize our barbecue pit masters who can meld meat and fat into a harmonious haze, the Tuscans use the full flavor of the fat to enrich the taste. Drizzle olive oil over top, add a half of lemon and you’re set.
When red meat is served in patty form, combined from hundreds of cows and washed in ammonia, it is to be avoided.
Admittedly, Texans have never been ashamed of steak, but its prevalence in the States is waning. Once again, it’s an issue of quality over quantity. Red meat can be an integral part of your diet when done well. When red meat is served in patty form, combined from hundreds of cows and washed in ammonia
, it is to be avoided. Let’s not blame read meat for our own bad decisions.
Abolish the tip
If you spend any time sitting at a coffee shop in Italy, you’ll more often than not find that you’re the only person sitting in the coffee shop. Everyone else is standing. The Italians stand to drink their espresso, primarily to avoid paying the table fee (and because they drink their espresso by the shot, not by the quart).
The table fee is present across all Italian dining, and it is, simply put, the fee that you pay to dine at a table. And while standing at the espresso bar is a bit of a circumvention of the fee, the overall idea of the table fee is one that America is desperately in need of.
It doesn’t take more than a minute of thinking about how we pay our servers in America to realize that our system is 100% ridiculous. Why, exactly, do servers get paid $2 an hour, only to have the rest recouped through random, non-guaranteed tips? What exactly is so wrong with paying our waiters a real wage?
Rather than subject our waiters to the whims of a notoriously cranky clientele, America needs a table fee. Diners who are happy with the service they received can then leave an additional gratuity to express their gratitude. Clients who are unhappy because their electric bill was $100 more than expected cannot then recoup their losses at their waiter’s expense.
Abolish the tip, and pay servers like every other wage earner in America.
Dine your way to happiness.
Eating is a great joy for the Italians. It is about the food, it is about the friendship and it is about the experience. Food and foodie-ism are having a golden age in America right now, and we can look to the Italians for continued inspiration.
According to the USDA
, Americans spend about 9.4% of their disposable income on food. The Italians spend 14.4%. What exactly does their extra 50% buy them?
First off, it buys them real ingredients. It’s not even worthwhile to ask if the pasta you are eating in Italy is house made. Why would you serve somebody else’s pasta? If you are going to dine, you are going to dine right, and the proof will be in the proverbial pudding.
According to the USDA, Americans spend about 9.4% of their disposable income on food. The Italians spend 14.4%. What exactly does their extra 50% buy them?
But even more importantly, the Italians use food as a means to enjoy life. Dinner starts after sun down, and summertime dinners with friends often don’t begin until at least 10 p.m.
You sit at the table all night, order wine, order small plates to share and you enjoy the evening. The Italian restaurants don’t get to turn their tables during the course of the evening, and so the cost of the food rises as a result.
It’s worth every euro. What is the point of food if it cannot be enjoyed and shared with friends? Rather than use dinner as a jumping off point for the evening’s activities, we should make dinner the highlight of the night.
Find a restaurant that stays open late, serves dinner to friends in disconnected courses or simply dedicates a day to heading to the farmer’s market, smoking a brisket or learning to gut and grill a fish.
These are the simple pleasures of food that make eating such a delight in Italy. We can't promise you'll start living like a real-life European if you implement, but you'll definitely go a long way towards having more fun with your meals.