Having recently returned from a fabulous 3 weeks in Italy, I can safely say I have eaten a wide variety of Italian food. In the more Southern parts there was a lot of pizza and pasta as is typical in the region, the tomatoes, porchini mushrooms and lemons were glorious and buffalo mozzarella, divine! In the more northern regions there was a greater range of seafood options, more variety of vegetables and grain sources such as polenta. The gelato and sorbetto were ubiquitous throughout Italy.
Over the last 10-20 years there has been plenty of social and scientific commentary on the Mediterranean way of eating. Having spent 3 weeks in the Mediterranean I am left wondering where 'the Mediterranean' eat the Mediterranean way. I certainly did not see evidence of its wide-spread use!
Breakfast throughout Italy was similar - a cappucino (no chocolate powder but otherwise a small milk based coffee as we have) and a cornetti, a cream or jam filled crossiant. This does not seem a good way to start the Mediterranean day of low saturated fat eating!
Snacks were not common, particularly in the morning. In the afternoon, many Italians will eat a large gelato cone filled with 2 or more large scoops of ice cream. Occasionally locals would eat fruit in between meals.
Lunch was for some the larger meal of the day but for many working Italians, it was simply a slice of pizza or a panini filled with meat and cheese. Little salad was added, in fact when I asked for salad I was told tomato and argula (rocket) were the only options. A more established deli may have marinated vegetables such as aubergine (eggplant), courgette (zucchini) or peppers (capsicum) or sometimes an artichoke spread. The bread was served thick and in large sections, in fact sharing a sandwich was plenty on many days! For locals enjoying a full meal at lunch, the meal would start with antipasti usually of thinly sliced meat, marinated vegetables or seafood. This would be served with bread (surprisingly the bread was usually rather dry and bland) with olive oil and balsamic. Primi (first course) was usually a pasta or gnocchi with meat, pesto or seafood sauces. More traditional establishments would serve small portions, those with a large tourist patronage would serve very large portions. Secondi (main meal) entailed grilled meats, chicken or seafood with usually plain, very well cooked (soggy!) vegetables. Salads were served but as a primi rather than with the main meal. Dolci (dessert) could be well know favourites such as tirimisu or gelato as well as cheesecake, fondant or chocolate tarts, fruit or simply biscotti (a hard biscuit). Espresso is always served after a meal and dessert, a cappucino is only served before 11am.
The evening meal would be the opposite to what was consumed at lunch, either a lighter meal of pizza or panini or a full meal of antipasti, primi, secondi and dolci. A glass or 2 of wine would be served with the main meal of the day but it was rare to see inebriated Italians (tourists however was a different story!)
So are what are the Italians getting right?
They savour and enjoy far more seasonal produce than we do. Tomatoes, lemons, porchini mushrooms and strawberries were in season while I was there and they made for sensational eating. I was hopeful figs would also be in season however I was a little early. Seafood was also seasonal with swordfish, tuna and seabass making for great eating during June. Many Italian households, even despite most living in apartments grow their own herbs, vegetables and fruit. Community gardens and fishing trawlers were common.
Italians eat in groups and shared meals are the norm. It was rare to see Italians eating alone. Social eating brings about a positive attitude to food, a greater sense of satisfaction after eating and slower eating habits.
Pizza in Italy is not the oil laden bases with puffed crusts, a huge variety of toppings covered in a thick layer of cheese. The base is generally thin, covered in fresh tomato sauce (no tomato paste in sight!) and very lightly sprinkled with vegetables, meat and cheese. In fact, it was rare to see more than 3 toppings on a pizza. Simple, honest food with the consumer determining their desired portion.
Pesto was made fresh, with much less oil and far greater basil content than we have in Australia. Meat such as prosciutto, ham and breasola (beef) is sliced wafer thin and only as few slices added to a sandwich.
And what habits do the Italians have which we are best to enjoy in moderation? Their love of pastry rivals the French, however the French exercise healthy portion control, while the Italians are likely to consume multiple pastries in a morning. Consumption of 5-6 servings of vegetables appears to be rare in a day in Italy, and most times these vegetables would be served with generous amounts of oil. The Italians serve bread in abundance, usually white, sometimes very oily and eaten in great quantities in addition to other carb foods.
So will I be incorporating more of the Italian way in to my eating? Sure will! My weekend ritual of attending markets to stock up on seasonal fruit and vegetables is even more instilled, I will also be making more of my own condiments - pesto, dressings and sauces; super thin pizza bases, my own fresh tomato sauce for the base and even making my own pasta! Bellissimo!