When I tell people that I spent the fall in Rome, the question I’m asked most frequently is, inevitably, what I miss most about Rome now that I’m back in the U.S.. And, just as inevitably, my answer is: the food.
But really, how could it not be? If you ask me what type of restaurant I want to go to tonight in the states, I’ll almost always say Italian. So being in the country where my favorite type of cuisine originated from was pretty much a dining fantasy for me.
I did learn, however, that may of the things we take for granted as being “typically Italian” when we’re at an Italian restaurant here in the U.S. are actually “typically American-Italian.” As any Italian will tell you, there’s a big difference.
If you’re taking a trip to Rome anytime soon, here are some things I picked up while eating (a lot) in Italy that I think are helpful to know before you sit down for your first meal:
Bread isn’t a warm up for the first course
Sure, your waiter will most likely bring over a basket of bread after you’ve ordered. But, it’s not free (usually the cost is around 1-2 Euro/person) and it’s not going to come with olive oil, or even butter, for you to dip it in. All those fancy Italian places you’ve been to in the U.S. serving fresh-baked artisinal bread accompanied by fancy olive oil? That won’t happen in Rome. Most likely, the bread will be nothing special taste-wise. It’s actually just a vehicle to mop up extra sauce when you get your entree. As a result, you’ll rarely see Italians nibbling on bread while they’re waiting for their meal; they’ll wait to “fare la scarpetta” (or make a little shoe) to soak up the remnants with when they’re done.
Soup isn’t considered an appetizer
As a soup lover/fantatic, this killed me. Soup is generally considered a primi, which is also the area of the menu where pastas fall. So, ordering say, pasta e ceci soup to start, followed by bucatini alla carbonara and passing on a secondi of meat or fish is kind of a faux pas. Some waiters will let you get away with it (while making it a point to let you know how gross they think it is), but some will just flat-out tell you no.
Meatballs don’t come with spaghetti
One of my favorite Italian words is the word for meatballs, polpette. It makes them sound so delicate and tiny, no? Anyway, if you want to order polpette, by all means do – they are delicious – but be warned: they will come covered in sauce, accompanied by nothing else. Combining them (a secondi) on one plate with pasta (a primi) is just not done. By the way, you’ll never see chicken parmesean either. Another Italian style dish created in America!
Menus don’t read like a “greatest hits” of Italian cuisine
I’ve been to so many Italian places in the U.S. that feature a wide variety of Italian staples: dishes like risotto Milanese, Tuscan white bean soup and spaghetti Bolognese are offered side by side. In Rome, you’d be extremely hard-pressed to find a non-tourist trap restaurant that mixes Italian dishes from different regions. Many menus serve only the Roman classics like cacio e pepe, carbonara, amatriciana, etc. Sure, there are a few Tuscan restaurants in Rome, but they’re serving a menu of only Tuscan dishes, and likewise for any other regional restaurant you might find. There’s no mixing and matching.
These are the kinds of things I think of now when I eat at Italian restaurants in the U.S. (oh, what a curse, I know!) Whenever I’m wondering what is truly “authentic” and what’s not, I smile and think about the cooking class I took in Rome. We were getting ready to bring the amatriciana out to the tables when a student asked the chef if we should top it with some julienned parsley. Our instructor asked him to repeat himself, as if he couldn’t believe what he just heard, stared at him and said, incredulously, “But there’s a bay leaf in that sauce!” Ah, we Americans have so much to learn about Italian food.