What Does It Mean To Be Authentically Italian?

“Yeah, but does the place have real Italian food? I mean, is it authentic in your opinion?” my friend asked when I told her about this new restaurant that was opening in our home town. Since moving to Italy in 2009, I’d been deemed the Great Authenticator by people back home regarding anything related to Italy. No, chicken alfredo is not “Italian.” Yes, I suppose being romantic might be an Italian thing depending on your definition of “romantic.” No, bbq chicken pizza is not really a thing. Yes, real people drive scooters in Italy.

us

My husband is proudly, authentically Italian. I am proudly not (I’ve got enough crazy up in my life). This is us, in Naples a few years ago. Naples is debatably not “Italian,” depending on who you ask.

Where Italy is concerned, the struggle to pin down what is “authentic” versus what isn’t can be a full time job. Pretty much everything is up for debate and not even Italians can really agree on what makes something Italian or not.

“Prada isn’t Italian anymore, they have Chinese workers in their factories,” my hairstylist said to the old lady with the hot pink lipstick sitting next to me. If a foreign national touches it, it’s no longer authentic, and it’s probably contaminated with icky “otherness.”

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Foraging, Toxoplasmosis, And Eating Until You Die In Cassino, Italy

One morning while visiting my in-laws I sat on the balcony sipping an Americano while watching my father-in-law forage in a nearby field. I could make out a bundle of something under his right arm, on occasion the sun would reflect off of the scissors in his other hand. He’d bend down, pop up, take a few steps and repeat. The man must have been getting one hell of an ass workout.

The foraging field in Cassino

The foraging field in Cassino

“Francesco!” I yelled,” I think your father is foraging random greenery from that field nearby. Can you make him stop?”

Francesco appeared in the balcony doorway, cradling our poodle, “Why would I stop him?” He squinted towards the field, “it’s for dinner.”

“Nooo!” I panicked, “We’re going to get toxoplasmosis. That field is home to about six-thousand feral cats. There was a dead one just lying here the last time I took Oliver out to pee. Which reminds me that Oliver pees and shits there.”

Francesco shrugged and reached for my coffee cup, “Don’t be so dramatic! He’ll wash them and cook them. I had toxoplasmosis when I was younger. It’s not like it would kill us.”

I was no longer looking at my husband, rather, I was looking at a man who had a disease associated with ingesting cat shit and he was slobbering all over my coffee. How had I not known about his infestation of icky before I’d signed legal documents to bind myself to him.

“Why are you glaring at me?” He smiled, “Is it because I had that and now you’re grossed out?”

“Yeah, exactly. Get your hands off of my coffee. You’re lucky you weren’t pregnant. You would have had a Toxic Avenger baby.”

“Huh?” He went back inside.

I really wasn’t that surprised that my husband had contracted a crap disease since at that very moment his dad burst onto the balcony with his glorious bounty, chest puffed out, arms full of green bushes. “You eat the poops of cats,” I mumbled as I walked inside.

When I first moved to Italy I thought, “Pasta! Pizza! Wine!” but that was before I realized that pasta and pizza were just the two Italian dishes that were easier to market to the rest of the world. Some of their other dishes just didn’t catch on in the same way and rightfully so. I was surprised the first time I found Baby Bird Stew, on the menu at a friend’s house, a dish that is exactly what it sounds like: Baby birds, in their entirety, in tomato sauce. Another time a restaurant served us Illegal Boiled Baby Fish that looked more like boiled semen. Then there’s the horse, the pigeon, the cow balls, the stuffed lamb brains, sheep intestine panini, and stomach lining soup. I could now add, “Cat Crap Field Greens,” into the mix of things that I just couldn’t convince myself to try. It’s not only because the food is “weird,” but also because I was vegan for ten years and animal products just kind of scare me. Plus, brains are gross. Zombies eat brains, not people.

Mmmm. Lamb brains (yes, seriously).

Mmmm. Lamb brains (yes, seriously).

Francesco’s family finds my weak stomach both hilarious and puzzling. But how did I know I wouldn’t like cheese with worms in it? Come on! It’s a specialty from Sardegna! I agreed with them that there was no way to know for sure but I certainly wasn’t willing to try. Yes, it was probably because the food in my country is weird. Yes, it’s probably because I grew up eating Kraft Mac And Cheese. I agreed that yes, that’s exactly why I couldn’t possibly know anything about good food. 

Most of the food is quite delicious in Cassino and the surrounding cities. The food in the south is, and I say this expecting people to get really regionally defensive, my favorite food in Italy. It’s surprisingly diverse and very “comfort food,” in it’s simplicity. My favorite restaurants in Italy are in Cassino. You have Al Mulino, an impressive, incredible restaurant with super fresh dishes made from scratch that surpass many of the restaurants I’ve eaten at abroad. There is also Bianco/Noir, a fish restaurant that serves dishes like Branzino packed in sea salt and spaghetti alle vongola. In Cassino, as with much of Italy, everything is seasonal. In the Autumn we eat a lot of Zucca (pumpkin), squash, greens, simple cooked proteins often simmered in tomato sauce or lemon and oil.

Oysters on the half shell

Oysters on the half shell

Pasta with clams and parsley

Pasta with clams and parsley

My mother-in-law is an amazing cook and can whip up a fifty-course meal in three hours which takes another 7 hours to eat and I leave sick, heavier, tired and grumpy. The seafood in Cassino is often fresh and prepared with minimal ingredients and processing which is delicious, perfect, and totally created another culinary complication for me. Fish is served intact with it’s head or legs or whatever still attached. The first time I ate shrimp with my in-laws I stared at it for a long time trying to figure out what to do with it. I stabbed, poked, and pulled at it for twenty minutes. My husband eventually felt sorry for me enough to pull my plate over to his to help me. He had a look on his face like I’d just asked him to teach me to write my name. My father-in-law shook his head at me, stabbed a shrimp head from my plate, and popped it into his mouth. “Crunch, crunch, crunch, kist americana…”

Most days in Cassino we eat pretty typical things. I start the day with a chocolate brioche-which tastes like heaven and is usually freshly baked that morning-and Capuccino. It’s a sugary, caffeinated combo, a rush followed by a terrible crash, and withdrawal, similar to meth. Probably. For lunch if we’re lucky my mother-in-law makes roasted potatoes, broccolini (ideally not from the cat field), and meatballs or some protein followed by fruit and walnuts (that have occasionally been filled with a worm or two as they were pulled from some random tree nearby). If we’re not lucky my father-in-law makes some perverse version of Minestrone: Water, frozen vegetables, clams and calamari (no broth, flavoring, salt or pepper). Dinners are usually light, a homemade pizza made with broccolini and kalamata olives and occasionally sardines or Zuppa Di Fagioli e Verze (soup with beans and cabbage). Holidays or special occasions are when the hours of eating, and the random weird are brought to the table. You’re moving away? BALLS! Come to our house! GUTS! That’s when the “statement” dishes are busted out along with the delicious, less “bold,” recipes. It’s important to make an impression.

Ricotta And Spinach.

Ricotta And Spinach.

Food is something you give to people you care about, food is how you connect, how you impress, and how you love. You adore your family by stuffing them full of anything and everything you can buy or possibly find.

That one day that my father-in-law was stalking the nearby fields for edible greenery was for a party we were having with friends. He wanted the best cuts of meat so he called all of the butchers personally, he wanted the best produce so he and his wife visited a number of markets, and he wanted fresh so he spent the day out in the sun picking what nature provided. The Mozz Di Bufala was made the day before, there were homemade canned and pickled vegetables, meats from animals raised just down the road, and cheese from a place not even 15 minutes away. There were also other random body parts that in the US we often toss away. That’s the beauty of Cassino cuisine, really. They still have that old mentality that food is food, food is currency, everything that can be consumed, should be, nothing should go to waste, and if the toxoplasmosis doesn’t kill you, the fields are ripe for the pickin’.

THIS IS A COSI POST! CHECK OUT WHAT THE REST OF THE GANG IS SAYING ABOUT FOOD THIS WEEK ON MY COSI PAGE.

Grazie, Vaiano! A Small City In Tuscany And Lunch With Friends

I have to admit that I’m not much of a foodie. I know, I know, STOP SHOUTING AT ME! I’m kind of a freak in that regard. However, there are a few cooks in Italy that could easily have me sitting around all day stuffing my face. Two of them are the mother and father of  our close friend, Leo. His parents are located in Vaiano, and they are incredible cooks. They cook typical Tuscan/Florentine cuisine, and speak Italian with a heavy Florentine accent. The last time we were there they told us a cute story about our friend and how he couldn’t spell. Florentines pronounce their “c” as an “h” so when our friend was in kindergarten, he was spelling his name phonetically with an “h” instead of a “c” which is kind of adorable, guys. His parents are super cute and I’m currently on a campaign to get them to adopt me. Anyhow! Here was the last lunch with them in their apartment in Vaiano, Italy. Also, if anyone knows how to make this rolled bread/carne dish below, PLEASE TELL ME. I’m not even sure I know what it’s called, I’ve only ever eaten it at their home. It was amazing.

And Leo: Face-lick.

Blogging About Italy Is Hilarious: Comments, Emails, And Humans

When you have a blog you know that there is a slight bump in traffic on days when you get a lot of angry comments or really fun, enthusiastic ones. On this blog I’m extremely lucky in the sense that our little community is fucking awesome, people are sweet and fun. Most of my comments and emails are simple questions about traveling to Italy or moving abroad. The number one question is: How do I find a job in Italy? The answer is: You don’t. I address most of these in my FAQ section. Check it out! And feel free to ask me anything, anytime, I try my best to respond to everyone. Sometimes the comments I receive are so nice that I’m elated for days (thank you so, so much). Almost everyone who arrives at Surviving is part of a really fun-loving tribe (except for that lady that just called me a liar, she’s just an asshole). Now, you guys know me, if I get a particularly mean comment I have a tendency to post it here and comment back for fun (I can’t help myself, remember that crazy misogynist?). Luckily, I don’t get too many jerks here.

My favorite comments/emails are the really personal ones where I get to learn about my readers (seriously, please share about yourself, I love it), or the really random or really unique emails that leave me smiling or mildly confused. Come to think of it, a lot of my unique or random emails/comments are also important life-lessons.

Can You Spot The Garden Gnome?

Can You Spot The Garden Gnome?

TOP FIVE MOST ENTERTAINING COMMENTS/EMAILS I’VE EVER RECEIVED: Continue reading

Dining In Italy: How To Avoid Making An Ass Out Of Yourself At The Dinner Table

I was checking my stats this week and there were an unusual number of people searching for “how to dine in Italy,” along with the usual searches like, “Italian hot mom sex,” and “Unicorn penis,” and, “How to pee in public,” WHO ARE YOU PEOPLE!? Freaks, that’s who! And that’s why I like you guys so much, you pervy weirdos. Anyhow, I realized that I’ve never really written anything about etiquette in Italy. Despite peeing in public, I’m surprisingly anal retentive when it comes to table manners. I’ve broken up with people for chewing with their mouths open. Rude dining or gross dining is on my list of reasons to kill or at least maim a person. I know, it’s ridiculous, but it’s not my fault. My parents are crazy people. When I was a kid if I reached “outside of my space” my mom would stab my hand with a fork (not like hard enough for me to bleed to death or cause infection, but hard enough that I regretted it). And guys, I went to finishing school. I’m pretty sure that you can’t tell (nobody can tell, trust me), but I did so I know which fork is which and I can totally drink out of the appropriate glass at the millions of formal dinner parties that I NEVER ATTEND AND NEVER HAVE BECAUSE IT’S BORING. Basically, it’s a bit waste of time and money, unless you’re planning on moving to Europe. Then that useless shit becomes kind of useful. Sort of.

MANY FOODS THAT YOU THINK EXIST IN ITALY REALLY DON’T, SO DON’T BE A PAIN IN THE ASS.

I’ve witnessed so many embarrassing situations in Italy that really explain why Europeans view Americans as pompous, entitled, lunatics. You’d be shocked by the behavior of a lot of tourists. Please, people, don’t come to Italy and scream at waiters because you had your heart set on eating a made-up dish. The food that a lot of people consider to be “Italian” in the United States is not Italian food from Italy. It’s immigrant creations by  impoverished Italian immigrants, generations ago. I’ve witness full-on screaming fights between Italian-Americans and ACTUAL ITALIANS where the Americans were lecturing the Italians on how to cook Italian food. One of my friends/ readers wrote a comment a while back (that’s you, Sid) about a heated exchange she’d witnessed whilst in Italy between an Italo-American family and an actual Italian waitress where they claimed to know more about Italian food than her and there was screaming and name-calling involved. I have tried to put myself in that situation to understand what could possibly motivate people to actually do or say such insane things but alas the only thing that I can come up with is that they are assholes. That’s it. Continue reading

Travel Bologna With Sarah Dowling

Name: Sarah Dowling
Blog/Website: ItalyProject365.com
Nationality: American
How long have you been in Italy?
Almost two years…although it feels like longer.
 
Where do you currently live?
I live in Bologna (pronounced BO-LOW-NYA). And yes, there is some correlation between Baloney ham and Bologna but we’ll get to that.
 
What is your favorite thing about your city?
The bohemian, young vibe. There’s this wonderful patchwork of cultures, ages, and architecture in Bologna that I don’t think you find in many other Italian cities.
 
Bologna copy
What bothers you the most?
There’s a lot of air pollution, but also in recent years a lot of young people who don’t take care of the city.
 
Have you attended school in your city? How would you rate your school and experience?

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