In life, there is complicated and there is simple. The former category encompasses astrophysics, Zumba choreography, and divorcing with children. But breathing. Deciding not to wear Crocs in public. Eating. All of these, at least I used to think, fell under the latter.
And it would be so, if it weren’t for those damn Italians! They took a routine motion, something as seemingly simple as lifting food from plate to mouth, and they complicated it with all sorts of rules. Rules my untrained American stomach never imagined existed. Of course, they made the ritual act of eating 1,000 times better in the process, but man have they messed up my wonder-bread-bologne-sandwich game. I now have extreme guilt when I crave McDonald’s soft serve, or really anything that doesn’t resemble a labor of love.
If you’d like to remain blissfully ignorant of Italian culinary rules, read no further. You may be better off for it. If, however, you intuitively find the idea of combining dairy and seafood repulsive, you’re already half way to refinement. You might as well take the next step.
I must preface the following rules by saying that I’ve never actually lived in Italy, and three years residing in Spain doesn’t quite count as the same. I have, however, visited the Boot on four different occasions, staying with Italian locals and families, some of whom adored cooking. (Others, not so much. They have been ex-communicated.) And most influential of all, I’ve lived with and befriended several Italians while in Spain. One has told me that just looking at my typical morning oatmeal makes her nauseous. All have acutely judged me for drinking a cappuccino as an afternoon pick-me-up.
Through their tough love and brutally harsh mentoring, they have guided me towards the path of enlightenment that is the rules of the Italian kitchen:
1. No cold leftovers.
Cold pizza and pasta join the ranks of blueberry pancakes and Ben Affleck in the list of “Things I Would Like to Wake Up To.” But my Italian friends looked at me with that awful mix of disgust and pity when I declared during our last pizza and movie night, “No one eat the last slice, I need it for breakfast tomorrow.” Apparently congealed cheese and rock-hard dough have no place in a proper diet. So sue me.
2. Gelato just fills in the cracks.
There is always room for dessert. Always. Because actually ice cream is just liquid in a different form, and liquids don’t count. (Same goes for wine.) I feel like my American mother actually invented this rule but the Italians co-opted it and it’s one I can really get behind.
3. Pizza isn’t meant to be shared.
None of this slice business; a true Italian stomachs the whole pie. Sure, the crust tends to be thinner than what we Americans are used to, but I felt like that guy who polished off 200 hotdogs by the time I was just half through with mine. But no one let me off the hook. This was pizza from Naples, which means it’s actually more valuable than the current Euro.
4. Bread is for doing “little shoe.”
In America, we scarf down a loaf of bread and a liter of olive oil at Italian restaurants before we even start the meal. It’s what I love most about my country. But in Italy, bread isn’t for tiding you over before the main course comes to the table; it’s for cleaning up after you’ve finished. “Fare la scarpetta,” or “do the little shoe,” is some really bizarre Italian idiom that means using bread to wipe your plate clean*. Someone was probably drunk off excellent Italian wine when they thought to use “little shoe” in this way, but it stuck. So don’t fill up on the stuff before the meal, just use it to your aid after the meal.
*Fare la scarpetta your face off but it’s not necessarily polite in formal dining situations.
5. Learn to embrace the metric system.
Bread is sold by weight, and pasta is measured into appropriate portion sizes, about 60-70 grams per person. The American obesity epidemic probably didn’t start from a couple of extra, unmeasured fistfuls of linguine, but one can never be too sure.
6. Avoid pairing certain foods together.
Parmesan cheese makes everything better, right?
WRONG, because dairy mixed with seafood wreaks havoc on the digestive process, or upsets the Pope, or something. Also mixing things that just don’t mix ruins the integrity of the meal, or at the very least doesn’t earn you Michelin stars. I would put Parmesan cheese in my morning breakfast cereal if it didn’t cost $14.99 a pound, but apparently I don’t know how to eat food.
7. Let the experts handle it.
Don’t show up to your friend’s house with the intention of learning to cook like her Neapolitan mother. She has years of practice, generations of family recipes, and Latin blood running through those veins. She may take you under her wing and agree to teach you how to make gnocchi from scratch, and you may have the best intentions in the world of trying. But after struggling to get the perfect curvature on each miniature dumpling and watching your hostess discreetly reshape every failed piece of dough you send her way, simply thank her so much for opening her kitchen to you and in return, offer to open her bottle of wine.
8. Don’t stop eating.
This is especially true if you’re staying in an Italian household, and it’s the rule of God if you’re visiting over the holidays. People say Americans eat a lot, but that’s misleading. Sure, some American restaurants serve massive portion sizes, but in general Americans consume a lot of calories packed into very small quantities of actual food. Somehow that miniscule, wilting McDonald’s patty contains a year’s worth of saturated fat.
The thing is, Italians eat quality and quantity. And especially over the holidays, they eat appetizers, second appetizers, first courses, second courses, desserts, and barrels of wine. The dishes keep coming, like the host is trying to clean out the pantry before a long trip. But really there are no travel plans. There are just 40 variations of carbs and meat, and you better try them all.
Your pitifully shrunken American stomach is accustomed to “lunch” meaning 10 minutes away from the desk munching on a yogurt and a Cliff bar, so you better adapt fast. Four days clutching your stomach is preferable to insulting the host by putting down the fork prematurely.
9. Even Italians who don’t cook know how to cook.
My roommate’s mother is a badass. She refuses to slave away in the kitchen and rejects the notion that the kitchen is a woman’s domain. She throws together simple pasta dishes, sure, but also has the delivery guy on speed dial, which is almost sacrilege in a country where food equals religion. The mom dislikes cooking but what’s more, claims she doesn’t know how.
If she doesn’t know how, then how do you explain our Boxing Day lunch? We’re talking tuna pate, grilled prawns with crudités, calamari risotto, leek and codfish stew, and homemade ginger cookies.
When I say, “I can’t cook,” it’s in reference to blowing up the microwave when I put some Indian takeout in with a metal fork. When she says, “I can’t cook,” it means she’s rarely attempted a 6-course meal, but this 4-course shit? She’s got that down pat.
10. Carbs only weigh down outsiders.
Because the cruel irony is, if you eat like this for a week, you come back five pounds heavier. If you eat like this for a lifetime, you can somehow still wear Valentino.
Jenny Marshall writes about all things language, culture, and expat life over at A Thing For Wor(l)ds. Last year she “taught English” to babies in Barcelona, which really meant diaper duty. Luckily she also wrote for her blog and freelance travel outlets, so life wasn’t all just drool and poop. She recently moved back home to California, and is currently experiencing Iberian ham withdrawals. Keep up with her rants at her blog, or by following her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram!