Food can get weird when it crosses the ocean

I’m talking, of course, about the food here in Italy. Note that I didn’t say “Italian food.” There’s no such thing. This country has existed as a political entity only about 160 years and food here is intensely regional. Hell, until the postwar-WWII era, people from different parts of the country barely understood one another due to the prevalence of regional dialects and languages, let alone had national dishes.

But I digress. Yes, the food. Yesterday’s lunch was a Sicilian peasant thing, short whole wheat pasta with local chicory greens, diced potatoes, and grape tomatoes, all sautéed together with a decent amount of olive oil. You can see it here. It definitely wasn’t fancy stuff, but The Spartan Woman is a terrific instinctual cook and we actually sighed as we ate.

Cheap and delicious, at home

There was no “sauce” per se. The bottled sauce industry in the U.S. would have you believe that Italians eat pastas topped with tons of red stuff or “Alfredo,” whoever that is. (I kid. The original dish, as though you could pin it down, is “pasta in bianco,” pasta with tons of good butter and parmigiano Reggiano. It’s a dish fed to kids, the elderly, and people with stomach aches.) Instead we, like a lot of people here, paired the pasta with seasonal vegetables, and used some of the pasta cooking liquid to keep it moist.

But I’m not going to go into the Italian vs. Italian American rabbit hole. I’m going to try to demystify what eating here is like, and highlight the differences in food culture between my two nationalities.

To simplify things greatly, Italians eat locally-plus. There’s a strong base of local tradition, upon which they add what’s trendy right now. This applies both to eating at home and at family gatherings, and eating out. Unless people are going out to an ethnic restaurant on purpose—here in Umbria there are Chinese, Japanese, and Indian places, among others—they kind of expect what’s familiar in a restaurant. It’s because people go out for different reasons than Americans do. Or at least the Americans where I come from, New York City. In my 10 years as a part-time restaurant critic there, I remember going through Paris bistro, Belgian, French country, Tuscan, Southern Indian, Catalan, and new American phases. It’s all about a celebrity chef or the latest find, and is rarely rooted in any kind of culinary tradition.

I’ll concede that a lot of that trend-seeking is peculiar to New York. But where the city goes, the culture tends to follow. Italians, however, especially those who live outside of the big cities, eat out to be with friends in a large group, or to celebrate a big occasion. Often, their home kitchens are small and they simple don’t have the room to have 10 people at a table, so they see the osteria in the country as a home surrogate.

I’ll compare apples to apples, or pizza to pizza. Earlier this spring I went to a newish pizza place on Staten Island. Yeah, Staten Island; its North Shore has suddenly become a hipster kind of place, with really good and inventive restaurants popping up in spite of the Covid pandemic. The pizza restaurant, Seppe’s PizzaBar, has an industrial look—it doesn’t do that Olde Worlde schtick that used to be common in NY Italian restaurants. It featured beer from local microbreweries and organic/biodynamic wines. The pizzas had slow-rising, chewy crusts and inventive toppings.

Pizza in hipster Staten Island

But here’s the thing: The tab. I’ll break it down. Two people. so two pizzas, $20 and $21. Two beers at $7 apiece. Espresso at $3 each. It ended costing the two of us about $50 each for an okay, not transcendent meal, after tax and tip. And I think we got away cheap. In Perugia, our closest big city (population about 165,000), a similar outing would’ve run us about €28, or $30 total. For one thing, you don’t tip in Italy; waiters and cooks make decent salaries and tipping is not part of the culture. Sure, in touristy places in Rome, the staff have gotten used to foreigners leaving some cash on the table, but here, the credit card receipt doesn’t even have a line for a tip.

Perugia’s finest, only €7

There are lots of reasons for the price disparity. New Yorkers are paying for the restaurants’ rent, plus all the other overhead, like chefs’ salaries, the computer system, the expensive stoves and cookware, etc. And you can’t forget the ingredients; stuff like mozzarella and parmigiano cheese. All of that is just regular food in Italy; you can get fresh mozzarella for a couple of euros, and even exotic like fresh black summer truffles are €15 for the equivalent of a couple of ounces.

This brings up something I’ve been thinking about for some years, ever since I wrote about food and restaurants mid-career. Maybe it’s obvious, but stuff that’s just normal in other countries becomes almost a fetishistic object in the U.S., especially if it’s Western European and has become a part of the culture at large. Decent Italian restaurants in big East Coast cities charge $25-30 for very ordinary pasta, for example. Steak frites have become a luxury item, and a drink that might cost a few euros in Barcelona or Milan becomes a $20 “curated” cocktail.

I think it’s more than just economics at play here, and it’s almost as though a good reason for being a world capital like New York manifests itself in bad ways. There’s a disconnect between the food producer and the consumer, and that leads to what I’d call a cult of connoisseurship. The thing—whether it’s burrata cheese, or an espresso, or even Nutella—may be just something you find in a supermarket here, but in the U.S. is foreign, therefore it’s exotic and a luxury. I once bought coffee from an online source based in (where else?) Seattle. I keep getting sales emails for $2,000+ espresso machines. Trust me, you can make a decent cup of espresso with a machine that costs a tenth of that. I wonder sometimes if those super expensive machines are like Viking stoves and the like, there to impress guests more than be useful kitchen tools.

American media plays this great dishes of the world stuff up. Food mags tend to be upscale creations, big city restaurant critics pride themselves on knowing what a proper cacio e pepe is like—and so up goes the price, apart from the economic factors that boost the prices and preciousness of imported goods. I’m grateful that someone like Guy Fieri is looking out for the quirky, downscale, noncorporate eateries that still manage to survive.

The good reason? Americans, at least not the fearful types, are adventurous, at least when it comes to trying new cuisines and foodstuffs. But because of the incredible centralization of food production—remember, there are only a handful of U.S.-based meat producers and distributors, to give one example—people are alienated from their own food, the kind of food that used to be grown or pulled out of the ocean just a few miles away. I’m reminded of the difference when I drive around our area in rural Central Italy; we’re surrounded by farms and vineyards that produce the food that we see in the markets and on restaurant tables. It wasn’t that different decades ago in the U.S. Growing up in my New York neighborhood, the guy three houses up the street was a big fisherman and he gave mackeral and bluefish to the neighbors. Truck farms only a few miles away grew produce, which was sold in local markets.

When I was reviewing French/Belgian/Sicilian/Catalan/Burmese restaurants back in the 1990s, I was always asking myself if there indeed was a local cuisine. New England and the South have held onto their traditions. I did a little research and yeah there was at one point. Fish lovers went crazy every spring when the shad swam down the Hudson, and local oystermen on Staten Island supplied the taverns and high-end restaurants alike. Some New Yorkers are rediscovering local produce at greenmarkets. Maybe high energy prices and a breakdown of the global supply chain will bring the mid-Atlantic back to its roots.

In the meantime, let them eat overpriced cacio e pepe.

[Edited/updated to fix typos and clarify some points.]

Let’s just call it normalish

We were so innocent and full of hope last year around this time. We’d been vaccinated against Covid-19. An apparently sane group of people replaced the wannabe dictatorship in the White House. And it seemed that maybe, just maybe, life was going back to normal.


We made our customary trip across the Atlantic, though, and at least the trip felt more normal this year. We booked on Lufthansa, and flight service was fine. Drinks, regular food, some wine, a nap, masked when we weren’t drinking or eating. No one checked our vaccination cards, or even seemed to care. But when some fellow passengers didn’t put their masks back on after the meal, they were admonished by the flight attendants. You do not want to piss off Lufthansa’s people, who are normally and pretty sweet and attentive.

Not wanting to drive the winding roads of Umbria while jet-lagged, we instead booked a room at the Hotel Tiber, in the somewhat gritty town of Fiumicino, a few stones’ throws from Rome’s airport, and a few steps from the sea. It felt like a mini-vacation without having to go into an empty house and turn all the stuff on while gazing at six months’ worth of cobwebs.

We ate out a couple of times, and while we’ve given up meat, we still love fish and seafood. And Fiumicino, on the coast, did not disappoint. From spaghetti con vongole verace e lupini (the local smal and smaller but intense clams), the seafood joints did not disappoint. And now, friends, I am going to bust one of the biggest stereotypes about “Italian” (there really is no such thing; it’s all regional but I’m not gonna go there right now) food: the absolute no-no about mixing seafood and cheese. It seems like every restaurant menu in town featured spaghetti con cozze e pecorino—spaghetti with mussels and pecorino cheese. The Spartan Woman tried it first and said it was good; I followed the next day. And I concur. So throw out the rulebook, if you’ve got one.

The next day, our friend with a van, Angelo, picked us up and took us home. Well, after lunch anyway. First he was going to come later in the day, but changed his schedule. I have more than a slight suspicion that he wanted to have a nice seaside lunch, too. And who can argue with that? It was terrific getting reacquainted, and since we only speak Italian with him, it was also good to get the mouth working the right way. American English is a lazy mouth affair, with vowels that sound alike or slide around as dipthongs. Italian is crisper, sharper, and more musical, and after six months of speaking English most of the time, it was good to be immersed again in my other language.

It wasn’t an altogether peaceful ride—a friend of ours, who was going to be our houseguest, was stranded on the autostrada. But Angelo came to the rescue, finding a tire place and getting our friend’s car sorted.

And then….Ommm. We got back to our treehouse. At least that’s what our main floor feels like, because the house is on a slope, so from this desk I’m looking at tree tops. This area in general is incredibly green and lush in the spring. We’ve never gotten here this early in the season, so who knew that we have wisteria and lilac trees blooming all over the place? Wild orchids, too? All this greenery has a couple of good effects: 1-I can feel my blood pressure easing, and 2-Somehow, it makes it easier to ignore stuff like the madman Putin a little easier. Not completely—hey, we got broadband here—but without the drumbeat of MSNBC et al, it’s isn’t dominating my thoughts quite as much.

But coming back to Umbria reminds us that, unlike the weird rush to act as though the pandemic never happened in the U.S., Covid never went away. More people wear masks here, especially indoors. Stores and public spaces still have social distancing reminders everywhere, and the stats aren’t that great.

Still….we walked over to our neighbors next door to say hi and collect our car. We’d parked it there before we left, and it was a terrific excuse to see them after being away for nearly six months. Another day, we walked to the center of our hamlet, where we saw an acquaintance pruning his olive trees. He invited us into his courtyard for coffee, and we sat around updating one other. His neighbor saw us, a courtly older man who tracks our comings and goings and is probably the epitome of the kind, gentle soul that’s common in this region. It’s the place that gave birth to St. Francis of Assisi, after all (and we’re reminded of it regularly around here).

We’re laying low for the time being. New Covid cases are common, with the daily totals sticking stubbornly in the tens of thousands in Italy. We’ll venture out to eat when it’s consistently warmer. In May, the weather can go from your fantasy of Sunny Italy to Wuthering Heights in minutes.

Okay, so we make an exception for gelato. Sue me.

It’s great to be back. More later.