Blog di Bologna: Culture Shock! Food Edition

February 29, 2016

in Europe, Italy, Sara McKearn, Spring 2016

bruschetta

So, apparently Mosé does belong to someone and this someone informed me that I ought not feed his cat anymore, as he’s watching his figure. Swimsuit season.

Speaking of food, throughout my first month and a half in the country, I have obviously discovered some ways in which this corner of the world is different from my previous corner of the world. I wanted to discuss this a bit, and talk about some of the impact that it’s had on me—bearing in mind that “different” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad”—and on this episode, I wanted to focus on some of the ways in which the way food is prepared, served, and treated in Bologna differs from the way food is prepared, served, and treated in the States.

Pork is a big deal. Obviously, you can get other meats (among them being horsemeat, which I have not tried, but would not be opposed to sampling), but it seems much more attention is given to the swiner things. Here, you find a lot of salami, salsicce, mortadella, prosciutto, pancetta, and speck. I want to point out unlike German speck, which is bacon, Italian speck is actually a type of ham, or prosciutto, though it can be cut with a thick ribbon of fat and resembles American bacon. If I understand correctly (and I may well be butchering this definition), bacon is cut from the belly or back of the pig, whereas prosciutto (ham) is cut from the back leg or hindquarters and brined. Pancetta, on the other hand, is basically bacon that’s salt-cured rather than smoked, sometimes with the addition of peppercorns.

horse

Another interesting thing about meat in Italy is that it can be—and is—consumed raw. I had cooked with pancetta for years before my arrival and I had eaten prosciutto, and it’s possible that I ate it uncooked without realizing it, but it never occurred to me that they could be safely eaten without cooking it. There may be some difference in the preparation to render this safe, or maybe I just grew up too paranoid of food-borne illness, but in delis and supermarkets, you have the option to buy your prosciutto and pancetta either “crudo/cruda” or “cotto/cotta” (raw or cooked, respectively).

One of the things that struck me, despite being told about it prior to coming, is that much of the emphasis in Italian cuisine is on freshness and simplicity. In a paninoteca, you can find rows upon rows of sandwiches with just a few ingredients in different combinations. Some days, the best sandwiches are just meat and cheese on bread. The other week, I was waiting in a bar (which is like a café, though they do serve alcohol) for a restaurant to open (more on that in a future post, perhaps) and I had a pre-dinner dessert which was this sort of chocolate layer creme torte with a single raspberry on top. The thing was delicious, but what really stuck out to me was the raspberry. While I was growing up, we had berry bushes outside my house and in the summer, I would go outside to pick and eat the fruit straight from the source. Sitting in that bar, the freshness and the flavor of that one raspberry took me back to those times.

romanesco

Another thing I was warned about, but did not truly comprehend the scope of until I arrived was restaurant portion sizes. Or the prices of dishes. Or the concept of piatti. I was having a text conversation with the boyfriend where I said that food at a restaurant is around “€10 per piatto.” He wanted to know if I had written that intentionally or if the all the ambiently-spoken Italian was starting to seep into my brain and fuddle up my English. I explained that it was deliberate. In the States, if you say a restaurant charges $10 per plate, it’s implied that it’s $10 per person for that meal, regardless of how many sides or courses are a part of that meal. In Italy, many restaurants do things à la carte and it’s very easy to spend €30 or more on a meal for yourself with multiple courses and still leave hungry. You know how I was talking about the dining experience with the raspberry? Of course you do. How could you forget? It was just one paragraph ago. Anyway, the emphasis on Italian restaurant food seems to be quality over quantity.

That said, pizza. In a lot of places, you can go in, buy a pizza for yourself for less than the cost of a standard piatto. Pizzas on a menu, like panini on the sandwich shop shelves are often comprised of just a few ingredients. They’re typically of a thinner crust and sometimes I have finished the whole pie in one sitting, but sometimes I’ve gotten three meals out of pizzas. It all depends on the day.

espresso

Now, a few things that are just…interesting. Lightning round!

 

Peanut Butter!

I have only found one brand of peanut butter here. It’s called Calvé. However, it tastes nothing like American peanut butter. How do I explain it? It tastes like texture. It’s not sweet or salty or much of anything. Not even peanuts. I don’t know. Maybe American peanut butter is one of those things like cherry cough syrup or strawberry Laffy Taffy that tastes nothing like its alleged flavor cousin from reality (but, I mean, I’ve had peanuts before). It’s kind of gritty, but also creamy. Per practice, I don’t eat it by itself. I’ll put it on bread with a security coat of Nutella.

 

Ranch Dressing!

Not a thing! At least not that I’ve found. Instead, they have this sort of tangy yogurt thing. It’s a passable substitute on sandwiches, but I am always aware of the fact that I’ve just poured yogurt on my salad.

 

Tortelloni con burro e salvia!

My favorite food here so far! Tortelloni are big tortellini (which, if you don’t know your pasta, are a filled pasta that look sorta like floppy bagels, but are nicknamed “Venus’ navel,” for pretty obvious reasons) that can be filled with meat or cheese—in this case, it’s cheese. In this Käse, it’s a blend. The pasta is topped with melted butter and sage. Again, very simple, but amazing.

 

Chicken in pasta!

You don’t really see that here! I mean, you do see other meats with it. I’ve ordered pasta with little bacon or ham crumbles in it, tortellini nel brodo typically features meat-filled pasta, and, of course, Bologna is known for it’s ragù meat sauce. However, I have yet to find anything like penne pesto pollo or chicken alfredo. It’s just not a thing here.

 

Rucola!

It’s arugula, which if you don’t know your lettuce is…uh…a type of lettuce. The Brits call it “rocket,” so on English translations of paninoteca menus you’ll see stuff like, “prosciutto, tomato, rocket.” It may sound like an astronaut grocery list or an awesome band name, but it’s just a sandwich.

 

Cioccolato caldo!

Literally, “hot chocolate,” but not your average Swiss Miss. Cioccolato caldo is considerably thicker and richer than American hot chocolate. It’s pretty marvelous. Another wondrous invention is that of gelato caldo. Which is melted-down gelato served affogato style (with a scoop of frozen gelato inside) topped with homemade whipped cream.

Previous post:

Next post: