First, I would like to thank Paolo for gracing me with the honor of a Cannolo Award for being an authentic Italian food blogger. I am so thrilled to join to be recognized as a fellow defender of this great cuisine! Grazie mille!
Ciao Paolo! Thanks so much for joining me for an “Aperitivo Chat” on my blog. I absolutely love your blog, Disgraces on the Menu, and podcast, Thoughts on the Table. As an American who is smitten with Italian food (the real Italian food from Italy), it is intriguing for me to hear your perspective as an Italian in Canada (and now the UK).
Thanks so much, Kelly! It’s an absolute pleasure being your guest!
I wholeheartedly join you in the mission of your blog to “fix Italian food around the world.” After living in Italy and discovering that Italian food is NOT the same as what we call it in North America, it pains me every time I see something labeled as “Italian” that is clearly not. What are the most common misconceptions about Italian food that you have encountered in North America?
I think that the biggest misconception is when Italian-American cuisine is regarded as Italian. Sure, Italian-American restaurants call themselves Italian, but the difference is quite obvious to anyone who has been to Italy even just for a short vacation, let alone those like me who were born there.
As for specific examples, continental Italian food, as I call it, is generally simpler, made of fewer ingredients, and the portions are smaller. Subtle flavors have their place in the composition of the dish and progression of the meal, and there is restraint in the use of spices, garlic, and onion.
Other misconceptions are more cultural. For instance, while it’s true that Italians eat a lot of pasta, this doesn’t mean that they have bathtubs of it, it means that they have it often as a relatively small first course, followed by a secondo. In North America, instead, even continental Italian restaurants increase their pasta portions to meet an expectation.
On the flipside, has your time in Canada influenced your dining habits or palate in any way? What are some of your favorite dishes that you encountered in North America?
Yes, absolutely. By living in Vancouver for 18 years, I got accustomed to a variety of new dishes. Besides west-coast cooking (e.g.: honey-glazed salmon, butternut squash soup) and baking (e.g.: cinnamon rolls, butter tarts), it’s world cuisine that really opened my culinary horizons. I love sushi and Japanese food in general, but also Chinese, Indian, Malaysian, Lebanese, Ethiopian, Mexican, Salvadoran – just to name a few, albeit in their Canadian adaptations. If I hadn’t left Italy, I wouldn’t have had nearly as much opportunity to grow an appreciation for so many different flavors.
One of the things that fascinate me most about Italian cuisine is the fact that each region has its own specialties. Where are you from, and what is a specialty from your region?
I was born and raised in the province of Milan, an area known for its eponymous saffron risotto, as well as polenta, osso buco, and panettone. More broadly, the Lombardy region is also home to Gnocchi al Gorgonzola and Pizzoccheri della Valtellina.
Risotto, by-the-way, is one of my favorite dishes to cook. It’s such a great canvas on which to be creative, while of course keeping true to the tradition, such as in my saffron and leek variation. Some think that cooking risotto is really difficult, but it’s actually an extremely reliable dish to make.
I see a lot of American tourists in Italy gravitate toward restaurants with menus in English with familiar dishes, such as chicken alfredo(!). This is probably a business decision on the part of these restaurants to include these foreign dishes on their menu…but what advice do you have for tourists to have an authentic dining experience in Italy?
What you describe is, unfortunately, becoming more common in touristic cities and especially near tourist attractions. If you stay off the beaten path, you’ll likely find an authentic experience. But if you are, say, near Spanish Steps in Rome, my advice is to stay away from restaurants with waiters standing at the door while holding an English menu. Instead, wait until 8 or 9 pm and check which restaurants are full of locals and all you hear is happy chatting and clanging of plates! Chances are that you’ll find seasonal dishes not known in North America and have a more authentic Italian dinner.
A non-food related question, but I have to ask because I am currently learning Italian on my own. Your English is impeccable! What are some of the things that helped you achieve this level of proficiency?
In the podcast? Editing! Kidding aside, my advantage, of course, is having lived in an English speaking country for a long time. So, unless you move back to Italy, you’re not going to have the same level of exposure to the language. If you do move to Italy, keep a notepad (digital or otherwise) and write down anything that stands out during the course of your day: new idioms, unexpected pronunciations, unintuitive spelling. Then review your notes. Also, try not to be shy and practice conversation by finding some patient people and talking with them. Prefer to talk one-on-one, so you can keep more control of the topic and the pace. Finally, I think a natural step in learning a second language is to lower one’s expectations. Unless you’re lucky to grow up bilingual, the second language will always require more thinking than your native one, and therefore be a little less “immediate.” For instance, I often have doubts on which preposition to use – they don’t always come naturally to me so I am forced to try to remember them, which is error-prone and not very efficient.
Thank you so much Paolo for sharing your passion for your country’s cuisine with us!
P.S. I am looking forward to being a guest on Paolo’s podcast, Thoughts on the Table, very soon! In the meantime, check out the interviews with some of my favorite Italian food bloggers, Pina Bresciani and Marzia of Bella Cibo!