7 Ways to Eat Like a True Italian

Adopt these bona fide Italian traditions for authentic (and tasty) European-style meals at home.
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Do as the Italians Do

Many would agree that Italians do it better than most when it comes to food. And although Italy is really more like a cluster of diverse cultures, there are some cooking and dining traditions that hold true from the Dolomites in the north to Sicily in the south. Here are seven Italian traditions that teach some valuable (and delicious) lessons.

Don't Butter the Bread

While bread and butter may be staples on the Italian-American table, in Italy bread takes a supporting role. It’s not slathered with butter, soaked in olive oil or drenched in vinegar, but rather is meant to soak up sauce left on your plate. Butter may appear in pasta sauces or sweets, but rarely serves as a condiment. And vinegar surfaces as a simple salad dressing or an acidic component in cooked meat dishes. At an Italian table, diners respect the perennial parental warning "Don’t fill up on bread!" 

Serve Courses 

A typical Italian meal begins with an antipasto (starter), followed by a primo (pasta, risotto or polenta, depending on the region and season), a secondo (meat or fish), a contorno (cooked vegetables or salad) and dolce (dessert). This staggered approach facilitates portion control, slows the pace of a meal and allows you to savor each dish individually. Italians don’t necessarily eat every course at every meal, but the general order is never muddled — a choice that, some say, ensures efficient digestion.

Hammer Those Vegetables

Al dente pasta is the Italian standard (and in some regions you will find pasta cooked “al chiodo,” with even more bite), but vegetables are rarely treated to the same gentle cooking. Soft-simmering them or roasting them to the point of caramelization may rob veggies of their snap and structure, but this overcooking helps develop intense flavors and textures.

Think Local for Wine Pairings

While Super Tuscans and bold Brunellos may dominate Italian wine lists abroad, neither of these pricey reds is particularly popular among Italians. The average family spends under 12 euros per month on wine — by drinking what’s made locally. This approach (which guides the food-and-wine-pairing adage “if it grows together, it goes together”) celebrates regional flavors.

 

When it comes to pairing, look to Italy’s geography: Pair margherita pizza, native to Naples, with mineral-rich white wines made near Mt. Vesuvius. Rome’s carbonara naturally pairs with Cesanese del Piglio, made just southeast of the city. And Piedmont’s exquisitely rich food marries well with local Nebbiolo-based wines.

Eat Fruit for Dessert

Gelato, tiramisu and cannoli may be the most-famous Italian desserts, but in Italy the concluding course isn’t always so rich. Instead, raw, seasonal fruit is common. In the spring, dessert might be a small bowl of strawberries or a heap of cherries. In the summer, peaches, plums, melons and figs appear, while the fall gives way to persimmons and eventually winter’s citrus. 

Cut Back on Cold Cuts

The number and variety of ingredients that fill an American hoagie would leave most Italians perplexed. If you ask for a similarly loaded sandwich in Italy, expect to be reprimanded with a stern “non e possibile” (“it is not possible”). Italy’s tramezzini and panini are smaller and more sparsely filled with complementary flavors: prosciutto crudo and mozzarella; bresaola, Grana Padano and arugula; even prosciutto and figs. Some meats, like porchetta (deboned roasted pork), are even often served alone — no condiment or cheese is required to enrich their savory flavor. Quality over quantity can be a truly tasty approach.

Don't Trim Prosciutto

Prosciutto crudo undergoes a long salting and aging treatment, which produces flavorful, pink musculature trimmed in a layer of silky fat. Italians serve prosciutto thinly sliced and often pair it with mozzarella, melon or mature figs. While many Americans' impulse is to trim off and discard the ribbon of fat, doing so changes the flavor and texture completely. When eating prosciutto, try a whole slice. Not keen on the fat? An ultralean cured meat like lonzino (cured loin) might be a better bet.

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