US vs Italy – a series of comparisons Part I: FOOD

As I try to come to grips of the possibility of returning to the States, I have started considering more intently on the cultural differences, good and bad, between the two countries. For those of you reading this who have never been to the States, or have only been to one or two cities, the comparisons that follow are by no means representative of the US as a whole. I am from the west coast, the Pacific Northwest specifically, and so many elements that I will be mentioning may be considered foreign to someone in Iowa, for example. Similarly, Italy is a MUCH smaller country (the size of California) but it too has plentiful differences across regions. I have only been in the north; the south, I am told, is a different beast.

So, let’s start with a topic we all know and love – food.

Here in Italy, food is not just a means of survival, but a conduit through which relationships are forged and nurtured. It is a beautiful communion of time, tradition, and flavors. Having coffee, or having an aperitivo or dining together are all coveted activities which truly celebrate the small treasures in life. A coffee with a friend might be only a 20-minute sit down with a wee coffee that is consumed in a swig or two. But it is the time spent together that is cherished. Dinners with friends are easily 3-5 hours. I think it is glorious.

The food itself is slowly becoming more processed, but over all food is grown locally. One can get some foods that aren’t grown in Italy at all (bananas, mango) but for the most part, only seasonally grown fruits and vegetables are available. I think we should all return to seasonal foods. 

However, the downside is there isn’t really much variety. They don’t see this an issue because this is their culture. For a US American, we like variety. That is our culture. I have to say, I REALLY MISS CORN TORILLAS! Also, Italian food has very few ingredients (that’s  good) but it also means that most foods don’t have the flavor explosions we might experience in the States. Italians in the north don’t typically do “spicy” food. The “spicy” sausage is not at all spicy. And, lastly, you don’t mess with tradition. You won’t see very much creativity in Italian cooking. You simply don’t fuck with perfection. Period. The Italians really have a hard time contemplating why one would even consider changing something that has pleased generations.

On the flip side, as I have mentioned, in the States, we can get absolutely anything we want, from anywhere in the world. This means we can literally make (not just go to restaurants) Thai food one day, Mexican the next, Italian, then Russian and/or Chinese. Most spice cupboards have a ridiculous number of spices from around the world. However, that also means more of these foods and spices need to be shipped and stored. So, food will not be as fresh as having it from one’s own garden. 

US Americans also like the options available to them today. Unfortunately that means way too much food is wasted because people simply don’t buy everything that is available at any given moment. Which means there is a VERY LARGE business around genetic modification of our food to make it last longer (as well as to make it look prettier). The biggest issue with food in the US is the genetic modification of it. Many of my friends from other countries have told me they had stomach issues for the first few months after moving to the US (and I, too, have experienced this when I went home to visit). Almost everything that isn’t grown in a garden has added ingredients (mostly artificial).

As for dining out out, US Americans’ dining experience can almost be timed; their “long” dinner is typically 2 hours. I have no idea why they don’t like sitting and enjoying every bit of the evening from food to conversation. However, it is likely because of the tipping culture in the US (I fucking hate it!); the restaurants don’t want you to stay that long. They want to flip tables so they can earn more tips. Oh, don’t get me started! Anyway, this idea that the venue may chase you out could be now subconsciously engrained into the diners’ heads. Most people will choose to go to another place for after-dinner drinks, or they might go to someone’s house.

Allow me to quickly go backward, back to coffee. The two countries have serious coffee cultures. Yet, they couldn’t be more different. In the States, we like the comfort of a large cup of hot liquid. We have 3-4 sizes of coffees. the smallest being four times the size of a double Italian coffee. The quality of the coffee in the States (in the PNW specifically) is improving, but a simple espresso is still pretty crappy. 

In Italy, coffee is serious. The quality of the coffee, the temperature of the coffee, how it is consumed (usually standing at the bar), when it is consumed (cappuccinos are never acceptable after 10am), the cost (the standard coffee is on average 1.50 euros; bigger cities are slightly more). And, back to the idea that you don’t mess with a good thing. There are no big coffees, or flavor options. Even their Americano coffee isn’t the size we are used to. There are basically two sizes in Italy. Neither really registers on an American’s coffee radar because they are tiny: maybe 1 oz and 2 oz. Nevertheless, the wee thimble of coffee packs a flavor punch. It’s the best coffee I’ve had. EVER.

OH! and don’t ask for a “latte” because that literally means “milk.” 

On to pizza. US Americans have endless ideas on how to jazz-up a pizza. There is thick crust, stuffed crust, thin crust. There are standard pizzas (e.g. cheese, pepperoni, veggie, meat lover’s, etc), and then there are the build-your-own kinds where you pay for the toppings in addition to the base pizza. There is A LOT of cheese, and sometimes different kinds of cheese. After having been in Italy for almost three years, all those options sound superfluous and some options are just gross. In addition to the all the options in tastes, the US also has several options in size. There is the personal-size (6 inches) and they go up from there (Small, Medium, Large, X-large).

In Italy, there is one size (12 inches), and they are all personal-sized pizzas. Seriously. I would tell the American tourists to share a pizza because the pizzas here are larger than what we are used to. The waiters, being Italian and used to the size, tell the tourists that they are perfect for one person. Several pizzas went unfinished due to listening to the waiters (no fault of the waiters, might I add. They were being honest about their experience). A traditional pizza is a Margharita, which is simple tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese (not heaps of either). Pepperoni is what they call a bell pepper. So if you want what we call pepperoni sausage, you need to ask for a “diovola” pizza which has the “spicy” salami. There aren’t nearly as many options as we have in the States. And I wouldn’t try asking for modifications. Oh, and pineapple on a pizza is sacrilegious, FYI.

US Americans – if you’re traveling and think you’re going to get Italian food like you do in the States, you will be sorely disappointed. Enjoy the food here for what it is – Italian food. Try new things. Don’t turn your nose up because something looks or sounds unusual. Isn’t that why you left the States? Delight in the difference and don’t have any expectations. The food here is simple and delicious. Ask questions; be curious. And don’t rush. Just sit back and enjoy. There is nothing quite like a slow meal and all the courses and wines, all while connecting with your friends, spouse, kids in Italy. 

Italians – Just avoid what we Americans call “Italian” food. You’re better off trying something completely new. And keep in mind, the waiters will expect a 18-20% tip at the end.

Questions about food in either place? Please feel free to ask me in the comments.

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