I spent my entire junior year studying abroad at the University of Bologna, a cosmopolitan yet medieval city in Northern Italy. I lived with five Italian students while there, and I learned that when it comes to cooking Italian food, minute details are crucial.
A lot of us say, “What difference does it make whether I put regular salt or sea salt in the pasta?,” for example. This “tom-ay-to, tom-ah-to” philosophy is wrong: The subtle ingredients are very significant when considering the overall taste of the dish.
Italians make the best dish they can with the ingredients available, but they do not settle for mediocrity or compromise; they take pride in the food they make and eat.
Along with the countless things I learned from just watching, listening and being present in the Italian atmosphere, my roommates Francesco, Antonio and Luca threw in some cooking tips here and there, which I remember vividly.
The Mediterranean diet relies on sharing freely with others (which allows you to eat smaller portions), having a communal and guilt-free attitude when it comes to eating and drinking, and enjoying yourself! In my opinion, the kitchen-centered attitude of Italian families is the secret to their closeness, communicative ability, and cultural pleasure and happiness. Whereas a lot of other cultures drink and eat because they feel empty, Italians drink and eat in order to feel full, in their bodies and their souls.
1. When cooking pasta, add an entire fistful of sea salt to the water after it starts boiling and before you add the pasta.
2. When you put the spaghetti in the water, scatter the noodles in a circle all the way around the rim of the pot. That way they will naturally sink down into the water evenly as they start to soften.
3. Don’t overcook the pasta! You’d impress an Italian more by serving it undercooked rather than overcooked. The way to know when it’s about done is as soon as it loses its shiny transparent look and starts to become sticky.
4. Key ingredients to use in many dishes: Parsley (prezzemolo), garlic (aglio), black pepper (pepe), crushed red pepper flakes (pepperoncini), salt, white wine, extra virgin olive oil (olio d’oliva), sausage (salsiccia) and rosemary (rosmarino)
5. The popular saying, “more is better” is not true when it comes to combining ingredients in an Italian dish. Rather, a kick-ass dish can be made with very few ingredients. It’s knowing how to combine them correctly that’s important.
6. Buy the raw ingredients cheap and create a delicious meal. We think that if we buy more expensive ingredients at Whole Foods, for example, or even if we buy an already prepared meal, it will taste better than buying cheaper ingredients at Ralph’s. Don’t fall for that. An Italian would buy the raw ingredients as cheap as possible and create a delicious masterpiece with their own hands, putting their own sweat, time and love into the dish to really make it the best possible.
7. Use extra virgin olive oil! An Italian will become infuriated about olive oil that’s not extra virgin. Splurge more on the little things, like buying a higher quality olive oil, and spend less on buying pre-prepared and pre-packaged meals! This will be better both financially and environmentally!
8. Speak in Italian, drink wine, and smoke “sigarette” while you cook. Then you won’t be as hungry and you’ll stay skinny like an Italian. Just kidding!
9. Eat a small carbohydrate for breakfast, like a miniature croissant, or just stick with an espresso. Italians don’t eat meat or eggs for breakfast; they only eat eggs when mixed in with other ingredients for a dish. Also, Italians don’t use dishwashers, dryers, toasters or microwaves. Luca almost started yelling at me when I mentioned the mere idea of using a microwave. This way, when they cook a meal, they count the amount of people eating and they cook exactly the right amount, then they scoop it all out onto each individual plate so there are no leftovers. Also, say “buon appetito” before you eat! This takes the place of a prayer. Before you drink an alcoholic beverage, you should always say “salute” and give a cheer while looking the other person in the eye. You will offend an Italian if you neglect this ritual.
10. Always use garlic when cooking fish or pasta. Garlic also goes well with steak and sausage.