When I lived in Los Angeles I became friends with a chef from Venice, Italy. This is where I had my first lessons on how Italians really eat.
His menu was inspired by his hometown, as he would say laguna e campagna (the lagoon and the countryside). He featured many different kinds of fish, loads of vegetables, and plenty of pastas, risottos and salads. The food was prepared in a much cleaner way than we are used to, not covered in heavy sauces.
His restaurant took some getting used to. I would see people come in for the first time, and I would watch them have to make an adjustment. His menu didn’t feature the typical foods that we in the U.S. have come to think of as Italian food. There was no spaghetti and meatballs, no lasagna (although he did have something called a layered bake), no fried cheese, no garlic bread. His menu was designed how Italians really eat.
There were asparagus, peas and fava beans with smoked ricotta, seared veal tenderloin with tuna-mayonnaise and capers, red beet ravioli with grana padano and poppy seeds, wild trout with asparagus and snow peas, roasted quail with pancetta and marjoram. I’ll stop now because my mouth is watering.
The food sounds fancy but it was actually prepared very simply. I came to love it, and it inspired my desire to eat in the Mediterranean way — seasonal fresh vegetables, small portions of pasta and meat or fish, a couple of bites of cheese and some fruit.
I’ve seen people walk out of his restaurant in search of fried calamari and some chicken parm. But the people who stuck it out were rewarded with heavenly concoctions from his Venetian kitchen.
Besides his friendship, it’s one of the things I miss most about California. In my new hometown in southern New Jersey, it’s very difficult to find an Italian restaurant that doesn’t load you down with carbs and thick cheese sauces. Sure there is plenty of pizza and pasta, but not the delicacies of the lagoon.
To give you an idea of the difference in how Italians eat versus Americans, here is a menu that my Italian friend is making for Sunday.
Heirloom tomatoes with sea salt, basil and extra virgin olive oil
“Alla Chitarra” spaghetti with monk fish, cherry tomatoes, olives, and pepperoncino
Slowly roasted veal breast in herb reduction
Pecorino Crudo (raw goat’s milk cheese from Toscano)
Artisanal gelato with fresh fruit and whipped cream
Sounds delicious, right?
This will be served as individual courses and will take some time. There will be a bottle of water on the table and a glass or two of wine. The pasta course will be small. In fact, each course will be small, but will add up to an entire meal that is enjoyed slowly and with good conversation.
The people of Italy are the healthiest and longest living on the planet. Not only do they live long, they stay healthy well into their upper years. They remain active and social. One of the biggest factors in their longevity is their diet.
It’s not pasta that makes Americans fat. It’s the portion sizes and the fattening sauces. When you eat like a native Italian, you can eat anything you want, because it is all taken in moderation — and savored.
Are you interested in Mediterranean cooking? Especially now that it is summer, I love to go to the local farmer’s markets and buy what is in season. I’ve been working on a new project that has a lot to do with my new-found love of Mediterranean food. Stay tuned. I’ll be sharing something exciting in the coming weeks.