Abbie Stark: Why Italian food was my least favourite cuisine (and what changed my mind)
Unpopular opinion from an Italian food blogger: Italian food isn’t that great. Unless, that is, you’re eating it the way that it deserves to be eaten!
My friend Abbie Stark is a food writer and tour guide living in Rome. I invited her to write about her at times love/hate relationship with Italian food, as my first ever guest author! You can check out the rest of her no-nonsense tips on travelling and eating your way through Italy on her blog: La Vita Roma.
To my absolute shame, while reading David’s SCATHING remarks on the Italian vs. Spanish food debate (where he offered substitutions for Italy’s most famous dishes), I found myself nodding along.
Like many of the points that he so eloquently raises (Parmigiano tastes like vomit! Arancini will give you the stomach ache of a lifetime!), I myself have had a tumultuous relationship with Italian food.
In fact, although today I give food tours in Italy and write a blog that focuses on my love affair with Italian cuisine, I wasn’t a fan of Italian food for most of my life!
Why Italian food wasn’t my favorite
Let’s back up a bit so you can understand where I’m coming from.
I’m an American who found herself living in Rome after a four-month semester abroad during college. I met an Italian guy and moved back to Italy straight after graduating!
My ethnic background is about as bread and butter as it comes. Ancestors who came over to America before the Revolutionary War, roots that can be faintly traced back to the UK, Germany and Ireland, and not a speck of Italian blood in my body.
While some ex-pats living in Italy can share all about their connection with “the motherland” and how their nonna used to make a big Sunday lunch with pasta galore, the extent of Italian food preparation in my home was quite different.
Fettuccine alfredo with chicken and broccoli, chicken parm, garlic bread, and of course, my dad’s beloved combo of pasta, butter and Kraft shaker cheese… There were the staples on our table. (I’m sharing this in the hopes that my mother-in-law will find it in her kind heart to forgive us).
So rather than exclaiming about my love of pizza, pasta, and gelato like many of my friends did, I never had a high opinion of Italian food. When choosing a study abroad location, food wasn’t even a factor. Even moving back to Rome two years later, I was never thrilled at the prospect of living entirely off of Italian food.
The bite of pizza that launched a career
The moment this all changed was when my then-boyfriend, Edoardo, brought me to Naples to celebrate my birthday three days after I arrived in Rome. I had never been before, and the only thing I knew about Napoli was that I needed to be careful of pickpockets and that the food was supposed to be decent.
But back in 2016, it was slightly less of a madhouse than it is today. We waited for 45 minutes outside of the restaurant to have our names called and were brought to a tiny table in front of the pizza oven and handed a menu with €2 beer and €4 pizzas.
The moment I bit into my pizza margherita con bufala, I was sold on this whole “living in Italy” idea. It was the perfect bite, a symphony of all the best flavours, with all the ingredients balancing each other out perfectly. A crust that was soft and light but not too thick in the middle, a sauce that wasn’t overly acidic or that overpowers in flavour, and the best mozzarella cheese I’d ever eaten.
It’s fair to say I fell in love with Italian food at that moment.
It was also one of the reasons I decided to start my blog and share the amazing places and things I was eating, and why I accepted a job planning and leading food tours in Rome.
My other “wow” moments with Italian food
So what other experiences have I had that have made my heart flutter and prompted me to take a mental snapshot so I can always remember that specific moment I had with a bite of food?
- Biting into a freshly-formed ball of buffalo mozzarella at a dairy farm on the way back from the beach in Southern Lazio, still slightly warm and dripping with fresh brine.
- Ripping open a piping hot brioche at a bakery in a tiny Sicilian town and dunking it into an icy granita for breakfast.
- Hiding from the rain in a car while scarfing down just-baked focaccia topped with cherry tomatoes that pop in your mouth and whole-roasted garlic cloves from what’s arguably Italy’s oldest bakery in Altamura.
- The first sip of a €200 bottle of Brunello during a tasting of 5 wines at one the most luxurious wineries in Val d’Orcia.
- Sampling a truffle-flavoured mortadella in Bologna that had me begging Edoardo for his portion and doing the whole, “I’ll save the last bite so I can end with the taste of truffle mortadella in my mouth”.
- The first slurp of a plate of homemade, chewy pici served with wild boar ragu at the most unassuming rest-stop off the side of the highway where locals come from all over Umbria to have lunch.
Where I stand on Italian food today
These experiences and the countless others that I’ve enjoyed over the past five years changed my perspective.
Having an even greater impact, my mother-in-law has taught me many of her recipes and tricks for making the kind of food that people still talk about decades later. While I can’t hope to reach her talent in the kitchen, I’m still proud of myself when I make gnocchi by hand, or grow my own basil on the balcony to flavour a perfectly balanced, simple tomato sauce.
It wasn’t not eating the food that made me fall in love with Italian cuisine. It’s the people and stories that revolve around it.
Knowing the love and care that goes into the recipes, seeing the markets that sell fresh produce and visiting the artisanal cheesemakers who take such pride in their product made with centuries of tradition, has completely won me over. I can safely say that today, I’m one of Italian food’s biggest fans.
Better yet, my entire journey of becoming a foodie has introduced me to people like David, who share my obsession with food. I see such a big crossover between the Spanish and Italian food cultures, all rooted in a deep love for tradition.
It’s visible in the way that the two cultures celebrate milestones, choose to socialize and even what they talk about throughout the day.
So who knows, I might be writing another post at some point in the future all about my adoption of and new love for la cocina española…
About the Author
After falling in love with a Roman (and his city along with him), Abbie moved to Rome 5 years ago—and hasn’t looked back. She loves finding the best-hidden spots to experience Italy like a local and sharing her off-the-beaten-path tips for the authentic side of Rome. Check out her blog La Vita Roma for content about life in Rome, travelling throughout Italy, and recommendations for the best pizza ever.
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