Saturday, September 02, 2006

Spaghetti & Meatballs, and Other Italian Myths

Ciao di nuovo! (Hello again!)

Back today from a quick jaunt to Stockholm with two of my closest Italian girlfriends, Eleonora and Francesca, and after eating my first plate of real, authentic Swedish meatballs, (not particularly appetizing, but edible) the thought crossed my mind to chat a bit about some of the myths and mysteries of Italian cuisine. First and foremost: the world-famous dish of "spaghetti and meatballs." Not to mention other favorites like garlic bread, Caesar salad, and "fettuccini" alfredo.

Being that I am an American, I can say at least that in the States, these are what we would consider authentic Italian dishes, or at the very least, dishes you could expect to find in any run-of-the-mill Italian restaurant. When I worked with US university students coming to Rome to study abroad, I remember fielding questions like "Where can I go for the best spaghetti and meatballs?" and the heartbreaking look on their faces when told, "Well, you know... it's not really an Italian dish, after all..."

So, let's clarify what you can and can't expect when you visit Rome, in terms of eating out. Of course, spaghetti exists. And yes, meatballs as well (they are called polpette). But together, mi dispiace, amici, (sorry, friends), no.

Garlic bread...mmm. Never seen it here though. Maybe it exists. But not like Pizza Hut makes it. Italians just have simple bread baskets with plain, kind of dry, white bread. They don't put anything on it. (I know, I'm destroying the idea of the romantic little dipping plate with olive oil and various herbs and spices.) Butter? Nope.

Caesar salad. Try telling that to an Italian! I actually have an Italian friend named Cesare (prounounced Ches-ah-ray) who was delighted when he went to the States on business and saw a salad on the menu, in honor of him. But he told me, "Shelley, che schifo (how disgusting), why do you Americans put milk on your salads?" Italians like plain and simple oil and balsamic vinegar, and a bit of salt. Salads are generally lettuce and a few tomato slices. And by the way--Italians eat salad after dinner. It's said to help digestion. (Some other time we will discuss digestione. Italians are obsessed with the concept!)

And last but not least, fetuccini alfredo. The lovely, oh-so-fattening combination of fettucine and that heavenly cream sauce. Legend has it that the dish was invented here in Rome, and lives on at Il Vero Alfredo, the so-called Emperor of Fettucine. Personally, I've never eaten there, but the photo of Martha Stewart on the homepage of the first website mentioned, along with the fact that another branch exists at Disneyworld in Orlando, doesn't exactly convince me to change my ways. (Sniff, sniff. :-) Yes, I'll admit I have become a bit of a food snob, what can I say?) However, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt just for the photo on their website of "Emperor" Alfredo the Third eating his mountain of fettucine, and for the charm factor of imagining an entire empire of fettucine ruled by said emperor, the existence of which means I can't conclusively exclude fettucine alfredo from my list of real Italian dishes. (Even though none of my Italian friends have ever heard of it, let alone cooked it themselves.)

So folks, there you have it. Get your fill before you leave, because finding these "Italian" goodies once you get to Rome just might be a fruitless quest.

Promised coffee lowdown coming in the near future...I need a bit more time to discuss the finer points with you and to showcase my handmade step-by-step photos.

So, alla prossima (until next time!)

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