Italian vs. Italian-American

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When we think of “Italian food,” all kinds of pasta, pizza, cheese, seafood, and meat dishes come to mind, flavored with creamy white sauce or tomato sauce. These defining elements of Italian cuisine came alive when I attended the school-organized trip to Europe during mid-winter break.

One of the most important things to do when traveling is to experience the local culture hands-on, and guided by this, I dove right into the Italian food scene. While in the cities of Rome, Florence, and Venice, I noted not only the differences between Italian-American cuisine and its native counterpart, but also the many varieties of food available.

Some of the dishes served in the States that we deem natively Italian are actually quite different overseas. Consider pizza: in the United States, it is served in the form of a pie or slice, baked with cheese and tomato sauce. In Italy, pizza is more akin to bread, and you have a wide selection of toppings, such as mushrooms, sundried tomatoes, and olives.  A pizzeria I visited in Rome had pizza served only by the slice — no pies could be found.

I also tried out native Italian pasta which was prepared with contents that added to the dish. Prosciutto a common ingredient in antipasto and sandwiches, was cooked right in with creamy penne.

The parts of Italy that I visited all had their own local specialties. Lazio, a region containing Rome, is known for its fresh vegetables grown in the surrounding hills, wheat pastas (spaghetti especially), and cuts of meats that Americans may not be used to, like organs. Tuscany, home to the Renaissance city of Florence, is known for its ravioli, rice-based risotto, and world-renowned pork and olives. Veneto, a region just north of Venice, is well known for its different varieties of seafood. Throughout Italy, one particularly fascinating food is black pasta, which gets its intriguing color from the ink of a cuttlefish or octopus. All of these provential specialities represent a more diverse assortment of Italian cuisine.

While in Italy, I found it hard to miss the quality of food back home. Italian tomatoes are much sweeter, and the nuances of each flavor are practically endless. My exploration of Italian cuisine redefined my American understanding of Italian food, and offered yet another reason to visit Italy.