I moved to Italy with my Italian partner and our twin toddlers seven months ago now. We live in the Ligurian region of Northern Italy – ask any Italian and they will tell you that Liguria is the region of pesto and focaccia. Of course being a Nutritional Therapist and food lover I was excited and worried about moving to Italy.
On one hand, the Mediterranean diet is the healthiest in the world… on the other hand there is indulgent foods like pizza, pasta, gelato and focaccia in abundance….. my waists worst nightmare! Will I be able to resist all this delicious food that Italy is so famous for?
I can tell you for the first month, No….I (we) could not resist. We were on holiday mode but after a few weeks we had enough and reduced the overindulgence. I also started to do some investigation on how the Italian people actually ate. There is an abundance of places to buy all kinds of food; from fresh fruits and vegetables at markets and independent shops, butchers, bakers, bakery’s, fresh pasta shops, fishmongers etc… food options are not short and the shops are always busy.
Let me start by painting a picture of our town, it’s a year round working town population about 22,000 and it’s also a tourist town along the Italian Riveria. Not as touristy as some other smaller towns along this coast, but year round Italians come here on holiday and foreigners in the summer. The town accommodates for all the people when it comes to food. You can find a Panificio (bakery) on every street corner, selling goods such as fresh bread, various types of focaccia made from white, kamut, whole wheat or spelt flour; and other types of focaccia with added cheese such as stracchino (a soft creamy cheese) called focaccia di Recco which originates from the village Recco in Liguria. Another typical Ligurian food is called Farinata which orginated in1284. It is made from chickpea flour, water and olive oil. It is gluten free and freshly made daily in a Panifico and certain restaurants serve farinata cooked the traditional way in wood ovens.
Some Panifici (plural for Panificio) sell deli type foods such as cooked fish, meats, grilled vegetables, lasagne, roasted potatoes, minestrone, risotto and various savoury cakes made with a pastry layer filled with either rice or vegetables (artichokes, green beans, spinach or chard are popular) and with cheese and cream. For example, the rice one is called Torta di Riso. Panifici also have a sweet section where you can find freshly made croissants, biscuits and cakes. Some recipes are really old and part of the traditional Ligurian kitchen.
"In the Italian culture, a cappuccino is a coffee for breakfast before 11am, while they have an espresso or macchiato any time of the day or evening!"
In Italy, food chains pretty much don’t exist. Every shop is unique and with the simple focaccia recipe every Panifico it tastes different. There is only one Panificio in town that sells Pane di Castagne, bread made from chestnut flour which is absolutely delicious!
Next we have the Patisserie, where you can buy homemade fresh cakes, pastries, biscuits, croissants (either plain or filled with jam, cream, chocolate or pistachio cream); and they typically sell sweets like hard candy and chocolate. One thing to mention is that the Italian version of cakes, pastries etc are not like what you would find in the UK. They are much lighter with less sugar and less butter used and the portion size is much smaller.
Not everything is made with white flour either; kamut and spelt flour are quite popular. In some Patisserie’s you can stop in for a caffè. In the Italian culture, a cappuccino is a coffee for breakfast before 11am, while they have an espresso or macchiato any time of the day or evening! It’s not uncommon to see people starting their day with a cappuccino and croissant for breakfast.
There are also a handful of fresh homemade pasta shops in our town that you literally buy and need to eat within a few days; they are made with no preservatives or artificial ingredients.
"For Italians, the tradition of food is a religion and people know what good quality food looks and tastes like. Meat is no exception, so if it is of poor quality the Italian people will complain and won’t buy it"
A typical Ligurian pasta to buy is trofie that the Genovese people only have with pesto and ravioli filled with spinach and ricotta, artichoke or a meat. You can also buy fresh sauces for the pasta such as pesto, tomato or a walnut sauce (sugo di noci).
Although you can buy meat from the supermarket, it’s more common to buy from the local butchers. I noticed that only one shop in town sells meat from a specified local organic farm, however, most of the butchers in our town have a reputation for selling good quality meat. For Italians, the tradition of food is a religion and people know what good quality food looks and tastes like. Meat is no exception, so if it is of poor quality the Italian people will complain and won’t buy it. We also have a weekly fish market on a Friday, selling a variety of freshly caught seafood. Additionally, there are a few local fishmongers.
"Generally, their diet consists of 3 balanced meals a day with an optional afternoon snack, in which they call “Merenda”, this snack is typically some fruit or a small piece of focaccia. Their lunch and dinner are balanced meals. Traditionally Italian meals consist of many small dishes that take time to prepare for the whole family."
Most importantly though, is the abundance of local Italian grown, seasonal fruits and vegetables that can be bought from numerous small independent shops/stalls, from the daily market in the town piazza, and from the local supermarkets. We have two small shops that sell fruit and vegetables from local organic farms; everything is seasonal and extremely fresh that will last a day up to a week in the fridge depending on what food it is.
So in my first few months living in Italy, I am not only observing all the places to buy different types of food from, but I am also looking around at the Italian people – young and old. I did not see many overweight people, some, but not what I would imagine if one ate pizza, focaccia, cakes and bread every day. I started to ask myself, do the Italian people actually eat as much starchy carbohydrates as we imagine them to eat or what I am seeing and imagining them to be eating? I can see the Panificio and Patisserie shops busy everyday and people walking down the street with their slice of focaccia in hand, but what is the reality of the typical Italian diet?
So this brings me back to the investigations I did. I actually spoke with an Italian Dietician to better understand what a typical Italian diet is. I wanted to know if everyone was actually eating pizza, pasta and focaccia everyday or it was my imagination! Generally, their diet consists of 3 balanced meals a day with an optional afternoon snack, in which they call “Merenda”, this snack is typically some fruit or a small piece of focaccia. Their lunch and dinner are balanced meals. Traditionally Italian meals consist of many small dishes that take time to prepare for the whole family.
It starts with an antipasto (usually a cold and light dish. Examples of foods eaten are deli meat such as salami, prosciutto or bresaola, or cheese or bruschetta. Next there is Primo (1st course – consists of a small plate of hot food like risotto, pasta, soup and broth, gnocchi, polenta, torta (savoury pie) or lasagne; then there is Secondo with a contorno (includes a meat or fish, including turkey, sausage, pork, steak, stew, beef, cod, salmon, lobster, lamb, chicken, or a roast. A contorno is a side dish and it’s commonly served alongside a secondo. These usually consist of vegetables, raw or cooked, hot or cold. They are usually served in a separate dish, not on the same plate as the meat). Then a small selection of fresh fruit and cheese ending with a coffee. It sounds like a lot, but the portion size of each dish is small which is the key factor in the Mediterrean diet.
It’s typical to have a piece of bread with a meal that has a sauce and they use the bread to “clean the plate”, this is called “scarpetta”!
Today in Italy the current working generation don’t have the time to prepare and sit down for a four course meal though. How the dietician explained it to me is that Italians today still eat a lot more vegetables and less pasta then people think. They will have both raw and cooked vegetables with lunch and dinner, a protein of either beans, fish or meat, a small portion of starchy carbohydrate like pasta, spelt or kamut grains and plenty of olive oil. It’s typical to have a piece of bread with a meal that has a sauce and they use the bread to “clean the plate”, this is called “scarpetta”! Fresh homemade desserts are preferred and eaten on occasion. Italian cakes and biscuits are less sweet as they use less sugar in the baking and no hydrogenated fats to prolong the shelf life.
To an Italian food is a religion. They know the difference between good and bad tasting food. They can tell if food is not in season or artificially grown as it lacks flavour. They eat and prefer locally grown food that is full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants as the produce has been grown to maturation with plenty of natural sunlight, a huge variation of food is available that keeps the diet diverse, it is very fresh and they eat seasonally. Meals are all about portion size, the frequency of meals and the quantity of vegetables.