Interlude #1: The Food

As many people know, I'm not the most adventurous person on the planet. I enjoy watching the same movies over and over; I listen to the same albums repeatedly; and I tend to order the same thing when I go to restaurants. Thus it was for me in Italy. As a result, it's a bit odd for me to sing the praises of Italy's food. Nearly every night, I ordered the same thing for dinner: spaghetti alle vongoli (spaghetti with clams).

As a supposed vegetarian, this choice is admittedly incongruous. Unless you believe that fish are plants (and who would be crazy enough to accept such an idea?), my favorite Italian dish is a living contradiction for me. And yet, in my defense, I will say that:

  1. It's a really tasty dish; and
  2. I don't feel all that guilty eating invertebrates without brains.

I know I missed out on some of the sublime variety by sticking to My Usual every night, but what can I say? If it ain't broke, don't futz with it. Besides, there were enough places that didn't offer the noodly goodness that I had to switch it up every once in a while.

Breakfast was universally a roll or croissant, with coffee. Before we left, we ran into a woman who cautioned us against the hideous cuisine we'd find in Italy: "It's all cold," she said, "and you can stick your spoon straight up in the coffee." We never received cold food (except for salads), but if you order coffee in Italy, you will get a tiny cup of incredibly strong espresso. If you say "caffe latte," however, you'll get something much more similar to US-style coffee.

Lunch seems to be a smaller deal in Italy than in the US. We started off eating full meals like the ones many of us enjoy at mid-day, but by the end of the trip we were just having a quick bite to tide us over until dinner. Pizzerias are, of course, everywhere, with many excellent varieties to choose from; and between the cafeteria-style bars and sandwich-offering cafes, we could usually find tasty vittles for lunchtime.

Dinner, then, was the main event. It's standard for patrons in Italy to order (in addition to appetizers and/or salad and/or dessert) two full courses. But between the limited vegetarian options and our easily-filled tummies, we just couldn't do it. We often had bruschetta to start, and some combination of tiramisu or gelato for dessert.

In Naples and Calabria, restaurants don't start serving until 8:00 PM. This is very odd to Americans who are used to having our gluttonous maws stuffed whenever we feel like it. We adjusted before long; in some ways it's nice to have some enforced downtime before the evening meal.

One annoying thing about restaurants in Italy is that frequently, as you peruse the menu outside, waiters will stand near you, staring and inviting you to sit down. This high-pressure approach may yield results, but more than once we bypassed a restaurant specifically because we got the creeps from the guys trying to lure us in.

At the end of the meal, you need to ask for the bill. ("Il conto, per favore," a phrase I grabbed quickly.) Otherwise, the waitstaff will assume you're enjoying the relaxing atmosphere and leave you be until they need the table. We probably hesitated for a half-hour on our first day wondering if we should ask or if they would bring it on their own.

Another thing I noticed about food is that, despite the legendary love for eating among Italians, most people we saw were in pretty decent shape. There were bigger folks and smaller people, of course, but it looked like the average Italian is in better shape than the average American (me, for instance). Diane suggested that regular walking is part of the reason, which makes sense to me.

On the whole, I did not see a marked difference between the Italian food we get in the US and the real old-country fare. The only two exceptions were tiramisu (half of the time it arrived as more of a custard dish than a kind of cake) and My Usual — in the US, we're used to linguine with clam sauce. In Italy, it always comes with spaghetti.

Next: Rome's Fight Club