My first trip to Italy was a real eye opener. And I want to tell you all about it. But first, I have a question for you.
What is your favorite Italian food?
Is it pasta smothered in tomato sauce, meatballs, sausage and cheese?
How about chicken parmesan? Do you love it?
And, of course, neither of these would be complete without a giant slice or two of buttery garlic bread, right?
Maybe you’re partial to Italian submarine sandwiches. Or, if you’re trying to skip processed meats, you might prefer a Caesar salad loaded up with croutons, parmesan cheese and dressing.
Well, the first time I visited the beautiful country of Italy, I discovered that they don’t eat the way most Americans think they do.
Not even close!
Eating Lessons from Italy
All of the foods I’ve mentioned above are NOT a part of traditional Italian cuisine. They are Americanized versions that are loaded with empty carbs, unhealthy fats and processed breads that do nothing but clog your arteries, raise your blood sugar and add to weight gain.
In other words, we’ve bastardized traditional Italian foods so badly – and serve them in such mountain-sized portions – that it’s impossible to view them as healthy. It’s no wonder that we tend to associate Italian foods with gluttony!
The truth of the matter is this…
Italians do not smother their pasta with red sauce, meat and cheese. They’ve never seen chicken parmesan. Italian garlic bread is a myth. There is no such thing as an “Italian” sub. And Caesar salads originated in Mexico, not Italy.
As a matter of fact, Italians actually eat a very healthy and varied Mediterranean style diet.
Sure, there is usually some sort of pasta served at least once a day. But it’s not the heaping bowls of pasta, meatballs, sausage and cheese we see here in America.
It is just a small serving, like an appetizer. And it’s generally tossed lightly with freshly cooked tomatoes, garlic, basil, extra virgin olive oil and other seasonal vegetables.
And get this! The only time Italians eat bread with their pasta is if they have a few remains they need to mop up from their plate. (And no, it’s not garlic bread. It is a very plain, dry bread that is only used to scoop up whatever the fork can’t manage.)
I was also surprised to learn that Italian meals are eaten much differently than those in America.
How to Eat Like a Real Italian
In Italy, breakfast is a very small and quick affair. No pancakes, eggs, waffles, sausage, bacon or hash browns for these folks! You’re more likely to see people enjoying an espresso while eating a biscotti or croissant with some fruit. Muesli (rolled oats with nuts, seeds and fruits) and yogurt are popular, too.
And while we Americans zoom through lunch with a burger or slice of pizza, lunch in Italy is a long and relaxed affair. In fact, it literally shuts down some regions of Italy for two hours or more in the afternoon.
These long leisurely lunches consist of two courses and rely heavily on fresh, seasonal produce. (In other words, it’s not all about the pasta!)
The first course (primo) is usually a small pasta or rice dish. Depending on the dish, it can contain any number of plant-based additions… like eggplant, tomatoes, nuts, seeds, mushrooms, pesto or other healthy foods.
The second course (secondo) is generally a protein and a vegetable dish (contorno). And believe me, the veggies are tossed in more than a little extra virgin olive oil. The added herbs and spices make it delicious. Delizioso! Buono! Squistio!
Once the lunch plates are cleared, a beautiful basket of seasonal fruit appears on the table for dessert. In Italy, fruit is almost always used to signal the end of a meal.
After a lunch like that, you can imagine that the last meal of the day is pretty light fare. It’s certainly nothing like the huge piles of spaghetti, lasagna and ravioli that appear on American dinner plates.
Instead, it is usually just a small meal consisting of a petite pasta dish, and maybe a soup or salad, followed by a light protein entrée and a variety of side vegetables. This meal is often accompanied with a bottle of local wine.
But after such a large lunch, many Italians opt to indulge only in the first course of their dinner meal and skip the entrée. In other words, they stop eating when they are full. And that is a message we should all take to heart.
Over the years, I’ve returned to Italy numerous times. Every time I visit, I fall so easily into the culture that it feels like a second home. And I love sharing with you what I’ve learned from those journeys!
In the end, if we all adopted the Italian passion for extra virgin olive oil, fresh seasonal produce, nuts, seeds, fish and small servings of meat – along with their habit of taking long evening strolls – Americans would be all the healthier for it.