Things I Learned In Italy

Last January began one of the greatest experiences of my life to date as I packed my bags and flew to Rome for four months. I lived in Prati, a 30 minute walk from downtown Rome and a 5 minute walk from Vatican City. While I learned a lot about European business, architecture, and history, the greatest thing I experienced was the relationship between Romans and their food. Below are a few life lessons (or, food lessons, if you may) I took back to my life in the States.

Cappuccino, espresso, machiato, latte… what’s the difference?! There is a difference, and to Romans, it’s a big difference. Thinks of it as a scale… espresso, no milk; macchiato, small amount of milk; latte & cappuccino, large amount of milk. As you may have guessed, espresso is the standard for Romans and is also simply called caffè. A cappuccino (my absolute favorite) is considered a breakfast or pre-lunch drink and can should enjoyed before 11 AM – after 11 AM, don’t be surprised if you get some funny looks from the locals. Another Roman no-no is caffè Americana, espresso in hot water, or, as the Italians deem it, “toilet water.”

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The takeaway: explore cultural traditions.

Romans do little shopping at grocery stores. Farmers markets and open-air markets are more common and a way of life in Rome. You can get anything you need at a market – meats, bread, cookies, pasta (of course), cheese, wine, produce, and even some odds and ends like umbrellas, hats, etc. Think Reading Terminal Market but exponentially better. The great thing about these markets is that everything is fresh, local, and seasonal. There is no packaging or nutrition labels, organic vs conventional, local vs non-local… whatever they have is what they have, and nothing else.

The takeaway: buy fresh from a local source.

When I think of gelato, two words come to mind: Old Bridge. This place is behind the Vatican and has THE BEST (but seriously THE BEST) gelato. 1.50 Euro gets you a heaping portion of three flavors. If you are ever in Rome, this is something you don’t want to miss. Of course, there are many places to get gelato, but the key is to avoid gelato shops in high traffic tourist areas (excluding Old Bridge). Banana flavor lookin’ a little too yellow? Move on. 3 Euro for small? Forget it. Go off the beaten path and find some good gelato. Just remember, never eat gelato in a cone!!

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The takeaway: sometimes a hole in the wall offers the best stuff.

Romans, and pretty much all Europeans for that matter, treat their meat completely different than Americans. None of those “value packs” of 10 chicken breast for 1.99/lb. or ground beef made from hundreds of cows. High quality meat is normal to Romans. That may sound a little snooty, but in all seriousness, Romans understand the cost of raising meat, therefore, they don’t eat a lot of it. Meat is consumed in small amounts and is often mixed with pasta or used for flavor. Romans are by no means vegetarians but they are definitely not avid meat eaters.

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The takeaway: be an omnivore not a carnivore.

While I am no wine connoisseur, I did in fact learn a few things worth sharing. Moscatto and biscotti is milk and cookies for adults. It’s common to have a small glass of this dessert wine, well, for dessert. Don’t forget to dip your biscotti in your wine too! If you’re going out to dinner (or even lunch) ask the waiter for his or her opinion on the wine. If you’re at a trattoria, a casual dining place, I advise ordering the house wine. It’s cheap and usually pretty good. My last point of advice is to never order a beer in Italy. Granted, I’m not a fan of Peroni, but save your money and taste buds for your trip to Germany, Czech Republic, or Belgium.

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The takeaway: eat (in this case, drink) what the house is known for.

Always buy and use extra virgin olive oil

The takeaway: that’s what I was told and I’m stickin’ to it.

Some argue that Firenze is the best place to find pizza, while others argue in favor of Napoli pizza. While these places do have great pizza, I never had pizza like the pizza in Rome. A pizza place around the corner from where I lived, Bonci (Anthony Bourdain went here on Rome’s Layover episode), created the most obscure, yet, delicious pizzas. From broccoli and zucchini to pâté and truffles, Bonci did it all. Like gelato, pizza places are everywhere in Rome. My advice is to (like always) avoid tourist-y pizza places. Instead, look for a pizzeria crowded with Romans. Don’t be alarmed when your pizza is cut with scissors. Also, if you ever see egg on a pizza, purchase and consume immediately.

The takeaway: try something new.

The last and probably most important thing I learned in Rome is to get to know the people in the food industry. I frequented a sandwich shop right outside of downtown Rome and the customer service was always great. But once I became a familiar face to the employees, something changed. Soon, I was getting a little extra pesto on my panino or an extra biscotti. On the other side of town was a great porchetta place. After 15 minutes or so of small talk, the owner ordered us more porchetta and wine, and took a seat like he’s known us for years. During a weekend trip to the Amalfi coast, we met a restaurant owner’s family – his sister, brother in law, aunt, mother, they were all there and he wanted us to meet them!

The takeaway: create a relationship with my producers & farmers.

— Hillary

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