I’ve always been an Italian food fan. In fact, my parents joked with me before I came here that I would fall in love with a beautiful Italian girl who knew how to cook, and I would never leave. That hasn’t happened, but I have enjoyed some cheap Italian food.
Let’s face the facts. I’m a student, living on my own in Italy. I don’t really have the means or the income to be having lavish Italian dinners. But I have had some pretty decent run-ins with Italian food/eating habits.
1) One of the first little gems I discovered in Milan was the Aperitivo. It’s basically the opposite of an American Happy Hour (and way better, in my opinion). Instead of having drinks half off, aperitivos offer free food with the purchase of one drink. Yes, you read correctly. Purchase a five euro beer? That’s good for all you can eat of a wide array of pasta, cheese, bread and assorted sausages. The aperitivo is kind of famous in Milan, I guess. Any successful bar here enjoys a good aperitivo. And even some of the night clubs get in on the all you can eat action. It’s a good way to keep costs down and to get a full stomach (And if you are at a night club, you can dance all of those calories off later!)
2) Pizza. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s stereotypical, I know. But the pizza here is simply amazing. The only bad pizza I’ve had was eaten the several times I’ve foolhardily bought pizza at tourist trap stands. Other than that, though, the pizza here is pretty booming. There’s probably a pizza shop about every 200 meters or so, and all of them are equally good. There are nicer pizzerias where you can sit down and enjoy a glass of wine with your pizza, and then there are locally owned fast food type pizzerias. No matter where you go, though, you always get to watch them make the pizza in front of you. Even the pizza at the university cafeteria is made fresh and on the spot. Interestingly, in Italy, pizza isn’t as much of a social food. This may seem counter intuitive, considering that all of the Italians I’ve met are very social people. But all of the pizza is made for the consumption of one. Which means two things: you are always satisfied with your slice of the pie and you eat way too much.
3) Kebaps. So kebaps were somewhat mysterious to me my first couple of weeks here. In my area of Milan, almost all of the places that sell pizza invariably also sell kebaps. You can always tell when a place sells kebaps because they have this huge slab of lamb (I think?) hanging on a spit in the back. It’s slow roasted, and when you order a kebap, the shopkeeper scrapes off some of the meat into your portion. Basically, a kebap is a masterful combination of a gyro and a burrito. When I finally got up the courage to order one, it changed my life. Now all of the pizza shops have transformed into a delicious alliance of Big Mama’s Burritos and GoodFella’s Pizza. And that’s the truth.
3) One time, when I was hanging out in Florence, some friends and I decided to go off the beaten track for lunch. Some of our other friends were eating at a nice pizzeria. We, however, didn’t want to waste our time and money there when we could be seeing the beautiful city. So we started looking for a place to get some paninis. That’s when we discovered I Due Fratellini. Sandwiches for 2.50 euros. That’s practically unheard of in Europe. And these weren’t just any sandwiches. They were toasted pieces of bread sliced open in the middle filled with your choice of meat, cheese and other scrumptious toppings like bacon, lettuce and peppers. I have to say that I now have a favorite sandwich shop in Florence.
4) I’ve made it a point to get gelato in every city I’ve visited so far. I’ve only missed one. I was in Lucca for an hour and I didn’t get ice cream. But I rode a bike, so I think that makes up for it. I’ve had gelato standing outside the Duomo in Milan, at the foot of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, waiting for a bus in Florence, in Vatican City and outside of the Pantheon in Rome. That’s a pretty impressive list if you ask me. And it’s always good. Even if you have to pay 8 euros to get it outside of the Vatican Museums.
5) The traditional Italian dinner. I’ve had the opportunity to travel with a European study abroad group called ESN while here. We’ve gone to Tuscany and Rome. I love the meals we have at hostels during these trips because even though the food could probably be better, it’s still really good and it’s usually served in the traditional Italian way: bread first, a pasta dish second, a meat third and dolce (desert) last. But these dishes aren’t served one after the other like they are in America. There is plenty of time between dishes for conversation and fun and digesting. Dinner starts around 9 and usually isn’t finished until 11. Fun is had by all and when a bunch of students are gathered together, there’s bound to be some chanting and singing.