The Must-Eat List: Italy

Posted on
May 3, 2011

A while back (it seems a lifetime ago), Rand and I were sitting in the living room of our old home talking about our then-upcoming trip to Italy.

“Do you have a must-see list of places you want to visit?”

“Not really,” I replied honestly. “But I have a must-eat list.”

He looked at me, waited a beat, and replied with grave sincerity: “I love you so much.”


Truth be told, I rarely have a plan of what to visit when I head to a city. This is amusing, because I am one who diligently plots most elements of her life (I remember meticulously charting out my 8th birthday party into 10 minute increments before my mother stepped in and stopped the lunacy). It just seems pointless – so many of the best adventures I have happen on the fly, and besides, when I do plan things out, a wrench is often thrown into the cogs and things never go as I anticipated. So I prefer to just head somewhere with a vague idea of what I want to see (i.e., Italy = old stuff; London = big clock) and that’s that.

But when it comes to what I’m going to eat? There can be no ambiguity there. I’ve staked out patisseries. I’ve tracked down cupcake carts. I traveled across Manhattan for hummus. I’ve walked across English cobblestones in uncomfortable shoes while braving freezing rain in search for a meat pie. And when I do plan to see a particular sight? I’ll have at least three or four nearby restaurant options jotted down in my purse.

The way I figure it, eternal landmarks come and go, but a really good meal? The memory of that lasts FOREVER.

And so, before we left for the eternal city, I had a list of dishes that I wanted to devour. Some distinctly Roman. Some merely Italian. All of them were must-eats. Oh, and we went to the Pantheon and the Roman Forum and saw a bunch of other nonsense like that. But whatever. Let’s talk about the food.

  1. Prosciutto. I suppose I could add just have added salumi misti, but really it was the prosciutto that I was after. It’s the stuff that I’ve devoured since childhood. Light and airy and salty and wonderful, I’ve met more than one Italian “vegetarian” who insisted that they ate no meat … except for prosciutto, which, really, was a different creature entirely (pun intended). No trip to Italy would be complete without eating a kilo of the stuff.

    Prosciutto, with a bunch of its cured friends.

  2. Porcini. I could write a blog post solely devoted to mushrooms (actually, I’m putting that on my to-do list, along with laundry. Guess which one will get done first?). I’ve never understood why foraging hasn’t taken off in the states like it does in Europe (and since we’re asking lots of questions, why do truffles cost so much more over here, whereas the Europeans toss them in EVERYTHING?).

    While I'm at it, I'd better include fresh pasta on this list, too.

    And speaking of truffles …

  3. Truffles. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s this: always trust a pig. Wait, no. That’s not it. Whatever. Truffles, freshly shaved over carpaccio, drizzled with bright green olive oil, at a restaurant with a name that we were forced to forget, otherwise we’d whisper it like a prayer, a la Prince of Tides. Lowenstein. Lowenstein … (only, you know … more Italian).

  4. Trippa Romana. I remember slurping bowlfuls of this stuff down when I was a kid, asking my mother what it was. When she explained it was the lining of an animal’s stomach, I didn’t flinch. That was the world in which I was brought up. I later learned this dish was distinctly Roman, and incredibly hard to find on menus outside of that eternal city. So when I’m there, I make sure to order this rubbery, salty, thoroughly comforting dish.

  5. Burrata. Somewhere between mozzarella and cream exists these cheese. Ephemeral and impermanent, neither solid nor liquid, it lasts for only a day or so before being past its prime. And once it is placed in front of you, it lasts even less time.

    A great man of restraint, he waits until I take a photo before tucking in. Bless him.

  6. Carbonara. My favorite as a kid, this pasta emerged after the second world war, the result of American troops trading their rations of eggs and bacon with locals (I love the idea of Roman women chatting up soldiers with a bowl of this pasta, daring them not to fall in love). In Rome, you’ll find its truest and best form – eggs, guanciale, olive oil, pecorino, tossed over fresh pasta.

    Adding to my fondness, it's also one of the first dishes I ever learned to cook.

  7. Pizza. ‘Nuff said.

    Eat your heart out, Domino's.

  8. Italian wine. I’m by no means a wine connoisseur. I’m not even that big a fan of it (I rarely drink, period). But when in Rome, right? I mean, how could I not have a glass?

    Veni, vidi, vini.

  9. Affogato. The word means, quite literally, “drowned” in Italian. As in, “our gelato was drowned in coffee.” There is no nobler an end (I mean, for gelato at least).

    This is a good death.

  10. Tiramisu. So pronounced is my love for this espresso-soaked dessert, that my first boyfriend actually called me by its name, which means, literally, “pick me up”. Were I not so damn proficient in Italian, I’d swear it actually meant, “Bring me five more of these.”

    Oh, and it's not too shabby when ordered alongside a Gorgonzola semi-freddo.

So that’s it: my top ten must-eat list for Italy. While we may have missed seeing all the sights of the eternal city, I’m pleased to say I was able to check all of these off. Which, really, is a far more rewarding achievement. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I happen to be starving.


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