Italian food is one of the most popular foods in the world. It is also one of the most misunderstood; in some cases commercialized beyond the point of recognition. Centuries of culinary traditions define Italian cooking yet Italian food often becomes a pale interpretation of what it means to eat like an Italian.
Here are 5 tips to bring Italy home and help your kids appreciate the true flavors of Italy.
1. Skip the deep dish
In Italy pizza doesn’t include everything but the kitchen sink meaning that a traditional Italian pizza has a thinner crust and fewer toppings. In fact the classic Margherita pizza only has three ingredients spread across the dough like a banner in honor of the Italian flag; tomato (red), basil(green) and buffalo mozzarella (white). All healthy, low in fat and so satisfying that your kids might not miss the sausage and pepperoni as much as they think.
2. Skip the fried ravioli
Filled pasta is very common in Italy. Vegetables, meat, fish, cheese, and salumi (cured meat) are used alone or in various combinations to create pasta ripieno (stuffed or filled pasta) both savory and sweet. Tortellini, tortelli, agnolotti, cappelletti and cappellacci are a few of the many regional variations as well as ravioli, Chef Boyardee’s contribution to the Americanization of Italian food for kids. Chef Boyardee’s ravioli were inspired by Italy’s ravioli col ragu’ (ravioli in a tomato and meat sauce) but the diversity of regional Italian food traditions also pair filled pasta with lighter sauces made with butter and herbs often without tomato. Although Italians do fry filled pasta, mainly in the form of a filled pastry or fritter (the word tortelli is dervied from the Italian word torta meaning cake, pie or tart), fried ravioli dipped in marinara as an appetizer or finger food is not usually seen.
Introduce your kids to an authentic Italian antipasto. Start the meal with an affettati misti, a platter of traditional Italian cold cuts (mortadella, pancetta, prosciutto, salame), pickled or fresh vegetables, olives maybe some cheese and skip the fryer.
3. Skip the sauce
Pasta in Italy is not drowning in sauce. In Italy sauce is used as a seasoning or condiment to enhance the flavor of the pasta rather than overwhelm it. In Italy just enough sauce is added to coat the pasta (a scant ¼ cup per portion) with a spoonful on top so you can see the beauty of the sauce. So don’t put too much sauce on your pasta. An excessive amount of sauce is just wrong because it will mask the flavor of the pasta and that would be a pity.
Filled pasta can also be served al brodo in a vegetable, chicken or beef broth for a satisying one dish meal.
4. Try a tramezzino
Do you remember when your mother made a simple sandwich with two slices of soft white bread with the crusts removed? They still do that in Italy. It’s called a tramezzino. Not all Italian sandwiches are made grinder style filled with so much meat, cheese, fillings and sauce that it could literally sink to the bottom of your stomach (maybe that’s why they call it a submarine sandwich). The original “Italian style” sandwich (aka sub, hoagie, torpedo, grinder) was born out of American necessity and ingenuity in the late 19th early 20th century. Various stories attribute its origin to New England dockworkers, Navy servicemen or destitute hobos.
In Italy a panino is a “small” bread roll made into a sandwich with various fillings. Tramezzini are made with sliced bread and are a popular and inexpensive snack sandwich perfect for kids and as a light bar food for adults. Panini and tramezzini bring the flavors of Italy home with the “less is more” and “it’s all about the ingredients” philosophy for an authentic taste of Italy.
5. Cheese doesn’t come in a green can
Parmigiano Reggiano is the “undisputed king of cheeses” made according to a process that has not changed in 700-800 years. Under Italian law real Parmigiano Reggiano cheese can only be made within a certain region of Italy (the cities of Parma, Reggio-Emilia, Modena, Bologna and Mantua) and the name Parmigiano Reggiano is classified as a PDO (protected designation of origin) product of Italy. High in amino acids, calcium and phosphorous Parmigiano cracks, crumbles, flakes, shaves and grates easily; something you won’t see the cheese in the green can do. Look for the inscription ‘Parmigiano – Reggiano’ impressed along the side of the whole cheese to identify it as real.
Parmesan (the cheese in the green can) is an Americanization of the word Parmigiano. In Italy Parmigiano Reggiano is aged for a minimum of 18 months to as long as four years. The standard US curing time for Parmesan cheese is 6-10 months.