Friday, May 4, 2012

Another fun thing: eating food in Italy


So this isn't some grand sweeping post about the best bresaola and risotto and capellini and vino and oh my god even the fennel is the best in the world. I didn't eat a lot of awesome things. I'm sure all these great things were here. But I don't know much about them, they're expensive, they require sitting down to a meal, and even then, I don't really care. It's all meat and cheese and white flour, none of which I really want to incorporate into my diet more.

However! I did take this chance to get well acquainted with three of the many Italian food groups:

1. Coffee. (duh.) "Caffe" is always espresso (always), it's always right around the corner, and it always costs one euro. I'm no espressoman myself, but in my humble opinion they ranged from good to great. I mean great, from roadside shops and gas stations. This is a nice surprise, because you'll never get a good cup of drip without seeking out a shop that specifically makes good drip coffee; in Italy you can drink coffee wherever and sometimes it's great.

Espresso is weird, though: it doesn't last very long! As a result, cafes have a bar where they serve the espresso, people stand up and drink it, pay, and leave. Takes about two minutes start to finish; feels like you're shooting up. If you run into someone on the street and you say "let's go for a caffe", it means "let's do conversational pleasantries and then leave." If you want say a 15 minute conversation, you go for an "aperitivo" (drink); if you want to hang out for like two hours you go for a meal. This leaves a big gap in the 30-60 minutes range, which is almost always the amount of time I want to spend with someone while we're consuming something. Dear Italy: the way you prepare your coffee has social consequences that I don't like.

You can put sugar in your espresso, I guess. If you want milk, you can order macchiato* or con panna or cappuccino. (But don't order cappuccino any time besides breakfast or you're a goofball.) Also, some (usually cheap) shops have started advertising "caffe ginseng" and "caffe orzo"; these sound interesting, but do not be fooled! they are travesties on the level of gas station "cappuccino."

* this is "caffe macchiato", or "marked coffee", which is to say, coffee marked with a little milk. It's not a Starbucks "macchiato." The confusion happens because a Starbucks macchiato is short for "latte macchiato", "marked milk", milk marked with a little bit of coffee. In the US I guess this causes baristas headaches when they make a caffe macchiato for someone who ordered a "macchiato" but meant "latte macchiato". Hard to say what went wrong, but I think it was when Starbucks started convincing people that "latte macchiato" is the main "macchiato" and furthermore that it is an acceptable "coffee drink".

So how do people make coffee at home, if they only drink espresso? They use a Moka pot. This is a cool device that I want to explain how it works here because I just figured it out, but it's hard to explain without having one to look at and take apart. It makes strong, bitter coffee, somewhere between drip and espresso. If you like sugar, you can take a bit of coffee from the Moka pot and mix it with some sugar and it sort of makes a coffee-sugary cream, which you can then put in your Moka coffee and it looks like the crema on top of an espresso. I guess this is desirable?

2. Pizza. I think I subsisted mostly on pizza here. Always thin crust, usually crispy and delicious. The toppings provide a solution to the conundrum of wanting to try some intense food (say, prosciutto) but not wanting to buy a whole damn sausage. If you sit down at a restaurant, you'll get a whole pie, while take-out shops just sell slices. Either way, it's pretty good, and definitely the cheapest/tastiest way to survive.

3. Gelato. Gelato shops are everywhere! Always get a small cone; it costs about a buck fifty and it's plenty. You get two (sometimes even three?) choices of flavors, and they'll be confused if you only pick one. All the flavors look so good, so you're forced to make a difficult choice, and I can't help you there. You could try the popular "zuppa inglese" ("English soup"?) which is (un)fortunately not as gross as it sounds. (It's some mix of cream and fruits.) Oh, also, I can't help you figure out if a place has good gelato or not; I've had mixed experiences. You will have to try a few until you find a really good one, and then just wolf down gelato nonstop until you have to move towns.

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