Italy taught the French to cook, so I was told. I went to Italy expecting the same revelatory food experience I had in France. There, eating in the equivalent of a cut-rate diner, you take a bite of your beef bourguignon and think, my God, that’s so good! And then you swallow it and think, it can’t have been that good. And you take another bite and oh my God it really is that good. When I meet someone from France, I ask them, how do you eat over here? And they give a little smile and shake their heads.
When Napoleon conquered Italy, he brought back to France more than just the twice-stolen horses of the hippodrome. (Venice told the Fourth Crusade that if they wanted ships to go to the Holy Land, they had to attack their rival, Constantinople, first. So, the Fourth Crusade sacked a Christian city, and brought back so much plunder that they didn’t need to go to the Holy Land after all. The Venitians put the four bronze horses from the Hippodrome of Constantinople onto the terrace of St. Mark’s Basilica.) Napoleon grabbed the horses. The cooking followed him back to France. (When Napoleon was defeated, the French gave the horses back, not to Constantinople, of course, but to Venice.)
So, I had high expectations of Italian cooking.
In retrospect I was looking forward to as huge a difference as I found between American cooking and French cooking. (I still can’t believe it’s that good). The food wasn’t better. It was often as good. But the cooking was different.
In Italian cooking, ingredients are simple. If you order spaghetti with meat, that’s what you’re going to get. No complicated sauce, no unexpected ingredients. The spaghetti, by itself, is delicious. The ground beef is sauteed, has maybe a little spice added, but not so much that I could tell what it was. And that’s that.
A mushroom, cheese and tomato pizza has a very thin crust, and the bread is delicious all by itself. It has fresh mozzarella, and that, by itself, is also delicious. And four or five large slices of mushrooms, also good, and that’s that.
Italian cooking (in my three week’s experience in seven towns) is simple. It relies on the fresh and delicious ingredients, and lets them stand for themselves.
One stand-out meal was a sandwich we had in Parma. Bread, ham, and cheese. The bread was perfect. The ham was local proscuitto, and the cheese was slices of parmesan (what else?). This parmesan cheese was like Swiss cheese in its texture, but with a bright, bright flavor. There was nothing else on that sandwich. It was delicious.
Ingredients in Italian cooking are calculated. Not handfuls of herbs and spices, but one, in a precise amount, to cause a specific taste effect. Italian cooking is simple. It is probably distilled from thousands of years of experimentation down to exactly what works best, no more, no less. Of course, what works best is fresh, local, unadulterated ingredients. When you start with that, you don’t need to add much of anything.
This is a vending machine in Parma. You can get milk, yogurt, muffins, sandwiches, and of course, Parmesan cheese.
I still miss the bread.