Exploring Italy’s regional cuisines . . . and then some. Part 1; Rome, Lazio.

img_7629Having attended culinary school, I had learned about the various regional cuisines of Italy. The wife had finally decided she was going to jump at the chance for us to attend our Grandson’s destination baptism in the birthplace of our in-law’s family. Molfetta, Italy is a small fishing town along the Adriatic sea, just north of Bari; and with the historical sights in and around this town dating many years B. C., the family’s claim that this is the birthplace of  Jesus, could very well be true.

Family is what got us to agree on our trip just two weeks earlier and we didn’t have much time to plan, so a lot of our adventure was on the fly. I also didn’t want to ‘go to Europe’ and spend all of my time being rushed everywhere and trying to ‘see everything’. I wanted this to be a vacation that would allow the wife and I a chance to really relax and experience Italy, our family and the food.  The wife agreed and she and I were able to witness first-hand, four of those twenty culinary regions (I think that’s what I had learned). This was definitely a bucket-list trip as it was our first trip to Europe,  and we spent nearly three entire weeks touring southern Italy, eating and drinking our way through yet, . . . another pizza.img_5532

During conversations with some of the Italian locals (mostly family conversations now) along with copious amounts of grandma’s pre-mix blends of wines from who knows where;  and, if my post-vacation research has everything figured out, the 20 culinary regions are a reflection of the 20 geographically administrative regions of Italy. I had also learned from these locals that there may very well be many more individual cuisines of the motherland than just their alignment to those 20 regions. Just the differences between local towns I found not-so subtleties that were pointed out and explained to me by the locals (family). For example, a focaccia in the city of Bari was almost entirely covered with tomatoes; and just 30km (~ 18m) to the north, in Molfetta, our focaccia had just a small littering of the tomatoes and copious amounts of olive oil. Speaking of tomatoes; the wife and I could not get enough of them while everywhere in Italy. They just tasted so very good and fresh.

rome 5This trip was to become a learning adventure for my wife and I on many levels. First, we have never yet been to any European country, so using the Euro was tricky at first because my wife and I are used to currencies of opposite value to the American dollar; whereas leaving a few Pesos behind as a tip is only a few cents. Often times, upon employing our normal behaviors and thinking that our tipping was gratuitous, found that it was sometimes considered inappropriate. Also, to ask for ‘cheese’ like Romano, Pecorino or Parmesan (also those cheeses identify different regions in the country) on any pasta is an immediate identifier as an Americano or otherwise can be regarded as an insult to the chef. The Italian cuisines we had encountered throughout the trip only used small amounts of salt (we had heard visiting gifts of Hershey bars and plain black peppercorns are greatly appreciated) and their salad dressings rarely include vinegar; which I thought odd, due to the abundant vineyards as well as olive trees we had witnessed while traveling aboard the very impressive, 160mph, rail system across the country.rome 7

We first arrived to Italy and landed in Rome, where cuisine was at seemingly every corner and in every shop.  Our first restaurant was actually the worst of the restaurants we had encountered during our trip; but that’s ok, because it had helped to set the precedence from which to judge all culinary adventures yet to be pronounced during the remainder of our stay. Having just landed and arriving at our 70-steps-to-the-room hotel (yes, this is something to consider with all of the walking you are going to do), we needed to find something to eat and stopped at the bell desk of our hotel for a bit of advice. It was around 4pm that day and I think the advice was, “there’s not much open now until around 8pm, but just around the corner . . .

So this was our first moment of learning about the routine of an Italian lifestyle. Again, we had just arrived, checked into our hotel and are now sitting at some “restaurant” along the street (kinda weird) in Rome. We look at the ‘special’ board, that the server conveniently placed us in front of (the restaurant was almost empty), and we point to the board and order the ‘special of Rome’, or whatever it was called; which was normally identified in many restaurants along the Roman streets for tourists like ourselves as an antipasti, a secondi or insalate, a pizza, pasta (minimal selection) and some kind of beverage, all for 10 – 12 Euro.

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The food wasn’t bad, let’s just say . . . it helped set another precedence of everything we were about to be introduced to here in Italy; but yet, we had only experienced one bad plate during our trip out of many very good plates while visiting Italy. Since we were officially tourists regardless of which region we had traveled, we always ended up being part of a tour that we had purchased from the street touring offices (which I have another tip . . .  a good one). Anyway, our tours would always be to tourist destinations. At those destinations are the ‘convenient’ eateries and restautratns that may have the prime view or best harbor setting, but are somewhat predatory with the “eh mister, eat here” guys hustling us in with a menu in the face; and another guy with a greeting hand, guiding you to the “best seat in the house” along the high traffic area or route. Fortunately, we had only experienced a small handful of these places, as convenient as they are.

Once in Rome, and hanging out with my lifetime partner of 35+ years, I immediately understood the meaning of the word “romance”, as everyone seemed to be really enjoying each other’s company with lots of kissing, holding and touching that seemed to occur in every direction. Rome is a very Romantic place. Add to that the wine, the food, the walking, strolling and shopping seemed to make it a great place to begin our adventure, and try to begin my grasp of the cuisines we were about to encounter. img_5687It was in Rome that I, one, began to get confused by menus (they literally looked all the same); and two, that what you saw on the street, the type of store name (i.e. pescaria), and what is in the mercados (markets) is what identified many of the peculiarities of each regional cuisine. I had also began to realize that grandma’s wine mix was some of the best around Italy as our favorite wines were all ordered by “red” or “white” and were blends of what it is that Italians do with their wine (?) Ice, on the other hand was seemingly much more difficult to keep nearby as we always had to ask for more of it. Our trip was during the hot month of July and all servers across the country would not identify ice as being something they regularly serve or maintain at the tables. In the 85 degree-plus weather, we always had to ask for it as it helped slow the pace in which I drank refreshingly cold beers, but also added to the wines was mostly ok to do, especially if it is hot out . . . or inside where you are eating.

img_5572We did a lot of the regular tourist things while in Rome; the Vatican, the Coliseum, the various fountains and steps and everything else. But much about what we were to learn was on our first evening out in town after that first street-side meal and a nap.

rome 30Rome became alive after about 8pm when I first ventured out into, what was later discovered as “little Argentina” and then “the Kosher district”. Not even three blocks away from our hotel room (overlooking some ruins called Largo di Torre Argentina) we also found our first British bar and an American India Pale Ale (IPA) from a California Brewery, Lagunitas. Good job; you’re in Italy. My post vacation research shows Lagunitas is now owned by Heineken International. img_5564Also later during our walking tours of Rome we ran into a younger gentleman selling tours and tickets along the street. After just a few moments of  “where you from?”, he, moments later, mentions the exact town near San Diego we are from, because he was married briefly to one of our resident’s daughters a few years back. He’s now back home. Nice guy; but that was creepy weird.

Later that evening during our stroll we landed a couple of bar seats as foreigners to witness the 2018 World Cup football (soccer) match that England won in penalty kicks against Columbia, and drink that Lagunitas IPA and sent the picture to my son that just hours before, as we all landed in Rome as a family, mentioned to me that I would not find an IPA anywhere in Italy.  Well he was wrong as we found several opportunities for the hoppy creations across the country as we visited. I also learned that Italy is currently one of the fastest growing craft beer industries in the world. As a matter of fact, when wearing any one of my American craft brewery apparel items, I would always be approached by an Italian local with questions about my heritage and nationality. They would then immediately become ‘cool’ with me as If I was now ‘ok’. My son’s family were heading to the Apulia region (Bari) as we would be once again joining him and his family in a few days.

rome 8Toward the end of our trip throughout Italy, we returned to Rome for yet one more night in anticipation of our return flight back to the United States . . . and not looking forward to it. We did find some of our missed Italian specialties at a restaurant that was nearby our final hotel room of the trip. We ate a lot of pizza on this trip, but had probably our tastiest pizza of arugula, prosciutto, buffalo mozzarella and those extremely tasty Italian tomatoes (featured image). We also shared some missed gnocchi that were absolutely perfectly prepared. I even told the wife to take notes, because that’s the way they were supposed to turn out . . . like little pillows of heaven (Giada De Laurentiis 2018).

One thing was for sure. The common response we routinely received was “any restaurant is good”; and we heard that throughout our visit here in Lazio (Rome) and the other three regions in Italy during our visit.

Next stop, Bari and the Apulia region.

Also look for my hotel and restaurant reviews at Trip Advisor and Yelp.

Dicks

Author: CritDicks

Andrew DePaolo is a chef/columnist of experiences relating to the Food, Beverage and Hospitality (FB&H) services industries. Mr. DePaolo holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Culinary Management (w/Hospitality Minor) from the Culinary Academy at The Art Institute San Diego, California (Honors, December 2013). There he learned the business of running a FB&H operation from a “back . . . and front of the house” in-depth classical and formal education. Although never working in the FB&H industry other than as a kid briefly while in high-school, he has identified himself mostly, and unmistakably, as a customer first. Since living in the North San Diego County area for most of his life, Andrew writes about his experiences locally, internationally and mostly if traveling throughout the western United States.

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