Our guest blogger Johnny returns with a delicious blog post about all the good food to try in Italy! Check out the drool-worthy Italian foods he discovered while traveling with Contiki Vacations.
Ciao Contiki Readers! It’s Johnny Newnes here again to continue you my series of Simply Italy blog posts! If you recall, I spent 2 weeks running around Italy in late September and early October on Contiki Vacations’ Simply Italy trip. If you need a refresher of what I have written thus far, please see my previous posts Simply Italy: Capri and Sorrento and Preparing to Travel on Contiki Vacations’ Simply Italy.
I’ve got to tell you, it is really hard trying to decide just what to write about my Simply Italy trip; if I highlighted everything I found fascinating and captivating, well, we’d have a full on travel book on our hands. So, for this post, I thought I’d hone in and focus on a topic that is very near and dear to me: FOOD. As I said in my introductory blog post, I am a major foodie. And in fact, I was a semi-popular food blogger years ago. So, of course, I was beyond thrilled to visit the country that I would consider to be the culinary capital of the world and indulge in all the foods that Italy has to offer. Then again, who wouldn’t be?
Let’s start with gelato. Oh gelato; it really is medicine for the soul. While the cuisine of Italy differs from region to region, gelato is something that all regions of Italy have and cherish. On our trip, we had at least one gelato per day; very often it was two gelato per day. I remember my first gelato on my first day in Rome; I had arrived a day ahead of our Contiki meet up and was wandering around the streets of Rome trying to mentally grasp the fact that I was finally in Italy after years of dreaming about it. It was mid-afternoon, and it was HOT. Gelato was a must. I found a little Gelateria called Gelato Valentino, near the Trevi Fountain. I ducked in and ordered a small Amaretto Gelato; there were a lot of choices to choose from, but I love Amaretto Liqueur so I thought an Amaretto gelato sounded divine. And divine it was. I continued my wandering while taking slow bites of that luxuriously sweet and creamy gelato. I couldn’t believe how wonderful it was.
We have some gelato shops here in SoCal, but the gelato in Italy is just beyond all of it. They seem to make the gelato fresh on the daily, using real ingredients rather than extracts and concentrates. I was in love. And that gelato was just the first of many. As I said, we spent a great deal of time sampling gelato across the country. I tried all sorts of flavors. One of the best was this Limoncello Cream that we had at a little restaurant in the port in Capri. So refreshing on a sunny day on the island. However, the one flavor that I kept coming back to was- Pistachio. Pistachio gelato is in every gelato shop in Italy, and it was almost unanimous amongst our group that Pistachio gelato is the best. So, when you’re in Italy, eat lots of gelato, and try the Pistachio at least once!
Another foodie-joy that I found in Italy was the appetizers, or antipasto, that Italians serve before dinner. Here, depending on where you go in America, appetizers can be very complex dishes that take as much time to make with the same amount of ingredients as the entrée. In Italy, the antipasti is much more simple; cured meats like salami, wedges of Parmesan and Pecorino cheeses, grilled breads with freshly made olive tapenades, and fried vegetables. This was pretty standard everywhere we went, and it was spectacular. I’ll take a plate of handmade Italian meats and cheeses artfully arranged on a plate over some fancy mini quiche that took 2 hours to make any day! I remember our second to last night in Rome; our tour manager Elisa took us to this authentic little restaurant in the heart of the city where they served us family style. For the antipasto, they brought platters of salamis and prosciutto, cheeses, roasted eggplant and zucchini, braised cabbage, and warm bread. I arranged myself a plate and ate, and in that moment I was so content. It was appetizer serenity.
Of course, you can’t go to Italy and not have pizza! Now, we Americans are well versed in pizza ourselves. I would argue that outside of Italy, we probably have the 2nd best pizza in the world (New York Pizza anyone?). The pizza in Italy, though, is special. I don’t know what exactly makes the pizza in Italy better, but I have 2 guesses: 1. All pizzas in Italy are done in a stone/brick oven and 2. The ingredients in Italy are much fresher and more intensely flavored. I could go on a rant about the quality of ingredients in Italy in contrast with America, about how the food in Italy is treated with care and not additives and random substances, but I’ll keep it short here by saying that the top notch ingredients make for better dough, better sauces, and better toppings, and therefore superior pizzas! Our pizza party in Sorrento, which I mentioned in my last post, was one I’ll always remember. That crunchy, crispy dough with those perfectly-potent melted cheeses and freshly cooked tomato sauces…Good Lord, I am suddenly made hungry as I write. Now, in day to day life here in America, I usually enjoy 1 to 2 slices of pizza when I do have it. Johnny in Italy? I eat an entire pizza without question, without hesitation, and without regret. I advise you to do the same!
As with pizza, pasta is a nonnegotiable must when in Italy, it might even be more important than pizza. I am half Italian. I grew up with pasta. I am used to phenomenal pasta, but the pasta in Italy still managed to wow me. Contiki made sure we got our fill of pasta and for that we were all grateful! My first day in Rome, I sat down at an outdoor café and ordered a bowl of simple Spaghetti alla Pomodoro (Spaghetti with Tomato Sauce); this stupidly simple dish still brought tears to my eyes. Again, because the ingredients in Italy seem to be so fresh, the sauce and even the pasta itself was so beautifully flavored that I couldn’t help but immediately raise my hands up in praise. This reaction of mine was pretty much the same throughout the trip when we encountered pasta. There is no such thing as overcooked or undercooked pasta in Italy; everyone knows how to boil pasta to perfection. Also, the Italians don’t make a big fuss with overly complex pasta sauces like some restaurants do here. Minimum effort for maximum results. For example, pasta alla carbonara, a staple of Roman cuisine is nothing but eggs, cheese, pancetta, and the pasta itself. That’s all folks! I’ve had pasta carbonara dishes at restaurants here at home that are comprised of complexly made cream sauces that are difficult to get just right, yet, they don’t hold a candle to the simplistic carbonara made in Rome. When you go to Italy, eat as much pasta as you can, in all the different ways that you can. Eat the white sauces, eat the red sauces, eat the pasta just drizzled with olive oil, even eat the squid ink pasta (Yes, that is a thing). To eat pasta in Italy is to really live. So live it up!
Also, if you get the chance, take some time to go shopping in local markets and buy some of the produce that the markets have to offer for a picnic or snack. I have a very fond memory of going to a little store in Cinque Terre in the Italian Riviera and buying carrots, bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, and plums. Then I got a bag of assorted fried fish from a small restaurant that was praised for their fried calamari. And enjoyed the fish and the produce while sitting on some Italian’s stoop in a twisting alley way. The produce was far superior to much of what you can get here. And I felt like I was eating the food that a local might actually purchase for their household. This sort of eating really gives you a glimpse into the lives of the Italians.
Lastly, I must tell you about my most memorable meal. On our 1st day in Rome, my new friends and I headed out to the Trastevere area of Rome where we decided to have lunch at a little hidden café. They had a list of specials for the day, which they wrote on a piece of paper and handed to us – that’s authentic, people! One of the items on that specials menu was what I chose to indulge in – Fresh Gnocchi in a Gorgonzola Cream Sauce with Roasted Pears and Walnuts. OH.MY.GOD. I almost died from unbelievable-flavor-syndrome. This was one of the best dishes I have eaten in my entire life. The Gnocchi was so fresh and delicate that it actually melted in my mouth, the Gorgonzola Cream Sauce was perfectly tangy and sharp, the roasted pears were somehow sweet and savory all at once, and the walnuts added the crunchy texture and earthy taste that balanced out the entire dish. I made every single person at the table take a bite, and they all agreed that my dish was the best – just follow my lead people, I know how to order. Anyway, I actually dream about this lunch. I am an avid cook, so I could try to recreate it, but I know it just won’t be the same.
Okay, I have talked a lot about food, but that’s because food is such a vital part of travel. You experience other lands and cultures through their food, especially in Italy. I have to say, when you’re with Contiki, they make sure that you experience food, and lots of it! I really felt like Contiki took us to some authentic restaurants so that we could experience real Italian food. I also have to give a big shout out to our beautiful tour manager, Elisa. Elisa is Italian, and really is a wealth of knowledge about Italy. Elisa went out of her way to give us suggestions of where to go and what to eat when we were on our own for meals like lunch. She never led us astray. I’d say that our foodie experience was elevated because of Elisa’s guidance. Molto Grazie Elisa!!!
I found a lot of joy eating in Italy. To eat in Italy is to really live. As I said, the food is part of the experience. So, when you go to Italy, throw caution to the wind and eat everything you can without hesitation and without regret. I mean, #NOREGRETS right?