Italy — Where You Can Have Any Food You Want (As Long as it’s Italian)

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It finally happened to us. We had been warned by some other expats we know to expect a psychological “breakdown” at some point. With some people it takes a few months, while others a few years. But it’s inevitable. We scoffed. “Not possible,” we said. 

Then it happened. After several years of living in Italy, we suddenly realized we sorely missed something.

American food. 

Yes, this is a sort of “true confession.” Perhaps not worthy of a tearful, hushed conversation in a booth with a priest. More like a confessing guilty pleasure.

However, its not exactly “American” food per se that we miss.

Not hamburgers, as one can get good ones here. Not sugary breakfast cereal. We never ate that anyway. Not even apple, cherry, or pecan pie. We can make those if we wish. 

What I’m referring to is the abundance of foods that reflect the widely diverse cultures that have filled the United States over centuries. Indian. Chinese. Thai. Vietnamese. Korean. Indonesian, Moroccan. Japanese. Filipino. Cuban. Russian. Hungarian. Greek. Cajun. Spanish. And lest I forget — Mexican. 

Mamma mia! What I would give for a plate of chile rellenos and black beans right now. 

We miss specific food items. I woke up one morning with a dream that I had just been served a chicken fried steak – diner style with sunny-side-up eggs. Science says that tastes and smells of foods are some of the most powerful forms of memory. At least I think I read that somewhere. I was so distraught after the dashed dream that I posted my dismay on Facebook. Within hours a kind American expat living not far from us said she would procure some chicken fried steak from a source she had. Which I’m not sure was entirely legal. But a few weeks later I had chicken fried steak.

What we really miss is all the food choices we grew up with over decades. If we had a sudden whim, it would be simply a matter of going to restaurant nearby and satisfying that gustatory desire. We could even order it delivered if we were tired or lazy. In America, its pretty easy to quench food predilections. Didn’t Randy Newman write a song about that? If not, he should have.

Non-Italian food in Italy? Pretty damn hard to find.

Now, I sense only a small degree of sympathy from readers. After all, we are living in a culture with some of the most amazing food in the world. We are surrounded by family farms with fresh eggs and produce daily. We are close to a coast with fresh fish of all types – some we have never seen before, much less consumed. We have a superb local butcher and a fine bakery. There are more artisanal wineries than we can count. We have a plethora of fantastic restaurants with superbly crafted regional dishes and wines most tourists never encounter while on vacations. Indeed, it took us two years to punch through the many places aimed at tourists, with familiar standard fare, to find the really good stuff. I’ve lost count of the number of times we have sat at a restaurant table and exclaimed out loud “This dish is fucking incredible!”

And yet, here we are, shamelessly whining. 

So despite the fact that we can easily gorge ourselves on any number of Italian foods, which we do indeed love, we have taken on a mission. We search for places that are NOT Italian. So far, the process has been challenging. No help from our Italian friends. Many older Italians would never even contemplate trying another cuisine. Once, at a neighbor’s home for dinner, we suggested to the head of the household that we liked Japanese food. What followed was a distinct, guttural choking sound. We said no more.

Younger Italians have discovered sushi. It’s a huge thing as it turns out. There are many sushi places – some owned by Japanese people, some by Italians who hire a Japanese chef, and some owned and operated by Italians.  Groups of younger people swarm in to take advantage of the all-you-can-eat lunch for 15 euros per person. They order everything on the menu. Waves of big platters soon appear, eagerly ingested by boisterous tables of ten.

There is a phenomenon that is puzzling to us. Most restaurants offering food from Asia are called “Cinese/Giapponese.” In other countries one would never see those two cultural food groups on the same storefront sign. It would be like coming across a French/German restaurant. I have no clue how that strange culinary merger occurred here.

One time while in Rome, I found a Mexican restaurant in the Trastevere district. The menu looked promising. There were even decorative sombreros hanging on the walls. I was hoping to have my tongue once again experience the deep, completely satisfying burn of Mexican spices. The dish I ordered came out. I tasted it. It was OK, but bland. I asked for salsa. Salsa was presented in a small bowl. I added it. Still pretty unremarkable. No sweat formed on my brow. I requested hotter salsa. The server looked perplexed. A few minutes later the chef, a young Italian man, appeared carrying a small bottle of liquid he held delicately in his hand. He said it was his “special” hot sauce and warned me to only add a few drops. I did so, but barely felt anything. To the horrified look of the chef and two servers I poured it on. Ah there it was. That heat that bites you back and even gets hotter with time. I think they had the EMT service on speed dial, though.  

So far in our search, which has covered several regions, we have found a number of Chinese/Japanese places, a couple of Indian places, and a Middle Eastern cafe serving falafel. We posted a query in a couple of expat groups on facebook. To our surprise, the question netted more than 150 suggestions throughout the country. Then the suggestions suddenly stopped. So the good news is that there are at least 150 ethnic restaurants in Italy. Its also, simultaneously, bad news. Only 150 scattered across an entire country? 

We figure we can go to one non-Italian place each month. But it will take some time. We even have a book in mind. The working title is “Anything but Italian! Where to Eat Once You Tire of Having the Best Food in The World.”

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Mark Hinshaw is a retired architect and city planner who lived in Seattle for more than 40 years. For 12 years he had a regular column on architecture for The Seattle Times and later was a frequent contributor to Crosscut. He now lives in a small hill town in Italy.

3 COMMENTS

  1. You just never can tell. On a day run-out from Edinburgh to seaside golf village St Andrews, I had the best Punjabi restaurant meal of my life.

  2. Well, there’s a steakhouse in Trastevere called “T-Bone Station.” Although I’ve walked by it dozens of times I’ve never ventured in. If you’re ever inclined, let us know what you think

  3. Of course, if you can make apple pie, you can make some of these other things as well.

    As I’ve thought about living in Europe, this issue has been more about ingredients for me. I suppose there’s no Chinese/Korean grocery nearby, but I don’t know – if you’re in Tuscany, you might pop over to Prato and see what they’ve got. I have to imagine the Italians know hot peppers, as ignorant as the restaurant staff may be; hope you don’t have to make (nixtamalize) your own masa.

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