I’m a big fan of the Mediterranean diet and I love Italian cuisine. If you’re tired of dieting and want to live longer and healthier, eat like an Italian. They take eating seriously from the ingredients they cook with, portion sizes and the experience itself but never stress out about dieting.
This is what I learned about eating in Italy.
It’s about lunch
In Italy, lunch is the most important meal of the day. The shops close between 1 pm and 3 pm and everyone goes home to eat with family and friends. Italians take their time and almost never eat alone.
Breakfast is light
Italian breakfast is most often coffee with a piece of freshly baked pastry like a tart, honey soaked cake, or biscotti.
Hotels may offer a continental breakfast with eggs but that’s mostly for foreigners. Italians love egg dishes, like a tasty frittata, but eat them later in the day. A buffet may also include cold cuts, cereal, yogurt, and fruit, which Italians eat in abundance. Americans typically pile up their plates while locals nibble slowly and eat lightly.
Dinner is late
Italians go out to dinner at about 9 pm. One restaurant we went to in Tuscany wouldn’t let us in until 7:30 pm. That debunks the idea of not eating after six.
Don’t utter the words “gluten-free” in Italy
Fresh bread is always served with meals. Each region makes its own style as a complement to their local cuisine. Bread from Naples is salty while Tuscan bread is spongy. Roman bread is a cornucopia of flavors from all over Italy.
When the bread is passed in America, we slather it with butter. It’s rare to see a bread plate, let alone butter at an Italian table. The purpose of bread is to mop up pasta sauce or dip in the soup. Toppings, like vine-ripened tomato bruschetta, olive tapenades, and fresh ground pâté are hard to pass up.
When I traveled to Italy, I ate all the bread I wanted and never felt bloated. Italians laugh at our gluten-free obsession because their flour hasn’t been altered like ours has.
Pasta sauce in Italy is often more flavorful because their tomatoes are nourished by rich volcanic soil. When meat or seafood is added it’s in small quantities. Softball-sized meatballs sitting on top of a huge plate of spaghetti is Italian American. So is Spaghetti Bolognese, Fettuccini Alfredo, and pepperoni.
Italian pizza is thin crust and light. You can eat an entire round without feeling full. It’s drizzled with tomato sauce and topped with herbs, grilled vegetables, pork, seafood and sometimes a small amount of cheese. You won’t find a monster everything-on-it pizza in Italy.
Italians love truffles
Earthy white and dark truffles are found in Tuscany. The months of October and November are when truffle fairs take place in Piedmont, Tuscany, Umbria and Le Marche. We arrived too late for the fairs but went to a truffle tasting in Siena, I ended up bring home jars of truffle pâté, oil, and sauces.
Drinking wine is an ancient tradition
Italians love wine with food but consider it bad form to get drunk. Even small children take occasional sips mixed with water. The drinking age is at the parent’s discretion. In the Chianti region, even a cheap bottle of wine is full bodied and rich. Pinot Grigio, Moscato, whites, and rose are also popular.
It’s all about the water
Mineral water is sourced from “termas,” created from volcanos. Small villages have dispensaries where locals can fill up their water jugs. Some of the minerals are known to aid in bone health.
Meat is eaten as an accessory
Pork is popular because it’s the most ancient consumed meat. It’s naturally cured, aged and free from hormones and preservatives.
Fresh seafood is plentiful in the coastal regions. Up north in Tuscany, wild boar, rabbit, and other game meats are common fare. However, rather than make meat and fish the main part of a meal, it’s eaten as an accessory.
Italian soup – a secret to Italian longevity
A bowl of homemade vegetable minestrone is rich in nutrition and soothes the soul.
Greens and vegetables
Salads are not a mainstay menu item in Italian restaurants. Radicchio, arugula, and spinach are more often cooked than eaten cold.
Bottled “Italian dressing,” as we know it, doesn’t exist. Greens and seasonal vegetables are dressed lightly with extra-virgin olive oil, an aged balsamic, or lemon juice. Olive oil is also an Italian secret to longevity and is generously used in Italian cuisine.
Italians love sweets like everyone else. They pride themselves in their rich Gelato, Tiramisu, cakes, tarts, and ices.
After dinner aperitifs
A meal isn’t complete without a shot of Limoncello or Grappa. Limoncello liqueur, from the Amalfi Coast, is zesty and smooth. Italians call it “the coffee killer” and use it as a digestive. Some say Grappa tastes like paint thinner and isn’t for everyone. I found it to be more like Scotch.
We visited a Limoncello factory to see how it’s made.
The Amalfi Coast is known for its huge and flavorful Sorrento Lemons. The zest of the peel is used to make Limoncello liqueur and the pulp is used to flavor fish, salads meat, flavor cakes, or make sorbets.
Italians savor meals with family and friends
Overscheduled Americans rush meals and opt for fast-food solutions. Italians are family-centric and almost always eat together in large groups, taking their time to socialize and converse. They never worry about calorie consumption because they know they’ll walk it off.
I ate like a glutton when I was in Italy and didn’t gain weight because I walked everywhere. I didn’t worry about what I was putting into my body because it was always fresh from a garden, farm or off a boat.
To eat like an Italian means consuming fresh seasonal vegetables, fruits, whole grains and small amounts of meat in reasonable portions that haven’t been processed or tainted with “flavorings.” Eat slowly and enjoy leisurely meals with family and friends. Then, you can forget about dieting and stay healthy for life.
Do you eat like an Italian? What’s your favorite dish? Please leave a comment below.