5 American food habits that my Italian friends find ridiculous

Just can’t resist another listicle, can you?

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Brits small talk about the weather. Americans small talk about work. Swedes small talk about…well, actually they don’t.

Italians — as anyone who has ever seen anything with “Italy” in the title can already guess — small talk about food. Can you blame them? The food here is so good that CNN greenlit an entire series on the logline “Stanley Tucci climaxes ad infinitum to fresh pasta without ever dirtying his hand-tailored trousers.”

On a more serious note, the carbonara has gone public with the first gluten-based #MeToo allegation. Tucci has refused to comment.

Anyway, small talk.

At first I found it a bit strange that no one ever asked me what I did for a living or which are my favorite hobbies, but now I’m just as guilty of greeting a stranger with a gastronomic inquiry. Scrolling through my messenger app right now, here are some questions with which I’ve actually drummed up chats with my friends:

“Should I make a tenerina cake this week?”

“Is spaghetti with truffle butter a thing?”

“Do you really think the alfalfa in the cows’ diet changes the texture of parmesan?”

(The answers: No. You don’t have the right kind of chocolate; Absolutely not. Use tagliatelle or, even better, tagliolini; Of course. Why do you ask stupid questions?)

All of this rambling is to explain that, if you find yourself hanging out in Italy, expect to talk about food. Expect random people to ask you about what you eat, where you eat, and when you eat.

After three consecutive years of answering these questions between my own pasta orgasms, I’ve realized that some of my American eating habits unfailingly baffle my Italian friends.

1. Peanut-flavored anything

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I love the toasty taste of hazelnuts, the savory notes of pistachios, and the delicate silkiness of almonds. I’ve even learned to appreciate the slightly bitter aftertaste of walnuts (though I’ll never love them enough to buy those mini-torture devices that mine the floor in shell shards.)

Point is, I try not to discriminate. Like my mother, I try to love all nut children equally. And yet peanuts… Shiny and smooth, meaty and sweet, with that musty shell that smells like summer and wet hay. They’re pure magic.

And yes, I know that peanuts are biologically legumes. But we’re woke enough now in 2022 to understand that biology doesn’t always align with identity. If peanuts want to be roasted in shells and ground into spreadable butters, then let them live in dignity as nuts. Who really cares that they didn’t grow up on trees?

Of course, I’m sure nostalgia plays a role in my deeply rooted love for all things peanut. In elementary school, my classmates and I would nibble away at our PB & Js like rosy-cheeked squirrels, the peanut butter sticking to every possible crevice in our mouths. It was delightful. While the bread and jam became a distant memory seconds after descending into our expectant tummies, the peanut butter stayed with us, coating our tongues and lodging in our gums. Hours after snack time, we could still taste the peanut on each others’ breath.

Unfortunately for me, whatever cultural, economic, or climatic reason the peanut became America’s nut never managed to cross the Atlantic. Which leaves me here, an American in central Italy, resigned to indulging in hazelnut gelato and pistachio-cream croissants, dreaming of the day I could partake in a peanut pastry with my morning cappuccino.

However, as I’ve learned from all the cathedrals scattered randomly about, God likes it when you make difficult sacrifices. That and sometimes you need to put a euro in the church slot machine to turn on the lights. (That’s right, in some churches you have to insert a coin to see Jesus in all his glory. Try not to think too hard about it.)

2. Cucumbers

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Close your eyes and think of your favorite Italian dish. Does it have cucumber in it? That’s what I thought.

Italians fortunate enough to live in the Alps bordering Austria have all the pickles and cucumber garnishes imaginable, but for the rest of the peninsula, the picklings are slim.

I have no idea why neighboring Greeks slice hunks into their salads and shred strings of the stuff into their yogurts, while Italians can’t think of a single dish that could use a cucumber in it. Greece and Italy share microclimates, the Mediterranean sea, Aeneas, and the uncontrollable impulse to cover everything possible in nuts and olive oil. Yet, according to food-delivery stats (i.e. “eating out” during the pandemic), 21% of Italians request their hamburgers “without the pickle.” And I’m sure the other 79% forgot to mention it and remove the pickle themselves at home.

It’s not that cucumbers don’t exist; they do. I can occasionally find a few rolling about in the produce section, and there’s often a dusty jar of pickles in the dark recesses of the condiment aisle. But the freshies are exclusively the dark, waxy kind that’s somehow simultaneously tasteless and distinctly bitter, while the pickles are a fluorescent green and remind me of what radioactivated rubber might taste like. And this is in the same market where I’m overwhelmed by the choices among a dozen squashes, ten varieties of zucchini, and nine varieties of melon — all of which belong to the same family, Cucurbitacee. So what happened to their cucumber cousin?

As always, I tried to find a historical justification for this bias, but the cucumber has never seemed to enjoy a starring role in Italy. The only verifiable mention of the vegetable I could find in the historical records was in a 1544 encyclopedic compendium on plants, written and compiled by botanist Pietro Andrea Mattioli. In his ridiculously prolix book (seriously, just the title is i Pedacio Dioscoride Anazarbeo Libri cinque Della historia, et materia medicinale tradotti in lingua volgare italiana), Mattioli describes the cucumber as having fantastic topical properties to “refresh” your skin. Given that Italians in the Renaissance dedicated their every living breath to emulating and embodying the perfect paragon of beauty, we can safely assume that they readily took his advice, rubbing the stuff all over their faces.

This brings me to the only possible explanation. Italians have been so preoccupied applying cucumber slices on their under-eye bags that they forgot they could occasionally throw them on a salad too.

That or we need to head up north to Austria and see if some Freudians can compile together a halfway decent theory (while stockpiling pickles en route, of course). Between the über doses of cocaine and misogyny, whatever they come up with should produce a decent feature-film pitch if nothing else.

3. Savory breakfasts

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Once again, I’m not talking about the “Italians” in South Tyrol where 70% of the population speaks German and many consider the true capital to be nearby Innsbruck rather than faraway Rome. They know how to get down with some pickles, salami, and eggs in the morning.

For the rest of Italy, however, breakfast is always sweet. I once asked the pastry chef of my favorite breakfast spot why this is the case and he replied, no joke, “To sleep and to wake are daily rituals in death and rebirth. When you are reborn each morning you want to start your new life with sweetness and joy.” (Or something like that. My Italian wasn’t great at the time.)

Fair point. You don’t celebrate your birthday with eggs and toast. You celebrate with some concoction of sugar, flour, eggs, and butter. Why should each new day be any different if you are reentering the world?

But do sweet mornings really bring joy? Let’s check the data.

  • 99% of Italians regularly partake in breakfast; 91% always do so. Of this vast majority of breakfast eaters, 75% prefer something sweet (biscuits, toast with jam/nutella, or a pastry, in that order). Another 18% claim to like both sweet and savory; however, only 7% of Italians actually eat something savory in the morning.
  • About 4% of Italians take some form of antidepressant drug, according to OECD 2020 data. This is near the lowest in the developed world. (Number seven from the bottom in OECD rankings).

Compare to the USA:

  • 63.5% of Americans never partake in breakfast (This includes both Americans who have nothing at all and those who “only reach for coffee.”) Of the minority of Americans who enjoy any breakfast at all, 65% say their preferred breakfast food is eggs, while 46% start the day with a breakfast sandwich.
  • 11% of Americans over 12 years old take some form of antidepressant drug, according to the CDC. If it had been included in the OECD analysis, it would take the number one spot by a landslide.)

Coincidence? Probably. Does the percentage of antidepressant prescriptions actually reflect the rate of depression in any given country? Not really. Do countries exist with low rates of depression and savory breakfasts? See the entire continent of Asia.

Then again, this isn’t the first Medium article to use bogus and unfounded statistical correlations to prove dubious claims. See anything about the cult — I mean, diet — known as keto.

All I can tell you is that, on a personal level, starting the day with a fresh croissant filled with chocolate-hazelnut cream makes me pretty damn happy. But so does a plate of runny eggs with salad greens. So maybe the moral of the story is that I should try sticking some candles in a quiche lorraine for my next birthday.

4. Everything to-go

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The last time I went home to visit my family, we stopped at our neighborhood café for a drink. Already having transformed into a European snob unaccustomed to the “muddy tea” Americans drink, I wanted a simple espresso. So I nonchalantly swung my fashion scarf over my shoulder (okay, fine: it was a handknit Christmas scarf with rainbow-glitter pompoms), and asked for a single shot, no sugar. The barista cheerily handed me a paper cup with a lid on it, at the bottom of which the espresso looked like the dregs of an already finished drink.

I shrugged it off as best as I could without my scarf slipping off. The new barista must still be a bit confused.

The next morning I ordered my single, short espresso, again.

“Would you like that for here or to go?” the barista asked me.

I wanted to reply “To go. I brought an eyedropper vial from home so I can slowly drip the 0.75 oz ristretto into my mouth as I walk, and finish it in twelve seconds instead of two.

Instead, I politely replied “for here” and asked for one of those doll-sized ceramic cups.

Of course, the American obsession with go-to containers pervades every single aspect of eating and drinking in the USA. We take our drinks to-go. We order takeaway and delivery even without the exigence of a pandemic. We patronize restaurants where the plates of food look like those 17th-century Dutch still lifes with a gallon of cream and a bleach-white chicken breast slapped on top — because you can add an extra protein for only $2 more! — and then we take the majority of it home with us in a doggie bag to only throw it away a weeks later when a peculiar smell convinces us it’s time to clean out the refrigerator. The point is, Americans seem to consider a takeaway container to be an essential ingredient to any classic dish.

Seriously though, in what universe does an espresso “to go” make any sense whatsoever? It’s called an espresso, which literally translates to “express,” because it takes mere seconds to finish.

I think this is one of those food habits I’m more than happy to leave behind.

5. Long menus

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Ah…the bible-sized menu. What could be more American than the laminated novel with everything from chicken samosas to cheeseburger spring rolls?

This one also belongs in the “better off without” category. I served my time in the restaurant industry in America, and most kitchens only have the time and prep space to get about six different fresh ingredients washed and cut before the nightly dinner service. Everything else is pre-prepped at the top of the week and stuck in a saran-wrapped container in the most godforsaken corner of the walk-in fridge. That is, until some noob orders that one dish on the 100-page menu that calls for radishes. You can imagine how fresh they are. Now imagine if that one bizarre menu item has clams.

Shorter menus allow for fresher ingredients. They also allow the chef to spend more time on each dish and make each one absolutely perfect. If the chef has fifteen orders of fifteen different dishes, you can bet that they’re going to be done fast and dirty with little attention to the details of proper cooking times, seasoning, and plating. But with fifteen orders of the same dish, the chef can ensure that the pasta cooks exactly four minutes and thirty seconds, because five minutes would be too much.

Not to mention the ridiculous and unnecessary food waste when you have to maintain a hundred different food articles on the off chance that someone has the perseverance to make it to page 62, section 4, subsection 2. Just like when you overstock the refrigerator in your home: the more items you have, the more likely you won’t finish them all before their expiration date.

This everything-under-the-sun-and-the-kitchen-sink trend does seem to be tapering off, however, as customers start seeking more specialized and high-quality experiences. The diner dictionaries have been traded in for the spartan, no-modification menu that exclusively offers one feature flawlessly executed. Now, instead of the restaurant that can scratch everyone’s itch, my friends at home decide what they’re craving and seek it out, whether at a pupuseria that only makes pupusas or a vegan burrito joint that only makes…well, you can figure it out.

In Italy, menus typically offer around 5 appetizers (antipasti), 5 pasta dishes (primi), and 5 main courses (secondi). And you can bet that if there’s an eggplant parmesan as a main course then there’s a rigatoni alla norma as a pasta dish (short pasta in an eggplant-tomato-ricotta sauce). In other words, the few fresh ingredients recycle.

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While we’re on the topic, there’s no such thing as a kids’ menu either. Children eat the same food as their parents — they just sometimes get smaller portions or share a plate. So if you do find yourself in a restaurant in Rome with a laundry-list menu and some French fries for the little ones, it’s likely also available in seven different languages with a logo saying they accept Amex. In other words, you got tourist trapped.

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Many of these habits, like to-go containers, have fallen by the wayside since moving to Italy. Others, like peanut butter, I’ll always spread across my star-spangled heart. What about you?

Do you have any food habits that surprise people where you live? That’s why the comment section exists.

That and giving me a reason to hear from Alan Asnen.

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Elise Wanger Zell

Elise Wanger Zell

If it involves words, count me in. Currently living in Bologna, Italy. www.elisezell.com