Category Archives: General

Is it possible to find American coffee in Italy?

image source - flickr.com/photos/epsos
image source – flickr.com/photos/epsos

Yes, but not everywhere.

If you walk into any restaurant or bar in Italy and order a coffee (un caffé), what you will get is an espresso. Coffee, as we know it in the States, is a bit hard to find. Hotels and B&Bs in cities with a large amount of American tourists are a sure bet for a cup of joe, but you’re likely out of luck when dining out.

What is widely available is a caffé Americano. Despite its name, a caffé Americano is not an American coffee. It is an espresso served with hot water. Okay, so it’s not exactly the same thing, but when in Rome (literally).

Something to know…coffee shops (or bars, as they are called in Italy) never offer free refills on coffee, so if you want another caffé Americano, you’re going to have to pay for it.

What is the Feast of St. Joseph?

st.joseph

Loosely, it’s St. Patrick’s Day for Italians.

St. Joseph’s Day is March 19, just two days after St. Patrick’s Day. It is celebrated by not only Italians but other Catholic European countries such as Spain and Portugal. It is also Father’s Day in these countries…Joseph was Jesus’ “father”, you know . The day is probably most celebrated in Sicily though, where St. Joseph (or San Giuseppe in Italian) is the region’s patron saint. Legend has it that prayers to St. Joseph ended a drought and great famine in Sicily, so it is tradition to honor him with a huge feast.

Traditional St. Joseph Day feasts start with an elaborate altar of fine linens, flowers, and an ornate centerpiece. There is always a large number of breads and pastries in a variety of creative shapes. Cream-filled doughnuts known as zeppole are the most traditional of the pastries. Because the day always falls during lent, it is a meatless feast, so there is seafood. While there is usually a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, the fava bean must always be present. In Sicily, the fava bean is a sign of good luck. During the great famine, fava beans were the only vegetable that was in abundance, and for many, it was all there was to eat.

I have noticed that the number of people around me who celebrate St. Joseph’s Day is much smaller than when I was young. You could always tell who observed the day by who was wearing red, the official color of the holiday. That being said, some churches in the U.S. cities with a large number of Sicilians still host feasts on March 19, and there is even an annual St. Joseph’s Day parade in New Orleans.

Is it true that Italians only drink hot tea when they are sick?

image source - flickr.com/photos/marcoarment
image source – flickr.com/photos/marcoarment

For the most part, yes.

Italy is definitely a coffee driven country. Enjoying a caffe at the bar is part of a daily routine much like afternoon tea in England. So what about tea in Italy? Not so much. For Italians, hot tea is normally drunk at home when feeling under the weather. That being said, it is not hard to find hot tea at a coffee bar. It is there for the tourists. Iced tea, on the other hand, is popular in Italy and is usually lemon or peach flavored.

When dining in Italy, is it customary to tip like we do in the U.S.?

image source - flickr.com/photos/environmentblog
image source – flickr.com/photos/environmentblog

No.

As in many other countries, a food service career in Italy is a salaried one. Servers don’t depend on tips like they do in the U.S. Because of that, a gratuity, as we know it, is not really expected. However, it is not uncommon to leave a little extra if you are pleased with the service.

So, how much extra is appropriate? Ten percent of the tab is a generous amount. I have heard that when Americans overtip, it is actually considered to be tacky.

Always keep some smaller denomination Euro on you if you plan on leaving extra. Unlike restaurants in the U.S., Italian restaurants that accept credit cards don’t offer an option of adding a gratuity.

Are San Marzano tomatoes really better than other canned tomatoes?

Absolutely!

San Marzano is a variety of plum tomatoes that come from the Campania region of Italy. They have a longer shape than most tomatoes and their color is a deep, rich red. Their flavor is strong and sweet with a bit less acidity than other tomatoes. There is almost a meaty taste to them. That is due to the the volcanic soil from which they are grown. San Marzano sits at the base of Mount Vesuvius.

San Marzano tomatoes are a staple in Italian cooking, and there really is no substitute. They are used by most of today’s popular Italian chefs, and they are the only tomatoes used for true Napoletana style pizza. Google “San Marzano” and “Batali”…he loves them.

When buying San Marzanos, be on the lookout for knockoffs. There are many brands of tomato that may include the words “San Marzano style” or “San Marzano brand” on the can that aren’t really from San Marzano. In fact, many aren’t even from Italy. Real San Marzanos must come from San Marzano, and only come whole and peeled or as fillets. If you see the words “chopped”, “diced”, “pureed” or “organic” they aren’t San Marzano. The surest way to know you’re getting the real thing is to look for “DOP Certified” on the label…we’ll save the topic of DOP for another day. They are more expensive, but absolutely worth it.

cento

Now that the Italian meat ban has been lifted in the U.S., when will we start seeing some of it?

image source - flickr.com/photos/tangaroo
image source – flickr.com/photos/tangaroo

In a couple of months.

On May 28, a ban on cured Italian meats that had been in place since 1963 was lifted. The ban was on Italian pork, specifically, and was due to the outbreak of at least two contagious swine diseases over fifty years ago. Last month, Italian officials had declared many of the northern Italian regions free of swine disease, which opens up the opportunity for export. In 1987, the ban was lifted on imported prosciutto and mortadella, because they are aged for more than 400 days which was proved to kill the swine virus.

The regional meats that are soon heading our way include salami, coppa, pancetta, soppressata and the prized culatello. Culatello originates from the Po River Valley. It is made from the hind leg of a pig like prosciutto, but only the tender rear part that is free from bone and skin. It is salted and carefully massaged before it is encased in a pig bladder. It is then hung in a slightly humid barn or cave where it will age for at least a year. The taste of culatello is richer than that of prosciutto.

Below is a photo of culatello di Zibello I had at a restaurant in Santa Margherita Ligure during my last trip to Italy. It was served with a robiola cheese and fruit mostarda. There is a reason I keep going on about culatello…it’s amazing.

Then what’s the wait? Well, the certification for Italian meat producers can take up to three months, and the high demand for this previously unattainable meat is going to make finding it a challenge once it does arrive.

culatello

Well, which is it?

IMG_0069.jpg

Is it sauce or gravy? It’s one of the greatest debates among Italian-Americans.  I am referring, of course, to the sauce (or gravy) that Mom stood over all day, every Sunday.

I thought a simple Google search would find me the answer, but all I found was message board after message board of people passionately arguing that what they call it is correct.  I thought maybe it was a regional thing, either in the US or wherever the family hails from in Italy…but to no avail.  I found a pretty equal amount of Chicagoans and New Yorkers who call it either one or the other.  The same went for Italian regions of origin, whether it be Northern Italy or Sicily.

After asking a number of friends, I received a variety of answers.  One was that it is a gravy if there is meat in the preparation and sauce if there is not.  Another said that it is only gravy if it is made on Sunday…hmm, interesting.  I also heard that it is only gravy if it takes all day to make.

I knew from the start that there is no real answer to the question.  For most, it really just depends on what Mom called it when you were young.  That being said, my own mother would never call it anything other than sauce, while for me, I like the sound of gravy.