This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES Italy.
Recently, I found myself at a benefit dinner with a bunch of Americans. During our conversation, one of them confessed to me that one of the reasons why he relocated to Italy was actually the food. "I want my children to eat Italian food for their entire lives," he told me.
Personally, I don't know if I would ever consider the idea of relocating to a country for the food alone. Then again, I don't think I would ever even consider the idea of having children, but I know that Italians are well aware of their gastronomical primacy in the world. This primacy has fed into, without the shadow of a doubt, an extremely hysterical relationship with food on the part of Italians. Remember the uproar caused by the French video-recipe for carbonara, or the scandal of Amatriciana with garlic by Carlo Cracco?
About a year ago now I wrote an article in which a few foreigners explained to me what shocked them most about Italy. In other words, it was a matter of speaking to me about what has generally been defined as "culture shock": A sort of feeling of confusion caused by something that is unknown.
In order to understand how a stranger might feel faced with the cultural barrier of food so deeply-rooted in Italy, I thought of replicating the experiment and changing the focus. So I asked a series of expats living in Italy what shocked them the most about Italian cuisine and about our very twisted relationship with food.
Simon Kraemer, Germany
"I ordered a normal Margherita pizza and an orange juice to go with it... and some boys seated at the table across from me started laughing."
I relocated from Bremen to Rome four years ago. I always thought that Italian cuisine was one of the best cuisines in the world, but if I have to think of one thing that shocked me, I would say that it's the closed-mindedness of Italians concerning certain things. I remember one night when I was eating a pizza in a restaurant. I ordered a normal Margherita pizza and an orange juice to go with it. Not only did the waiter ask me, "An orange juice?", but some boys seated at the table across from me started laughing while I was drinking it.
It was the only time in my life that I didn't leave a tip in a restaurant. I mean, what's the problem if I drink a fruit juice while I eat a pizza? It's still better than bolting down a Tennent's with a pizza, right? Oh, sorry—I'm referring to one of the guys from the other table.
Lesley Jones, English
"A country that boasts the best cuisine in the world ruins their stomachs with sugary drinks and all-you-can-eat second-rate food as an aperitif."
I've lived a good part of my life in Italy. I love this country and I must say that, nowadays, I feel at home here. But if there's one thing that still doesn't make me feel [comfortable] here, it's the concept of the aperitif. What the hell is an aperitif, anyway? A country that boasts the best cuisine in the world ruins their stomachs with sugary drinks and all-you-can-eat second-rate food as an aperitif? I always found this idea extremely ridiculous. Not only do I think that the food that's offered is extremely second-rate, but I also think that things like spritzers are bad for you.
Doesn't it seem like you're drinking bubble-gum dissolved in Prosecco? And don't tell me that it's something that "opens the stomach for dinner."
Gabrielle Courtonne, French
"Don't tell me that Tuscan, Pugliese, and Sicilian bread is good. It has nothing on French bread."
I am sort of an atypical French woman because my maternal grandparents are Italian. My grandmother—even though she had a French touch—always cooked Italian plates. Like lasagna: My grandmother's lasagna remains the best lasagna that I've ever eaten. And that's because she added Gruyere cheese: No other cheese, only grated Gruyere purchased in two-kilo packets. And every time that I find myself in the Esselunga cheese department, I ask myself why there aren't any damn packets of grated Gruyere.
But there is one thing that I'm 100 percent French about: Bread and croissants. Why do Italians have to call it "brioche"? Do you know what brioche is in French? Don't tell me that Tuscan, Pugliese, and Sicilian bread is good. It has nothing on French bread. And the "brioche," always stuffed with a thousand chemical things that make you want to vomit when it's only breakfast time—why? It's lunacy! And let's talk about the pastries and cookies, always filled with cream or lemon flavor that makes it feel like you're eating a sponge cooked with lemon-flavored dish detergent.
Matt Rutherford, American
"Two years ago, I was in Berlin with colleagues from the Italian university and they all always sought out Italian places to eat."
OK, it's a cliché: But what's the harm if I want to drink a macchiato after dinner? It's something that I've always done, and it's happened to me many times that I'd find waiters or baristas who turned up their noses. I've personally always thought that it was better to drink it on a full stomach than in the morning on an empty stomach.
Otherwise, I must say that I'm a big fan of Italian cuisine. Actually, it's one of the reasons why I'm truly happy living here, but there's another thing that I was never able to understand: Why do Italians, when they go on vacation in a foreign country, seek out Italian restaurants to eat? Isn't it nicer to discover other cuisines, and, however good it might be, step out of their comfort zone?
Two years ago, I was in Berlin with colleagues from the Italian university and they all always sought out Italian places to eat. One night I convinced them to go eat in a typical German restaurant. One of my friends ordered steamed pork shank and a few hours later he was vomiting. I'm convinced that it was something that we drank, but he maintains wholeheartedly that it was that shank. We still talk about it from time to time.
Demy Minten, Dutch
"One of my friends ordered a pizza with bananas, and the waiter refused to have it made."
Italian cuisine is one of the reasons why my parents relocated to Italy, and I can't say anything bad about it. I started to eat in a much healthier way since I've been living here. I've only had one unpleasant experience: One of my friends came to visit and we went to a restaurant. She ordered a pizza with bananas, and the waiter refused to have it made.
Samantha Almeida, Indian
"In Italy, I ate my first thing baked in an oven."
My first direct experience with Italian food was in October 2007. I ate a Margherita pizza and I almost wept with joy. I've always been a victim of junk food outside of Italy: I love huge, greasy, fatty pizzas, where the crust looks like a bubble of swollen herpes. Italian pizza is absolutely one of the best things in the world.
When I was still eating meat, I remember my mother would fry a hot dog with bacon and salami on a frying pan. So it seemed obvious when I started living alone to fry up mortadella and prosciutto. Then, I ate a sandwich with raw prosciutto and changed my mind about a few things.
I have practically no negative experiences with Italian gastronomic culture. Especially after my [Italian] partner introduced me to his mother's cooking. I ate my first thing baked in an oven, and I can't help but to have coffee and aperitifs. They're my "foodgasms."
Ayan Luk, Chinese
"A lot of clients ask me about the source of my meat. They do it a lot, and I don't know why."
I run a small Chinese restaurant here in Italy. I mostly sell noodles and I almost only cook things on my own. On the part of the Italians, I've noticed a particular fixation with meat. A lot of clients ask me about the source of my meat. They do it a lot, and I don't know why. Sometimes I feel like they think I buy the meat directly from some boat that docks in an Italian port after having spent weeks in the ocean, which obviously isn't the case. Another thing that I don't understand is the Italian fixation on all-you-can-eat: The sushi in these places is so cheap because most of the time, it's second-rate sushi. As for Italian food, I have to admit that I eat it very rarely, but I absolutely love spaghetti with clams.
Illustrations by Loris Dogana.