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  • Before Your Next Meal: 4 Things You Should Know about Italian Food
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    Bread with tomatoes lightly drizzled with olive oil and garnished with basil. Escarole dressed with fresh lemon juice. Espresso paired with Sambuca. These staples of Italian cuisine probably are already making appearances at your dinner table. But now the rest of the world is catching on to the simplicity and delight of the Mediterranean diet and the Italian philosophy about food. Here, four trends -- some good, some bad -- that you need to know about the food you are eating:

    1. Buyer Beware. Counterfeit Italian goods are everywhere. Seven out of 10 Italian products in the United States are not authentic, according to statistical research conducted by Coldiretti, the Italian farmer's association. Italy's food exports account for $1.4 billion but the Italian wannabes take in about $3.5 billion. This forgery of Italian goods is also happening in places like Great Britain, Canada, Australia and the list goes on. Parma, a city in Italy known for its Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and prosciutto (ham), is leading the fight to maintain the integrity of Italian food products. But a bid to make Italy (and subsequently Parma) the base for the European Union's food safety authority faced obstacles. Helsinki, Finland had the lead, at least in part because Finns were one of only two EU countries without an EU agency, according to The Wall Street Journal. However, as of March a compromise was reached and, although Helsinki would be home of the food safety authority, Parma would be headquarters to a sister organization that oversees the certificates of origin of agricultural products.

    In the meantime, companies like Kraft are selling Parmesan to make sales off the similarity to the Parmigiano-Reggiano name, even though Parmesan cheese is nothing like the original. Canadian and British ham makers are passing their products off as Parma ham. However, the production of authentic Parma cheeses and hams conform to strict guidelines and are based on enduring traditions. For instance, the Parma ham, which is made from the hind legs of Italian-born pigs, are salted by hand and dried for at least nine months in warehouses with long windows built to catch Apennine mountain breezes that dry the ham, according to The Wall Street Journal. The producers of the genuine products have a long battle ahead of them. They are trying to get regulations passed that would prohibit the fakes from using any similar names. What can you do in the meantime? When you go to your favorite salumeria, be sure to ask for "imported prosciutto di Parma" and "authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano" and nix the word Parmesan from your vocabulary.

    2. Saluti, to your health. Just about every Saturday night my papa' and my cousin Big John toast life and our meal by drinking the wine they annually make in our garage. I always yell at them because of all that drug and alcohol resistance education from my public school days. Instead, I should probably be joining them. Drinking vino regularly and eating the typical Mediterranean diet, rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats, fish, olive oil as the main source of fat and nuts will help people live longer, according to recent studies. The New England Journal of Medicine recently published a study of 22,000 Greeks who maintained a Mediterranean diet (which is also the typical diet of Italians on the Mediterranean coast); researchers found that these Greeks lived longer lives. Another recent study of 8,000 Italians found that those who ate pizza (the Italian version that usually includes a light crust, less cheese and more tomato sauce and basil) regularly were 59 percent less likely to contract cancer of the esophagus and 26 percent less likely to develop cancer of the colon. But the lure of the diet is more than its health value. "The Mediterranean diet is so appealing because it is a very healthy way of eating comprised of a few good fresh ingredients minimally garnished…Not only good tasting and good for you but, most importantly, it should be shared around a table with friends and family," says Michele Topor, a chef educator and president of North End Market Tours in Boston's Little Italy.

    American eating habits, on the other hand, have caused obesity rates to rise 61 percent between 1991 and 2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Studies have also found that obesity is causing people to die earlier from diseases. If you are Italian, presumably, you have grown up eating more of the Mediterranean dishes than the American ones. Your goal should be to keep that up. It'll make you stronger.

    3. Digest What Italy Tells You. Yesterday, my sister Rosaria observed that we are always thinking of our next meal - what will it be, how will it taste, when will we first be hungry for it. I think part of the reason the Mediterranean diet is so effective for Italians is because they think of food as more than medicine. Our meals provide fuel but we also look forward to them as we do encounters with old friends. Italians love what they eat. In fact, the Italian think tank DOXA recently found that 77 percent of Italians are sure what they eat is healthy and think that Italy maintains the proper food regulations.

    Food is also a wonderful excuse for families to gather, and many continue to do so regularly for lunch, especially in southern Italy. The siesta lunch that is popular in many parts of the world is particularly important to Italians, who believe that you should be as thoughtful about digestion as you are about the particular foods you eat. Eating a big lunch allows you to fully digest and work it off during the rest of the day, as opposed to having a meal on the go (or at your desk) and eating a heavier dinner right before bedtime, which is typical of Americans. Italians also pay careful attention to the order in which they eat their meals. Antipasto often includes cold cuts, cheeses and dried meats. The first dish is usually pasta of some sort. And the second dish is a meat or poultry item, followed by salad with oil and vinegar, which should cleanse the palate and help in the digestion process. Many also eat fruit and finocchio (fennel), whose anis taste is also supposed to aid digestion, at the end of the meal. There are even aperitifs made solely to help people get their food down easily. In other words, much thought is given to the eating process and its aftermath. Lifestyles, and not mere diets, are determined by your relationship with food. And the Italian lifestyle appears to be the sweetest - for mind and body.

    4. Our Food Is in Fashion. A few weeks ago, an American colleague of mine was having her in-laws over for dinner and said she did not want to include too many more "gourmet" ingredients because she was already making salad with arugala and fennel and her in-laws had simpler taste. I laughed because arugula and fennel are hardly "gourmet" to me. Those are staples of my family's regular diet. I have a similar reaction when I go to a hip Italian eatery in Manhattan and the waiters tell me that pasta e fagioli (pasta and beans) cost $10 a bowl. Non-Italians are being had. These ingredients and dishes are hardly gourmet and should not have astronomical price tags. In fact, southern Italians ate things like arugula, fennel and pasta e fagioli because they were cheap and easy to make. Italian restaurants are able to charge more and label everything "gourmet" because non-Italians don't know any better. Suddenly and ironically, eating peasant food is a sign of wealth.

    Even trendsetter Rocco DiSpirito, a celebrity chef who admits to having shunned his Italian upbringing in his youth, has opened Rocco's, a cozy Manhattan restaurant that pays homage to his family's Napoletano roots. The world is tuning in to The Restaurant, an NBC reality show about the opening of Rocco's, which features his mother singing " 'O Surdato 'Nnammurato" and making meatballs while his zio is making homemade wine for the menu. It is a shame it took DiSpirito this long to realize how cool it is to be Italian. Somehow, I always knew!

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