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Foods You Didn't Know Were Italian
We all know about pizza and pasta, but there are some other delicacies you probably wouldn't eat and had no idea Italians had put a stamp on
By Francesca Di Meglio
Although gourmet food traces back to the French, any Italian will tell you that down-home delicious cuisine is the Boot's domain. Yes, Italians believe their cooking is better than the French. It's a cultural war with no end in sight. Certainly, Italian food is a favorite the world over. As Italians immigrated all over the place, they brought with them dishes, such as pizza and tomato sauce, lasagna and zeppole, and they tweaked them to meet the tastes of the locals. Nowadays, imported prosciutto, balsamic vinegar, and Reggiano Parmigiano have become part of the vernacular, even in parts where no Italian immigrant ever lived.
Still, whenever I invite friends over for a holiday or plain old Sunday Funday, they are often surprised by one of the other items on the menu. Here is a rundown of some of the more shocking dishes you never knew were Italian:
Well, this one probably doesn't surprise you. I know many an American regularly orders fried calamari rings at the local restaurant. A few of you will even indulge in the ones with tentacles (my favorite ones). But you probably haven't eaten these babies fresh off the grill or sautéed and in a lemon-scented seafood salad. Frankly, you don't know what you're missing.
Whether it's a summer evening or Christmas Eve, pulpo, which is Italian for octopus, will be on the table. It is served in red sauce with pasta. It's boiled in its ink and served with spaghetti. It's served in a salad with boiled potatoes or lemon-scented like the calamari mentioned above. It's also grilled to perfection. Southern Italians are masters of never making the octopus or squid rubbery, which is why it's such a favorite.
I've mentioned numerous times that Coniglio Ischitano, rabbit in a white wine sauce, is the principal dish of Ischia, the island off the coast of Naples that is the home of my ancestors and husband. But they eat rabbit throughout Italy. In Tuscany you often find hare, which is bigger than standard rabbit. Usually, whatever sauce they make with the rabbit's meat provides primo (first dish) and secondo (second dish) – spaghetti in the sauce and the meat itself. Children will literally fight over the kidneys, and the eldest in the family reserves the right to get first dibs on the brain. Oh, yes, they eat the organs, too.
Any Neapolitan kid will tell you that eel is on the table for the “Vigilia di Natale,” known in English as Christmas Eve. I myself have never been one for this dish, but it certainly has made many an appearance on my table. However, in recent years, there has been talk of the poisoning of European eel, a result of pharmacological waste in the oceans. In fact, a Google search of “eel in Italy” will turn up many stories about eel being addicted to cocaine. So, I guess it's losing some of its charm.
6. Cow's Face
You read that right. “Muss' e voooi” is Neapolitan dialect for “cow's face,” or more specifically the mouth. It's a real delicacy in southern Italy. In fact, it's sold at feasts. My father loves the stuff. It makes him think of his childhood in the way chicken nuggets and mac n' cheese do Americans. Often, he eats it in a sandwich.
5. Sea Urchins
Those spiky balls are edible and enjoyed by many an Italian in Campania and Puglia, especially. This is another fish that has joined the other seven on our Christmas Eve table. Usually, it's baked or steamed and then you eat the meat inside the shell. A squirt of lemon is preferred. In Ischia, I've also tried it in spaghetti (spiky shell removed, of course). It's not my favorite, but my father and my husband go crazy for it.
Horsemeat is popular in Europe, including Italy. It used to be a staple in the Italian diet. Mortadella, Italian bologna, was once made of horsemeat, in fact. Now, it's pork. I've mentioned before how Italians serve jarred, pureed horsemeat to their babies. They wanted me to give this to my son when he was 9 months old in Italy and suffered with severe diarrhea for 40 days. I couldn't bring myself to do it. I've never eaten it myself either.
My mother famously had a “pet” goat named Raindrops when she was a little girl. What she didn't know was that Raindrops ended up being her dinner. It was devastating when she figured it out. Her young uncle went around the table telling all the kids to spit out the meal because it was their beloved pet goat that they were eating. Raindrops' relatives often get eaten in Italy, especially around Easter. Italians also drink goat's milk and cheese often. I've had the meat. Again, this is not one of my favorites. It can be gamey.
Tripe, which is the stomach lining of cows, is a favorite among Italians. And it's becoming more popular in the United States, too. You can even find it in the supermarket sometimes. Often, Italians eat this in a red sauce with tomatoes. Sometimes, they include potatoes. My family can't get enough of this dish, but it's one I just can't bring myself to try.
1. Little birdies
In the old days, my father would trap little birds in our backyard and cook them for dinner. I would open the fridge and find a dead bird beak and claws up. I'd slam shut the fridge door and go hungry for the afternoon. But my sister was an animal lover, and ironically she is now a zookeeper for Asian birds. Once she started protesting as a child, my father gave up his hunting and eating of these little guys. Basically, my relatives would eat anything but pigeons and crow. It is a serious delicacy and another childhood comfort food for old-school Italians. You have to remember that during World War II and for a while afterward, many southern Italians were hurting for food. They ate what was readily available for no money. It's the reason they garden and seek wild mushrooms and chestnuts. And it's why little birdies became a big part of their diet. Happy to say, I never had to eat these babies and can't even watch my relatives indulging, which hasn't happened in years anyway.
You can read more about all things Italian and living the dolce vita on the Italian Mamma blog, and you can follow Di Meglio at Italian Mamma on Facebook or on Twitter @ItalianMamma10.
Article Published 10/3/16
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