Healthy Lifestyle Alert: How Eating Our Way Through Italy Led to Better Food Choices

Every country leaves an imprint, some more distinct than others, but we never return from a trip unchanged. Italian art, cuisine, design and cultural sprezzatura have inspired lovers of beauty across time and distance. Among those all, it’s the way that Italians source, prepare and serve their food that has made the most impact on daily our lives. From Rome to Florence to Tuscany and CinqueTerre, the delicious and memorable and meals far outweighed the mundane ones.

Obviously, the true Italian way of making dishes that we have come to know and love like spaghetti, ravioli, pizza, etc. casts a shadow over their Americanized counterparts. It took visiting for a second summer in a row for us to discover wasn’t just how they cooked, but what they cooked. In our experience trattorias, Michelin-starred restaurants and even hotel eateries displayed a love for fresh ingredients, prepared simply, with care.

Malinda has mastered the art of fresh sauce and can make it in a sinch.  Each time she makes a batch we’ll freeze some and have homemade sauce for pizza, pasta, breakfast burritos and anything else that can be sauced up. (check out Malinda’s delicious red sauce recipe below).

Our most recent trip to Italy was nearly a year ago and we haven’t eaten jarred or canned tomato sauce since. When we first got back, we ate pasta every day for a good month with no ill-effect on our waistlines.

In the States we tend to shop for convenience, longevity and efficiency, often leaning on canned and/ or frozen ingredients to augment or replace freshly picked versions. In Italy freshness is the order of the day. Olive oil was the first casualty. After our first trip we realized, in hindsight, that most of the olive oil we’d ever consumed tasted more like it had been extracted from an engine than an olive. In Italy it tastes like actual olives with nuance and a depth of flavor that was a revelation.

By the time we got home, we were drizzling olive on everything from pizza to tortilla chips.  The good stuff is more expensive, but the taste is worth it to us. Next time you pick some up check the label to see if it’s from a single country (Italy, Spain, Greece). Many producers mix varieties from different countries. We’ve found that single source, freshly pressed olive oil tastes best.

Pro Tip: SKIP DUTY-FREE. Buy your olive oil in the country and pack it in your checked bag or ship it. We learned the hard way that once you get back to the states “Duty-Free” could actually mean it’s your duty to freely give your delectable Olive oil to the TSA agent– never to be drizzled again.

 If your stash of oil is more than the allowable three ounces, you may have to check it before you board the connecting domestic flight. Unfortunately, by the time we were notified of this chink in the duty-free process– we’d already rechecked our baggage… blah, blah, blah. Don’t risk it.

 

We also noticed something different about how we felt after eating pasta (and gelato) every day for over a week (#NotBloated). In Italy they typically use 100% Semolina (durum) wheat to make their pastas, with protein to carb ratio than the blends we typically eat at home. Combined with our frequent walking tours, we easily burned the reduced carbohydrate load. We haven’t gone back to Ronzoni #9.  But it was the second summer in Italy that left a truly indelible mark on our daily eating habits. While in Monterosso we were lucky enough to score a table for a meal at restaurant Ciak on the enthusiastic recommendation of some American tourists who’d just finished a meal.


Monterosso is a wonderful seaside town among the five coastal villages that make up Cinque Terre. It is well worth the visit and Restaurant Ciak is responsible for one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten. We expected the fish to be fresh, but it was seasoned simply and prepared impeccably. The seafood risotto was perfect and the ravioli was a revelation.

We gushed about the meal to the waitstaff the owners and anyone else who would listen. We were still savoring the meal the next day during our early morning walk. As we gazed at the shuttered restaurant in wonder and appreciation, we saw the chef/ owner rolling toward us with a wheelbarrow full of fresh-picked tomatoes from the orchard we’d passed. That was when it hit us. Fresh ingredients were the common denominator in the Italian food we’d loved.

Not that we didn’t know that intuitively, but sometimes it takes a new experience to remind us of the wisdom of ages. When we got home we doubled down on our farmer’s market forays for fresh veggies, olive oil, croissants and whatever else we can get fresh. We now buy less food more often. And the food we consume tastes, better, looks better and feels better to our digestive systems.

It’s true we love pasta and pizza, but the effect of Italy on our diets goes beyond Italian cuisine– it’s permeated our lifestyle. Whether fine-dining or a midweek meal at home we realized that best recipe for an incredible meal is: Fresh food prepared simply– with love.

 

-TMW

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