My first night in Italy I ate at a pizzeria.
My friend Luciano and I found one of the few opened that early—7:00 p.m.—in the heart of Brindisi, a town on the Adriatic Coast of Puglia, Italy, where the cobble-stoned streets are so narrow you have to press against the wall to let a scooter pass. Smells of the wood burning ovens and fresh dough set my stomach grumbling. Luciano, a native Puglian, explained that true Italian pizza is always made with wood and never electric ovens.
Just like Luciano had warned, the restaurant was empty. I had yet to become accustomed to the late dinner hours of Italians. With my jet lag, I was actually ready for lunch. Luciano was only slightly embarrassed as the server seated us next to a cold fireplace surrounded by empty but nicely set tables.
Fifteen styles of pizza were listed on the menu, one size fits all. There were no 50 toppings or various dimensions. As it turns out, this is typical at most pizzerias in the country. In Italy, the recipes have been honed and passed down from generations. Regions even have their own regulations for how pizza must be made.
The one meat I saw on the menu was prosciutto (aged Italian ham). Pizza with pepperoni (salami) is an Italian-American thing. Most Italians I would speak with, including Luciano, could not wrap their brains around putting salami on pizza.
I asked Luciano if he wanted to share a pizza. He raised an eyebrow. “We don’t cut up one pizza for everyone like in America,” he told me. “In a sit-down restaurant, everyone gets his own.”
As hungry as I was, I was doubtful I could finish an entire pizza in one sitting.
I ordered the Neapolitana, topped with mozzarella, tomatoes, anchovies and fresh oregano (for the Neapolitan pizza to be considered authentic it must be made with a certain cheese and tomato variety); Luciano got the Margherita, a pizza with basic red sauce and mozzarella, the ingredients enforced by the same rules.
Luciano cut into his like a steak. I divided mine in the familiar wedges, my mouth watering. I could see and smell the generations of expertise behind the construction of these pizzas. Nevertheless, I could finish only four slices. Luciano was licking his fingers clean after having devoured his entire pizza when I told him I wanted to take the rest of mine back to the tiny apartment I rented near Brindisi’s busy Adriatic seaport where the traghetti—ferries—travel between Greece, Croatia and Albania. Luciano stopped me from asking the waiter.
Above his dark beard his cheeks reddened. “Non portiamo via gli avanzi in Italia,” he said. We do not take home leftovers in Italy.
There was a lot to learn. But one thing was clear: Italians take their food seriously.
Throughout my three-month trip, I would test this culinary resolve of Italians. I often joked with servers and friends asking for Hawaiian pizza topped with ananas, pineapple. Some would get the joke and laugh. Others would cringe.
“Pineapple on pizza!? Mai! Mai! Never! Never!”
“You could get deported!” one waiter joked back with me, although I think he might have been more serious than he wanted me to realize.
Topping pizza with pineapple was only slightly more ridiculous to them than pepperoni. Yet pizzas topped with French fries are common in many pizzerias in Puglia and Rome. I have never seen French fries on pizza in the United States. And yes, it is good.
A few times, however, Italy’s strict food culture left me a little rattled.
At a popular dining spot in Rome’s hip Pigneto neighborhood where the graffiti is more imaginative than the scrolling one usually encounters in the city, I asked for pepperoncino on my pizza. Picante is not common with Italians. The server looked at my dinner companion, Marco. They exchanged a few words in Italian. Once the server left, Marco, a native Roman who had given me my first scooter rides, explained with what seemed like an embarrassed smile, but I couldn’t tell if it was for me or the waiter. “They only have Tabasco,” he said, “and he won’t allow you to use Tabasco on the pizza.”
At another Roman restaurant, I wanted to share with Marco half of my frutti di bosco, a rich casserole layered with truffles, mushrooms and nuts, and cream sauce, but the waitress refused to provide us an extra plate so we could divide it. Why? She feared we’d ruin the texture. The top would collapse to the bottom, she insisted. She went into great detail explaining her reason.
Later when I half-seriously, half-teasingly suggested to Marco that I wanted to open Rome’s first Italo-Americano restaurant, he again smiled at me with his by now familiar amber eyes. “That is fine,” he stated matter-of-factly, “but no Italian will ever eat there. We eat our food our way, and that’s just the way we do it.”
And they can be just as rigid about their drinks.
On a brilliantly sunny Roman winter afternoon, Marco and I stopped at a bar for coffee. Marco ordered espresso. I ordered cappuccino corretto con grappa.
The man behind the counter grimaced. He made the drinks, and set mine before me with a thud. I felt like I had made a grievous wrong. Apparently, I had.
“We usually don’t order cappuccino after 3:00 p.m.,” Marco whispered, smiling. “And we never put liquor in cappuccino.” He shrugged it off. “But don’t worry. The waiter knows you’re a foreigner.”
Wine is no different. Luciano once boasted he had never tasted wine made outside of Italy. “Not even California wine?” I asked him from across the table at the local Puglian seafood restaurant where we were sharing a carafe of Italian Pinot Grigio. He shook his head firmly. “Not even California wine.” he stated. I would hear the same sentiment from others.
This passionate Italian attitude might seem excessive, but it’s easier to understand once you realize there’s a reason behind it.
They know what they’re doing.
The food is mouthwatering. Their coffee and wine are some of the most sensual wonders I’ve ever imbibed. The United Nations even lists many Italian foods and beverages under “historical cultural heritage.”
Strictly adhered-to tradition, often enforced by government codes, in this case, works.
Once I returned to America, I wanted to continue with the dining traditions I had adopted in Italy. I make sure to NEVER put liquor in my cappuccino. The wine, however, I am a bit more flexible. I still crave authentic Italian pizza made in wood-fired ovens, and I am able to eat an entire medium pizza in one sitting.