10 Unique Flavors Found at the Italian Table

Venice, Italy (May 2014)

My first experience in Italy was less than stellar. The gelato was ho hum, the spaghetti came with mussels (and I don't eat seafood), the pizza was lacking, and the Venetian canals almost seemed dirty.

And then it rained.

Don't get me wrong. I loved the rain. I loved running through the streets of Venice, having to be so careful and step delicately so that my feet (in flip flops, or even without) didn't slide out from under me. I loved sitting in the hotel planning the next portion of my trip with friends, talking and listening to the rain late into the night. 

And when we got to Portovenere, I loved sitting with friends watching the sunset with a bottle of wine, bread, and cheese.

But the whole Italian experience just wasn't what I had hoped for or dreamed about. 

Nevertheless, in the time since, I have been determined to learn more about legit Italian food. None of this Pizza Hut pizza or Olive Garden spaghetti. If I'm ever going to return to Italy, I need to know what foods are actually served there and which ones I should order.

The list below is a mixture of things that can and cannot be found in America. These are the things that feel most Italian to me.

Buy from WalMart.

1. We began with Italian butter. One small step for man, one giant step for Mandy-kind (*ahem* mankind)? Delicious with a slight hint of a parmesan flavor. Simply amazing. :)

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2. Then, we moved on to Pecorino Romano cheese as directed by the Tasting Rome cookbook. As much as I wanted to love pecorino romano, I just didn't. It was too spicy for me. :-/ I prefer plain old Parmigiano-Reggiano. Yum. :)

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3. Nero d'Avola, at the suggestion of the friend, was tried and quickly became one of my favorite wines. We always get it for special occasions. :)

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4. REAL Italian Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinegar were brought home from our first trip to Italy and tasted. Nothing in the states, not even those small oil and vinegar shops all over town or at the mall, compare. We quickly went through our "real" stuff and have yet to obtain more. Even the $100 bottles we brought back from France don't hold a candle to the real Italian stuff. *sigh* #LessonLearned #ShopLocal :)

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5. Charleston, South Carolina's restaurant FIG got me hooked on Gnocchi, a potato (and in the case of the restaurant: ricotta) filled dumpling. The dumpling is so soft and light on flavor and yet, in every way possible, it is it's own thing. You cannot have a dumpling and call it gnocchi in the same way you cannot have Kraft parmesan and call it Parmigiano-Reggiano. It's just not the same. :)

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6. Speaking of, Ricotta has slowly taken my heart. Growing up, my dad always refused to have this whey cheese used in his dishes. And I concurred … Only now I know better. Yum! :)

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7. Castagnole is by far one of my favorite treats. Fried dough balls covered in sugar + chocolate hazelnut in the center = Heaven. Seriously.

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8. German friends introduced myself and my husband to a popular drink in Italy called Aperol Spritz which is a bittersweet orange/apricot drink that is a mixture of Aperol and champagne. It is a drink typically had before dinner, and, even though we are no longer in Italy, my husband still makes time for it every night!

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9. …unless, he is drinking Negroni, the bitter "cousin" of the martini. Supposedly it is common for Italians to end their work day with this drink.

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10. Genoa Salami is tasty and delicious and, quite frankly, some of the first salami I ever tasted. (I am opposed to meat filled with chopped up unknown ingredients, but when you are hungry, none of it matters.) Now, when I buy salami in the states, I often compare it to the first salami I ever had (this salami) and it just doesn't compare… So I don't eat it. Go figure, right? Turns out there is only one salami for me!

Even though I wasn't enthralled with my first experience in Italy, I'm hoping to return again in the future. Maybe I was just anxious meeting friends for the first time, maybe I was stressed out by having to move from my rental property and home with only a month's notice… Maybe I shouldn't judge a country by my first impressions?

I'm hoping that future travels to the country of food (if Paris is the city of love, does that make Italy the country of food?) will have me finding and trying new things and finding more to love about Italy than I ever did during my first trip. I am super grateful that my first trip to Italy had me trying so many new and unique flavors that I may not otherwise have considered, but I look forward to future trips when I can try even more! I think my time away from Italy has changed my perception of what Italian food actually is (and is not), and when (and if) I return again, I will have a better understanding of what to expect from the country.

If you've been to Italy, what was the most surprising thing you tried – and loved? If you haven't been to Italy, have you had any of the foods mentioned in my list? Are you as excited as I am that more and more European foods and flavors are being exported to the US?

** I'm participating in Tamara Gerber's (Confessions of a Part-Time Mom) Top Ten Challenge where this week we're talking about Italian food. Click through to her blog to see what other bloggers are sharing!

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