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6 of the Most Challenging Dishes in Italy
Trippa alla Romana
Choosing food from an Italian menu written in a foreign language can feel like picking daisies, should I or should I not. However, to suggest caution when seated at southern Europe's magnificent and bountiful restaurant table might seem bizarre, Italy, after all, is famous as a food lovers paradise, but for those on vacation far from home eating out can seem like a challenge.
This article may help the tourist diner to be more informed about some of the weirder items that can be found within the indigenous local cuisine.
The lonely traveller
On holiday the lonely traveller seated in a strange restaurant watching other local diners busy spooning lamb brain or sliced cow stomach into their mouths may be filled with fear and dread. But once one realises that this select group of gourmet are here because they have developed a taste for these strange food items ever since childhood one can feel somewhat reassured. However, if one is tired after a long journey, confused and in a panic actually orders one of these obscure plates, found hiding on the back pages of a trattoria menu, by mistake, it would be wise to face the ordeal with a good bottle of strong wine to truly savour the lingering flavours of these frankly less than palatable dishes.
Frascati wine and Fraschetta
Speaking of wine, Frascati should come labelled with a health warning, no matter how good it tastes served chilled on a warm summer evening just stop drinking it after one glass or be ready to suffer from the inevitable headache and nausea that swiftly follows after sipping a few glasses. Modern-day Romans favourite urine coloured drink it is taken with a twinned sandwich at Fraschetta that serve sliced pork or Porchetta on roughly sliced bread at a food festival held in the months of June to August in the high Frascati village overlooking Rome from where this evil fermented beverage was originally concocted.
Luckily the delicious, fat smeared pork sandwich is entirely different to its Basilicata based cousin Cazzomarro alla brace. The Rome version at least helps to line the stomach against this acidic wine that frankly doesn't pair well with anything. Rumours have long persisted that during production the wine is cut with wood chips to add colour and flavour, but to avoid the risk of "sleeping with the fishes", it is best not to inquire what else apart from sour grapes are used to produce this cheap low-quality wine.
Heading towards both the heal, knuckle and toe of southern Italy, part of the local diet is a peperoncino rich meat sausage, that is both eye-watering and spicy and finds its way into many pasta sauces in Calabria and Puglia.
It has a vivid red colour and strong taste. In terms of its reach on the palette, its flavour might be comparable to the intensity of strong Gorgonzola cheese. This semi sausage semi salami paste uses roasted red peppers to blast the taste buds with heat and flesh. Plenty of rumours and cruel gossip circulate about exactly what mystery meat is used in the production of this delicacy and none of them are good.
Pasta infused with ink
Pasta con Nero di seppia
If one is hoping to impress ones dinner date having a warm smile with teeth stained black isn't going to help. This dish is especially common in the Veneto and Tuscany regions where it lurks on restaurant menus with an innocent looking menu listing of Pasta con Nero di seppia, or the truly vile rice version Risotto al Nero di seppia both have as their principal ingredient ink-filled small squid, which when cooked cause their black water to leach out into the sauce turning it an oily black. After a few forkfuls, it's chemical color coats the lips and inside of the mouth of the hapless eater. Perhaps in the past during the stress of school exams, you absentmindedly bit off the tip of a BIC biro and chewed on it, remembering that flavor will give one a very rough idea of just how strange this dish really tastes.
If you are the kind of gourmet diner who likes a challenge this dish might be it.
Blood and chocolate
This off-menu item is a pork blood sausage that is sweetened with chocolate. If the thought of mixing those ingredients doesn't make you feel squeamish you can try this secret sweet during carnival time in Naples as its traditionally eaten in this city before Lent. To make it more palatable it is sweetened with pine nuts and chopped candied fruit made from lemon and orange rind. Here people have been making it for generations and it is mostly fed to children in this Neopolitan heartland. Made in fresh batches in the winter months, the busy older folk or family Nonna, who are in on the joke, don't tell their offspring about the main ingredient. Their innocent smiling grandchildren filled with the warm fuzzy feeling that one gets from eating chocolate confectionery made from swines hemoglobin eventually find out the awful truth: fresh pigs blood... They grow up to be less trusting and slightly confused adults.
Capozzelli di agnello
Capozzelli di agnello is basically an entire lamb's head split in two and roasted. It is made as a special dish served at Easter in Catania in the south of Italy and probably derived from earlier Arabic influenced cuisine brought to Italy as a result of Moorish settlers and invaders during the 11th century.
According to the Cooking with Nonna Cookbook the home chef needs to remove the eyes and tongue from lamb's head and cook the tongue separately. Next saw the head in half and shake breadcrumbs over the brains before pouring oil and melted butter over the head and cooking in a heated oven for two hours. The flakes of dried bread are added as an appetizing finishing flourish.
Gelatina di maiale or Pork Jelly
A part of Sicilian and Campania cuisine this dish looks a lot like jellied Aspic, this version, however, uses the low-quality cuts of pork, including the trotters that are boiled to release their collagen from the connective tissue.
What makes this dish a challenge is the visible pieces of ears and lips that remain suspended in the jelly.
And Finally Casu Marzu
In English, this dish means rotten/putrid cheese and for many years this Sardinian food was banned on hygiene grounds but has recently found its way back onto the menu though thankfully it is still quite rare. Its legal status is still somewhat ambiguous but it has been given a protected status, an IGP certification called in Italian an "Indicazione Geografica Protetta".
If you are wondering those are live maggots eating their way through your lunch. The little worms produce acidity which breaks down the cheese fats making it very soft. Sealing the cheese in an airtight plastic bag causes the larvae to die for lack of oxygen and drop from the cheese. However, the baby flies if disturbed during their eating frenzy are able to jump ten centimeters from the cheese giving it a reputation as an aphrodisiac amongst its mainly Sardinian consumers. Food writers often advise when pairing cheese with wine to "go white", but in this instance, the safest option may be to eat a mouthful then swallow disinfectant mouthwash and say a little prayer.
What dish would you find the most challenging?
Cooking With Nonna
Someone once said Italians are an extraordinary people, but after trying these dishes you may well wish they were just a little bit more normal.
In this well designed and informative "Nonna" cookbook you can tap into the culinary wisdom of centuries. In fact, one can read these recipes safe in the knowledge that the author's grandmother, pictured smiling on the cover, absolutely knows what she is doing when she goes hand-picking wild mushrooms to fill her basket on frequent trips to the woods. However, some issues around these recipes are still a challenge. Recently many Italian consumers are looking at their own ethnic food traditions with a fresh eye. Some younger consumers, are now critical of these ancient ways, questioning the yearly slaughter of lambs at Easter, for example, a growing ethical debate that has fast become a national issue in the country.
The truth is that many Italian nationals that were born in the country but who have traveled overseas simply cannot bring themselves to comment negatively about their nation's food, enjoying food is a way of life, but notable past food scandals and scare stories have recently made indigenous dinners wary of certain foods when returning home to eat in grandma's kitchen.
Like the historical Buddha who enjoyed a welcome bowl of rice pudding before attaining enlightenment, it is the familiar that represents good food and the unfamiliar that is the challenge.
© 2017 Adele Barattelli