As far as I know, all Italians love good food. However, what seems to set Sicilians apart is the sheer quantity of food they love. In Sicily last week, we went to a restaurant in Agrigento, ordered what we thought was a normal meal, and received four plates, each one containing enough pasta to feed our entire family. Tony’s is pictured above. It was tasty, although I just couldn’t shake the feeling that there was a gigantic insect sitting next to his tagliatelle. We also ate gelato four times in the six days we spent there, as well as sundry other sweets. Needless to say, after a week in Sicily, I feel like I should go on a diet, and stop eating pasta, pizza, and gelato. Fortunately for me, while all of those can technically be found in Tunisia, none are close enough to the genuine Italian article to really tempt. In fact, during one of our first weeks here in Tunisia, we were eating at a well-recommended restaurant in Hammamet. An Italian family walked in. They were seated, and one asked for a recommendation from their waiter. The waiter suggested a dish containing mozzarella cheese. The Italian was instantly suspicious, and asked to see the mozzarella. When taken back to the kitchen and presented with the cheese, he shook his head: “That’s not mozzarella.”
The funny thing is, I think this story could have happened in just about any country (other than Italy, of course). No matter where they go in the world, I am afraid that Italians must encounter many of these disappointing food moments. However, the divide between American and Italian perceptions of food is exceptionally wide. For the average American (and even for quirky foodie Americans like us), it is hard to truly fathom the deep and mystic attachment Italians have to food. Italian food is not complex. In fact, it’s deceptively simple. Many dishes contain no more than three or four ingredients. But those ingredients are so incredibly fresh, carefully paired, and exactingly prepared, that the result is invariably a work of classic genius. My favorite Italian appetizer is prosciutto and cantaloupe. That’s it. Just paper-thin slices of D.O.P. prosciutto draped over mouth-watering summer melon. And the best pizza I ever had was one with olive oil drizzled over the super-thin naked crust, a little cheese, and thinly-sliced apple, baked to a crisp golden perfection in a traditional brick oven.
Consequently, some of the funniest conversations we’ve had in Italy have happened when we’ve tried to describe the way Americans eat to our bemused Italian friends. Explain the process of making Kraft macaroni and cheese to an Italian, and you’ll be met first with incredulity (“powdered cheese? Really?”), then dismay (“milk protein concentrate, sodium tripolyphosphate, yellow 5, yellow 6 . . . what are those things?”), then mirth (you eat that?). Yes, we eat that.
When I told this to our friend Stathis, he tried to one-up me by describing an even more incredibly awful thing he’d once seen an Austrian eat on a camping trip: pasta in a can. Unfortunately, I had to confess that not only do we eat that in America too, but it is called “Spaghetti-O’s,” and tastes even worse than it looks.
Invariably, the final question Italians ask is, “but, why?” Good question. Why? Why do we eat like that? I guess it boils down to convenience. I mean, when you’re as busy as we are, you need at least your food to be quick and convenient. Which in the end, boils down to the fact that we feel like we don’t have enough time to prepare good food. So then the Italians want to know what we do with our time instead. Well, let’s see. I guess we spend a lot of it working. Working so we can afford to buy expensive processed foods like Kraft macaroni and cheese and Spaghetti-O’s. And driving to the grocery store, finding a parking spot, going up and down the aisles to find our processed foods, and standing in line so we can then drive our food home and pop it in the microwave. Because no, we don’t have a little store around the corner where we can walk to buy fresh food.
In the end, I never can seem to explain it so it makes sense to an Italian.