How to eat like an Italian

November 29, 2010 / Food & Wine
Very often I am asked: how do Italians manage to eat so much while they are so thin? People coming to Italy for the first time seem to be under the impression that every day Italians eat the same type of multi-course meal that is offered in a restaurant. First timers seem to be also convinced that the whole population survives on spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna, veal parmesan and pizza, all smothered in vast amounts of cheese and tomato sauce.

I actually don’t think that Italians are that thin – may be I see myself in the mirror – but that’s another story. Modern Italians are busy people, like anybody else in the world. They go to their work, suffer through fast food lunches, crash on the couch in the evening. No siesta, that’s for babies and pensioners.

However, if they have the time or they are lucky enough to live near their work, Italians definitely prefer to eat a warm meal at home. Italians love their home food.

Despite the aggression of globalization and mass food production, fresh regional food is still widely consumed and appreciated. A weekday meal is a simple affair, no appetizers, no desserts. Some families will have a first course of pasta, rice or soup and a second course of meat, fish or eggs with a side of salad or steamed greens. Others will have the same as above but split between two meals, e.g. pasta for lunch and meat for dinner, with some fruits to finish and a small cup of espresso. Good, light food made with seasonal ingredients, small portions, limited amounts of fat and protein, lots of vegetables. Of course we like it.

Ask any Italian where’s the best restaurant. The majority will tell you that the best restaurant is home. And they are right!

– Contributed by Letizia Mattiacci. Cooking school and B&B owner, passionate home-cook, blogger and traveler.

Letizia lives on a magical mountain near Assisi in Italy. Former chemical ecologist, she has left the academic career together with her husband Ruurd to renovate a 500 years old farmhouse in Umbria. After years of travels and hard work the dream has turned into Agriturismo B&B Alla Madonna del Piatto, which is run by the family now completed by daughter Tea and dog Google.
You can read Letizia’s recipes and stories about food, family and travel in Umbria on her blog.

15 Responses to “How to eat like an Italian”

  1. Sally Haskell

    Hi Letizia,
    I like this piece! I have puzzled over how to reconcile Italian eating and body shapes over the six years that I’ve lived here. The answer you gave seems right to me.

    Other things that I’ve noticed: Italians often leave food on the plate; they stay aware of the greater pleasure that comes with the first few bites. And if the food gets cold while they eat, they don’t eat cold food. Of course, there is more walking. And less manufactured food. And more vegetables. And the vegetables are more delicious. These are all big generalizations, but I think they add to the picture that you started. Sally

  2. Jeanne Cutillo

    One of your best. It inspired me to continue cooking and eating Italian syle in my American kitchen. Your website is great and very much appreciated. Thanks for your good work.

  3. Nov.30,2010 Marie

    I was in Italy and Sicily this past July and I absolutely loved the food, all of it. Even though we were fed three courses at each meal we did not eat as much as do at home. I think the fact that all the food is so fresh and tasty is just amazing. I find myself looking forward to each course. The pasta dishes were like I never had before and the meat dishes were just enough food to enjoy without being full and of course I always looked forward to the dolci after each meal like the cannolis (best I ever had) and the light sponge cakes the gelato everyday,etc. I also learned to drink the red wine (my favorite) without ice cubes and thought it was amazing. The best part was that after being there for 2 weeks, I only gained one pound. Of course the daily walking and climbing stairs may have helped. I have yet to vacation in the Tuscon area but look forward to that someday. All in all, I absolutely fell in love with the country. Even bought myself a Sicilian cook book when I got home. The rice balls are my favorites and to think I never had them before coming to Italy and Sicily. My Father, his parents and my maternal grandparents were all born in Termini Imerese, Sicily

  4. I am an Italian/American. I have always eaten like Italians in Italy. Before my first trip to Italy my friends said, Oh the food will be disappointing..No, I ate there the way I eat here..real Italian cuisine as you are showing..
    Thank you for showing other’s the REAL ITALIAN WAY TO MANGA! ;-D

  5. thank you so much everyone for the comments. Thank you Jeanne for cooking like a real Italian!I am truly happy that my first article on Italian notebook is so appreciated!before my new life as a cooking instructor I never realize how many people were interested in the Italian culture of food. eating is one thing and knowing how to eat and what to eat in a certain place brings a completely new perspective on visiting a place. Sally, you are right, Italians are very particular about the quality of the food, not only flavor, but also texture and temperature. Marie, you will see it at your next trip, Italy is so diverse that everywhere you go in Italy there is different food to be had. Even for locals. Cathe, I can’t believe that there would be someone expecting to be disappointed by food in Italy, this is a good one!

  6. Carole Sommovigo

    I live in an area of Georgia where Italians are a bit of a celebrity, just for being Italian! It is assumed we eat fantastic foods that other folks don’t have available to them because they don’t have the knowledge or skill. We eat Italian at home and as you described in your article it is not the fat laden, cheesy pasta and breaded fried dishes. Lots of fresh vegetables, little pasta, lean meat, beans, legumes, salads,cheese and some fruit. Of course at Holiday times we do bake some of the traditional sweet treats and prepare holiday foods not ordinarily eaten. A few years ago we went to Italy and stayed with several relatives in Trieste, stayed at a beautiful hotel in Cianchano (spelling?)for over a week that served 5 course meals, many with local favorite dishes. We stayed in an apartment in Sorrento for a week as well, cooking for ourselves from the local stores. It was so wonderful that everytime we talk about it we hunger to return. How fortunate that you can live and work in such a marvelous place.

  7. Carole Sommovigo

    I hope to follow your blog and perhaps we may even be able to pay you a visit in the not too distant future.

  8. Thanks that was a great read. I can’t believe it myself, but my wife and I will have been married 10 years next month. We first met in Italy, and we had this incredible shrimp pasta in this little cafe in Rome. I’ve been scouring the net for an easy recipe to see if I can’t make some myself, and I even found a whole shrimp pasta recipes site full of them!

  9. Gian Banchero

    I’m amazed at my non-Italian friends who feast on lasagna, ravioli and other heavy Italian dishes often, these are foods my family in the States and Italy eat only during a holiday (other than potato gnocchi or polenta (or risotto) which in the north are alternatives to pasta and always eaten in much smaller quantities than in the States).
    Portions are much smaller in Italy hence not presenting a weight problem. I’ve found that the daily Italian table is very Spartan, the usual presentation being a light soup (three or four pieces of pasta included), a light salad, a lightly sauced pasta (small quantity), roasted chicken or pan-fried minute steaks served with lemon slices, bread, wine… In Sicily fish many times takes the place of poultry, pork, lamb or beef. Let’s not forget though that during the holidays multi course meals will go on for three or more hours and a little bit of over eating is appreciated.
    Some of the best food in Italy is to be found not in the big cities but in very small towns or villages where small eateries must present tastes like home cooking and DO, if not the establishments would close down. In a small town’s restaurant one is eating “Mamma’s” food, not a chef’s. Also in the small towns one experiences the true local cucina at reasonable prices along with a chance to socialize with wonderful people. Hint: Sometimes in villages there is no sign announcing the presence of a restaurant, in that the establishment is meant for locals there’s no need to put up a sign being all know where to find it, many times restaurants are in a room off the local bar. Remember that a “bar” in Italy isn’t as the American ones, they should be called pubs being they cater to families….
    Now if someone would answer me as to how Sicilian women who are mostly ever-so-thin can eat on a daily bases those huge Sicilian pastries for breakfast without weight problems?
    Thank you Letizia for the article!
    P.S. I’ve found that my younger cousins in the north of Italy will sometimes use packaged convenience foods but yet are still experts in the traditional kitchen and as good at the stove as their mothers and grandmothers.

  10. umberto levrini

    u are truly a modonnadel piatto ur recipes are fabulous -i wish i could transport myself to ur kitchen every time i read ur recipes -my wife was a great cook like u-but now she has been gone for for 2and a half years (she had alzhemier for 14 years)but before that -there was nothing she could not do-her pasteries were out of this world and her cooking enchanted the pallete-now i can only reminise and enjoy ur writings in the italian notebook- good luck in ur bed and brakfast venture and pls keep in touch–bona fortuna—caio

  11. I enjoyed this article so much and will follow your blog. Hope to visit sometime soon, too.

  12. All true, Letizia. Italians also walk everywhere whether to go to the market or stroll around the piazza on Sunday afternoon. That makes a huge difference.

    I grew up in Italy loving all the fresh foods and was shocked when I returned to the US that people thought Italian cuisine required sauces that simmer all day and piles of pasta and cheese. I love that you share recipes for real Italian food.

    A piu tardi!

  13. wow, thanks for the wonderful comments. Food is so important isn’t it, and such an integral part of experiences like travel. In answer to all the above I would like to repeat something I have written in a post a long time ago:

    “I find it so impressive that – in a very Proustian way – memories are so often linked with a taste, an aroma, an offering of food. The chit chat is forgotten, the beautiful holiday clothes have gone to rags, trees have grown, loves have changed. How amazing though, that eating something good, in a special moment, can be with us forever”


Leave a Reply