I miss Italy, especially Florence. But too much. I can't even begin to explain how much Italy really became a part of me in the last 3 years. I studied, I taught English, I lived the life that I really wanted to live. And then, I had to come back to NJ. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy to be here, with my family and friends. But Italy calls to me...
Maybe it's the air. It's clean, less pollution in Florence than here in the states.
Then there's the atmosphere. The atmosphere is truely incredible. There's the art, the earth, the hills of Tuscany. The city is alive. The people are in constant motion but not like here. They don't run all over the place. Each Florentine moves calmly, at least until there's a soccer game or a historic soccer game. I have lots of Florentine friends now. They're incredible. They're all characters, funny, nice, kind, ridiculous and often very, very particular. I miss them a lot.
And then there's the food. That might be what calls to me the most, or maybe it was the first thing that called to me from childhood. I grew up in an Italian household and my grandmother cooked up traditional Neapolitan fare. I learned later on that my grandmother's style of cooking was particular to her region and then occassionally influenced by American cuisine.
As Americans we often imagine that Italian food is exactly like what we find in Italian-American restaurants. We have this vision of a homogenized food that remains the same through the small peninsula. In reality there are 20 regions in Italy, and each region has its own completely unique dishes. Here in the states we most commonly think of lasagna, pasta alfredo (a plate that doesn't actually exist in true Italian cuisine), eggplant and chicken parmigian, pastas, ravioli, bruschetta.
These plates exist in portions of Italy, but there are so many more dishes as well.
If you look at Florence, there are some wonderful plates that are rarely if even seen in the states. There is bread made without salt especially to dip into sauce and clean your plate. There are unforgettable starters like "crostini fiorentini" which are chicken liver pate over grilled bread, crostini with black cabbage, and "pazanella" which is a bread salad made with tomatoes, fennel and other fresh vegetables. For first courses there are a ton of different types of risotto and pastas that don't exist in the US (mostly because the Italian food here is generally southern based). There are dishes like "pappa al pomodoro" which is stale bread cooked in fresh tomato sauce, "ribollita" also made with stale bread but cooked with broth and vegetables, polenta (similar to grits) with black cabbage, "cannelloni" a pasta shell with a ricotta based filling sometimes with spinach, and "pappardelle sulla lepre" a broad based noodle with a hare (rabbit) sauce. The second plates are superior. There's Florentine Steak, which you should absolutely order "al sangue", rare to medium rare. There's also "cinghiale" wild boar, grilled fillet, "lampredotto" which is stomach lining (I know, as Americans, first thought, gross but trust me, it's delicious, if a little heavy).
There are even more delicious options but I have to stop, I'm seriously starting to get hungry... And since it's not possible to eat most of these dishes in Jersey, it's best I stop. ;)
The list of food to try in Italy is long. Each region has its own specialties but what I remember most about eating in Italy is the freshness of the food. In restaurants, supermarkets, all of the food is super fresh. Each vegetable has a taste. Here in the states, I can't find the same tastes, the same freshness.
Until I was 19 I didn't eat tomatoes, zucchini, mushrooms, eggplant, stringbeans, asparagus, pumpkin, ect. ect. Honestly, let's just say that the list of what I wouldn't eat was considerably longer than what I did eat. And then I went to Florence for a year with SLC and I lived with a Florentine family. I loved living with them and ate with them each night. In that year, I learned how to appreciate almost all of the food that I didn't like before. In part I liked to eat the food because my host mom was a great cook but also because each vegetable was actually delicious. It had the right texture. Nothing grown in mass, nothing with a ton of chemicals. Very little is imported from far or frozen for prolonged periods.
The food was delicious. Cooking is an art appreciated by all. I couldn't make a mistake with any of the food there.
Here I often eat vegetables with less taste (or overseasoned to compensate for the lack of natural vegetable taste) or food cooked quickly. There is an entirely different approach to food and the culture of food.