In the weeks I’ve been back from Rome and Umbria, in central Italy, I’ve limited my pasta to just pad thai, and I haven’t eaten a single piece of pizza. There is a method to this madness, and it’s not a health kick; it’s that once I tried traditional Italian pasta and pizza, in all their homemade glory, I can’t go back to the Americanized version. Even the homey, fancy Italian restaurants in Evanston, like Dave’s Italian Kitchen and Campagnola, can’t draw me in with their traditional-style Italian food.
Regarding pasta, we are so used to the dry kind that comes out of the box that Americans never learn to appreciate good, homemade pasta, hand cut and left to air out hanging over the backs of chairs. The closest I ever got to the real thing before going to Italy was in my half-Italian grandmother’s kitchen, helping her roll out the soft dough that would eventually be perfect al dente pasta. In an American restaurant, that perfect texture, soft on the outside and not quite fully cooked on the inside, is rarely achieved. A typical American pasta plate is piled with spaghetti or ravioli, smothered in red sauce or pesto. There is always some pasta left on the plate to bring home in a styrofoam box, and the waiter is not offended if you don’t finish your whole portion. In Italy, even at the simplest restaurants in the smallest towns, there is always a wide variety of different kinds of pasta, at least ten different ones on a menu, all cooked to perfection. The portion size is enough to make you full, but not to the point of bursting. If you don’t finish every bite of your dish, the waiter will ask if you didn’t like it, and there are no such thing as styrofoam take-home boxes.
While pasta has been Americanized just a little off from traditional Italian standards, American pizza has transformed into a completely different food than its Italian cousin. In restaurants like Blaze and 800 Degrees, pizza is served with all the power given to the customers, so they can get exactly what they want. In Italian restaurants, the varieties of pizza are designed by the chefs and handmade with care. Separated even further from Italian tradition is American deep dish pizza, invented and eaten only in the U.S. There is also pre-sliced pizza, which is standard in America but is unheard of in Italy. In Italy, even in the most fast food like restaurants, the pizza is cooked in a wood fire oven, because it is common knowledge in Italy that it makes for the crispiest, most delicious pizza. Probably the most shocking difference to me, though, was when I looked for the pre-cut lines on my pizza in Italy and only saw the fork and knife set down next to my plate.
While Italian restaurants in the states may never be like restaurants in Italy, they will always have their unique cuisine, but I will remember my time in Italy as the best food experience I’ve ever had.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.