Most people around the world are familiar with what they think “Italian food” is. I’ve discussed before how “Italian food” isn’t really a thing, but nevertheless there are certainly some ingredients and dishes we associate with Italy.
But for this month’s Italy Roundtable theme of FLAVOR, I wanted to address some of the ingredients and dishes that might sound odd (or even unappetizing) at first, but that are beloved and often surprisingly delicious.
Travel, as we know, is a great way to broaden your horizons on lots of levels. And what could be better than branching out at the dinner table and stretching your culinary boundaries a bit? You might not end up with a new favorite flavor, but – then again – you might.
Let’s get one thing straight at the outset:
That is to say, while many folks reading this will curl their lip at some of the dishes described below, I’d encourage you all to keep in mind that these are well-loved and traditional dishes, culinary specialties that tell stories of the places from which they come, and are especially good at demonstrating how resourceful people can be when they’re poor.
“Cucina povera,” which translates roughly as the food of the poor, has been in vogue for some time now. Michelin chefs are redesigning dishes that originated out of necessity and charging a mint for them. But of course many of these regional specialties have humble origins, arising from an entire socioeconomic strata being unable to afford a “better” cut of meat.
But I digress. A bit.
The point I’d like to leave you with, before diving into this fun list of odd Italian delicacies, is that even with less-than-ideal ingredients, Italians create incredibly flavorful, filling, and nutritious meals. I haven’t tried everything on this list (yet), but I would.
(Well, except for one thing listed. I’m still super squeamish about that.)
And now, on with the show!
I defy anyone to turn down a plate of deep-fried anything. Even if it is, as in this case, brains. Cervelli fritti are calf or lamb brains that are typically boiled, then cut into bite-sized pieces and deep-fried. Eat them the way you’d eat any fried treat – with a little salt and pepper, or with a splash of fresh lemon juice.
You may know that tripe is a cow’s stomach, and Italians aren’t the only ones who eat it. The recipes vary by region, from trippa stewed with tomatoes and beans to served with tomato sauce. It’s the kind of dish that must be prepared carefully, lest it be overly chewy or have an unappealing flavor.
One of Palermo’s signature street foods is the pani ca meusa (called panino con la milza in Italian), a sandwich filled with the spleen and lungs of veal that has been boiled and then fried in lard. You can add shredded cheese to that, if you like. Ignore the fact that the meat looks a little gray. It’s tasty stuff.
Pajata has made a return to Roman menus after 14 years on the blacklist, and the locals couldn’t be happier about it. This classic Roman dish is made from the intestines of milk-fed calves – the milk still in the intestines contributes to the creaminess of the dish – and can be served on its own or as a pasta sauce.
This traditional Florentine sandwich is stuffed with one of the parts of a cow’s four stomachs, stewed for a long time with vegetables and herbs. The soft bread is often dipped in the meaty juice before it’s stuffed with the meat itself, and it’s a popular quick lunch. You’ll see lampredotto food carts, as well as on some menus in (Italian-style) fast food places around the city.
For dessert, try a sanguinaccio dolce – sweet blood pudding. Fresh pig’s blood is cooked with chocolate and forms a dense and sweet, if slightly mineraly, custard. There’s a savory version, too – sanguinaccio insaccato – which is basically like blood sausage.
As far as I’m concerned, though, none of Italy’s strange delicacies can compare with Sardinia’s entry – casu marzu, often known outside Italy as “maggot cheese.” Flies lay their eggs inside wheels of hard sheep’s cheese (the cheese makers actively encourage it), and the maggots eat their way through the hard cheese to create a soft – and wiggly – interior.
And yes, locals who love it eat the cheese with the live maggots still in it.
(I’ve heard that you need to wear eye protection when eating casu marzu, as the maggots can sometimes be a little jumpy. Which… GAH.)
Putting the cheese in a bag in the fridge can kill off the maggots while preserving the soft texture of the cheese, but I’m pretty sure locals would consider that cheating.
What flavors are my cohorts discussing this month? Click along with me through to the following links to read each of their posts – and please leave comments, share them with your friends, and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!
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