There have been many crimes committed in the last century or so… crimes against Italian food. And paesano mio, the results are not pretty.

Listen, I get it. It takes effort to stay on the path of righteousness, especially when every marketing message is praising the bounty of Olive Garden’s endless pasta bowl (with unlimited garlic-butter breadsticks). Yes, there is such a thing as too much pasta.

But let’s not fool ourselves. Concoctions dubbed as “Italian food” outside of Italy are usually a gross bastardization of their lineage; just barely even resembling the humble beginnings from which they arose.

So indulge me, if you will, with this rant in the defense of all things holy and Italian. These crimes against Italian food will not go unpunished!

You can listen to the audio version on my podcast if you want the full emotional experience. Or if you prefer, the transcript is written below.

Podcast Transcript

Hello, everyone, and welcome back to the podcast.

Today I want to talk about something that’s been on my mind lately. In fact, I recently wrote an article on the blog addressing this issue. The blog post is called “Breakfast for the Mediterranean Diet.”

And I talked about what is considered a good breakfast for Mediterranean Diet followers. People ask me all the time, “What should I eat, if I’m on the Mediterranean diet for breakfast?”  

There are all kinds of strange things out there like eggs Florentine or a Greek omelet, or all this stuff. The fact is: what passes for Mediterranean food outside of the Mediterranean, is not the same thing as what people actually eat in those countries. So let’s dig into this a little bit further.

When it comes to breakfast, or brunch, or whatever, Americans are told, “You should have a substantial breakfast, it’s the most important meal of the day,” or “Your breakfast is going to power you through the day,” and this and that.

Instead, it’s actually the opposite. In Mediterranean countries, they eat very little or sometimes no breakfast at all. Often, they skip breakfast, and just have an espresso or cappuccino, and maybe about 10:30 or so they’ll have something light.

Italian Breakfast

Then later still, they’ll have a good lunch. But in the meantime, breakfast is something that they don’t really eat. They don’t really sit down to eat breakfast, and they don’t make a big deal of it. Even on the weekends, you don’t hear about “brunch” in Italy or other Mediterranean countries.

In the US, we have these brunch buffets with all-you-can-eat, for like $38, and you have a bottomless Bellinis and all this. Obviously, this is very unhealthy. Of course, we know that. And it’s completely inconsistent of what they actually eat in the Mediterranean countries.

First of all, the sheer volume of food at that hour is something that a person in Italy would never eat. You just want maybe a couple breakfast cookies. And I talked about this on my blog. I mean, we think about cookies for breakfast, that sounds like it’s almost a bad thing. But in fact, the cookies they make in Italy for breakfast are designed for breakfast, they have very little sugar. And they’re very simple. And they’re just a little nudge, a little calorie nudge to start your day, along with your espresso.

So, you know, breakfast isn’t supposed to be something that you that you overdo. In fact, if you eat too much breakfast you’re going to get sleepy, and go back to bed. Instead, you keep the coffee going, and you have just a little something and you wait to have a nice lunch.

That’s why these all you can eat brunch buffets are wrong from the very conception of them. Bottomless Bellini? I mean, a Bellini is Prosecco with, I think white peach nectar or something. And it’s supposed to be sipped. It’s was a five- or six-ounce drink that you sip for an hour.

And instead, during your brunch, in 45 minutes you’ve had five of them, along with way too much food. This is NOT a Mediterranean thing. We see this even at “Italian” restaurants in the US where they have these huge brunches because it’s a great moneymaker. I mean, these all you can eat—it seems like they’re losing money, but in fact, they’re making a lot of money on those. That’s their motivation, not staying true to the cuisine which inspired it.

The Mediterranean diet, people say, it’s hard to follow. Well, it’s not. I mean, it is hard to follow in some ways, but it is it’s actually very simple. It’s simple, but not easy.

I saw something online where someone said, “Throw a bunch of fruit in the blender to make a smoothie, and that’s your breakfast.” Well, there’s nothing wrong with that per se, but that’s against the Mediterranean way of eating, where you take time to appreciate your food. You would never just throw it all in a blender indiscriminately and make a big frappé out of it.

I mean, just eat the fruit the way it is. Sure, you can make fruit juice or something, but it’s not the right mindset to say, “Okay, how can I make this quick and easy? How can I make a five-minute breakfast, throw everything in a blender, chop it up, drink it, and go?”

That’s just the wrong mindset. It’s not that the food or the smoothie is unhealthy. It’s that you’re approaching it from the wrong way. That’s a really big point in the whole Mediterranean diet discussion: slow down, chop up your fruit, eat it. Have a little water, coffee, whatever and eventually you move on with your day. Don’t just throw everything in a blender and take it to go.

Crimes Against Italian Food

So the other thing that this brought mind was this idea of the way Italian food is bastardized outside of Italy. You see these “Italian” restaurants that have like, you know, chicken parmesan, spaghetti meatballs… things you’d never see in Italy. “Chicken Alfredo” just does not exist in Italy. And people even go to Italy and they’re disappointed when they don’t find these things.

But when you break it down, if you think about, okay, in Mediterranean countries, what’s the best, simplest, purest way to enjoy food? And that’s without doing too much to it. So, if you had, you know, just some awesome vegetables, you cook them simply or even eat them raw, with a little salt and olive oil. Don’t try to make a fancy salad and a lot of dressing and mix it all up with other ingredients. You try to keep it as simple as possible.

So yeah, I would say outside of Italy, there are three types of “Italian food.” Extremely rare is the actual, authentic cuisine that is imported from Italy. You might find this in New York City or San Francisco. In these big cities, you might find some authentic Italian chefs who have stayed true to the recipes and the ingredients in the cuisine. And they really bring the best of Italy to our country; in the US or Canada or Australia or England, wherever you are.

Then there’s a second level. In the US, we have Italian American food, and there IS some authenticity to that. So like chicken parmesan, for example. It’s not something you’d find Italy, it’s not an Italian dish. It’s an Italian-American dish, but you can see where it came from. The parmesan recipe in Italy is eggplant parmesan. And probably when the first generation arrived in the US from Italy, they said, “Well, we can’t find good eggplant here. Americans apparently don’t eat eggplants. But they have a lot of chicken and it’s fairly cheap. We couldn’t afford chicken in the old country. So let’s take the parmesan recipe and make it with chicken instead of eggplant.”

So that’s sort of a natural evolution of it and you can appreciate that. But the stranger things are these totally invented dishes like “Chicken Florentine.” I don’t know what this is, like chicken with spinach and some kind of sauce and cheese? They don’t eat this in Florence, in fact they don’t any chicken in Florence. My god. I mean, Chicken Florentine is 100% made up. This is a felony offense in crimes against Italian food.

And it gets worse…

“Tuscan” salad?
Check me if I’m wrong, but is there CORN on this pizza? And chicken… and BBQ sauce? Che schifo!

And things like shrimp scampi? I don’t know what that is. But I know that the word in Italian for shrimp is scampi, so “shrimp scampi” seems redundant, not to mention ridiculous.

But you see this all the time like “Tuscan salad” or “Sicilian omelet.” These are complete marketing inventions that don’t represent anything that exists in Italy. You can eat them if you like, obviously. But don’t pretend that they’re authentic, because they’re the farthest thing from it. In fact, the Italians are offended by this type of sacrilege.

One of the most popular articles on my blog is “Salad in Italy.” I think people are googling a recipe for some version of an “Italian salad.” And if they read my article, they’re probably very disappointed because what I say in the article is that “salad” in Italy is basically just lettuce with salt and olive oil.

The word insalata is near nearly synonymous with lattuga, which means lettuce. In Italy, you take the salad, which is just lettuce or arugula or whatever kind of greens that you have, and they are eaten by themselves with a little salt and olive oil, and that’s it! There’s no dressing or cheese or even balsamic vinegar. I mean, they don’t do that very often. Maybe in certain parts of Italy, like in around Modena. They might do that, I don’t know, probably not. They respect the balsamico too much to just indiscriminately throw it on some lettuce.

But this is important because people think, “Oh, I’m eating healthy. I’m eating Mediterranean/Italian because it has this Italian name or this Italian sounding recipe to it.”

Of course, it’s really not. It’s just something that was made up for marketing purposes. And that’s all. My point of all this is, if you’re interested in eating healthy, eating a Mediterranean diet, and doing it for health purposes, for lifestyle purposes, you need to look beyond the marketing messages and the invented recipes that are there just to lure you into a restaurant or make it seem more appealing to your American palate.

Instead, you should trust the chef, trust the recipe, trust the traditions of the Mediterranean table. Now, I understand that this is a leap of faith, because outside of Italy, often the ingredients aren’t what they should be. So plain lettuce with just salt and olive oil in Italy can actually be delicious. It has a very complex, unique flavor. But you buy the industrial lettuce in the US, and you don’t put anything on it besides salt and olive oil… well, you might be disappointed.

“What is this? I can’t eat this!”

And I understand that. But that’s the essence of the Mediterranean diet; you keep it as simple as possible. Minimal number of ingredients, minimal condiments, and try to let the ingredients shine through.

Spend more money on the quality, organic, locally-sourced ingredients; perhaps buy less of it, make a conscious effort not to buy too much. I think overall, you may spend less money, especially when you start paying attention to portion size and the frequency of how often you eat. And this goes back a little bit to my previous discussion about intermittent fasting. I don’t mean to say people need to fast but we also don’t need to eat five times a day. We don’t need to eat three big meals a day plus two unhealthy snacks.

Two meals a day is enough. Plus a little something for breakfast, maybe mid-morning. NO late night snacks!

If you do that alone, you’ve got a long way towards mimicking the Mediterranean diet, and also, promoting your own personal, healthy lifestyle.

So let’s give that a try. And thank you for listening to the podcast and we’ll talk again soon. Ciao!

Rick Zullo

Former doctor, current science teacher, and life-long food lover, Rick's passion for Mediterranean cuisine was ignited while living as an expat in Rome, Italy. 


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