During an early vacation, I ordered a salad in Italy to accompany my dinner at a charming local trattoria. Being from the U.S., I supposed I envisioned our version of a tossed salad or side salad, or in other words, a medium-sized bowl with eight or nine ingredients mixed together, topped with croutons and some sort of dressing.
Instead, what arrived (after my pasta course, by the way) was a just a simple plate of lettuce. And the only “dressing” offered was salt and olive oil.
Indeed, in Italy the word insalata (salad) is nearly synonymous with lattuga (lettuce). At the local bar at lunchtime, you’ll see on display “panino con prosciutto e insalata,” or a sandwich with ham and salad (meaning just lettuce). The “salad” in ON the sandwich, not on the side.
And honestly, after living in Italy for several years, I eventually saw the light. Fresh, seasonal vegetables don’t really need much help to taste great. Salt and olive oil is plenty to bring out the natural flavor, and heavy dressings only cover up what you’re trying to taste...the delicious fresh lettuce, in this case. Believe it or not, good lettuce DOES have a nice flavor.
It made me question why we in the U.S. feel the need to throw the kitchen sink into every salad bowl… and then dump a thick, calorie-dense dressing on top of it. This is precisely how take something incredibly healthy and turn it into junk food. (Or maybe on some level, Americans can be forgiven for assuming that lettuce is flavorless, because in the U.S. it usually IS flavorless!)
Here is a recipe for a healthy salad from a popular website. I actually really like this doctor/author (Mark Hyman, MD) and I have learned a lot by listening to his podcast. And make no mistake, his salad recipe is healthy.
But by Italian standards, the sheer number of ingredients is indiscrete, unnecessary, and to a certain degree, it aligns with the Big Food companies who believe that more is always better. In other words, an attempt to “improve” food by crafting clever combinations instead of letting the simplicity of the fresh ingredients shine for themselves.
Salad in Italy
In Italy, you wouldn’t want/need all of these ingredients. As I’ve already mentioned, a “salad” (insalata) should be lettuce with salt and olive oil. Un'insalata mista might have 3 or 4 vegetables, maximum, but certainly no seeds or mustard or canned fish. But alas, these types of American creations have now found their way to the larger cities of Italy, and they’re called insalatoni (big salads). In some circles, perhaps it’s even considered a bit chic to conspicuously order one of these for lunch in front of your business colleagues. Go figure.
And why all the condiments and complicated dressings? (Buttermilk Green Goddess? Coffee Vinaigrette? Seriously?) The default should always be towards FEWER ingredients. You want to taste the individual components. The more “stuff” you put into the salad, the harder you this is. Perfection always runs towards simplicity. Once you start messing with what nature created, you’re going down the wrong road to a point of no return.
Further in this discussion is the confounding concoctions of "plants disguised as animal products." You know, like “veggie-burgers” or tofu tacos. Why? What’s wrong with eating the vegetables the way nature intended?
While we’re at it, let’s say “no” to the smoothie, as well. If you enjoy them as a treat, then sure...indulge and don’t feel guilty about it. Just don’t pretend that you’ve improved upon what the ingredients offered you before you put them in a high-speed blender. Enjoy smoothies as a rare treat, not part of your daily diet.
Always go back to the rule of thumb: if you’re trying your best to mimic the Mediterranean Diet, imagine what your great-grandmother would have prepared and eaten (assuming she was from a Mediterranean country). I doubt she had access to a high-speed blender, canned salmon, or vegetables in the shape of a hamburger.
In Italy, a “salad” is actually a very simple thing. Usually just lettuce dressed with a pinch of salt and some olive oil
Stay closer to whole foods that are fresh, organic, and in season. The more processing, the more you should avoid it.
Don’t eat anything that your Italian bisnonna wouldn’t recognize as food. And again, if you can’t pronounce it, you shouldn't eat it.