Adventures in Italian cuisine

“Life is a combination of magic and pasta,” the 20th-century Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini famously said.

Of all magic in the world, pasta, and Italian cuisine as a whole, is high on the list.

When I studied in Bologna, Italy (yes, the city where “bologna” originated, known in Italy as “mortadella,” and having only a slight resemblance to what us Americans sadly know as bologna), each student in our program had to take an orientation class that focused on Italian language, history, and culture.

On the first day of my course, the director of our program, Anna-Maria, told us the first thing we needed to understand was the rules about Italian cuisine.

If we were to be fully immersed in the language and culture of Italy, we needed to understand — and never break — those important commandments. To do so would be an insult to the Italian culture and heritage. What at first seemed like unnecessary restraint on any culinary sense of adventure quickly became clear to me that those traditions were crucial to Italian identity. Upon returning to the States, many of those rules became embedded into my own culinary practices.

Perhaps because they take me back to small trattorias or meals with friends.

Or perhaps because, if I dared break them, the voice of one of my Italian friends voice still sounds in my ear: “Non si fa”“We don’t do that.”

1.) Chicken never goes on pasta. Ever.

2.) Pesto never goes on pizza. Ever.

3.) Only wine or water can be drank with pasta. Milk is rarely drank as a beverage in Italy, except with coffee, and never with pasta. Nor is beer, as it is too filling and gluten-based to pair properly with the delicacy of pasta.

4.) There is a strict order that courses of a meal are served. Aperitivo (meats, cheeses, small nibbles), then pasta, then a meat/fish, then salad, then cheese or fruit, then sweets and coffee, and then a digestivo. That usually happens over numerous hours.

5.) Those courses of a meal are never put on a plate together, always served one at a time. Friends and family dinners are common in Italy, where everyone brings a different dish. I once brought a salad to such an event and put it on the table with the pasta that was being served. It was quickly removed from the table, and I was reminded, “Never put two dishes on the same plate.”

6.) Salad is always served after the meal, never before or during. One of my friends insisted that greens were “nature’s natural digestif,” cleansing the palate and stomach after the meal.

7.) Bread is never served with olive oil and should be eaten plain or with the rest of your pasta sauce. Olive oil is viewed as precious to Italians, and, in the past, was used sparingly because of its cost. That attitude still prevails, and oil isn’t “wasted” by serving it on bread.

8.) Pairing pasta sauces and shapes is serious business. Spaghetti alla bolognese? Tortellini alfredo? Absolutely not. All regions, and even cities, have their own traditional cuisines that developed there based on what ingredients were available. Northern Italy: egg pasta, pork-based sauces, rich meats and cheeses. Southern Italy: tomato sauces, olive oil, anchovies, sardines. The shapes of the pasta were specifically made to maximize the flavor of the sauces with which they are paired.

And, last but not least:

9.) Never trust a restaurant that serves both pasta and pizza. My program director told me that before I went to Rome, an area full of restaurants that cater to tourists. “Never trust a restaurant that serves both pasta and pizza — because you can only do one thing well in life,” she said.

That advice perhaps sums up Italians’ perspective on food that draws so many in. Focusing on what you can do, and doing it well. Focusing on quality ingredients that pay homage to the area’s history and traditions. Taking pride in every dish of pasta and cup of espresso served, knowing that those are more than just food, just sustenance, but something precious. Understanding that food culture is an inseparable part of heritage and identity — and that history and traditions should be upheld, protected, and treasured.

And certainly enjoyed with a glass of wine.

Anne Gentry graduated from Brown University with a degree in comparative literature and has studied in Italy and South Australia. She is currently executive director of the Alpena Downtown Development Authority.