Steve Brenner and his wife Linda Martinez moved to Rome with the dream of opening an eco-friendly hotel and indulging in delicious Italian food. Here, Steve shares his tips for getting our attempts at Italian cuisine to taste a little more like what comes out of an Italian mamma’s kitchen…-Geneviève
Pasta Carbonara (no cream!) and garlic: two Italian staples (Ghirson; Sivandsivand)
Everyone agrees – Italian food tastes better in Italy. Part of this is due to the superiority of the ingredients when bought locally. When you buy mozzarella in Naples or Gaeta olives in Gaeta or pecorino in Pienza, you are partaking in an experience that will not be the same even just an hour or two away. In Australia or the US, or any other really big country where things are produced to last long distribution distances, even people who live near the source are eating something made to withstand days of transport. A tomato in California or an orange in Florida tastes the same as they would in Montana.
Spaghetti Vongole; A typical Italian doorway (Erica Berman)
Yet there’s another reason Italian food tastes better in Italy – it’s the cooking techniques that are not easy to adopt elsewhere. It’s not about precision and elaboration. Instead, it’s about knowing what to leave out and how to combine a few simple, but seriously tasty, things for maximum flavor.
If you read non-Italian language cookbooks in an attempt to find these secrets, look out – you are being deceived. Perhaps it’s a conspiracy by Italian grandmothers to keep the uniqueness of the Italian kitchen from being too accurately reproduced outside the boot, but the truth is (and I may be at risk with the food police for spilling this information) Italian recipes are not reproduced faithfully by English speaking writers. Italians would almost never use 1 whole onion in a pasta sauce (and Italian onions are about 1/4 the size of an American one). Two tablespoons of oil? Ha! I guffaw when I see a recipe that asks for 2 tablespoons of oil. I go through about a liter of oil a week.
Orecchiete con Broccoli and Parmiggiano (Sarah Maternini; [email protected])
An example of this can be found in a quick search for the Pugliese dish – orecchiette with broccoli. A Google search of “orecchiette with broccoli recipe” in English and a search of “ricetta orecchiette con broccoli” in Italian turn up two very different recipes – the English one calls for 2 tablespoons of oil and 4 cloves of garlic, while the Italian recipe calls for 4 tablespoons of oil and one glove of garlic.
I learned to cook in my early 20’s because I was living in Italy with no money. If I wanted to eat cheaply, I was going to have to fend for myself. So I asked lots of questions and kept my eyes open and found that Italian cooks are very willing to share their “secrets”, because there aren’t many actual secrets. They make things the way they’ve always made them, true to tradition with subtle varieties based on location and availability. When Italians ask their Mamma, who learned to make orecchiette from her Mamma, how much garlic or oil needed to make the dish, she would say, “poco e tanto”. If I asked my mother, she’d email me the recipe.
Extra virgin olive oil; Cappuccino (Lulazzo; Erica Berman)
For those of you without a bona-fide Italian Mamma, here are a few pointers to start you out based on many years of scrounging around Italian kitchens and the Mamme who preside over them:
1 – Don’t be shy with the oil. When first learning Italian I was searching for the word for lettuce and asked my friend, “How do you call it – the main part of the salad?” He replied, “Steve, the oil is the main part of the salad.” Don’t forget that wisdom – oil is liquid gold in Italy.
2 – Salt. Invest in good salt (sea salt is my preference) and salt your pasta water well – and I don’t mean a sprinkle or a pinch. In Italian it’s a pugna (fistful), and a couple is the right amount.
3 – I don’t care what you’ve heard or what arguments this might spawn: there is no cream in pasta carbonara. When in doubt, leave it out and add more oil (see nr. 1).
4 – Grana Padano is NOT the same thing as Parmiggiano Reggiano. Second rate cheese makes for second rate pasta.
Italian scenes (Erica Berman)
Try these tips and see how it helps. Keep in mind that if you really want your home-cooked meals to taste the way they would in Italy, well, the sad truth is – they won’t. That’s the beauty of Italy – you just can’t export certain things, and the food will always taste better here. The good news is you can still try to get close, and to help you do that, I’ll share with you the most important secret of all, the most crucial measurement used in Italian cooking: quanto basta, or otherwise commonly seen as q.b in Italian language recipes. Quanto basta means “however much is enough”.
- Steve and his wife own the Beehive, an eco-friendly hotel in Rome, as well as Cross-pollinate, a vacation rental service for apartment rentals in Rome and Italy
- To raise money to make their hotel in Rome more eco-friendly, Steve and his wife made this cute video
- Looking to stay in Italy? Haven in Paris also has some Havens in Tuscany…
- La Petraia, Agriturismo with fabulous organic restaurant in the heart of tuscany
- Erica Berman on life in Italy vs life in France, part 1 and part 2