Growing up my exposure to ‘Italian’ cooking was Campbell’s cream of chicken soup and bits of spam served with over-boiled spaghetti and being told it was a plate of carbonara. Over the years, I learnt that canned soup was anything but an authentic dressing to pasta (p.s. I upgraded to pasta sauce in jars) but my knowledge was still very limited.
When I visited Italy last summer, I must admit that the words ‘beaches’ and ‘tan lines’ popped into my head first before I even thought about Italian food. However, I was completely blown-away by the diverse flavours, rich textures and the freshness of Italian cuisine. So much so that it’s earned a coveted spot on my top three list of cuisines ever. Should I only ever be allowed to eat a certain type of cuisine for the rest of my life – it shares the spotlight with Vietnamese and Japanese.
Here are some dishes and snacks I got to taste for the very first time when I explored along the southern tip of Italy and Sicily:
When it comes to sweets in Italy, most people will rave about cannoli. Whilst I finally got to try this popular dessert, I actually much preferred this same flavour combination in the lighter form of ‘sfogliatella’ to cure my 4pm sugar craving. Also what English-speaking folks sometimes refer to as ‘lobster tail’. The pastry layers on these shell-shaped morsels resemble thinly-stacked leaves encasing creamy ricotta, made even better when I had it with an espresso shakerato for a hit-me-in-face caffeine rush.
Okay, I’ve included arancini here because the only ones I’ve had in the past was passed around as canapés when I used to work in a hotel. Meaning, they were anything but the real deal. Who knew arancini in Italy were actually orange-sized? The ones we tried at the famous Di Matteo in the historic district on our first day in Naples did not disappoint. There’s even a framed photo of Bill Clinton chowing down back in 1994!
It seems fitting that out of all the granita I tried during the trip, my favourite was from Bam Bar in Taormina, Sicily. This slushy dessert that’s a cross between sorbet and shaved ice originated from there! I remember it was scorching hot that day so a refreshing glass of granita was all I wanted. When I eventually did make up my mind on which flavours to try, I opted for the strawberry and the peach. This does mean I’ll eventually need to go back to try the other thirteen flavours they had on the menu, which I’m completely ok with.
Brioche Con Gelato
The original ice-cream sandwich. It’s so bad, and it’s so good – a fragrant, buttery brioche bun stuffed with a fat smear of creamy gelato of your choice. Apparently this is commonly eaten for breakfast during the summer months. Guess that’s the Italian way of saying carpe diem! As the gelato melted, the bun did get soggy and lose its form so I had to eat it quickly, otherwise, it becomes quite a messy affair. Not that I cared at this point because I felt like Jabba the Hutt!
Pasta Con Sarde
We stumbled across Ristorante Crocifisso during the lunch hour in Noto, a city known for its baroque-style architecture. I’ve always associated sardines with cans (surprise, surprise) but take the fresh version of these bad boys, mix in olive oil, onions, fennel, al dente pasta and top it with toasted breadcrumbs and it becomes some kind of Sicilian magic.
Insalata di Polpo
There’s hardly any signs of greens in this ‘salad’ but I’d happily take this to replace my daily five serves of veggies. When done right, the octopus is tender, the potatoes are soft and warm and there’s just the right amount of lemon juice, garlic and parsley. We tried this classic dish on the night we arrived in Montepertuso on the Almalfi Coast at Ristorante La Terra, which was recommended by our Angelo, our lovely B&B host.
Before this trip, I’d never understood the hype behind Italian cuisine. However, I’ve definitely converted in just two weeks of eating like a local. Now I know why food to Italians isn’t just a passion…it’s an obsession.
Writer: Stephanie Lau
Photographer: Dean Vowles