Tap "What is Italy famous for?" into Google search box and watch the algorithm confirm, in less than a second, what you intuitively knew all along: “pizza” takes the crown with 896 million hits, followed by "pasta" and “Vespa” (an iconic scooter brand). At number four, after a quick detour in recognition of Italy’s design genius, is another culinary star: “vino” (wine).
If the way to the heart is through the stomach, then the Italians have mastered that art by making the whole world fall in love with their culture through their food.
In Eat, Pray, Love, a film adaptation of an international bestseller, Julia Roberts plays a woman who sets off on a journey of healing a broken heart by traveling. She reconnects with her spirituality in India and ends up finding true love in Bali, but not before going on a binge eating spree in Italy.
Why in this particular order, you may ask? Well, to quote from a Vietnamese saying: “It’s no use preaching to a hungry man.” So Julia Roberts’ character is wise in her decision to build herself up with delicious food before embarking on the next leg of the journey.
Pizza - a humble icon
It’s only natural that you would want to start your culinary experience with a visit to one of Italy’s famous legacy pizzerias creating magic out of shiny plum tomatoes and premium mozzarella in wood-fired ovens for hundreds of years.
But don't discount the smaller ones offering pizza al taglio – take-away pizza by the slice. They might not look like much, but at these humble establishments peppering the streets of Italian towns, the pizzaioli are as proud of their craft as the chefs at the world-famous restaurants of Rome and Naples.
Cooking pasta with an Italian Nonna
“Pasta Grannies”, a YouTube channel with more than 670K subscribers, invites you to the kitchens of Italian nonna in their 80s and 90s who share treasured family recipes with hungry audiences from all over the world.
They’ve been rolling out the freshest and softest pasta of all shapes and perfecting their beef, rabbit and mushroom cream sauce recipes for decades, and are still full of enthusiasm and love for cooking. It only takes watching one episode to appreciate that if you really put your heart in what you do, even if it’s just kneading the dough, you too can be an inspiration to the hundreds of thousands when you're their age.
Gelato! Gelato! Gelato!
Before you make a beeline for the best cone of homemade gelato, you’ll need to decide where to go. With gelaterias seemingly on every corner in Italy (in places like the Trevi district in Rome their concentration is truly extraordinary!), to find the best gelato, you’ll end up trying at least thirty different flavors – enough to fill a huge glass vitrine. So make sure you come on an empty stomach and try not to get frozen in the process.
Chocolate, vanilla and roasted chestnut flavors are the most popular, but fruity flavors such as raspberry, strawberry, apple, lemon, apricot and pineapple also look attractive and taste great.
The hardest part will be knowing where to stop!
Where to enjoy a cup of Italian coffee?
Grab a seat at a street cafe in the Trastevere area. Why here? Not only because the coffee is delicious, but also because sitting next to those ancient brick walls crawling with vines, Vespas whizzing past, feels like drinking the essence of Rome itself.
As a nation that invented the modern-day coffee culture, Italians are, unsurprisingly, very adept at coffee-making. The famous Moka pot, although invited more than 80 years ago, is still a proud presence in all Italian kitchens.
The magic powers of Tiramisu
The name of this popular Italian dessert is a portmanteau of two words: tirare, meaning "to pull", and su, meaning "above". The classic Tiramisu consists of layers of Savoiardi biscuits dipped in coffee and mixed with egg, sugar, whipped mascarpone cheese, and a little cocoa powder. There's no better “pick-me-up” on a bad day than a perfectly executed Tiramisu.
Where the best chefs are hiding in plain sight
Do you remember Joe Bastianich, a former judge on the American MasterChef series, famous for giving a public dressing down to the contestants and for being stingy with compliments? In Episode 9 of Season 4, Joe gets a visit from a special guest … his mother.
Standing next to the woman who showed him the ropes in the kitchen, all his cold arrogance is gone, and suddenly he is a young boy making his first steps in the field again. To an Italian mother, the keeper of the family recipes, no matter how famous a chef her son gets, he’ll always remain an apprentice.
And remember that year's MasterChef winner? Luca, a true Italian gentleman in the kitchen, is also a toddler when trying to follow his mother's recipes.
To organize an all-encompassing gastronomic tour of Italy will take you a year of planning plus another year on the road. And while discretionary travel remains out of the question for now, there is still a way to enjoy the Italian cuisine without leaving Vietnam.
From November 12 to 29, 2020 the Italian Cuisine Week is happening all over Hanoi, Da Nang, Hoi An, Da Lat, Nha Trang, Vung Tau and Saigon with leading Italian restaurants participating with special menus.
Come and enjoy. Buon Appetito!