You know when you've tasted food in the country of origin. It just feels right. There are two things that seem to be synonymous with Italian cuisine - pizza and pasta, and we were forewarned that no matter how much you like them to begin with, it might just get to be a little too much at some point. We set off, expecting a week of rich, creamy and indulgent food that we would get tired of quickly.
We were wrong.
What was perhaps the biggest surprise of all during the trip was the fact that the food was generally a lot lighter than expected. Italian cuisine is really not just the cheese-leaden fare that we seem to be used to. We were right, however, to expect the food to be good - we were rarely disappointed and had hearty meals throughout the trip. I thought I'd share some of my favourite pizzas and pasta dishes and I have to warn you, it's a pretty long list of favourites.
Penne with mushrooms and seafood. It looks unassuming, I know, but this one made the biggest impression on me. Sitting at the table, savouring every bite, there was no doubt that this was the best pasta I had ever had. They had somehow managed to completely infuse the flavours of the fresh seafood with the tomatoes and herbs, creating a remarkable sauce. Like most of my favourites, everything was subtle and every flavour felt genuine. It had the sort of taste that lingers teasingly on your tongue, leaving you wanting more.
Spaghetti alle vongole - spaghetti with clams. With her preference for the lighter, less-creamy options, this quickly became a favourite of mum's. We made it a point to try the dish in every city and found that there were slight differences in each version. My personal favourite was Milan's take on it in which white wine was a more prominent feature. It brought back happy memories of our favourite Chinese-style steamed clams in Ipoh.
Spaghetti with mussels. We're definitely seafood lovers judging from the favourites so far. Unlike the clam version of the spaghetti, this one had a tomato-based sauce which complemented the fresh, just-cooked mussels.
Pasta with prawns and asparagus. I love that even the tomato-based sauces were light and not over-powering. They seem to have found just the right balance so that you don't get a sauce that is too tangy, too watery or too thick. Nothing beats a hot plate of pasta after a day out in the cold and snow, and this, this was like a warm hug after the blizzard that greeted us in Milan.
Pizza capricciosa. Again, every city had a different take on it but in general, the pizza capricciosa had my favourite combination of toppings - mozzarella, tomato, mushrooms, artichoke, ham, olives and in Rome, prosciutto ham and half a hard-boiled egg. It's the mix of sweet, tangy, salty and that delightful pickle-y taste that makes it what it is. What I loved about the pizzas, all of them, were that the bases were thin and crisp with extremely generous amounts of toppings. It's pretty astonishing how people finish entire pizzas by themselves, and order seconds.
Clearly, it wasn't just a favourite of mine.
Quatro stagioni - four seasons. With similar toppings to the pizza capricciosa, this became an occasional alternative. The biggest difference between the two was that the toppings on the quatro stagioni were not mixed and were carefully sectioned into, you guessed it, the four quarters of the pizza. Pictured is the one we had in Venice which unlike the rest, had a softer, thicker base that we think might have been made fresh by the little old lady who co-owned the restaurant.
We quickly learnt that there are two types of pizza in Italy, the ones in restaurants that have thin bases and are stoned baked and the pizza rustica that are sold in take-away shops. These have softer, thicker bases and are sold in weight, a concept that seemed quite foreign to us. The best thing about the pizza rustica is that there's always a large variety of toppings - everything from the classic mushroom and ham to broccoli and seasonal vegetables.
Also, having them to go means being able to have lunch by the Pantheon or while strolling down the street and taking in the sights.
It's not till you get there that you fully realise how big a role pizza and pasta play in Italian cuisine. They seem almost like staples, sold at every corner and featured extensively on every menu.
"If rice is our staple, why doesn't it come in more interesting colours like their staple?"