My husband jokes that I should sell weight-loss tours of Italy. The idea goes back a couple of decades ago, as soon as I moved to the States and started bringing American friends and family with me when I returned to Venice to visit my mother. Almost every one of them would confess, as they got ready for the trip, that they were excited but also worried about gaining a few pounds with all the great food and gelato; and regularly they would come back to the States a couple of weeks later five to ten pounds lighter!
To me, the concept always seemed pretty clear: in Italy, the food may be decadent, but it’s hard to eat more than three times a day because snacks are not so readily available or portable. Besides, the portions are tiny compared to American super-sizing. (I love to give the example of lattes, which are just 6 ounces at Italian cafes and a whopping 12 to 20 ounces at Starbucks.) What remained shocking, though, was the misconception that my friends seemed to have about what constituted Italian food. They envisioned loads of pasta, smothered in tomato sauce, cheese, and cream. Not to mention major olive oil dipping. (The dipping myth really annoys me. Growing up in Italy, I’ve only been offered olive oil with bread when tasting it before a purchase. Certainly not at a restaurant before a four-course meal!) How did the Americanization of Italian food, which has given it such a bad rep, originate?
Evidently, something was lost in translation! Most of the more than 4 million Italians who immigrated to the States between 1880 and 1920 arrived from impoverished areas of Italy, where the diet was so meager that meat was eaten only three times a year. As a natural reaction to the scarcity experienced in the old country, they welcomed the new-found American abundance by making food central in their lives and adding copious quantities of rich ingredients to most of their dishes. Many famous “Italian” dishes, such as Caesar salad, spaghetti and meatballs, and the calorically dreary fettuccine Alfredo, were actually invented or popularized here in the States, and remain unheard of in Italy.
Americans love pizza (which took New York by storm shortly after WWII) as much as Italians themselves, but here it’s loaded with cheese and toppings, while in Italy it’s much more genuine and light in calories (about 350 for a whole authentic pizza Margherita, against 300+ for only one slice of American pizza!). Authentic Italian food is much lighter than we think: this cuisine that’s so easy to love (it usually scores highest in polls) can actually be good for our health: the Mediterranean diet is proven to protect us against heart disease and cancer.
Its key is simplicity: copious amounts of fresh vegetables are included in every meal, and the dessert is likely to be just fresh fruit, unless it’s a holiday. All these fruits and vegetables at the basis of the Italian diet are chock-full of antioxidants, proven to lower risks of heart disease and cancer. Extra-virgin olive oil, besides replacing dangerous saturated fats, is also rich in phenolic compounds (absent in other vegetable oils), and a source of highly absorbable vitamin E. And let’s not forget to mention another Italian staple, red wine, which may help decrease arterial plaque and lower cholesterol! Therefore, pour yourself a nice glass of Sangiovese, and enjoy a light and healthy Italian dinner.