Mangia, Mangia, Mangia

As if being in Ethiopia wasn’t enough of a big adventure, we decided to go to Naples, Italy as well. This wasn’t random, Travis did have a paper accepted at a conference there, and we figured the airfare would never be cheaper for our whole family to go. And here’s the thing about me and Italy. It’s love, the kind that lasts forever. I didn’t even like Italian food until I went there for the first time when I was 14 and ate my first real pastas. What a life changer! Then I studied abroad in Rome for a quarter when I was an undergrad. I gained 10 pounds in 10 weeks. Enough said.

But love, even the kind that lasts forever, can let you down. I hadn’t been to Italy in a long time. I’d never vacationed with my husband. I’d never shown Italy to my kids. And I’d never flown internationally from a non-US home. I jumped into planning mode.

First things first, I downloaded the newest version of Rick Steve’s Italy guide (I LOVE him. Right up there with Wendell Berry. I chased him down in Rome once just so I could tell him I thought he was awesome).

Second, I came up with elaborate and detailed plans for what we would see and do, how we would get around, and most importantly, what we would eat. Gelato figured prominently in these plans. But, of course, a funny thing happened on the way to the Forum. Traveling with kids has peculiar advantages and disadvantages. We got bumped to the front of almost every line we stood in – officials would just come up to us and say, “Prego” and wave us on. It’s what I imagine being a ridiculously hot supermodel is like in the nightclub scene. But then the kids don’t want to walk anymore, they won’t sit still and enjoy the most spectacular bus ride ever, they lay down in the middle of the floor of the National Museum in Naples (I am of course mostly referring to James; mellow babies are the best travel companions ever). Honestly, this was my first vacation as a parent and I’m still processing. With another 2-week chunk of travel to Uganda and the Gambella region of Ethiopia coming up I’ll be learning from mistakes (big mistakes… epic mistakes) and trying out new things. I’ll report back.

But for now, let’s talk about Italy and food. I have some key observations.

First, food at Italian train stations and in Italian airports is better than most of the restaurant food I’ve had in the U.S. When we arrived at the Termini train station in Rome we had a totally yummy bresaola sandwich (air-cured beef shoulder) and a thick hot chocolate and chocolate croissant. Prosciutto hung from the ceiling. Wine was available by the bottle or glass. And on our way out of the country, an espresso and a prosciutto sandwich made an excellent second breakfast at the airport. Italians prioritize good food – they would not tolerate inadequate espresso before travel of any kind. I really respect this about them.

Second, grocery stores in the city are a blast to poke around in and shop at. I can’t speak for suburbs, I don’t know what the markets would be like living on the outskirts of town. But in the cities, they are small, narrow-aisled, and cram packed with some of the best food on earth. Creamy yogurt! A cured meat counter! Meat puree baby food (including… horse meat…. no, I didn’t. But I thought about it). Hunks of parmesan. Three euro bottles of wine. Good chocolate. And a minimal produce section because most people buy their produce at one of the ubiquitous frutta e verdura stands. As Travis said upon leaving, “Real food. At not unreasonable prices.” That’s high high praise.

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Third, the “bar” is a most excellent institution that I really wish we had in the U.S. This is where you go in the morning for your espresso and pastry, and where you stop on the way home in the early evening for an aperitif and snacks (cibo sfuso, literally loose food). Every morning we had brioche or croissants and cappuccinos. I would stop in the late morning for an espresso and another little pastry to share with James. And we managed to hit cocktail hour a couple of times. Travis’ favorite place had cask-aged, house-made rum, fresh fruit juices and awesome dehydrated fruit (lychee nuts!) to go with the peanuts and crackers. Although I confess to preferring an Aperol and soda at a more traditional bar, It was fun to experience an innovative variation on an Italian standard. The times can change without the values disappearing.

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Fourth, Italian food conferences do not disappoint when they serve up a lunch buffet. I think I will insist that Travis attend at least one food conference in Italy a year. The food! Fresh mozzarella fished out of a bowl, caprese brsuchetta, chunks of hard cheese with lemon curd, gorgeous pasta and vegetable salads. Dessert anyone? A gelato cart, a cannoli table, a pastry tray. Drinks with that? Red wine, white wine, limoncello. And of course, coffee for after. These lunches alone were worth the trip!

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Fifth, if you can, be a local for a night and make your own dinner. Buy what’s in season from neighborhood stores. We stopped at a macellaria for steak and a frutta e verdura for artichokes, zucchini, fruit, and rolls. We were lucky to have a nice patio at the apartment we’d rented, so Travis fired up the grill, I cooked up the artichokes and drizzled real balsamic vinegar on strawberries and pears. Throw in some red wine and crusty rolls and it was the perfect meal after a day of sightseeing (a day that, might I add, included a sub-par, overpriced tourist lunch in Amalfi).

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Sixth, forget souvenirs, bring food home! In Under the Tuscan Sun, Frances Mayes notes that at some point her carry-on bag became a food shopping bag and she would return home with a gallon of good olive oil, a bottle or two of grappa, truffle paste, local honey, decorative chocolates as gifts. This has to be the best possible way to spend money on vacation! And of course, we did our best on this front. We packed very lightly and didn’t have much room, but I had several things I wanted to pick up in Italy that I knew I could not get in Ethiopia. Jars of baby food. Dark chocolate. Cheese. Cured meat. I confess to picking up some nice stationery and some postcards along the way too, but the food items are the real souvenirs.

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I think the most interesting thing that Travis and I observed was the similarity between eating in Ethiopia and eating in Italy. Refrigerators, if they exist in an Ethiopian home, tend to be small as do fridges in Italian homes. People shop for food almost every day, if not every day. There are more small, neighborhood stores. And it might be easy to visit Ethiopia and see these things, and then dismiss them as a feature of a developing country. And then you go to Italy. And it becomes harder to ignore the fact that all cultures and countries could develop a more intimate relationship with their food and where it comes from. I think we (most of us in America) are missing out.

I miss Italy already. I think I felt a pang in my heart when the plane took off for our connection in Istanbul. Or maybe that was a pang in my stomach?

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