Italian fare is one of the most influential and beloved cuisines worldwide, including — and especially — the place I call home. New Jersey is a haven for Italian-Americans (insert “Jersey Shore” cracks here), and I grew up dining at sublime local Italian restaurants. My trip to Italy was a chance to taste dishes I’ve enjoyed for years in family-run restaurants and my friends’ homes, back where they all originated.
Between bites of our first meal in Italy, my family and I recognized the genius of the country’s homeland cooking. It’s all about simple, focused dishes comprised of quality of ingredients, and that makes a world (or country?) of difference. The tomatoes were impossibly sweet, the olive oil pungent in the best way possible and the pasta always cooked to al dente perfection.
Since a trip through Italy is as much a culinary experience as a sightseeing tour, I compiled a photo log of bites I just could not get over, spanning every course of a meal. I must admit one of my favorites is not included below, and it was the classic Roman carbonara dish at a place in Trastevere. I somehow failed to photograph the plate and get the name of the restaurant, (Double failure! There’s no excuse, really, but we had been walking forever and the Spain-Portugal World Cup game was on….) but here is an image from the restaurant’s packed outdoor seating area. If by chance you recognize it, please let me know!
Mystery restaurant in Trastevere, Rome, by Karina for TKGO
Bruschetta (and penne with marinara sauce) at La Pallotta in Assisi
There’s really nothing more to this dish than what you can discern in the picture, but it was delicious. It tasted as though it had been thoughtfully and carefully prepared, from when the ingredients were selected to the moment it was plated.
Bruschetta (olive tapenade, tomato and olive oil) at La Pallotta, by Karina for TKGO
Similarly, the penne with marinara sauce my sister ordered didn’t look like much, but we all spent the meal grabbing bites. If this dish tasted everywhere else like it did at La Pallotta, the world would be a more delectable place.
Penne with marinara sauce at La Pallotta, by Karina for TKGO. (My sister had already started eating before I snapped the photo, hence why the place is a little messy.)
Greek Salad at Cul de Sac in Rome
I know I went for a Greek salad in Italy, but I needed something other than pasta for lunch on a hot day in Rome, and I am still glad I didn’t guilt myself out of this decision. (Also, I was sure to order an Italian white wine to accompany it.) The feta cheese was unparalleled, and it combined with sweet and crisp tomatoes, red onions, kalmata olives and cucumbers and drizzled with olive oil was exactly what I was craving.
Greek salad at Cul de Sac, by Karina for TKGO. Also pictured: my father's baked pasta dish
Prosciutto and Melon at Osteria de’Benci in Florence
Peanut butter and jelly might be the most celebrated of unlikely food combinations, but it really should be prosciutto and melon. The juicy sweetness of the melon and drier, more savory taste of prosciutto strike an ideal, mouthwatering balance. We took to ordering this classic and unfailingly divine Italian appetizer at least once a day, but at Osteria de’Benci it was best. Both the melon and prosciutto melted in our mouths.
Prosciutto and melon at Osteria de'Benci, by Karina for TKGO
Also of note: Osteria de’Benci’s “drunken spaghetti,” is a dish you won’t see everywhere and will want to try, even if it looks like brains in this photo. It’s al dente spaghetti soaked in red wine.
Drunken spaghetti at Osteria de'Benci, by Karina for TKGO
My dad described the slivers of parmesan cheese on top as “cheese from the gods.” The thinly sliced prosciutto also was a godsend, and the hearty crusty was cooked crisp in a brick oven. If you find yourself in Sorrento and wanting to try it (do it!), it’s the only pizza on the menu that says it’s folded over.
Pizza at Pizzeria Aurora, by Karina for TKGO
Truffle Pasta (Trofie Tartufo) at Maccheroni in Rome
Trofie is small pasta twists, and its folds scooped up perfect amounts of the creamy and slightly earthy tartufo — black truffle — sauce. It is rich, so you probably won’t finish your plate. I say, use it to barter for bites of other people’s dishes, because everything we tried here was ambrosial.
Truffle pasta, by Karina for TKGO
Also of note: We ordered a plate of ravioli with pumpkin flowers at the suggestion of our waiter (who, as we learned, carried a photo of the captain of his favorite Italian soccer team in his wallet, but not his girlfriend) to share at the start of our meal and it was gone in record time. I highly recommend it, as well as the meatballs, which were succulent and far from any of the bready concoctions par for the course over here in the States.
Meatballs at Maccheroni, by Karina for TKGO
This place is super close to the Trevi Fountain, so you really have no excuse not to go — and trust me, you want to. The superb gelato served here is devoid of anything artificial, and the fresh taste of every flavor proves it. My surprise favorite was chocolate meringue, but the family’s unanimous winner was strawberry. We were so crazy about that one flavor we returned two days in a row to have it.
Rum/chocolate and strawberry at Il Gelato di San Crispino, by Karina for TKGO. Sadly, my camera was unable to capture the delicious beauty of the gelato.
–Karina for TKGO