Though there are many individual regional cuisines in Italy, northern and southern Italian cuisines are primarily differentiated by the cooking fat and style of pasta commonly used. Northern Italian cuisine (other than on the coast) favors butter, cream, polenta, Mascarpone, Grana Padano, and Parmigiano cheeses, risotto and fresh egg pasta. Southern Italian cuisine tends toward Mozzarella, Caciocavallo and Pecorino cheeses, olive oil and dried pasta. Southern Italian cuisine also makes greater use of the ubiquitous tomato.
At one time there was a distinct difference between a trattoria and a ristorante, based on the type of clientele and the prices charged. Now they are virtually interchangeable. A trattoria is generally a family-run affair with Mamma or Papa in the kitchen, and children helping out wherever needed. The decor and the menu are simple and the prices only slightly less than in a ristorante.
Fast-food Italiano is a boon to all Cheap Eaters, and I am not talking McDonald's, where a burger, fries, and shake can cost upwards of $12. Besides, who wants a Big Mac in Italy? Inexpensive meals can be found in stand-up snack bars that feature the tavola calda, which means "hot table." Usually frequented for lunch, these places feature a series of hot and cold dishes either to eat there or take out.
Rosticcerie are also places that offer hot and cold dishes to eat in or take out. At either the tavola calda or rosticceria, items are priced by the portion. You choose your food, pay the cashier, get a receipt, and give that to the person behind the counter, who will dish up your food. Snack counters in bars sell ready-made sandwiches and so do paninotece, which are actual sandwich bars. You will also encounter pizzerias (very often open only in the evening, especially in Rome and Florence) and places called pizza a taglio or pizza rustica. These are hole-in-the-wall shops selling ready-made pizza by the slice. The pizza is cut to order and sold by weight. It is fun to try several small pieces. Alcoholic beverages are usually not served, but soft drinks and bottled mineral water will be. Seating is virtually nonexistent.
Other places for a quick bite or a simple meal include a latteria, which sells cheese, yogurt, and other dairy products; a gelateria, which serves ice cream; or a pasticceria, where you can go for a fresh pastry any time of the morning or afternoon. At il forno you can buy bread, and at an alimentari, salumeria, or gastronomia you can buy cold cuts, cheese, wine, bread, mineral water, and other foods to put together a picnic in the piazza or back in your hotel room. For a glass or two of wine and a light meal or snack, go to an enoteca, or wine bar. Osterias are also wine bars, but more the blue-collar type.
An Italian caffe, or bar, is much more than a place to drink coffee or alcoholic beverages. Here you can eat breakfast, have a snack, buy a sandwich, make phone calls, use the toilet, read the newspaper, listen to or watch sporting events, meet your neighbor or lover, and argue over politics. If there is a black-and-white "T" (for tobacco) displayed outside, you can also buy cigarettes, matches, some toiletries, stamps, and bus tickets. No wonder there are more than five thousand such places in central Rome alone.
Cheap Eats in Italy
by Sandra A. Gustafson
Paperback, 206 pp, $10.95
Chronicle Books, 1996
Reprinted with permission
Pasta, Risotto & You (with recipes)
from Kate's Global Kitchen:
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