During my recent month-long trip to Italy, which combined a hiking tour in Cinque Terre, and a health-professionals trip that I led in Puglia, I decided to live it up like the locals and eat pasta, pizza, focaccia and cheese daily!
The reality is that I had no choice because these are the staple foods of the Italian diet, as further discussed in my book Beyond The Mediterranean Diet: European Secrets Of The Super-Healthy.
The first week was spent with my husband and our knowledgeable (and indispensable) guide Dennis Giusti Walker trekking in the coastal region of Liguria, also known as the Italian Riviera. We started in Santa Margherita and hiked from Camogli through Portofino National Park. We took a train to Levanto and walked through the five connecting villages of Cinque Terre – Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. We then continued south into the medieval fishing village of Portovenere and explored the little islands of Palmaria, Tino and Tinetto located in the province of La Spezia.
This was an active week! Each morning we stopped at various places around town to gather sustenance needed for the day – a produce stand for fruits and veggies, a bakery (focacceria, panificio, panetteria or forno) for focaccia – the staple food of the region, a bar for a shot of espresso and the town square water fountain to refill our water bottles. Our backpacks were filled with local fruits including pears, tomatoes, kakis and kiwis packed alongside freshly made focaccia tarts filled with wild chicory and fresh cheese.
Unlike other parts of Italy, locals in this region eat focaccia at breakfast, lunch, snack time and dinner. It’s part of the Ligurian lifestyle. Each city, town, village and family has its own recipe for focaccia — and for pesto and many have their own pasta shape! The village of Recco, which is near Camogli is most famous for focaccia made with Stracchino cheese inside two thin layers of dough.
Notable Foods of Liguria:
1) Trofie, twisted pasta with a tapered end is always served with local pesto sauce. The story is that servants made trofie with the leftover scraps of pasta dough from the nobles’ round shapes that were pressed with family crests.
2) Pesto sauce also called Pesto alla Genovese originated in Genoa, the capital of Liguria, Italy. It is made with freshly crushed garlic, European pine nuts, coarse salt, fresh basil leaves, Parmesan cheese or Parmigiano-Reggiano (made from cow’s milk) and pecorino cheese (made from sheep’s milk) ground together with olive oil using a mortar and pestle. Red pesto is also common, made with sundried tomatoes instead of basil.
3) Testaroli, also called testarolo, a crepe-like pancake that I discovered in La Spezia is served like pasta. It’s known to be the oldest form of pasta dating back to the Middle Ages. It’s made like a crepe using water, flour and salt and then sliced into triangular shapes. The triangular pieces are submerged into boiling water for less than a minute, drained and served with pesto sauce. This dish pairs well with a Liguria Vermentino white wine.
4) Trenette pasta, a local ribbon pasta similar to tagliatelle is served with pesto, and can also include potatoes and green beans boiled in the same water as the pasta.
5) Focaccia, an ancient, yeasted, flatbread baked in sheet pans is by far the most important food of this region. Basic focaccia dough requires only five ingredients: flour, water, olive oil, salt, and yeast. The key is making lots of dimples in the dough using your finger tips. Olive oil is then drizzled into the dimples and gets absorbed during the baking. The result is a flatbread with a crisp crust and tender interior. There are many varieties, shapes and sizes, both sweet and savory. It is sold by weight and one portion is about 100 grams.
6) Torta di Verdura (vegetable pie) is my favorite food for lunch or a snack. Like Ligurians, I love my veggies! They are prepared as large round pies filled with greens and/or assorted veggies and cheese. Veggies may include chicory, spinach, chard, artichokes, onions and more. It’s sold by weight just like focaccia.
7) Anchovies (acciughe pronounced ah-choo-geh), a small oily herring-like fish are another key staple of this region. Small-scale fishing cooperatives use traditional nets to catch the fish and artisanal products like salt-cured anchovies and anchovy paste are sold throughout the villages. Depending on the season, you’ll find anchovies in many forms and preparations from fresh in summer, to marinated, fried and salt-cured. In the town of Vernazza the most typical main course is Tegame alla Vernazzana, a baked dish of whole anchovies, potatoes, tomatoes, white wine, oil, and herbs. Anchovies are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and are considered a sustainable seafood choice.
8) Locally farmed mussels (cozze) are cultured in the Gulf of La Spezia by local aquaculture companies. The industry dates back to the end of the nineteenth century. You can see the farms from Portovenere. The mussels are served over spaghetti, alla marinara (garlic, tomato and wine sauce), stuffed with breadcrumbs and in brodo (broth).
9) Pansotti are ravioli filled with ricotta and a mixture of greens, often served with a walnut sauce (salsa di noci). This dish is healthy and satisfying.
10) Farinata, a baked chickpea flatbread made with chickpea flour, water and salt is sold alongside pizza and focaccia. It’s gluten-free, yeast-free and a good source of vegetarian protein!
11) Rabbit (coniglio alla Ligure) is raised like chicken and the typical preparation is braised with fresh herbs, wine and olive oil. Although unappealing to me, it’s on most restaurant menus.
Late October was perfect for forest grazing and foraging for chestnuts, mushrooms, strawberry tree fruit (corbezzolo), bay laurel and more. We discovered cork trees, bumped into friendly mountain goats and saw traces of wild boar (cinghiale). Signs read to be quiet for bird hunters hiding in their stands on the lookout for wood pigeons.
The next part of the trip was spent in southern Italy, in the region of Puglia, known as the birthplace of pasta. Locally grown foods, seafood, wheat, fresh dairy, olive oil and wine make this coastal region the ideal place to go Beyond the Mediterranean Diet. That’s why I chose this location to co-lead a cultural and culinary tour for nutrition and health professionals, foodies and friends who want to have a hands-on Italian Mediterranean experience like none other in the world! If you like to travel and want to learn about pasta-making, bread-making, olive-oil harvesting and more from renowned experts of the region, join Southern Visions Travel and me in Puglia, Italy this fall 2017. This trip offers over 25 continuing education credits from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. For further information and details visit: www.WorldRD.com/travel.
If you maintain an active and healthy lifestyle and eat a well-balanced diet that includes a variety of fresh vegetables and fruits, you too can eat like an Italian and never give up pizza, pasta and cheese. Keep in mind that quantity and quality of ingredients matter. How you choose and cook your ingredients also matters. If you have celiac disease or have been diagnosed with other chronic illnesses, please seek the advice of a registered dietitian before embarking on a different way of eating. To learn more about the dietary secrets of the Italians (and other countries with the best health stats in Europe), pick up a copy of my award-winning lifestyle and cookbook Beyond The Mediterranean Diet: European Secrets Of The Super-Healthy, available for purchase on Amazon or BarnesandNoble.com.