Italian food conjures up romantic notions of spaghetti fairytales, pizzas by a piazza and stuffing your lover with cream filled cannoli.
However, there is a side to Italian cuisine that is centered around traditions and cultural tastes which are engrained in the very psyche of the nation. These dishes evoke childlike fervour and memories of Nonna's huddled around pots. When you are fed something as a child, repeatedly, it becomes part of your palate-memory, somethign that provides comfort, albeit subjectively. In all my years living in Norway, I've never heard a tourist gasp with compliments after eating Raspeballer or Lapskaus, yet most Norwegians will feel a comforting embrace when tucking in. Similarly most Europeans have their nightmarish dishes that any outsiders would rather choose death over attempting.
In Italy, the one thing that struck me no matter where I went was their fornicatory need for tripe. I'll put my hands up immediately and say I despise all things innardly, that even goes for liver. For the life of me I've tried to eat it, but every time I do it arrests me with vicious metallic attack. The vulgar iron taste just brutalises any nuance of goodness in the sauce or accompaniments rendering me slain.
Though I tend to forego these challenges in my native lands, I do seek them out whilst travelling on the odd (impossible) chance that perhaps one will change my mind (never happening). In my quest for parity in my culinary olympics I followed a dear friend to his much raved about beef noodle soup place in Ari, Bangkok. A tiny, humble, local shop rammed with people rabidly attacking their bowls. We ordered, I sipped, and slurped and then made the fatal mistake of biting into what I thought was beef, but it was liver. Immediately the meal was ruined. That awful medicinal taste of sucking on a copper pipe permeated through my entire being. I rudely left the rest of the bowl. My friend was crestfallen.
Another occasion, wrapped in the comfort of conversation, in a tiny alleyway in Hong Kong a plate appeared resembling a typical stir-fry. Without inspecting it any further, the first chopstick entered the mouth and my body began to convulse. Some form of internal dissection from unknown origins was now roaming around in my mouth trying to find rest, but I could not decide which direction to propel it. Spitting it out would cause offence to the guests who had invited me, swallowing it and then emptying myself beside the table in dramatic waves of grunting would insult the chef. I sat bolt upright, panic stricken and praying for death, until I noticed the large red napkin under my spoon. I quickly lifted it to my mouth, feigning a wipe, and aformentioned particles were transitioned to new burial grounds.
Having now spent 3 months in Italy during an escape from Norwegian torment (winter), I have on numerous occasions tried local specialities, mostly to utter triumphs, but sometimes to trecherous infamy. I feel in the act of balance, of ying and yang, we must include the debacles as well as the summits.
Here below are the times when food became an enemy and not a comrade.
Pani Ca Meusa - Palermo
Quite possibly the entrails of some satanic being that transmogrified into human form and was immediately slaughtered for fear of mass-iniquity, this veal lung and spleen sandwich was tantamount to assault. The line of locals was dizzying. I waited shy of half an hour to order having no clue what it was, just that (according to my Airbnb host) it was one of those "must eat" things in Palermo, and I couldn't leave the city without having one. I verifiably took one for the team, on behalf of all those sinners, I took one in my faux-saviour seance.
Finding a bench by the port, opening the sandwich, terror struck me in undulating waves. I spotted that this was in fact not clean, rich, luxurious shavings of tender beef stuffed in a fluffy bun. This was something occult. Something depraved.
Making the mistake of biting in, I immediately dry heaved. No matter how many time's as a kid I was told to swallow what's in my mouth (not a dig at Catholic School), I simply couldn't. My weakness and frailty shone through my mute exterior and I spat the catastrophically disgusting bite back into the paper, rolled it into a ball of forgetfullness and cast it -forever damned- into the nearest receptacle and strode away not looking back for fear of panic attacks.
Me Cumpari TuriDdu - Catania
Vomit knows no boundaries and the Michelin Guide are not exempt from blame. Dining on a whim at having spotted the Michelin badges proudly displayed by the entrance, I took it upon myself to find a sheltered seat by the road, order the recommended pasta dish for lunch, before rushing to the station and catching my train to Palermo.
A cheery waitress brought out a tray of small bits and pieces to stave off the most severe hunger pangs. I waited in a sun spot as the pelligrino water quelled the ravages of sight-seeing, and the slow hum of traffic soothed my ears. Proudly demonstrating the craft of a well-trained chef, my server planted the bowl infront of me and laughably said "Enjoy". Could she have known how those words would pierce my very soul in moments of distress?
Enjoy! Enjoy what? I'll conceede the Italians cook pasta 3 minutes shorter than the rest of us, and it does take a bit of getting used to, but that was not the problem here. Tho the spagetti was as taut as a tight-rope walkers rope, there was no getting around the abundance of anchovies. Whilst I love seafood in all it's incarnations, and swoon over a well made sea urchin pasta, this was when fish becomes funk.
I was instantly battered with memories (nightmares) of that Asam Laksa in Penang that sent Anthony Bourdain into whelps of ecstacy, and me looking for a spittoon under my table with which to disperse my remnants. The line between something tasting of fish or tasting fishy is one I do not cross. If anything tastes like it was caught three months ago, left on a rock to ferment in the sun, rained on by passing parasites, then i'm afraid it is lost to me. This sent electric bolts of queasiness shotgunning through my nervous system. I smiled to the waiter in passing, and swallowed like a champion whilst praying to the ether to clothe me in forgetting.
Paying the bill felt like a parking ticket. I tipped generously out of sheer panic, and walked to the train station carrying not only my luggage, but my broken soul dragging behind on a trolley of scales and fish guts.
Malaika Grill Point - Napoli
I flush with brilliant lust whenever someone mentions Indian or Pakistani food. The very core of my existance becomes a moody river flowing beneath bowing trees and birdsong. Having visited my local Pakistani shop in Napoli for over a week to stock up on Aqua Frizzante and questionable night-snacks, my shopkeeper offered to invite me and a friend for breakfast the next day, his treat. We glady accepted, as he mentioned the words "Pakistani", "Home-cooking" and, strangely enough, "Pie".
More curious than anything else, we set the alarm for 9 a.m., crossed the road, entered the shop and saw him immediately beam at us, usher us out, pull down the shutters and lock up. We then followed him through a maze of side-streets behind the Statione Garibaldi, and ended up at a tiny hole-in-the-wall where they set up a chair and table in the street for us. Minutes later, plates of food were delivered and we were motioned to tuck in.
Before us, at 9.15 in the morning, was a bowl of fat. No, that is not a typo, it was fat. Beef fat (minus any meat) floating in a soup that was just water and rendered fat with barely any spices or herbs, and a huge flabby piece floating around like a terrorist iceberg. I'll admit, i've eaten some strange things for breakfast in my life, but this takes the fucking cake. A nan was thankfully added to the side of the plate, so we had SOME substance with which to try and diffuse the gaggingly rancid taste of animal insulation. One bite and your entire mouth was coated in a thick layer. Your teeth, tongue, cheeks all painted with a brush of direct curses. Being polite and not wanting to hurt the feelings of our generous host, we were forced to scoop spoon after spoonful of this putrid concoction and swallow it trying to hide the most violent shivers when it went down.
I managed to eat a 1/3rd before I began to see visions of the grave. I tried to put down the spoon to which our host shouted "No, eat all, it is best Nr 1". I made up some roaming lie about having already eaten and picked at the nan like a crow pecking at loss.
We thanked him graciously for the immense generosity, turned, walked around the corner and wept long and silent as the memory of what had passed was deleted.
Nerbone - Florence
Caught once more in the fretted nets of offal, no visit to Florence is complete without a tripe sandwich at Nerbone, or so they claim. A line stretching 50m around the corner was joined, and slowly inched forwards like soldiers towards a guillotine. I had no idea of what lay in my future. No tarot reader could have foreseen this purgatory.
Finally approaching the ordering window, sandwiches bought, wrapped in plastic, out towards the sun, standing in a corner in expectant revery, then opening the wrapper and being hit with the whiff of satanic discharge, the rumpled bits of offal and intestines falling out of the bread like little refugees of demonic light.
Foolishly I thought the green salsa would assuage some of the funk, but it did not. Again, one small bite for mankind, one giant leap into the void for humanity. The reckless optimism that colours my adventure was painted over in Mick Jagger blacks and tossed into the deepening hole of regret.
Never again shall I believe in the words of humans who enjoy eating this type of sacrifice. There is a point to be made for using the whole animal if one chooses to kill one, but based on the taste of this sandwich, let that animal live instead.
Antica Capri - Napoli
We shall end on a gentler note so that the culinary alumni won't shatter me with disaproving looks or murder me on twitter. The last entry was more of a "local taste, personal preference" than anything else. Tucked up in a small lane in Quartieri Spagnoli is the furiously popular Antica Capri. I had made it a point to visit on many occasion, but always been turned away at the door due to capacity issues. This time I went just after opening and found myself the passenger of my very own table in the adjoining courtyard.
I dispensed with nonsensicles and asked the waiter what the specialities were. He suggested I tried the baked mussels for starter and the seafood pasta for main. I didn't object.
Seated there with the din of scooters flying by like the drivers were on fire, the mussels came out first and ate chalky, soggy and flat. I imagined they tasted similar to what a crab eats when he eats a mussel on a beach and gets pelted with a mouthful of wet sand. I picked at them in desperation since the waiters balloon would burst if he saw I had barely made a dent. I managed to conceal the not-eaten one's with some shells to create a convincing forgery of enjoyment. He whisked the plate away and came back with the "piece de resistance", brandishing a knife and cutting out the dough crown with simple joys.
Yet again, the whiff of socks that a dried shrimp has worn all day at the factory hit me like cyanide. I covered my nose and ate, trying to separate the pong from the produce. It was futile. The penetrating scent of fishy tang just clouded every shot of enjoying this meal based on its merits. I'll go as far as saying it didn't taste as bad as it smelt, but the difference was marginal. Not only was the fish extremely fishy, but they had mixed fagioli with the rice, a marriage I consider anulling. A pasty, rich, earthy bean does little to impart vigour or excitement in a dish laden with rice and heathen fish-death
As the dance of night played out in scooter beeps and random shouts from balconies, I tried my best to politely finish at least half, then made walls of shell and hid the remaining rice with a deftly placed spoon. I paid the bill inside the restaurant so that at least by the time the waiter collected the "empty" plate, I would be long gone, breaking in my new shoes on the cobble stone streets of Quartieri Spagnoli, off to hunt down a second dinner to try and conceal the barbaries of ill-decisions.
These recommendations are just personal opinions based on my palate, things change, chefs get fired or replaced, places open-close, relocate, so take it all with a pinch of MSG and discover your own gems too. But please do try a few of these, they have been researched exhaustively.
"Sadness is tempered by umami, grief by the motion of slurping, hope restored in the ladling of glistening, fatty broth"
CITIES / Places