Mangia bene, ridi spesso, ama molto - eat well, laugh often, love a lot. It's a great motto for any vacation, especially one in Italy. Emphatic body language aside, one of the reasons why I found it so easy to communicate with Italians was undoubtedly because of our shared love of food. Eyes glazed over, heads nodding, big smiles taking over faces - no translation required.
It breaks my heart to only talk about five of the dishes which I'll always remember, but in the interest of brevity:
Cacio e pepe: Rome isn't associated with good food in the way that other Italian cities are, but it's the city that came up with the genius idea of cacio e pepe: homemade bucatini (a thick spaghetti like pasta, with a hollow center) tossed in ground black pepper and pecorino cheese. Roma Sparita, located in the beautiful Trastevere neighborhood, ups the ante by serving cacio e pepe in a cup fashioned out of Parmesan. This dish totally vindicated my belief that cheese by itself is nice and light, it's cream that's the stomach filling villain.
Margharita: I went straight from the train station in Naples to Da Michelle, where Julia Roberts drooled over the pizza in Eat, Pray, Love; and was rewarded by snagging prime real estate in front of the wood burning oven. Naples is known for inventing the original margharita pizza but the classic one I tried was like nothing I've eaten before or since. Imagine a thick Pakistani style naan with soupy tomato sauce making the middle completely wet - this is not something to attempt without cutlery.
Rustici: This pastry-appetizer originated in Puglia but on the day that I ate it, I wasn't looking for authenticity as much as just following the siren call that this dish sent out. It was a rainy, stormy afternoon in Amalfi and the melty smell wafting off the rustici spinaci in a bakery knocked me off my feet. I floated over to the bakery, paid for it, and was halfway through it before I realized I may want to capture something of the dish that had overthrown all my powers of reasoning. I estimate at least half a stick of butter went into making it but I'm with the French on this one - butter makes everything better.
Trofie with pesto: Pesto's believed to have originated in the Italian Riviera. Sampled at a small restaurant in Cinque Terre (I just followed the crowd), trofie is the pasta designed specifically to highlight pesto: the tight little corkscrew twists of pasta neatly trap the oily pesto in their folds. Served with fresh cheese, this meal felt like hearty, rustic perfection.
Ribollita & Pappa al Pomodoro: 'Soup' is a very loose definition for the dishes I wolfed down in Tuscany. The ribollita ('reboiled') is a thick medley of leftover bread, cannellini beans, and vegetables, said to have originated from servants gathering up the remains of feudal banquets and boiling them up for their own meals. Pappa al pomodoro is a tomato soup which is, again, more bread than either tomato or soup. No neat croutons here either, it's filled with hearty pieces of soppy bread soaking up the juices from the tomato. Suffice to say there was no need for a big main course. Special props to Ristorante Oltre il Giardino in Panzano for the phenomenal views over Tuscany which inspired me to have the longest meal I've ever eaten.
Special mentions for oooh-inspiring food moments also go to Pizzeria da Felice in Lucca for their cecina, a chickpea-flour based disc that reminded me of adais (right); a small bakery in Pisa for the tramezzino that made me, finally, acknowledge that olive oil could actually enhance a dish rather than just be decoration; and the freshly-baked focaccia at It Massimo della Focaccia in Monterosso which reinforced my belief that the early bird gets the best breakfast.
Have I mentioned I'm a vegetarian? It doesn't often come up in conversation because I don't think anyone's dietary choices define them, and it definitely doesn't limit my sampling local dishes wherever I travel. If you're the kind that also plans their sightseeing schedule around food (don't knock it, they say you only truly understand a culture by sampling their cuisine), then my notes for authentic vegetarian specialties in each of the cities I visited are here.