I hate pasta. I can’t put it any other way – sorry.
Everyone here literally lives on it. Most Umbrian families think nothing of eating it twice a day and it’s the set menu for all the restaurants. If you are like me, you are used to going into a restaurant and having a choice of what you fancy eating – ploughman’s, steak and kidney pie, fish and chips, mixed grill, lemon sole etc. Here it’s the same menu in every restaurant – antipasta (an assortment of cold and slimy salami, hard, full fat cheese and inedible bread).
After the antipasta comes the pasta – I suppose that’s logical when you think about it. You can usually choose from the full range of pasta but, and this is what I don’t get, they all taste the same anyway. I suppose the only exception is the ravioli which has the option of coming with spinach stuffed inside it. Popeye, I ain’t.
Just to make the pasta ‘interesting’, you get to choose whether you want mushrooms, full-fat cheese, tomato sauce or truffles mixed with it. Wow, what a selection. By the way, the pasta is always overcooked, oversalted (which, I suppose, goes some way to making up for their bread which has no salt in it) and coated with olive oil.
If you managed to struggle through that high-cholesterol dish (which you can augment by pouring over Parmesan), it’s the turn of the meat. Meat in Umbria is generally good – as it should be when you consider that the countryside around here is very verdant and the animals are well-fed on natural products. Unfortunately by the time it has been handled by the butcher and your chef any bones will have been reduced to splinters. On top of that, the chef will insist on coating it with a layer of salt and then cremating it on an open fire. It has crossed my mind that this might be some kind of religious ceremony.
The other thing about the meat course is that meat generally is quite reasonably priced yet this half-burnt offering in front of you will probably cost more than the rest of the meal.
Of course you can always have a salad. I nearly said ‘with it’ but the Italians find it weird to eat anything with their meat although if you persevere they will shake their heads and bring you a bowl of salad to eat with the meat. NB salad is lettuce OR rocket OR tomatoes. It is not a mixture of legumes and fruits that we are used to. Of course, you can always douse it in some more olive oil!
Having finished the meat course, you move on to the sweet which is always Tiramisu which means ‘pick me up’. The only logic in the name is because Tiramisu is a concentrated source of caffeine. When you consider that Italy is the home of ice-cream, why do we always have to have this dark, bitter spongy cake? Some restaurants offer ‘English Custard’ (which is actually the ‘Creme’ part of Creme Caramel) or lemon sorbet but often as not, the only option will be ‘Tiramisu’.
After that you get this strange apology for coffee that the Italians drink. For starters they are afraid of anything hot so all ‘hot’ drinks are actually tepid. Secondly coffee to them is somewhat less than a mouthful of highly-concentrate caffeine with loads of sugar mixed in. No mug of coffee to sit back with in an Italian restaurant.
Finally you might have a glass of the stomach-wrenching drink they call ‘Grappa’ which has much the same delicate effect on one’s guts as methylated spirits. Perhaps the idea is that you have a couple of glasses of that and then you become oblivious to how bad the meal was – not that your average Italian would ever complain or send a dish back (I remember how shocked a chef was when I returned a burnt but raw pork chop).
You then pay your 20 to 25 Euros per head and contemplate what other restaurants you can try – not that you will get any different. It’s always the same menu, the same opening hours, the same closing day etc etc.
When I went to Russia just after the collapse of communism, the food was disgusting but I knew that there were no better ingredients available – the chef was doing his best with what was available. In Umbria, there is as good a selection of quality produce available as you could wish to find anywhere – it’s just that the Italians either export it or ruin it.
Read more about my worst meal.