Until college, my scope of food diversity remained very much limited to cuisines of American and Trinidadian dishes. For years, my diet consisted of foods like BBQ and fried chicken, curries, and pizza, all foods which left me less than open to trying anything new.
I got used to the bold spices in my aunt’s delicious curried goat and the honey glazed wings that I would regularly ate at my favorite restaurant, Dallas BBQ. These foods were comforting to my taste buds. So much so in fact, that I could not imagine ever parting from them.
When I decided to study abroad for a semester in Florence, Italy, I knew the decision would impact my diet. The thought of not being able to make Kraft mac & cheese terrified me. It was not enough to stop me from traveling abroad, but enough to make me consider packing a suitcase filled with my favorite foods instead of clothes.
I also thought that “safe” foods would help me cope. Once I arrived, I attempted to survive entirely on foods that I was familiar with. That included some Italian staples—pizza, bread and certain types of pasta—but not much else.
Around the area where we I was living, Via del Preconsolo, I noticed that there were a couple of pizzerias. The sight of them eased my mind about comfort food deprivation. There I could find something that reminded me of home.
All smiles, I confidently decided to dine in at one such restaurant. I placed my order for my favorite kind of pizza, pepperoni, and awaited the salty flavor that I had grown to love so well. Upon ordering, I was informed that the restaurant did not have pepperoni. How could they not have pepperoni? Pepperoni is Italian right?
As it turns out, it is not (one of many misconceptions Americans have about authentic Italian food). Peperone is actually the traditional Italian name for peppers, whereas pepperoni is the term used to describe a type of sausage. You can imagine the disappointment that smeared across my face.
The pizzeria’s equivalent to an American pepperoni pizza was their pizza alla diavola (pizza with spicy meat). It looked similar to the pepperoni slices I was used to seeing back home, but would it taste the same too?
My immediate reaction was to switch my order to a plain cheese pizza. Unfortunately, for the sake of not wanting to be any more rude or tourist-y than I already was, I could not bring myself to do it. So I came up with a game plan to pick off whatever I did not like on the pizza. Eventually, I realized that I was being a little ridiculous (just a little) and gave the foreign spicy meat a try.
Let’s just say it was not the worst thing ever, but it was different. The texture, the flavor, it was all very different and very foreign to my tongue. As if me trying the spicy meat pizza was anything to brag about.
My housemates and friends however, were not afraid to try anything. They ate anything and everything they could not pronounce on menus, indulging in authentic Italian dishes—such as lampredotto and ribollita—that I was too nervous to try.
But I knew I was cheating myself of Italian culture. Florence would be my home for the next four months, I thought to myself, how long would I be able to keep this up? Truth be told, I could not. Not because of all the weight I was gaining from the massive carb intake—that was only part of it—but because my actions deprived me from experiencing the Florence culture that I had traveled so far to immerse myself in.
I could not really understand or learn about the Italian lifestyle if I did not participate in their culture, including food culture. And food was a huge part of this.
I did not want to betray my taste buds, believe me I did not, but after trying that spicy meat pizza, my palette grew curious of other flavors the country had to offer.
Gradually, I began trying new meals. My very first was pasta di pomodoro piccante (spicy tomato pasta). It was a big deal for me since I always dreaded tomatoes. When I ordered the meal I thought spicy would be a safe bet—I had been eating spicy foods my whole life. It couldn’t be that bad, and besides, it was the only dish I was willing to try on the menu. And guess what? I was very pleased with my choice.
Before I knew it, I became an Italian food consuming machine. I indulged myself in dishes such as risotto, lasagne al forno and bolognese—which is now my favorite dish—and pesto pasta. And that’s not all to forget the delicious desserts like tiramisu and biscotti con cantuccini. I left Italy with enlightened tastebuds.
Going abroad was one of the best decisions I ever made. I’m not going to lie, it was pretty difficult adjusting in the beginning. I had stubbornly chosen to reminisce about being home and having access to my usual foods. However, once I let go of that, I became more relaxed with all the unknown that surrounded me, but more importantly, I became willing to try and make a home out of the city.
I fell in love with food all over again because of my experience in Florence. Until we meet again Italy, I’ll be savoring every food memory from my time abroad.