When one thinks of Italian cuisine, images of creamy gelato, soft pasta covered in aromatic basil-tomato sauce, and decadent tiramisu come to mind.

 As a native Italian, born and raised in Milan, I’ve had my fair share of what people perceive as “typical” Italian food. This summer, however, changed my entire perception of Italian cuisine.

Over three months, I had numerous foreign guests asking me to take them to a real gelato shop or to get the most authentic Italian pizza. I can imagine how as a foreigner it would be pretty mind-blowing to eat a food as widespread as pizza in the country of its origin. But these people wanted pizza, pasta and gelato...Every. Single. Day.

“How do Italians not get fat, eating all these carbs?” they would ask me. It wasn’t until I did some traveling myself around northern Italy that I could fully answer this question.

sauce, pasta, tomato
Marie Chantal Marauta

Over a few weeks, I scouted trattorie (taverns) in the most obscure parts of cities to taste what generations of city dwellers have been eating before me. I then drove into the remote Italian countryside in order to taste the unique dishes that artisanal Italian family cooking had to offer.

After numerous foodgasms, I came to the conclusion that Italian cuisine can be so very strange, but nonetheless delicious. Below, I’ll share a few tidbits from my experiences, as well as links to simple American recipes that best capture the essence of each dish.

(Horse Meat) Tartar

beef, meat, pork, steak, sirloin, sausage, bacon
Marie Chantal Marauta

In Verona, the city of love, I went to an old-style trattoria and ate the plate pictured above. It looks like regular beef tartar, right? Wrong. It was horse meat tartar.

As horrifying as the idea of eating horse meat sounds, it wasn’t so bad. Once I got past the salty taste and thick consistency, I appreciated the tartar’s rich flavor. Warm crostini and juicy capers helped normalize the experience, and overall it was an interesting insight into more obscure Veronese culture.

Sweet Trout

chicken, sauce
Marie Chantal Marauta

Next, I tried another typical Veronese plate: trout marinated with sweet onions and raisins. The above picture makes it look like any regular plate of fish, but looks can be deceiving. The dish was served cold, so that the contrast between the salty fish and the saccharine onions and raisins put my taste buds, let's just say, out of their comfort zone.

Raw Mushroom Salad

vegetable, cheese, dairy product, pasta, fish, sauce
Marie Chantal Marauta

On a separate day of Italian taste-testing, I tried what translates to a raw mushroom salad. The chef sliced up raw mushroom (I know, sounds icky!), mixed them with parmesan cheese shavings, and drizzled the combination with olive oil and parsley.

I’ve always been revolted by the texture and smell of raw mushrooms, so it took me a little longer to warm up to this dish. However once I got past the first few bites, I was pleasantly surprised.

Fried Zucchini Blossoms

The last dish I’ll talk about is my favorite: fried zucchini blossoms. I first tried this at a family-run restaurant in the artisanal province of Pavia. As I munched on the warm, crunchy batter to get to the soft zucchini blossom beneath, I saw stars. The batter had been fried in the right amount of oil, and the blossoms were lightly dusted with rock salt. It was the perfect dish for a fresh summer's day. 

Through my travels, I experienced a spectrum of reactions to the different foods I tried. It was a strange but wonderful experience. If you ever go to Italy, I would definitely recommend stepping away from eating stereotypical Italian foods and taking a bite out of the quirkier side of Italian cuisine.