I am an English-speaking freelance food writer based in Rome. I love writing articles on various aspects of Italian culture.
Eating Shouldn't Be Like Picking Daisies
Choosing food from an Italian menu written in a language you don't quite understand can feel like picking daisies, "Should I, or should I not?" However, to suggest caution when seated at southern Europe's magnificent and bountiful restaurant table might seem bizarre, Italy, after all, is a foodie paradise, but for those on vacation far from home, eating out can seem like a challenge.
This article will help a tourist visiting Italy sidestep some of the more unusual items that the local cuisine offers.
7 Bizarre Italian Dishes to Avoid
- Frascati wine and fraschetta
- Squid ink infused pasta (pasta con nero di seppia)
- Pork blood and chocolate sausage (sanguinaccio)
- Roasted lamb's head (capozzelli di agnello)
- Pork jelly (gelatina di maiale)
- Worm cheese (casu marzu)
- Sliced cow stomachs (trippa alla romana)
1. Frascati Wine and Fraschetta
Frascati wine should come with a labelled warning that says "caveat emptor" (translation: buyer beware). Drink more than a glass, and you'll get the feeling of having been punched in the kidneys—and nausea swiftly follows.
Today, this is modern-day Rome's favourite urine-coloured drink. It is typically consumed with a sandwich at fraschettas (which is a type of restaurant) that serves sliced pork. It is also served with porchetta (a wood-smoked pork dish) on roughly cut bread at a food festival held in the months of June to August in the high Frascati village overlooking Rome, where this evil, fermented beverage was originally concocted.
Luckily this delicious, fat-smeared pork sandwich is entirely different than its Basilicata-based cousin cazzomarro alla brace. The Roman version at least helps line your stomach against this acidic, sulphate- and preservative-filled wine that frankly doesn't pair well with anything. Rumors have long persisted that during production the wine is cut with wood chips to add colour and flavour. To avoid the risk of "sleeping with the fishes," it is best not to ask what else, apart from sour grapes, are used to produce this cheap, low-quality wine.
Heading towards the heel, knuckle, and toe of southern Italy, part of the local diet there is a peperoncino-rich meat sausage that is eye-watering and spicy, and finds its way into many pasta sauces in Calabria and Puglia.
It has a vivid red colour and strong taste. Its flavour might be comparable to Gorgonzola cheese. This semi-sausage, semi-salami paste uses roasted red peppers to blast the taste buds with heat. Plenty of rumors and cruel gossip circulate about exactly what mystery meat is used in the production of this delicacy, and none of them are good.
3. Squid Ink Pasta and Risotto (Pasta/Risotto con Nero di Seppia)
Some of the most unusual food on the entire Italian peninsula can be found floating around restaurant menus in Venice.
Note these plates are best avoided if you're hoping to impress a dinner date, as it leaves one with both a warm smile and teeth stained jet black. As mentioned, this dish is especially common in the Veneto and Tuscany regions where it lurks with an innocent-looking menu listing of pasta con nero di seppia, or the truly vile rice version: risotto al nero di seppia.
Both of the dishes have ink-filled small squid as their main ingredient. When cooked, the squid's black ink leaches out into the sauce, turning it an oily black. After a few forkfuls, its sable color will coat your lips and the inside of your mouth. Perhaps in the past you absentmindedly bit off the tip of a Bic Biro and chewed on it. Remembering that flavor will give you a very rough idea of just how strange this dish tastes.
If you are the kind of gourmet diner who likes a challenge, this dish might be it.
This off-menu item is a pork-blood sausage that is sweetened with chocolate. If the thought of mixing those ingredients doesn't make you feel squeamish, you can try this secret sweet during carnival time in Naples, as it is traditionally eaten in the city before Lent. To make it more palatable, it is sweetened with pine nuts and chopped candied fruit made from lemon and orange rinds.
People have been making it here for generations, and it is mostly fed to children in the Neapolitan heartland. Made in fresh batches in the winter months, the busy older folk or nonna (grandma), who are in on the joke, don't tell their offspring about the main ingredient. Their innocent, smiling grandchildren are filled with the warm, fuzzy feeling that one gets from eating a chocolate confectionery. But they eventually discover that it's made from swine's hemoglobin. They probably then grow up to be less trusting and slightly confused adults.
5. Roasted Lamb's Head (Capozzelli di Agnello)
This dish is basically an entire lamb's head split in two and roasted. It is made as a special dish served at Easter in Catania in the south of Italy and was probably derived from earlier Arabian-influenced cuisine brought to Italy as a result of Moorish settlers and invaders during the 11th century.
According to the Cooking With Nonna cookbook, the home chef needs to remove the eyes and tongue from the lamb's head and cook the tongue separately. Next, saw the head in half, shake breadcrumbs over the brains before pouring oil and melted butter over the head, and then cook it in a heated oven for two hours. The flakes of dried bread are added as an appetizing finishing flourish.
6. Pork Jelly (Gelatina di Maiale)
And so we come to Sicilian and Campania cuisine. It is a part of Italy that was, historically speaking, often invaded and resettled. Perhaps that is why they serve this dish to unwanted guests that they hope will leave. It is a dish that looks a lot like jellied aspic. This version, however, uses low-quality cuts of pork, including the trotters that are boiled to release their collagen from the connective tissue.
What makes this dish a challenge is that the ears and lips are easily visible, suspended in the jelly.
7. Worm Cheese (Casu Marzu)
In English, this dish means "rotten/putrid cheese," and for many years, this Sardinian food was banned on hygiene grounds but has recently found its way back onto the menu—though thankfully it is still quite rare. Its legal status is still somewhat ambiguous, but it has been given a protected status, an IGP certification called Indicazione Geografica Protetta.
If you are wondering, those are live maggots eating their way through your lunch. The little worms produce an acid that breaks down the cheese fats, making it very soft. Sealing the cheese in an airtight plastic bag causes the larvae to suffocate and drop from the cheese. However, the baby flies, if disturbed during their eating frenzy, are able to jump ten centimeters from the cheese, giving it a reputation as an aphrodisiac amongst its mainly Sardinian consumers. Food writers often advise pairing cheese with white wine. But in this instance, the safest option may be to eat a mouthful and then swallow disinfecting mouthwash and say a little prayer.
Everything you see, I owe to pasta.
— Sophia Loren, actress
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2017 Adele Barattelli