Angelo Pricolo muses about the nexus between food and health… and where the rules are different
When I travelled to Italy with the family pre-COVID-19 in 2019 (sounds funny…) I was aware that food was going to be a big part of the holiday.
But I didn’t know just how scientific and focused on every culinary opportunity the Italians are.
Food is analysed to achieve maximum pleasure and nutritional value on every occasion. Sometimes the rules intrude on the experience, even if there is a basis for the advice. And sometimes the recommendation seems so technical it’s hard to know if it should be taken seriously.
Like when we hunted down a renowned gelati bar in the coastal town of Cefalù in Sicily. It wasn’t that fancy-looking and there were not many flavours on offer, but the attention to detail was spectacular and we were salivating like a mob of hungry kangaroos with expectation.
The flavours were based on in-season fruit or time-honoured favourites. So you were treated to local berries, blood orange, pistachio and tiramisu ice-cream designed to tantalise the weary traveler.
Now the conflict came when we started ordering our combinations. It was vehemently prohibited to lick a cone with a milk-based ice-cream alongside a fruity gelati. Surely the jurisdiction of the scooper, even if he was the artisan, could not extend to picking my flavours?
The fear was that this combination would cause a gastric upset with the potential for milk to curdle and the stomach to be put into distress. Possibly a problem for the delicate stomach but surely not an issue for iron guts on a holiday of excesses?
Although the intentions were admirable and not in dispute, the kids wanted tutti frutti but made to feel like they would be reported to the gelati police for their preference. It came across as bordering on snobbery but the sincerity and honesty that underpinned the strong suggestion seemed to make it acceptable.
Food rules exist to guard against misadventure. To avoid the gastric upheaval that could otherwise manifest with vigorous squirts of acid and bile to compensate any unsavory attack.
There is no doubt that rosemary works well with potatoes, bacon is delicious chopped up and stir fried with Brussel sprouts and red wine is essential with fillet mignon. But for every union made in heaven there are combinations that should never occur.
So what is at the heart of this exuberant interest in your health? It is almost as if your wellbeing is taken personally and is as important as their own. How bizarre! Or maybe it is an insistence that the food, which has taken so much effort to prepare, should be enjoyed at the height of its powers, so everything needs to be tweaked up to 10.
A huge insult, especially to a Neapolitan, is to mess with the most sacred of all foods, pizza. In Napoli the original hard-core pizzeria may only serve the two original types of pizza and one of them does not have pineapple!
It’s not just the food. I learnt quickly that something as subtle as the temperature of what you ingest is also very important and can be cause for intervention. If you want a piping hot cappuccino in Italy you need to ask for it because it will be served tiepido (warm) everywhere you go. That is the rule and in a country where coffee is currency, it is not broken.
Now on the topic of coffee, Italians rarely overdo it. Not only is the temperature and quality scrutinised but so too is the number consumed per day. The standard is two to three because if you have a good thing, don’t abuse it and it will last longer. A recent study confirmed this coffee logic.
And don’t go drinking those milky coffees with or after lunch. Milk is only for kids or for breakfast (and maybe some of those fancy desserts).
Tea is a thing in Italy but is usually reserved for people suffering from some sort of gastric upset or other ailment. If you drink tea there is usually a sad reason.
If you choose water with lunch, after deciding on gas or senza-gas, you will usually be encouraged to have the water ‘not too cold’. It seems this too can trouble a delicate digestive system, which explains why ice is usually nowhere to be seen.
One afternoon after an indulgent tourist lunch in Venice we were strolling through the premier shopping strip (Prada, Gucci, Salvatore Ferragamo) when I was overwhelmed with the repercussions of that lunch. My tortellini alla panna were starting to resurface and I was dry retching and really sick.
Larissa went off with the boys to grab some water at the closest bar and I was left leaning against the most exclusive boutique in Venice, looking and feeling very woozy. Not a good look.
I caught the attention of a bunch of military muscle men; about six extraordinarily buffed and immaculately dressed servicemen who drifted over to check on my wellbeing. I assured them it was food related and that my wife was at the bar grabbing some water that I was sure would settle my stomach.
They moved away after offering to help multiple times and I went back to looking like a hobo hanging out the front the Gucci flagship store. To my surprise a few minutes later one of the uniformed officers came back to offer one more piece of advice he felt strongly about “Make sure the water your wife gets is not out of the fridge, not too cold”.
Here I am, dying in Venice, suffering and alone, and this guy who is twice as big as me, dressed in full combat uniform (including firearm and what looked like a grenade but it could have been a panino with prosciutto) is concerned the lifesaving water from the bar might be too cold and further upset my stomach.
Was this guy serious? Yes, he was.
After recovering from this embarrassing event, we decided to enrol our boys in a basketball summer camp that was being locally run. It was, as it turned out, a big affair with young basketball hopefuls attending from around Italy, coached by some tall African-Americans, daring to dream of future glory.
My boys were a bit hesitant as language was a barrier, but we encouraged it thinking it could give us a couple of free days and produce two Italian-speaking athletes! It was a short-lived aspiration.
On day one we joined the hopefuls after breakfast and were fitted with uniforms and invited to attend the morning assembly and address. It started positive with the usual pleasantries but quickly turned serious and dark.
Four young boys sharing a dormitory were observed outrageously breaking rules on the first day. We were immediately concerned that this camp may not have been a great idea (even if our boys were not doing the sleepover) and it may not be the right environment for them.
We braced ourselves as an account of the devilish behaviour was described in all its gory detail. Did they sneak into the girl’s dorm, were they smoking after dark or had they wilfully damaged property?
It seems the boys had been seen at breakfast eating sweet (in the form of jam) and savoury (in the form of mortadella) foods from the same plate in a blatant expression of uncouth anti-establishment behaviour. It was unfathomable and their punishment was severe: last to eat all meals for the remainder of the camp.
Associated with the ingestion of food and liquid, other environmental factors can also affect digestion. Italians are very conscious of gushes of air or currents, especially in doorways or through open windows. Windows and doors are made to be opened?
The expression for being caught by wind currents is “olpo d’aria” or literally being hit by air. This savage breeze has a bona fide title.
Whereas on a hot day I usually search out an angle that would encourage a cool zephyr, there is a whole nation that is convinced this will facilitate a sore neck or disturb one’s digestive processes. So the soothing effect of moving air that encourages perspiration to evaporate and core body temperature to drop is a no-no in Italy.
The last table left in a restaurant on a hot August day will be the one next to an open window or door. Perfectly positioned for this Italo-Australian tourist as I struggle to understand all the cultural rituals that make this culture unique.
Angelo Pricolo is an addiction medicine pharmacist and former National Councillor of the Pharmacy Guild of Australia.