Living in America
My dad was born and raised in Sicily and immigrated to the Bronx when he was 17 years old. That makes me the first generation in our family to be born in America. It goes without saying that I was raised on Italian food, really good Italian food. While my dad could cook, my grandmother was a goddess in the kitchen. My parents, brothers and I would go to her house in the Bronx for the Sunday meal with our extended family. There were always lots of uncles, aunts and cousins around. We had a blast! When I wasn’t outside playing stickball on the front stoop or tussling with my cousins, I was underfoot in the kitchen with my grandmother, watching every move she made. Oh, I can still remember the wonderful aromas! And even though my grandparent’s house was in the city, they had a garden out back where they grew the yummiest zucchini, fresh figs, and even grapes that eventually ended up fermenting in their wine cellar.
Growing up in New York, I was surrounded by other Italian families, so it seemed natural to me that we were exposed to wonderful Italian food not only at home, but also in supermarkets and restaurants, even the ubiquitous corner pizzeria. Now I realize that wherever I go, there is a deep love of Italian food. As a result of my Italian heritage, I know why I love it. I always say that I have garlic and olive oil running through my veins. But I am not so sure why everyone else seems to love it, too.
What exactly is it about Italian foods that everyone loves so much? Perhaps the love affair starts with simple, fresh ingredients such as:
- Fruits & Vegetables – tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, broccoli, figs, peppers, celery, onions, escarole, fennel, romaine lettuce, radicchio, pumpkin squash, grapes, oranges, lemons, olives
- Herbs & Spices – garlic, garlic and more garlic, basil, oregano, flat leaf parsley, fennel seeds, crushed red pepper flakes, capers, balsamic and red wine vinegars
- Olive oil – in a class by itself, my dad would buy it by the gallon in a metal container
- Pastas/Breads/Grains – different shapes of pasta taste different, right? My favorites are angel hair spaghetti and ziti or penne. Crusty Italian bread topped with sesame seeds is to die for. Arborio rice for creamy risotto dishes. Lots of Italian seasoned bread crumbs for coating eggplant or veal for a parmigiana casserole dish.
- Cheeses – soft cheeses like ricotta, mozzarella, mascarpone, harder cheeses like provolone and gorgonzola, and the hard cheeses like pecorino romano and parmigiano reggiano
- Fish – anything that came from the sea was at our table. Squid, octopus, anchovies, sardines, eel, whitefish, tuna, clams, shrimp, and sole all prepared in a variety of ways from grilled to smoked.
- Meats/Poultry/Beans/Nuts & Seeds – we rarely ate red meat and when we did it was ground meat for meatballs, flank steak for braciole, sweet Italian sausage or veal. Crisply browned chicken pieces sometimes made it into a simmering tomato sauce. We loved chick peas, other beans and legumes, walnuts, almonds and pignolias (pine nuts).
My mouth is watering as I write this list. So many possibilities and so many ways to prepare, and I suspect the magic happens when the freshest ingredients are put together in simple ways that ultimately delight our taste buds.
A bonus is that eating many of these foods can protect us against heart disease. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables, nuts, beans and legumes, fish, olive oil, and whole grains with small amounts of meats and full-fat cheeses is emblematic of the Mediterranean diet. This diet is derived from countries that line the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and is mentioned in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 as constituting a healthy eating pattern.
My love affair with Italian food will, I know, be lifelong and my wish for you is the same. Mangia!
About our Nutrition Expert
Lori Kaley MS, RD, LD, MSB is a member of the Guiding Stars Scientific Advisory Panel. Lori has 30 years of combined experience working in healthcare and public health creating policies and environments to help families and children have access to healthy foods and beverages. She is currently Policy Associate at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service.
Lori’s greatest achievement and joy has been in raising her three daughters to be healthy and productive young adults, each with their own particular love of food, cooking and being physically active. Lori’s passion for nutritional community outreach has been a cornerstone of the Guiding Stars Scientific Advisory Panel. Lori regularly contributes to the Guiding Stars blog.