After decades of Italo-American bastardization of southern Italian cooking, Americans view Italian food as loads of cheese smothered in tomato sauce – even better if it’s fried!
Italian food is so much more than that, but it’s true that Italian food isn’t known for being light. Even the non-fried dishes tend to be either heavy on meat or heavy on carbs. Pasta, risotto, an entire pig’s leg (stinco, in Italian), the food is delicious – and filling! Way too filling for the 90 degree weather that characterizes August in Italy.
Just as Americans don’t only eat hamburgers and hot dogs (though there’s nothing like a good summer cookout), Italians don’t just eat enormous dishes of pasta smothered in a meat sauce. In fact, the simple summer fare served here in Italy is some of my favorite Italian foods. Made with just a few key ingredients, the food must be light, in season and above all, fresh.
So if you’re traveling to Italy during the summer by all means, order some of the delicious classics! Then, when you need to give your digestive system a break or if it’s just too hot to gorge, try these Italian summer meals instead:
This classic tomato, mozzarella and basil “salad” is at its height in summer, when the mozzarella is cool, the basilico natural and the tomatoes actually have a taste. This is the simplest dish to make that also happens to be beautiful. Just be sure to use high-quality ingredients (including the olive oil sprinkled on top), the dish’s simplicity doesn’t hide any flavours – or lack thereof!
Pasta fredda, or cold pasta, is Italian’s version of America’s pasta salad. Not just any pasta dish can be eaten cold, however. Cold pasta doesn’t lend itself to elaborate sauces. Instead, keep it simple with olive oil or with fresh cheeses like ricotta or mozzarella. Easiest way to do this? Take the classic caprese salad and add pasta. Voilà, pasta alla Checca!
Riso freddo is just like pasta fredda, but with more of a “throw in the kitchen sink” approach. The rice is just a vehicle to hold the myriad of other ingredients diced into the dish. Each Italian mamma has her own method, but I’ve seen various mixes of peas, fava beans, slices of hot dog, corn, olives, carrots, tuna and hard-boiled eggs in riso freddo. The trick with both cold pasta and cold rice is to not add the other ingredients until the pasta or rice is completely cool. Then, just add olive oil and a healthy serving of salt!
Prosciutto and melone
Marco and I live on prosciutto and melone in the summer. There’s little better than a fresh summer cantaloupe, except maybe when you add salty prosciutto on top. It requires no cooking, no heat in any form. Just chop up the cantaloupe and serve it with fresh, high-quality prosciutto crudo. I usually add some bread or fresh foccaccia as well for a delicious meal that requires no work whatsoever. You can find this on most summer menus throughout Italy, most likely in the appetizer section, though cafes will serve it for lunch as well.
Beyond the popular prosciutto and melone are simply good Italian cold cuts. Known as affettati, on a menu these might be listed as salumi. The Mediterranean heat takes away appetites. No huge steaks or pork-heavy dishes here, but some fresh affettati are always welcomed. Order a tagliere, or cutting board, of different slice meats to get a wide taste. Local cheeses on the side is the perfect combination.
Fresh summer sandwiches
Speaking of sliced meats, you can also simply eat them in their most classic form: in a sandwich. Not seen as a dinner food, an Italian panino is still a great lunch option for a hot summer day. No melted cheese here, in the summer you’ll go for lighter fare: lettuce, tomato, mozzarella or even without any cheese at all. My favorite is tomato, mozzarella and pesto panino. Often called a panino Genovese, acknowledging the city’s claim to pesto fame, its ingredients are as fresh as they get in summer.
Treccia di Mozzarella
A treccia di mozzarella is a huge “braid” of mozzarella. This might not seem like a meal, but it’s fresh, light and delicious. As always, add olive oil and a bit of salt. Marco’s mother fed the entire family with enormous treccie di mozzarella for summer lunches when it was just too hot to turn on the stove and they all grew up quite happy and well fed! Look for it in a local butcher shop or market – it’s not fancy enough for restaurant menus.
Polpo e patate and other seafood
Polpo e patate is a “salad” of octopus and potatoes. Usually served cold, this meal is best eaten on the coast, though good dishes can be found throughout Italy. Before you turn your nose up at the idea of eating octopus, consider how delicious it is. Small bright purple bites of octopus are decorated with high-quality olive oil, parsley and bits of boiled potato to balance it out. It’s a classic Italian coastal food. Fresh and light enough for a summer day. If the octopus is too much, turn to any of Italy’s other amazing seafood dishes. Even if its served hot, the meal won’t weigh you down under the sun.
Granita and gelato
And finally, you can top off any meal in Italy with a delicious artisinal gelato or a fresh Italian granita. Originally from the south of Italy, you can find granita everywhere nowadays. The authentic version of Italian ice, this icy drink is usually made with a fruit flavor and is extremely refreshing.