In Italy, a Toast to American Breakfasts

Rick Steves: On eating in Europe, and what Europeans have to say about American cooking

06.27.11 | 1:17 PM ET

French ToastiStockPhoto

People always tell me how lucky I am to be eating my way through Europe. But my appreciation of good food was slow in coming. On my first trip to Europe sans parents, I packed along a big plastic tube filled with a swirl of peanut butter and strawberry jam. Every meal I spread it on bread and washed it down with soda pop.

I’m still on the go in Europe, but I eat much better now. During my guidebook research, I get into a rhythm in the last three hours of my long day—blitzing the restaurants on my list, and then returning to my favorite place at the very end of the evening. I often sit down and let the chef/owner cook me up whatever he wants me to experience. These chefs seem to thoroughly enjoy taking off their apron, washing up, and sitting down to share a glass of wine with their last customer of the day—that’s me—eating their favorite dishes.

We usually talk about food, and the conversation sometimes shifts to what I eat back home. It can come as a surprise, but Europeans don’t always have a dim view of American cooking. After all, McDonald’s is the number one fast-food chain in Europe—the one on the Champs-Elysees is the most profitable in the world.

Over one long Italian meal, Claudia (a Roman tour guide) says she loves American food. Her favorites include the BLT sandwich and “chili soup.” She’s charmed by our breakfast culture and that we “meet for breakfast.” She says you would never see families going out for breakfast in Italy.

But she notes that in the U.S., size matters more than quality. She says that the average number of ingredients in an American restaurant salad or pasta is eight or 10, while in Italy the average salad or pasta has only four or five ingredients. And she can’t understand our heavily flavored salad dressings. “If your lettuce and tomato are good, why cover it up with a heavy dressing? We use only oil and vinegar,” she says. When I try to defend the fancy dishes as complex, she says, “Perhaps ‘jumbled’ is a better word.”

Some of my other Italian friends are less tactful. At dinner with three Tuscan friends—Manfredo, Roberto, and Ilaria—I listen to a sharp critique. “I think American pioneers did not know to make a good salami or prosciutto so they could not preserve their meat properly,” Manfredo says. “This is why you have the barbecue sauce: to hide this taste of rotting meat.”

“Is there no barbecue sauce in Italy?” I ask.

“No,” says Manfredo, “but I like very much to make Buffalo wings. Could you kindly send me a package of Frank’s Original Red Hot Cayenne Pepper Sauce when you return home?”

We all laugh, and then Roberto adds, “I think, in America, a restaurant is looking not for what is good food. What is good is what sells. Real lasagna is only this thick,” he says, sticking his knife through two steamy inches of lasagna on the plate in front of him. “In the United States they make it twice this thick”—flipping another serving on top—“and they fill it with mozzarella. There is no mozzarella in lasagna!” The others cluck in agreement.

Roberto continues, “If you go to an American restaurant and say the food is bad, you get a coupon for a free meal. More bad food. If you say the food is bad in a restaurant in Italy, you get kicked out. To get free food here, it is vice versa—you say, ‘This is the best beefsteak I’ve ever eaten.’ Chef will then say, ‘You must try the dessert.’ You say, ‘Oh no.’ He says, ‘Here. Please. Take it for free.’”

“In a real Italian restaurant when you complain, the chef will tell you, ‘I cooked this as a boy the way my grandmother cooked this,’” Manfredo says. “It cannot be wrong.”

“In the United States, what is right is what sells.” Roberto jumps in. “And the computer tells you what food on the menu makes good business. In America, you eat first with your eyes and second with your mouth.”

Raising my glass of wine I offer a toast to Italian food. “To la cucina Italiana.”

Manfredo follows that, saying magnanimously, “To bacon and eggs.” We all agree that American breakfasts are unbeatable.

“Omelets, hash browns,” Roberto reminisces. “On my last visit to New York, I gained four kilos in three weeks.”

Raising our glasses, we make another toast. “To American breakfasts.”

Rick Steves

Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. He is the author of Travel as a Political Act.

12 Comments for In Italy, a Toast to American Breakfasts

Mary Arulanantham 06.27.11 | 6:04 PM ET

Barbeque sauce to hide rotting meat ? That’s just ignorant. People say the same thing about spicy Indian food, as well.  However, Americans can certainly learn a lot from their European friends about the importance of good ingredients, simplicity, and portion control. Just don’t dis the bbq.

Meg 07.03.11 | 12:14 AM ET

Manfredo is showing his ignorance about American history.  The pioneers didn’t know about salami because they lived in the middle of nowhere.  The ate what they hunted or fished.  There were little to no spices around, except maybe salt or pepper.  These hearty people had to eke out a living in a harsh environment.  Cooking gourmet food was the last thing on their minds.

A Lady in London 07.07.11 | 12:27 PM ET

Great post! One of my favorite parts of traveling in Europe is eating, and as an American I can relate to the “eat first with your eyes and second with your mouth” comment. It’s true far too often!

liz 07.07.11 | 1:10 PM ET

ha I enjoyed reading this post! I lived and studied abroad in Italy for a year and the biggest change I had to acclimate to was food. After awhile I got used to it and would take that over American food any day. However, I do love our big breakfasts here.

After missing a few trains, a festival going on and overbooked hotels, we had (or got) to stay in a very upscale hotel. I was a college student staying in cheap hostels, but there were absolutely no other rooms left, so we used our “emergency fund” for one night in this hotel. It felt like a palace to us. The bathroom and shower were so nice we showered just to shower there. The next morning we woke up and it was the best breakfast I have ever seen or tasted. Bacon, eggs, waffles, pancakes, syrup, they had peanut butter I could put on my pancakes. It was not Italian by any means, but it was breakfast I will never forget!


riitaa 07.19.11 | 1:12 AM ET

amazing story I love Italian cusine.

Mike 07.19.11 | 3:34 PM ET

Yes North American breakfasts are great and chicken wings too. Other than that, Italy is second to none for food minus the small exceptions like an Argentine Parilla or Ace Bakery baguette and cheddar cheese. I’m getting hungry.
I do love the pride Italians have in their food though. Simple, fresh and delicious.

Deborah-Eve 07.25.11 | 1:19 AM ET

Great stories and a good reminder that everything (even food) is relative to its situation and context.  That’s what makes travel such a wonder and EXPERIENCE!  My concern with American food is that often the numerous ingredients are things that I can’t recognize or pronounce!  So, in that case fresh and simple is appealing.  One of my first tastes of American food was defined by a tuna salad sandwich on squishy white bread—very pale and minus any vegetables that I could identify!  When I’m reminded of that experience, I’m going to remember the breakfasts!

Mangale 08.05.11 | 1:59 AM ET

There is no mozarella in lasagna and there is no oregano on pizza - unless you live here in New Zealand where loads of old bitter past it’s due date oregano strewn onto the pizza is a sine qua non ...

Sara C. 08.15.11 | 3:29 PM ET

I think the problem is that what most people think of as “barbecue sauce” is the thick sweet type full of high fructose corn syrup and thickening agents that has become popular in McCuisine.  If you taste the vinegar-based sauces from the Carolinas and Appalachia, or even the authentic molasses-oriented ones from Texas, the concept becomes a little more clear.

Also, the pioneers didn’t have salami or prosciutto because they didn’t want “those sorts of people” (Italians, Greeks, Slavs, Spaniards, Portuguese) living in their towns.  There’s a reason New Orleans, Chicago, and New York are the centers of American Cuisine while Minnesota, Montana, and Nebraska are culinary wastelands.  The former welcomed “ethnic” immigration while the latter did not.

Meg 08.15.11 | 3:46 PM ET

Sara C. - Just to clarify here, I’m referring to the early covered wagon pioneers that tamed the West.  The Italians, Greeks, Slavs did not immigrate to the U.S. until much later.  The Midwest was founded by mostly German, Nordic and Northern Europeans.  It had nothing to do with not wanting certain “ethnic whites” around.  Chuck wagon food was coarse, hearty and bland.  The pioneers were mostly farmers and ranchers.  These people lived a tough life in a harsh environment.  Culinary pursuits were not a high priority.  It was survival mode - coping with bad weather, crops that went sour and fights with Native Americans.

Jennifer 08.15.11 | 11:42 PM ET

Terrific read. Last month I took my kids to Italy for the first time, and it was a delight to watch them adjust their expectations. yeah, yeah, one of the first things we did when we got home to the US was have a gigantic brunch, but while we were there, they loved the fig and prosciutto pizza, the pistachio gelato, etc etc.

Davis 08.25.11 | 6:47 PM ET

I spent a couple of months in Rome.  I rented a furnish apartment, thinking I would cook, but what fool cooks for himself in Italy?  There was a nice little restaurant nearby where I had a solid breakfast and then often nothing of any substance until evening, and sometimes, when I was tired, I would just have a bite of something and go to bed without a proper supper.  I kept bread and wine, dry salami and cheese in my apartment to nibble on in the evening if I was too tired to go out for supper, and I was never hungry. I lose weight when I travel and come home tanned and healthy.  Italy is one of the world’s nice places.

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