I thought I knew how to cook Italian food . . . until I went to Italy. I got the amazing opportunity to travel to Tuscany to stay at Casa Buitoni, home of Buitoni, the fresh-pasta brand you've likely seen in the refrigerated section at the grocery store. I was in good company with chefs who develop authentic recipes for the nearly 200-year-old brand (it was founded by the Buitoni family in 1827), so I think they know a thing or two about Italian food. After a week of making pasta from scratch, visiting wineries and restaurants among the rolling hills of Tuscany, and eating too many incredible meals to count made by chefs born and raised in Italy, I learned an invaluable lesson that really stuck with me and will change the way I cook for myself from now on.
Simplicity is key, and less is more.
The mentality that surrounds food in Italy is unlike everything typical about food in the US. Italians eat slowly. They savor every single bite and every single moment at the table - "family style" means more than just passing around a plate of food for everyone to try. A young woman who grew up in Italy told me her family never served a meal without setting the table, complete with a white tablecloth. And yes, of course I realize that setting up a gorgeous tablescape with a movie-worthy view is not something most people have the privilege of re-creating at home, but what we can (and should) copy is the overall idea. Eating is a time to unplug from the rest of the world and to connect with the food and the people right in front of you.
And most importantly, authentic Italian cooks let the ingredients shine. If you start with the best quality ingredients you can find, you only need a few to make an amazing dish. I'll be the first to admit that using restraint in the kitchen is not my strong suit. My favorite pasta recipes often involve a long list of ingredients (spaghetti with garlic, white wine, thyme, lemon, and more, for example), but now I realize that there is such a thing as too much, and you don't always need 20 ingredients to make the most flavorful dish.
The best thing you can do is start out with really, really good olive oil. Spend the money on that fancier bottle - it's 100 percent worth it. Because, as I learned, olive oil is just as much an ingredient as pasta or parmesan cheese. When you simply use olive oil to sauté vegetables or throw in a tablespoon to prevent your pasta from sticking before adding other ingredients, the pure flavor gets lost in translation. The rich flavor of homemade olive oil is unlike anything else, and it's truly at the heart of Italian cooking - let it be the star.
Use good salt and fresh garlic. Invest in the freshest seasonal vegetables when you can. And, most importantly, take the time to savor every single bite. I thought this pizza topped with merely tomato sauce and a thin slice of roasted garlic would be boring, but I could not have been more wrong. After one bite, I realized it embodied everything Italian food is about: freshness, simplicity, and flavor. And that's what I'm going to aim to re-create in my own home.