Pasta, wine, cheese: Is it possible to eat like an Italian and stay healthy?

Ask an American to think of Italian food, and visions of fettuccini drowning in heavy cream will dance in their head.

But ask a Roman the same question, and the answer will not only differ, but it will vary with the seasons. Depending on the time of year, they’ll picture fat, imperfect tomatoes; jagged-leaf Romanesco artichokes; or purple-skinned, fresh bulbs of garlic.

Though both cultures share a love of food and a common flavor palate, the difference in those answers underscores a serious disparity: Italy is considered a very healthy country (it’s not all pasta and heavy sauce, as stereotypes would have us believe), and according to the World Health Organization, it has the sixth-highest life expectancy in the world. The United States, on the other hand, takes the 31st spot. In short, Italy is doing something very right.

Artwork by Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Lifestyle
Artwork by Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Lifestyle

“I believe Italians have high life expectancy because of common sense,” says Count Giovanni Bonmartini Fini, a well-known Roman local and historic family winemaker recognized for producing high-quality, authentic pinot grigio, and importing it stateside. “Sayings such as ‘Eat local, fresh food’ or ‘Drink quality wine’ have existed for years and have conditioned Italians to live a healthy lifestyle, well before technology and medicine proved these sayings to be healthy.”

Bonmartini Fini was grocery shopping for a dinner party he’s hosting at his Roman apartment that night. In the small commune of Nemi, he chooses paper cartons of fragrant fragoline di bosco (wild strawberries). Everything he selects for his menu is quite literally — and not unpleasantly — stinking fresh. “Romans care very much where food and wine comes from. We shop daily at small, open-air markets and buy from trusted food stands for the freshness and seasonality.”

Photos by Nicole Trilivas; artwork by Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Lifestyle
Photos by Nicole Trilivas; artwork by Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Lifestyle

Bonmartini Fini — like other Italian consumers — is happy to pay more for the privilege of this almost-obsolete method of shopping with nature’s calendar. According to Euromonitor International, the advantages outweigh the cost premium: “In outdoor markets, greengrocers, butchers, fishmongers and organic food specialists, consumers benefited from higher quality, greater authenticity, more diversity and conviviality, all the things that are more limited in modern grocery retailers.”

That same evening, Bonmartini Fini cooks his market haul in real Roman fashion — in other words, he doesn’t mess with it. “If you see these huge beautiful red tomatoes that are bulging at the sides that someone grew in their own backyard … all you have to do put a touch of olive oil, a touch of salt, and maybe a couple leaves of basil. That doesn’t need anything else. That is perfection.”

All of his many dishes are simple but elegant, and almost always crafted with a mere handful of unprocessed, whole foods. What we call the brain-healthy Mediterranean diet, Bonmartini Fini calls a commonsense way of life.

Photos by Nicole Trilivas
Photos by Nicole Trilivas

For example, a favorite meal is a low-calorie dish of pasta and tuna, where cold-pressed olive oil is heated in a pan with garlic and dried red pepper until the garlic takes on the slightest tinge of color. Meanwhile, pasta is added to boiling, salted water and cooked until al dente, which is actually healthier, as it results in a lower glycemic index. A tin of tuna — oil and all — is flaked into the pan along with a crisp white wine, like Barone Fini Pinot Grigio, Bonmartini Fini’s family wine brand. Once the wine is cooked down, the pasta is added to the pan to finish. The final plate is high in freshness and low in calories.

Unlike in American, the pasta isn’t over-served. Instead, the serving is close to the size of a fist, because it’s the primo (or starter), not the main course (secondo), which is usually meat or fish, followed by fresh salad (insalata) and green vegetables. It might include a tangle of foraged dandelion greens, called cicoria selvatica, that Bonmartini Fini sautés, to mellow the bitter bite. It’s an inherently healthier meal structure and actually surprisingly low-carb. Nothing is banned or off-limits. Instead, everything is in moderation.

Including the wine.

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about Italian food without also talking about wine — a daily luxury for most Italians. “Wine is a joy of life. Most of us drink a glass or two at dinner as part of our meal, helping us to enjoy a valuable moment with our friends or family,” says Bonmartini Fini.

There have been countless studies touting the various benefits of drinking in moderation. Just as with food, potion-controlling wine makes overindulging less likely: Throughout Europe, wine is served in petite Euro glasses, unlike the giant goblets favored stateside. (Here’s looking at you, Olivia Pope.)

Also, culturally speaking, self-restraint may be simpler in Italy because to Italians, wine’s quintessential function is to play a supporting role — it’s sipped to enhance the flavor of food and rarely intended to be drunk alone.

The Bonmartini Fini family started making wine in 1497, and their pinot grigio grapes natively grow high in Northeastern Italy, 45 minutes from the Austrian border. High in the unspoiled Alpine foothills, the grape growers and hand-harvesters still hunt wild mountain goats. “Goat is a strong flavor,” says Bonmartini Fini, “especially mountain goat. So what they do is they make it into a stew, and because it’s so tough, they add lots of salt and pig fat. So you have this extremely goat-y, gamey, salty, fatty, very thick stew. And what do you think they drink with that? A nice round, big red? No. They don’t. They want acid, crispness, to cut and clean their palates. The only way you can really appreciate that flavor is when you clean it off your palate and start all over again [with each bite].”

This refreshing acidic white, Barone Fini Pinot Grigio, has a DOC designation — the highest standard of quality and authenticity awarded by the Italian government. “There’s a natural crispness, a natural minerality. It’s not manipulated to taste that way — it’s naturally occurring. It’s the same thing with the tomatoes. Nature made it,” says Bonmartini Fini. “Food is wine, and wine is food.”

Mealtime is a remarkably long-lasting affair in Italy, almost holy in its ritualistic spirit. “We have a saying, ‘You don’t grow old at the table,’” Bonmartini Fini explains, which is to say time is on pause and the only task is to take pleasure — from the food, the wine, and each other. This is practicing mindful eating in its most rudimentary configuration. Unlike in our own eating and drinking culture, alcohol and food is consumed as a means to be more present — to enhance the joys of life, rather than to escape from it.

It turns out, it’s a bit of a trick question to ask if it’s possible to eat like an Italian and be healthy. With a culinary heritage that effortlessly embraces researched-backed means of healthy eating, the more significant question seems to be, “How can we eat more like Italians?”

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