Tuscan Foodie in Chicago

DSC_2666Being a Tuscan abroad guarantees you one thing: people will want to know why on earth you left Tuscany. I have had this same reaction since I left 13 years ago, first headed to Brussels and then to Chicago, with a lot of additional travel in between. The strongest reaction I ever had was in Japan: talking to a local girl, I mentioned I was from Tuscany, and she started to cry, with big tears in her eyes. Seriously. The discussion invariably then focuses on food: how can I survive “outside”, if I was born and raised in Tuscany? The answer for me was pretty simple: if you love food and you keep your mind open to the culinary culture you live in, you are bound to discover some real food treasures that can change your life.

Tuscan Food Abroad

I always thought that trying to eat Italian - or Tuscan - while abroad is a big mistake. The restaurants that are really worth the “Tuscan” or the “Italian” name are few. In Brussels I don’t recall EVER having eaten at an Italian restaurant that did not annoy me for the use of ingredients which did not belong: cream in carbonara sauce, cinnamon (CINNAMON!) in tomato sauces, ananas on an Italian (!) pizza. Against all odds, I am having better luck in Chicago, where I have stumbled upon a couple of Italian restaurants that know what they are doing. Actually, let me go even further: Chicago is a paradise for foodies, and US food, in all its variations, is growing on me. I understand that for many Italians this will be counter intuitive, but I have rarely met people with so much respect for good food and authentic recipes as in Chicago. Next to the food chains that the US is mostly known for, some of the best chefs are here. Since I moved here, I have had some of the best meals in my life. And some of the steaks here can rival the Fiorentina, and probably win. Had I not kept my mind open, I would still be complaining because I cannot find real Tuscan bread anywhere... I have always tried to discover the local food gems of the places I was living in or visiting. When I moved to Brussels I was helped in my food Odyssey by the Flemish girl who would have then become my wife. We had a bit of a cultural clash at the beginning: her concept of a light meal for someone with an upset stomach was chicken in a cream-cheese sauce, with potatoes fried in butter. Really? But when she convinced me to try foie gras with onion chutney and toasted brioche, I understood that I would have been a happy camper inBelgium, as long as I embraced Belgian food and remember that I was not in Tuscany any longer.

Pizza in Japan and in Chicago?

Even when I face local dish that on paper sound very unappetizing to the ears of a Tuscan boy, I press ahead, and try it. I remember the first time in Japan someone brought to the table an Okonomiyaki. oko Japanese sometimes dub it Japanese pizza, although it is a sort of a pancake with eggs, meat, cabbage, seafood. And it moves. Literally. They put fish skin on top so light it moves because of the heat coming off the pancake. But when you don’t know it, you just think that that stuff is alive. Again, most Tuscans would not go anywhere near that thing, but I like living dangerously, and I ate it. And I was blessed with a revelation: okonomyaki is one the best things I have ever had in my life. Most Italians I know also refuse to eat dishes that have an Italian name, but which do not belong to the Italian tradition. I keep my mind open: I tried the Fettucine Alfredo - that you find everywhere in America - and I think they are pretty disgusting. But I thank God every day for trying the Chicago deep dish pizza. Everybody knows what a pizza is. Even a bad pizza eaten at a chain anywhere in the word will be recognizable: a round flat disc-shaped bread, often topped at least with tomatoes and cheese, but more often than not with other stuff as well. Well, this has nothing to do with the Chicago deep dish pizza. The Chicago deep dish pizza is basically a big pie, often 8cm (3 inches) high, filled with cheese and tomato.  Now, try to visualize 3 inches. It is A LOT.FOOD1 Most Italians are put off by the name pizza. I try to see beyond: of course the Chicago Pizza is not an Italian pizza. But the question a real foodie should ask is: does it taste good? And oh boy, does that pizza taste good! Who cares if it is called pizza? Forget about the pizza, treat it like a quiche or a pie, and you will love it. Does all this mean that I reject my Tuscan roots? Not for a moment. I still cook Tuscan recipes at home, and I take pleasure in seeing friends tasting some of the food I cook and looking at me with eyes full of surprise (I hope the surprise means they are happy...) But I believe that if you keep your mind open and embrace the culture you are living in you are going to make wonderful discoveries and will not regret bruschetta... And now I am off to eat some tacos con carne asada. Thank you to Michele the TuscanFoodie that gave us all this great insight on how great being a tuscan abroad can be - and how it doesn't necessarily mean being homesick! [geo_mashup_map]