Embarrassing menu mistakes we make
Next time you're in Italy craving for superb food, don't order Spaghetti Bolognese.
If you do the waiter will frown and look at you sideways, totally lost.
That's because you got the name wrong.
Locals call it another way: Tagliatelle al Ragù.
Tagliatelle are flat, handmade egg dough spaghetti. Ragù is fatless beef belly pieces mixed with celery, carrots, onions, tomato sauce and red wine. The dish is sprinkled with a layer of grated Parmigiano Reggiano - not Parmesan, please, which is counterfeit Parmigiano sold worldwide.
Each time I travel across Italy I hear the mistakes tourists make when they order food. Foreigners stand out for their use of Italian-sounding dishes that either refer to other foods or don't mean anything at all.
It's a case of culinary clashes.
For starters never mention Macaroni Cheese. Cheddar doesn't exist in Italy: we have Parmigiano, Pecorino (a sheep's milk cheese) and blue Gorgonzola among many others. Maccheroni is simply a type of short, tube-like pasta. Above all, Italians would never use milk nor mustard to make any sauce.
Milk pasta? Mamma mia, no grazie!
Keep in mind that pasta is a sacrosanct, abundant main course. We don't have it as a side dish together with meat, potatoes or fish. If you don't want locals staring, avoid using a spoon to roll the spaghetti no matter how tough it can be.
What kills me though is seeing cappuccino ordered with pasta or pizza. Tourists go into a cappuccino frenzy when in Italy and drink it non-stop, even after lavish seafood dinners.
For Italians that's a sacrilege and they crinkle their nose in disgust at the thought.
Locals have cappuccino only for breakfast. After 11am, it's a no-no. Tea, milk tea or tisanes, particularly after meals, are also "off".
Only caffé is 24/7. But for outsiders it's a very slippery ground. Forget milky coffee. No Italian barman would even know what it is and if you explain it to him, he'll probably kick you out.
Avoid ordering a latte, too, as you'll get a plain cold glass of milk. And forsake your usual mugfuls of mild, long watery coffee. To make fun of Anglo-Saxons we've dubbed that nasty type "l'Americano".
When it comes to straight coffee injections, Italians are addicted to espresso and ristretto (a super intense, 15 millimetre dose of pure caffeine). We gulp these down on the run while standing at a bar counter, like a Tequila shot. No sitting down at tables, no lingering.
WHAT TO EAT WHERE
Things not to do include ordering an iconic dish in the wrong place.
Naples' pizza is the only real one: thick, chewy, with savoury buffalo milk mozzarella. Elsewhere in the peninsula it's thin and cracks open, with tasteless cow mozzarella. In any case, never order a pepperoni pizza: you'll be served a white pizza topped with capsicums (pepperoni).
Amatricana spaghetti is Rome's signature recipe, so best not have it in north or south Italy.
Same goes for sweets. The world's best Tiramisu can be savoured in its birthplace: Treviso, a lovely town near Venice. It was a brothel cake, served to clients to keep the sex business running.
But Italy's pastry kingdom is Sicily. I freaked out once when an American couple in Lipari ordered cheesecake, blind to the trays of fresh goat ricotta-filled tube-shaped crispy Cannoli with candied orange peels and to the marzipan Cassata cake covered in pistachio icing.
EAT LIKE A LOCAL
So if you aim to pleasantly surprise waiters and chefs while blending in with local eaters, here are some delicious, less popular regional dishes to get the most out of your food quest.
It's a concoction of sweet-tasting vegies. Small potatoes, aubergines, peppers, capers and tomatoes are cooked with almonds, oranges, raisins, sugar, vinegar, extra virgin olive oil and fresh basil.
A semi-liquid cornmeal mush mixed with cheese served on a wooden platter that can also be cooled and solidified into grilled rectangular finger foods. Toppings include rabbit meat (yeah, we actually eat the poor things), mushrooms, wild boar, little birds, braised veal with tomato sauce, milk or even Nutella.
PIEDMONT: AGNOLOTTI DEL PLIN
Handmade squared ravioli with zigzag, pinched edges filled with roasted meat and served either in veal broth or in a dense meat sauce with white wine.
ROME: CODA ALLA VACCINARA
An oxtail stew cooked for hours in a pan of fried celery, carrots and onions sprinkled with red wine. The meat and stewed cartilage are so tender you lick them off the bones.
It's a roasted baby piglet prepared in two ways: dipped in its own blood to give it a crunchy outer layer or coated in dripping honey. Myrtle and rosemary herbs are sprinkled on top.
Prepare for a gigantic fish-and-pasta soup. Ray, mullet, sole, redfish and prawns are boiled in a pool of mezzotempo half-ripe tomatoes, parsley, peppers and garlic. Grilled bread slices are left to soak in the fishy broth and at the very end, thin spaghetti dubbed capelli d'angelo (angel hair) are poured inside the pot.
LAZIO: SPAGHETTI ALLA GRICIA
It's a white Amatriciana, no tomato sauce but just fried crispy guanciale pork cheek, chilli pepper and a topping of grated Pecorino cheese spiced-up with pepper.