It’s not easy to find sushi in Italy. Italians are pretty damn loyal to their own regional cuisine, which means that occasionally someone from Emilia Romagna might go totally crazy and make a pesto sauce, or that a Tuscan could go out on a limb, probably after imbibing too much Chianti, and cook a Ragu sauce , or prepare their steak alla Milanese instead of simply grilling it with rosemary and sea salt as god decreed. I won’t even venture to say that anyone up north really knows how to re-create anything made south of Rome. But I can assure you that it’s all delicious, and much more varied than it appears from outside the Italian boot. Given this strong penchant for the food that you grow up with, the food that can be found within a 50-mile radius of where you live, you can imagine that the cuisine of an island nation that’s 6000 miles away can only be so tempting.
I hear that Bologna might have a few sushi restaurants, but I’ve also been cautioned that the quality and taste isn’t what a New Yorker, let alone a Japanese person, would expect, so we’ve stayed away so far. Luckily though, the first day of our first whole week of summer vacation took us two hours north to Milan (and from the Emilia Romagna region to Lombardy), which has much more of an international food scene than Bologna, but that’s still not saying much compared to any big city in the U.S.’s melting pot or mixed salad or pick your own metaphor. We spent a titillating morning at the French consulate, waiting and waiting and then doing paperwork and enduring a little French snootiness (because otherwise how would you know you’re in France! Vous êtes magnifique et je vous aime… vraiment.) But our reward was then an authentic Japanese lunch! We started off with miso soups and edamame, which the kids gobbled up like 19th century French street urchins exclaiming: “These are wonderful! Ask them where they found them! PLEASE!” Then, we moved on to nighiri of tuna, salmon and branzino (okay, not so Japanese but a deliciously prepared white fish nonetheless!), spicy tuna and salmon maki, and a glorious dish of veggie tempura.
The tangy taste of the soy and tempura sauces are probably the strongest flavors in these dishes, and certainly part of what we crave when we’re yearning for Japanese food, but after so many months without it, I realize the texture, temperature and freshness of the meals are equally as important. Silky pieces of tofu and mini rings of firm scallion swim in the hot miso broth; Crunchy cucumbers and spicy tuna mix with chewy nori; smooth pieces of raw, cool salmon top temperate and perfectly cooked rice grains; and crispy tempura batter coats warm soft vegetables. Oh the joy! The variety! And not a tomato or a tomato sauce in sight!
Chances are that if an alien kidnapped me and insisted that I could only bring one type of earth food with me to my new home planet, I’d still pick authentic Italian dishes. I’m not sure anything can sustain me like pasta, and who knows what kind of conditions I’ll find in that foreign land! Nevertheless, my hope for this peninsula is that a bit more food diversity trickles into its smaller cities in the future, so that more can enjoy – at least once a month! – the beautiful flavors this world has to offer.