cw: mentions of food anxiety and negative body image
Small cobblestone streets, clotheslines overflowing with bright linens and colorful underwear, tiny dogs yapping as they lick the crumbs of pastries and cornettos off the road—Italy is a picturesque destination, one colored by decades of romanticisation in the media. Despite its aspirational depiction as a nation living in rustic nostalgia where every street is imbued with thousands of years of history, the most popular thing about Italy is its food. Often called the best cuisine in the world, Italian food draws people in with its rich sauces, fresh flavors, and accessible appeal. However, despite the world's totalizing adoration, Italian cuisine is also a minefield of terror and paralyzing anxiety for those who struggle with eating and body image; every slurp of buttery pasta and every bite of cheesy pizza can spark panic beyond comprehension.
When I went to Italy this spring break as a romantic getaway with my boyfriend of over two years, it started off as a nightmare of deliciousness and temptation, one that triggered crushing guilt with every orgasmic bite of savory goodness. Yet, as the week progressed and I ate more (and more and more), the feelings dissipated. Rather than spiraling anxiety, I found myself in a perfect state of romance and bliss, one unencumbered by the ominous footsteps of worrying about macronutrients or calories.
aperitivo: a selection of olives, warmed. paired with fresh-baked bread e taralli. olive oil not included at table.
A simple beginning to the meal, just enough to tease out my appetite without sating it. My favorite snack in the world is heated to perfection, bringing out its rich savoriness without overpowering the other flavors on the table. The absence of olive oil—a subtle reminder of how I usually douse my bread with it back home—brings out the guilt. And despite the bread's fresh flavor, I can't escape the sour taste in my mouth.
antipasti: a plate of prosciutto crudo, salame e speck, alongside pecorino e fontina.
A platter of deli meats and cheese arrives to tempt me further: an explosion of flavor and salt that promises a delicious journey alongside a dose of regret once the meal is over. But I can justify it—after all, it's just protein and fat, the cornerstones of any good ketogenic diet. In my head, I see every piece of cured meat translating itself into muscle gains at the gym. As I reach for yet another piece of salami, I notice I've been eating the same amount as my boyfriend, and the shame kicks in once more; I put my hand down and wait for him to eat another few pieces before I partake.
primi: spaghetti carbonara made with pecorino romano, eggs e guanciale.
The motherlode of terrors, the embodiment of my fear of Italian food. The pasta dish is the definition of food guilt, one that can't be justified by ketogenic dining habits. Pasta, iconic, delicious, and full of carbohydrates, is a fear food. The rich sauce coating every noodle with a delicate balance of creaminess and saltiness only adds to the increasing panic. I try to justify the meal with reminders of how much I've walked, as if the miles I've traveled today cancel out the monstrosity of carbs and fat I'm about to ingest, but that doesn't work. I don't feel better.
Pushing around the noodles with my fork, creating patterns out of guanciale and sauce, I look over to my boyfriend scarfing down his noodles without a care—the beauty of a person eating for pure pleasure and contentment. He looks up and smiles at me, and it all breaks. His enjoyment of the dish, an unthinking willingness to eat simply because he wants to and it tastes good, reminds me of what food should be like. His gaze, loving and affectionate, reveals that he doesn't care how much I eat or what I look like or how much I weigh; he loves me, just as I should for myself. Why should I worry about what I eat when no one else does? Rather than being a damning reminder of my weakness or a cruel example of caloric overindulgence, each noodle transforms into a revelation of acceptance and understanding. An exercise in self-hatred is diverted into love: for myself, for my boyfriend, and for food itself.
secondi: saltimbocca alla romana
This dish of veal, made in the traditional Roman style, is a regional specialty. It's emblematic of why I should let go: This, a once in a lifetime kind of dish, is precisely what I would miss out on if I let the little voice in my head win during this trip. Misgivings about eating baby animals aside, the dish is delicious. I allow myself to sink into the pleasure that is the combination of veal, prosciutto, and sage.
A simple combination of ladyfingers, coffee, and cream, tiramisu stands the test of time as a dessert beloved by all. Even beyond its mass appeal, it is one of my favorite sweets, with its delectable texture and its perfect balance of sweet and bitter. Spooning mouthful after mouthful, the dessert melts into my entire being, filling me with satisfaction. After the plate is finished, having split the dish with my boyfriend, my sweet tooth isn't fully sated. But salvation awaits: I remember the little cannoli place down the road. I smile to myself as I count my euros, eagerly anticipating the sweet treat that will await me after this dessert is over.
digestivo: a little shot of limoncello
The limoncello shot, wildly popular in Italy, is something that I cannot understand. Though the practice of having an alcoholic drink following a meal is common throughout the world, the appeal of the Italian choice, limoncello, eludes me. A sweet vodka infused with lemon, it is simultaneously too saccharine and too strong. As I pucker my mouth at the unpleasant flavor, I regret my choice of digestivo, feeling the collection of pasta and meats rise in my stomach at this unwelcome addition. But still, when the warm feeling settles and I look up at my sweet boy smiling down at me, I feel better. My stomach, filled with delicious food, and my heart, filled with pure love, is full and at peace. And I look out onto the Roman street ready to tackle all adventures and meals that await me.