In Praise of Minimalism: Vegetarian and Italian Food Traditions

I love the ethos of Italian cuisine. Variety may be the spice of life, but simplicity is its main ingredient. Whether that’s a warm cup of tea before bed or a small, quiet moment with someone you love, it doesn’t have to scintillate for it to be recognizably beautiful. Thus, the food of Italia. There are no surprises when you eat, and the ingredients don’t attempt to impress you. To begin with, there are never usually more than three or four ingredients at all, but each is reliably fresh, local, and expertly-prepared. As an ethical vegetarian and one already slightly inclined toward minimalist habits, I felt as if I was among birds of the same feather during my stay in Italy and that no more a harmonious marriage of food philosophies could be made than between that of Italy and my own.

The simplicity of vegetarianism is in its economy, but I even find the attendant humility of plant-foods to be an attractive aspect of the diet. It’s true that eating at a low trophic level can be an incredibly sustainable dietary choice in a world of increasingly limited resources and can constitute an affordable diet for those on a college budget. However, for me the real charm of vegetarianism is in the daily ways it connects me to myself and to those I care about. During moments of intermittent relief from the daily deluge that life normally brings, I love to prepare my own food. It’s a simple pleasure to be able to wash and chop my own vegetables and take the time to prepare a meal for either myself or those I love. Whether it’s warm bowls of veggie soup or spiced porridge on wintry days, or colorful fruit salads in spring, it does satisfy something besides just hunger. It’s a way to care about myself, my friends and family, and the planet that we inhabit.

There’s a similar flavor that is imparted to the food you eat in Italy, not just in the way it’s prepared, but in the way it’s eaten. Everything seems to move just a little slower in Italy, and that includes the meals. That can be frustrating for those of us used to a hit-and-run, grab-and-go lifestyle, but the evening repast in Italy is less about the food one eats and more about who has joined you for it. And hopefully you like who joins you; it wasn’t uncommon when I was in Italy for dinner to push three or four hours long, with the expectation that you were involved in lively conversation with your tablemates. Therefore, a simple meal becomes more. It’s a facilitator, a binding agent, and the unimposing complement to something already good: human companionship.

There is something quite beautiful about the unassuming—the things that don’t ask for attention or reward, so simple that they can only be honest, so obviously good that they can be the first to get overlooked precisely because of their simplicity. I discovered a few of these things in Italy—whether it was line-drying my clothes in the orchard behind the Casale San Giorgio of Barbarano Romano, hiking up the San Giuliano plateau on brisk yet golden mornings, or traipsing over hills bespangled with wildflowers in the hopes of finding ancient Etruscan tombs. Yet the best part about the simple things is that they are for everyone, and you certainly don’t have to go to Italy to find them. They are likely right beside you.

 

— Anna Lam

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Italy Part 1: Rome

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It’s been a long time coming, but here is my Italy Travel Diary from this past summer! I spent a month shadowing a professor at the University of Rome Tor Vergata, but also got to thoroughly enjoy Rome and visit some of my favorite cities. Italy is such a beautiful country and I’m so lucky to have spent the last three summers traveling there. The first two years I did quite a lot of traveling going from the south of France – look for a post on that in the future! – down through Paestum. This year, however, I got to truly live in the suburbs of Rome and experience the city like a true Roman – or as true as an American Chinese girl can get.

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I spent the majority of the month alone – a few friends dropped in here and there – so it had the possibility of getting very lonely if it weren’t for the fact that Italians love to talk. I rented an AirBnB, which was absolutely lovely. The hosts, Chiara and Francesca, were incredibly hospitable and helpful. The apartment was set up rather like a Manhattan loft, small and efficient. There was a loft area for the bed, which was nice, but it was SO SHORT. I’m rather tall for a gal, but I had to well and truly bend over at the waist to walk around up there. If I had a penny for every time I hit my head on that ceiling… That minor inconvenience aside it was absolutely lovely. (Fair warning, though, Italians are rather adverse to air-conditioning and it can get quite hot!)

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I spent a large amount of the month in and around the Vatican as I did a bit of research there. The Basilica itself is so beautiful and restful, especially in the early mornings before the throngs of tourists arrive. Even then it is exciting and contagious to be around the pilgrims and visitors, all singing and happy to be there. 7 am, though, when the doors first open is the best time to arrive. It’s so very quiet and the light is more direct as it shines through the front doors and the windows. All you can hear is footsteps and the soft sounds of morning masses led in many different languages all at once in all the chapels.

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In quite stark contrast to the Vatican is the city itself. From 5am-1am it the city is bustling and busy and loud.  There are a million places to eat and get coffee and gelato. Watch out for the street vendors, they are very friendly and very insistent. Some are quite entertaining.

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My fondest memories of Rome involve gelato. Gelato alone. Gelato with friends. Dropping gelato on myself. Dropping gelato on someone else. Spending far too much on gelato in Florence. The list goes on. I am perfectly happy in almost any gelato store – minus the tourist traps with heaped up, non-melting, imposter gelato – but my favorite places in Rome are: Giolitti’s, Old Bridge, and Fatamorgana Nemorense. Giolitti’s is a massive experience. It’s tourist heavy, but if you can get in at a good hour you can sit down with amazing gelato in a gold-gilded room. Old Bridge is a hole-in-the-wall American-friendly shop. There are no seat, but you get a huge amount of excellent gelato for quite cheap. Fatamorgana is a chain, but a remarkably good one. It’s a neighborhood-shop and boasts flavors like peaches and wine (amazing!), basil honey and walnut, and figs with lavender!

 

The absolute best part of Rome, however, is the history. As someone who studies classical history and literature, the monuments and ruins around Rome are absolutely breathtaking. It’s a surreal experience to walk on the roads that authors and figures I’ve read about walked on thousands of years ago. The Colosseum is breathtaking and for once the crowds of tourists add to the experience, recreating what it must have felt like to be there as a Roman. The Forums are stunning and the Palatine – though a hike – provides a magnificent view of the rest of Rome. An added bonus: the cats wandering all over the city, sitting in temples like they are the kings and queens of Rome. And who’s to say they aren’t?

 

Every time I come back from Rome I miss it immediately. I miss the food and the gelato and the sounds. I miss the buzzing atmosphere and the laughing and warm people. All I can say is: Arrivederci, Roma, a presto!