Discovering Italian Markets in California

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ITALIAN FOOD, I really love Italian food because who doesn’t but also because I am half Italian.

My fiance’ brought me back from Italy after having lived in Italy for over 16 years. I wanted to share with him what real Italian home cooking was all about so I begun cooking a variety of dishes for us. He had tasted it when he came over to Italy, so he definitely could tell the difference between what he had in Italy and the dishes here in the United States. I believe though it was through actually tasting homemade dishes compared to those in restaurants that you really note the differences. Don’t get me wrong, the Italian restaurants in America cook a nice rendition of what we want from Italian food but it just isn’t authentic Italian.

My biggest dilemma returning back home from Italy was adjusting my palate. I feel that Italian Americans have adapted their dishes to suit and pair with the typical flavors that Americans expect. The adaptation to the dishes doesn’t mean it isn’t Italian but I would venture to say that the dishes are Italian Fusion. I know that sounds funny but in Italy, there is a normal ideology that certain dishes MUST be cooked and prepared in a certain way.

Side bar: An Italian will tell you that the cooking and tastes are very different from region to region not only due to the culture, outside influences, geography and availability of food but also because the cow in Florence eats florentine grass and drinks florentine water so how can you have a Florentine steak from a cow raised in Colorado? The terroir changes the taste of the food and therefore cannot be 100% replicated.

In trying to find the closest thing to Italian so I could cook as authentically as possible we searched for some Italian markets over in LA and Orange County–the latter being the closest to us. Most of the markets or delis were quite far and very small so we opted for Claro’s Italian Markets which has 6 locations predominately in LA county and 1 in Orange County. I remember my father taking me here when I was very young to pick up olive oil and cheese. He loved that place. It made him feel more Italian. Fun fact: I later found out from my mom that one of my cousins married the owner therefore I am technically linked to Claro’s (although I have no clue to who and if there are any ties still). Does that mean I get discounted food? I WISH!!!

Claro’s is actually a very nice small Italian market and Deli. It offers an array of meats, cheeses,  tomato sauces, oils, breads and various other products that are typical to Italian cuisine. It could possibly be our number one pick in terms of proximity and variety.

Roma market with Rosario from Sicily is another one of our favorite Italian markets located in the heart of Pasadena. The market has probably the best selection so far of Italian food and Rosario makes some of the best sandwiches ever. He also has the best deals and always hooks us up with some yummy pecorino cheese and pancetta for a great deal. You can’t go wrong with this one. We’d rate this our top if it was located closer to our home.

Cortina’s Italian Market in Anaheim is another great find and has a pretty good variety of food. The big difference is the style which seems more modern than that classic mom and pops store where there is less organization of product placement.  The meat and cheese selection is good. They have two locations in Orange County: one is a restaurant and the other an Italian market.

Foggia’s in Lakewood. On our list to visit so I hope to be able to provide a review soon.

The only beef with the Italian markets are that they are few and far between and they don’t always offer meats and cheeses imported from Italy but made in the U.S. or Canada. They still make me feel  like I am back in Italy and my dishes come out much better when I use authentic products. In fact, my fiancé says I’ve ruined him for Italian restaurants in the U.S.. I’ll take that compliment any day.

Look for my recipe book and recipes coming up.

Claro’s Italian Market
Roma Market
Cortina’s Italian Market

Foggia Deli


Misconceptions we believe to be Italian

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Some great examples of misconceptions we believe to be Italian which really are more American:

1. Fettuccine Alfredo

When I first arrived in Italy, I looked long and hard for my beloved fettuccine Alfredo only to realize that no Italian has ever heard of this dish. The closest dish to it would be spaghetti ai quattro formaggi (spaghetti with 4 cheeses) which is very delightful but is not what we think of when we ask for fettuccine Alfredo. There is however a restaurant in Rome, Alfredo’s, that the recipe is believed to originate from but it is more of a cheese and butter sauce and not the creamy, highly caloric one we know of here in the U.S.

2. Pasta with chicken!  NO NO NO NO NO. Please NO!!! You cannot and will not find a recipe for Italian pasta dishes in Italy that have chicken. It is not something they combine together. A chicken parmigiana YES, but sauces where you can add different proteins like Chicken, Shrimp, or whatever seems like Asian/Italian. Don’t get me wrong, the dishes can be very good but they are adaptations to Italian dishes to accommodate American palates.

3. Spaghetti with Meatballs

Spaghetti SI, Meatballs SI…Spaghetti with Meatballs? Only if you’re watching Lady & the Tramp. There are some dishes that incorporate small meatballs into the recipe: lasagna, timballo etc. but they never strategically place the meatballs on top of the pasta sauce. I don’t know exactly why, but it is definitely something you will not find in Italy.

4. Cappuccino Time All the Time? No! Normally a cappuccino can be ordered anytime before noon or maybe as your first coffee of the day. Italian’s generally do not order cappuccino’s throughout the day and especially not during or after a meal. The most typical drink is an espresso or an espresso macchiato (touch of milk) and the serving sizes are a tenth of what you can find at Starbucks. Milk after 12noon is a nono.

5. Cheese with Fish Dishes – Combining cheese with your dish is a very interesting and unique experience in Italy. Certain plates call for certain cheeses but all fish pasta dishes shun any type of cheese. NO NO NO! You just don’t do that. You could offend your host or have a waitress giggle at you and even question your tastes. I am just saying… leave the cheese for the other pasta sauces, the fish dish can go without.

 6. Oil & Balsamic or vinaigrette with bread before a meal

Italians generally do not give bread to the table until you have your meal and they will only bring the bread if they feel it goes with your dish: normally plates like salads and meats. In most Italian restaurants in California you will be served a selection of breads with some type of oil vinaigrette or balsamic to accompany it. This unfortunately, or fortunately just doesn’t happen in Italy so please don’t expect it when you go there. If you ask for bread and butter, beware the butter might be a hard, un-spreadable butter that isn’t tasty at all. Believe you me, I have experienced it.

7. Pasta or Risotto as a side?

You must see the film BIG NIGHT which we will review in one of our future posts which elaborates on why you cannot eat a starch with a starch. The film is great and the part where the two Italian chefs discuss this when a customer orders a side of potatoes to accompany her pasta is hilarious. A reminder: starches together don’t go down well with Italians.

8. Pepperoni Pizza

They don’t have pepperoni pizza in Italy. They have salami that is spicy that you can order but our idea of a pepperoni pizza is quite different. It is also typical that your bites might not include all of the toppings that you ordered. One might have nothing on one bite and another might have a couple different toppings. They do not do pizzas that have the perfect bite of every topping in each bite. Try pizzas in any region, they are delicious and each have a uniqueness about them. OH, and you get the entire round of pizza to eat. not just a slice to be aware of that, unless you order a pizza by the slice (pizza al taglio) GNAM!

These are just a few of the misconceptions and  any others or comments would be greatly appreciated. A good laugh now and again is good for the soul.