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A Culinary Quandary

Or Mark’s Food Cravings

By Mark Hinshaw

It finally happened to us. We had been warned by some other expats we know to expect a psychological “breakdown” at some point. With some people it takes a few months, while others a few years. But it’s inevitable. We scoffed. “Not possible,” we said.

Then it happened. After several years of living in Italy, we suddenly realized we sorely missed something.

American food.

Not this kind of American Food, though

Yes, this is a sort of “true confession.” Perhaps not worthy of a tearful, hushed conversation in a booth with a priest. More like confessing a guilty pleasure.

However, it’s not exactly “American” food per se that we miss.

Not hamburgers, as I can get good ones here, and my wife’s a vegetarian anyway. Not sugary breakfast cereal – neither of us ever ate that. Not even apple, cherry, or pecan pie. We can make those if we wish. And by the “we” I mean my wife, who can make anything.

You have no idea how good this was.

What I’m referring to is the abundance of foods that reflect the widely diverse cultures that have filled the United States over centuries. Indian. Chinese. Thai. Vietnamese. Korean. Indonesian, Moroccan. Japanese. Filipino. Cuban. Russian. Hungarian. Greek. Cajun. Spanish. And lest I forget — Mexican.

Mamma mia! What I would give for a plate of chile rellenos and black beans right now. My wife can make this for me (and has) but it’s a lot of work, a tornado of a mess in the kitchen, and the ingredients are hard to come by.  She has been trying to grow Poblano peppers in the garden from imported seeds, just to satisfy my craving!

Chile Rellenos a’la Sunny

We miss specific food items. I woke up one morning with a dream that I had just been served a chicken fried steak – diner style with sunny-side-up eggs. Science says that tastes and smells of foods are some of the most powerful forms of memory, or at least I think I read that somewhere. I was so distraught after the dashed dream that I posted my dismay on Facebook, and within hours a kind American expat living not far from us said she would procure some cube steak from a source she had (the necessary ingredient for Sunny to make it).  I’m not sure this was entirely legal, but a few weeks later I had chicken fried steak on my plate. 

What we really miss is all the food choices we grew up with over decades. If we had a sudden whim, it would be simply a matter of going to restaurant nearby and satisfying that gustatory desire. We could even order it delivered if we were tired or lazy. In America, it’s easy to quench food predilections. Didn’t Randy Newman write a song about that? If not, he should have.

Non-Italian food in Italy? Pretty damn hard to find.

How can Italians not know about Pho?

Now, I sense I will get only a small degree of sympathy from readers. After all, we are living in a culture with some of the most amazing food in the world. We are surrounded by family farms with fresh eggs and produce daily. We are a short drive away from the coast with fresh fish of all types – some we have never seen before, much less consumed. We have a superb local butcher and a fine bakery. There are more artisanal wineries than we can count. A local oleificio (oil extraction facility) provides us with the best olive oil.  We have a plethora of fantastic restaurants with superbly crafted regional dishes and wines most tourists never encounter while on vacations. Indeed, it took us two years to punch through the many places aimed at tourists, with familiar standard fare, to find the really good stuff. I’ve lost count of the number of times we have sat at a restaurant table and exclaimed out loud “This dish is f*cking incredible!” (pardon the swearing, but the food is that good – honest)

This seafood platter…. was so delicious … and endless.

And yet, here I am, shamelessly whining. 

My wife whines a lot less – as a fine cook, she can, (and frequently does), make anything she really wants.  But when I’m craving something – I must convince her to indulge me – and even then, some of the ingredients are difficult (or impossible) to source, or the dish is difficult to make without a commercial style kitchen.

My wife’s seitan rice bowls are incredible, just fyi.

So, even though we can easily gorge ourselves on any number of Italian foods, which we do indeed love, we have taken on a mission. We search for places that are NOT Italian. So far, the process has been challenging. No help from our Italian friends. Many older Italians would never even contemplate trying another cuisine. Once, at a neighbor’s home for dinner, we suggested to the head of the household that we liked Japanese food. What followed was a distinct, guttural choking sound – we said no more.

Younger Italians have discovered sushi. It’s a huge thing as it turns out. There are many sushi places – some owned by Japanese people, some by Italians who hire a Japanese chef, and some owned and operated by Italians.  Groups of younger people swarm in to take advantage of the all-you-can-eat lunch for 15 euros per person. They order everything on the menu. Waves of big platters soon appear, eagerly ingested by boisterous tables of ten.

There is a phenomenon that is puzzling to us. Most restaurants offering food from Asia are called “Cinese/Giapponese.” In other countries one would never see those two cultural food groups on the same storefront sign. It would be like coming across a French/German restaurant. I have no clue how that strange culinary merger occurred here.

And here’s my wife’s blueberry muffins… just because

One time while in Rome, I found a Mexican restaurant in the Trastevere district. The menu looked promising. There were even decorative sombreros hanging on the walls. I was hoping to have my tongue once again experience the deep, completely satisfying burn of Mexican spices. The dish I ordered came out. I tasted it. It was OK, but bland. I asked for salsa. Salsa was presented in a small bowl. I added it. Still, pretty unremarkable. No sweat formed on my brow. I requested hotter salsa. The server looked perplexed. A few minutes later the chef, a young Italian man, appeared carrying a small bottle of liquid he held delicately in his hand. He said it was his “special” hot sauce and warned me to only add a few drops. I did so, but barely felt anything. To the horrified look of the chef and two servers I poured it on. Ah there it was… that heat that bites you back and even gets hotter with time. I think they contemplated putting in a call to the EMT service, though.  

My wife makes great vegetarian tacos and they’re spicy!

So far in our search, which has covered several regions, we have found a number of Chinese/Japanese places, a couple of Indian places, and a fantastic Middle Eastern cafe serving falafel and many of our favorites. I posted a query in a couple of expat groups on Facebook, and to my surprise, the question netted more than 150 suggestions throughout the country – although the suggestions did dwindle out and stop after that.

The Indian food we’ve found at “Friends Bakery & Falafel” in Porto San’Elpidio was top notch!

So, the good news is that there are at least 150 ethnic restaurants in Italy. It’s also, simultaneously, bad news – only 150 scattered across an entire country?

We calculate that we can go to one non-Italian place each month – but it will take us quite some time to work through the list. I even have a book in mind – the working title is “Anything but Italian! Where to Eat Once You Tire of Having the Best Food in The World.”  I’m sure our Italian friends will be horrified, but they don’t know what they’re missing!

<strong>Mark Hinshaw </strong>BArch MUP FAIA FAICP
Mark Hinshaw BArch MUP FAIA FAICP

Mark had a 30-year career as a journalist and author, writing hundreds of articles on urban development and publishing four books on urban design. Mark now lives in the ancient hilltown of Santa Vittoria in Matenano in the region of Le Marche, Italy and shares his italian adventures in his blog.


  1. Ron Sorter

    I was doing swell until I saw the image of blueberry muffins. I discovered that I’d just slobbered all over my freshly laundered shirt. A man of my age. So embarrassing. And you’re married to a gastronomic goddess who whips up mouthwatering gems for you on a whim? You, sir, are a cherished man.

  2. Jake Jaramillo

    Hello Mark, your essay about looking for alternatives to the best food in the world is entertaining, and the impulse it describes is very understandable. I stumbled across this essay after reading your essay on the Seattle viaduct in “Concrete Ghost,” the coffee table book of Laura Hamje’s paintings of the viaduct. Google is amazing…

  3. Kristina

    Hi Mark,
    I really understand your struggle, since I’m constantly searching for alternatives to Italian food as well.
    In Marche, there’s a Mexican place in Civitanova Marche:
    It’s not that great, but much better than other local “Mexican” restaurants.
    There’s also a dumpling place in Macerata, which is somewhat better than any other local alternative.
    Hope this adds some variety to the restaurant options you’ve discovered so far

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