Feb 16, 2022

American foods I can't find in Italy

Technically, I am not an American expat. I consider myself more Italian. But I was raised by multicultural parents. And there are times when my American side emerges, begging for Bisquick.



Over the years I have added and removed items from my list of “The American Foods I Miss.” Some, like big-tub chunky peanut butter, Oreos or Häagen-Dazs salted caramel ice cream, are now available in Italian grocery stores. While some others have remained chimeras, only to be enjoyed after westerly intercontinental flights. I’m sharing my list here, guilt-free.

Many of the foods in the list are far from healthy. I know that. But that’s the thing about my life as a dual citizen, straddling two cultures. At a certain point, I get a little homesick for the other half of my roots. The issue arises when old favorites are unavailable or too expensive to have shipped. Life of course moves on, but those guilty pleasure cravings still pang at the gut.


Essentially, these foods were my connection to my American side, to my dad, and how the food that he ate also became my mother’s favorite guilty pleasure, a rarity on this side of the pond. They are an elastic band pulling me back, a bond with my past, my childhood, my parents. A time when I was not the adult. A delicious family attachment that is recreated with every mouthful. 


Triscuits and Wheat Thins

Triscuits & Wheat Thins


These are probably the snacks I miss the most. Both kinds are impossible to find in Italy. My family in California knows that as soon as I land, these are part of the "ASAP" foods I request. The irony is that if you search for the names of these two products on Italian online markets, you can buy T-shirts with the logos, but not the products themselves. Humph. 


Clothbound Cheddar


Speaking of cracker snacks, the obvious segue is… cheese. Montebore, Fontina, Gorgonzola, Strachitunt, Mozzarella, Caciocavallo, Robiola. I can go on for days. Cheese is my joy (and part of the reason why I have to train three times a week). Sometimes I stray beyond the Alps for some serious Gruyère, Comté, Langres and Brie de Meaux. But there are moments when all I want is Cheddar. I’m not talking about the orange blocks of processed stuff. I mean the high-quality cheddar that is sadly not that easy to find in Italy. Clothbound cheddar… I dream of you. The solution is crossing the Channel with Cheese Journeys. More on that later.


Sour cream


Continuing in the dairy universe, why is it so hard to score good quality panna acida here in Italy? Is it just Rome? Gillian, help me!


canned biscuit dough

Canned Buttermilk Biscuits


My erotic dream is peeling apart the warm, flaky layers of just-baked biscuit dough. The thing is, there is no refrigerated biscuit dough in Italy. Here, most don’t even know what southern style buttermilk biscuits are! As a matter of fact, even buttermilk is hard to score in the boot-shaped peninsula. Yes, I could be making these from scratch. But the joy of popping open the cardboard jar by hitting it on the side of the counter and slicing the biscuits, only to eat them a few short minutes later… is priceless.



Concord grape products


First of all I ask for a moment of silence for Welch's concord grape jelly, which has been sadly discontinued. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches will never be the same again. Secondly, shall we mention the same brand of grape juice? The kind that leaves tongues purple and that personally hurls me straight back to summer day camp, circa 1979. Very hard to find in Italy.



English Muffins


In the breakfast realm is also the coveted English muffin. Why, oh why can't we get English muffins in Italy?! I've tried making these from scratch at home. Unsuccessfully.


Tomato Aspic


If there is one American food item that I strikingly associate with my late (very Italian) mother, that's tomato aspic. She loved receiving bootleg cans smuggled back in pre-TSA rigidity times. She'd stick her tongue out to one side––like she always did when she was engaged in a craft or focused on a manual task––peel back the lid and jiggle the tin until the whole aspic would slowly slide out. Then she'd carefully slice it with her scalpel-like knife. She'd savor it plain, or sometimes along with Persian cucumber slices. She'd close her eyes as it melted in her mouth, and smile.  What I'd give to see that smile again.


Doritos, period


A survey found that Doritos are one of the most missed brands for US citizens living away from home. Although some Carrefour markets carry them in Italy, there is no wide choice. And definitely no Cool Ranch flavor. We grab the sparse Tex-Mex kind and huddle around the bag munching in silence. Only the occasional moan of pleasure.



American style breakfast sausage links


I'd be willing to do anything to get my hands on a pack of Jones' frozen breakfast sausages. The small, delicate pork breakfast sausages of my childhood. For me they were better than bacon. When the pool of maple syrup invaded their space on the plate and the slight smoked hickory notes mixed with the sweetness. Ah, bliss. Nope, can't get that kind of sausage here. And don't get me wrong, Italian style sausages are amazing, and perfect when fire-grilled and then sandwiched between two toasted slices of sourdough bread. But the American breakfast sausage triggers such sweet sensorial childhood memories.


Famous Sauce


I'm a huge sandwich fan. There's at least one day a week in which mealtime is solely made up of sandwiches (unheard of among Italian mothers). I set out stations and we build them as we eat: BLT; roast turkey, dill pickles and mayo; prosciutto and mozzarella; egg & tuna salad; grilled cheese made with Gruyère… plus anything left over from a previous meal becomes excellent sandwich fixings. I like to keep my panini simple, but once I was introduced to Durkee Famous Sauce, no sandwich was ever the same.


Available online but too expensive


Some Stars and Stripes delicacies can be found online with local e-commerce sites, but you need a second mortgage to buy them. I tried to be sneaky and order them on Amazon US but the shipping costs stumped me. The following foods I truly cannot afford buying online.


shredded wheat cereal

Shredded Wheat breakfast cereal


With the same mouthfeel as the first item on this list, the "woven" breakfast cereal is the stuff that cereal lovers' dreams are made of. But can you imagine paying €44 (about $50) for a 22 oz box of these frosted cinnamon minis? I can't.


Japanese Mayonnaise

While Kewpie has become increasingly popular in the United States in recent years, Japanese kitchens have stocked this luscious condiment since 1925. Compared to your average mayo, it's not only smoother, richer, and more fun to use thanks to the double nozzle squeeze bottle, but it's also packed with so much more eggy umami flavor. Kewpie mayo is not sold in Italy. It can be found online, but the price is ridiculous. In the US a 500 gram tube goes for 6 bucks on Weee!, while on Amazon Italy a 350 gram squeeze bottle goes for 12,99 Euro (roughly $15).


Milk Bone dog treats


The sound of dogs munching on crunchy food makes my mouth water. It's a weird reflex. The ultimate ASMR. My dad used to feed Milk Bone treats to his two yellow Labs and I always secretly wanted to taste them. Now I'm past that stage, but I'd love to feed my own dog a taste and see if he likes them, while I zone out listening to the sound of his jaws breaking them down. Unfortunately they are not sold in pet stores here in Rome, and buying them online is cost prohibitive. I'd rather spend that cash on healthier dog treats.



Pretzel crisps


You know I love a good cheese plate. And these flattened pretzels are excellent with soft spreadable cheeses or even the more hefty hunks. I'd love to stock my minuscule pantry with these, but paying 18 Euro for an 85 gram bag? That's 208,35 Euro per kilo (2.2 lb). Nope, I'll wait.


Now you know what to bring me when you visit.


If you know where I can source these in Italy, by all means please share in the comments!

Sep 27, 2021

Italian fall ingredients, dishes and food festivals

The Italian countryside will soon be ablaze with warm colors, tables will be laden with comforting foods, and food festivals are gearing up to showcase Nature's best. 

When it's time for the harvest of plentiful crops and brown leaves fall, chilly showers replenish the soil and procure Italians with a bounty of porcini mushrooms, truffles, pomegranate pouches of rubies, plump persimmons, bouncy new wine and cloudy green, freshly pressed olive oil.


Salads leave room to soups and flans, casseroles, fragrant loaves and rich cakes. Pumpkin, mushrooms, truffles, creamy Alpine cheeses, chestnuts and brassica greens will feature prominently in regional recipes. Risotto season is due to resume any minute!

Continue Reading ➔ Autumn in Italy, as appeared on Gambero Rosso International

Jul 26, 2021

Weekend in Cilento



Cilento is a subregion of Campania located between Paestum and Sapri, on the border with Basilicata. A huge territory, where nature is truly wild, where the population is less than a hundred thousand, and in which rural traditions and a slow, very slow pace of everyday life are carefully preserved. Nature and sea-loving Italy travellers who don’t mind the total absence of designer fashion and yacht slips, will find themselves in a part of southern Italy that has retained its authentic charm through a low profile. Don’t get us wrong, Cilento is packed with historical and archeological destinations, wildly untamed nature and gorgeous beaches. Here are our suggestions for a magical 3-day weekend in the heart of Cilento.

Continue Reading Weekend in the Coastal Towns of Cilento as appeared on Gambero Rosso International








Jul 15, 2021

Be My Guest: Robbin Gheesling

Welcome back to the Be My Guest series. This column showcases like-minded guest bloggers who share intimate moments with the food of the heart, here on Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino.
Today I'm happy to introduce Robbin, a passionate wine lover, firecracker and culture devotee. Robbin and I met a decade ago and have kept in touch through social media. I'm thrilled to share with you her wonderful new project. 

Take it away, Robbin!
There is a curiosity of Florence hiding in plain sight. Long mistaken for religious tabernacles, the wine doors of Florence instead delivered wine to the commoners during the era of Cosimo I de' Medici Grand Duke of Tuscany. To understand their development, we must take a step back. From the 12th to the 16th centuries, the economy of Florence was run by guilds. You can think of a guild as a kind of union membership. Each guild was focused on a particular commodity. For example; silk, wool, butchers, shoemakers, and vintners. To be part of the guild, you had to demonstrate family ties to the trade. If you didn't have it, you could sell your items to the guild who, in theory, were experts and could evaluate the quality of your products. Through time, the guilds became the middlemen of commerce and the noble families of Florence grew tired of the money they were losing by not being able to sell directly to the public or shops. Eventually, the guilds were dissolved and the nobility was granted the right to sell directly to the public. How does one sell directly without a storefront? How about cutting a hole in the wall of your palace, facing the street, where anyone could knock and be served? And here the wine doors were invented.
We now know there are 179 wine doors in the city of Florence. Several exist in the countryside, but for the most part, they are a Florentine phenomenon. My fascination with them began in 2013 when in graduate school at Middlebury College. A tour guide pointed out the most famous and obvious wine door on via delle Belle Donne, 2. Here, the historical hours of operation remain in marble. However, so many are tucked in alleyways or are simply outlines of their former selves cut into the stone. I got quite inquisitive about them but many I'd asked about their origin didn't know or didn’t care. Long live the librarians! I'd asked for books about Florentine architecture at Oblate library and was directed to a single, slim, 10-year-old book about the wine doors. To my delight, there was a condensed list of addresses in the back. I immediately began scouting their locations and logging them on Google maps. At the time I completed my first in-depth photographic shoot, there were only 147 noted. My pedometer says I logged about 25 miles per day that first week! In all of that walking, I stopped several times for a snack or a drink and realized this would make an excellent wine pilgrimage for travelers to Florence.
In 2018, the owners of the restaurant Babae restored its wine door and began serving glasses of wine and bruschetta reviving its original purpose. The location was empty when I first photographed this door. When COVID struck Italy, Babae was the only restaurant using theirs for service although several had access on both sides. As Italy shut down and only take-out food was acceptable, several other places such as Vivoli gelateria began using their wine door as a method of contactless service. Coincidentally, it was discovered that the wine doors were used during the plague of 1634 also as a method of avoiding contact with those who could be sick.
I return to Florence this fall to complete the guidebook I started visualizing in 2013. There is additional photography to do as well as research into the history that is not yet known. To support my return and my new work, I have created a Kickstarter campaign where the guidebook can be pre-ordered. Immediately available is a book of the original photographs as well as prints and posters. I look forward to seeing you in Florence where we can have a glass of wine together from a wine door.
Thank you Robbin!

Apr 13, 2021

Ciao Mamma

This will not be easy. When I need to work through a struggle, I write. But this time it's impossible to organize my thoughts and navigate in this tempest. The reason is that my north star, my beacon in the fog, my rudder are gone. She has flown away, and I am lost.

I'll let these few photos do the talking.

The majority of these happy moments with my mother are captured at the tables, enjoying great food. Drinking wine. Laughing and loving.






























Ciao Mamma.



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