In the searing height of summer for much of the world around, an extra inch on any body anywhere may feel like a serious global threat.
When I returned from Italy last summer and received compliments – however puzzled – for the weight I’d lost in the land of pasta, it became clear there was a mystery to the Mediterranean diet. How, in a region notorious for its hyper-consumption of carbohydrates, where a clean plate makes the happiest mamma, are people so damn beautiful? My recent move to Milan and a conversation with Ivy Stark, executive chef of the hot midtown Mediterranean restaurant Amalia, explain how Italian women make diet secrets and habits look like a piece of torta.
Una at a time – The Italian meal happens three times a day and is never eaten on the run. Meals are served in several courses, each consisting of just one dish. The first course is the mouth-watering pasta course, and Stark explains why it’s served early on. “The pasta course in an Italian meal serves to enhance the appetite for the main course.” It also allows plenty of room for the main dish, often a light protein combined with vegetables in a sauce, puree, or frittata. A salad may follow (bright greens, chopped tomatoes, olive oil, salt, and pepper), then perhaps a small dessert like cheese, fruit, gelato, or espresso. A single course never leaves its consumers stuffed.
Serve me right – The quintessential family-style execution of the Italian meal means diners control their portions. They’re careful not to over-serve themselves as doing so may appear brutish, and because the entire table is awaiting a single bowl (unlike the American meal where several dishes circle the table at once). By the time the next course is presented, each diner is eager to try what’s next and seldom reaches for seconds.
All natural – Can you say frutti e vegetali? According to Stark, Italians buy them fresh several times a week. Unlike many Americans, they rarely eat food that has been biologically altered or chemically processed in any way. Also, the use of olive oil – not butter or margarine – as the base for most dishes significantly cuts the consumption of calories and chemicals. And atop most Italian dinner tables sit carafes of two of nature’s purest gifts, water and wine. Italian ingredients are incredibly useful to the body, and the body is able to process them quickly for their benefits.
Survival and enjoyment – If you started your day with one decadence – say, homemade bread slathered in Nutella and dunked in fresh caffe latte – wouldn’t you be satisfied too? Stark says, “The Italians take the time to cook and enjoy a meal, and they eat what they want to – but in moderation.” The Italians are ever blissful, never hurried, and therefore quite easily content.
For our pleasure, our health, and our waistlines we can take a lesson from the Italians who simply and absolutely love what they eat. They are the masters of the philosophy that a meal – a most basic social and biological necessity for survival – should help to make every day as belissima as can be.