That’s a question Elizabeth Minchilli, an American who has lived in Rome for years, is constantly asked. Full disclosure: The food writer happens to be on the slender side herself.
Her answer comes in the pasta chapter of her new book coming out April 7, “Eating Rome: Living the Good Life in the Eternal City” (St. Martin's Griffin, New York, $25).
“Yes, we do eat pasta every day. And yes, even I can manage to eat a pasta course followed by a meat course,” she writes. Here’s the secret — and it doesn't involve a Never Ending Pasta Pass at the Olive Garden.
“The pasta we are all eating comes in a very controlled portion. When it comes to eating pasta, Italians are very measurement conscious. And it’s a very easy formula to follow: 100 grams (3-1/2 ounces) or less of pasta per person. It is never a heaping portion like one you would expect in the States.”
In the ‘90s, Los Angeles Italian restaurants routinely served pasta in giant bowls, each portion enough to feed three or four. That’s what people wanted. And if the portions at Buca di Beppo are anything to go by, many people are still enthralled by that abbondanza.
When Evan Funke first opened Bucato, his ode to handmade pasta in the Emilia-Romagna style, he got some complaints about the portion size at the Culver City restaurant. But he really was only serving pasta the way the Italians eat it, not as a main course, but as one course in a multi-course meal that includes antipasto, primo (first course), secondo (second course) — and contorno (or side vegetable) at the very least.
"Each course is sized according to its place within a sequence of dishes," says Funke. "If you figure after the entree and vegetable comes the salad, then fruit and cheese, then dessert, coffee and grappa, you're looking at a serious meal. Obviously most Americans don't eat this way. I don't eat this way."
"The portion size at Bucato," Funke explains, "reflects an Italian approach to eating where pasta is never served in heaping Claim Jumper-sized helpings. Our pasta is not easily or cheaply made. In general a single portion of fresh pasta in Italy is around 100 grams not the 300 or 400 grams you see in most Italian restaurants in Los Angeles."
Angelo Auriana, chef and co-owner of the Factory Kitchen in downtown L.A. remembers having a conversation with a newly arrived Italian chef in San Francisco amazed at the size of the pasta portions in this country.
"Remember," says Auriana, "in Italy, pasta for us is basically an appetizer. Portions of handmade egg pasta are 65 or 70 grams. Here they’re between 100 and 110 grams which is almost twice the Italian portion.” Note that Auriana's idea of a huge portion is about the normal serving size for Funke.
He goes on to explain that Italians eat a little something before the pasta course and have something after too. They’re not basing an entire meal on pasta. But here, people sometimes look on pasta as a main course and for a grown person, 65 grams is not enough if that’s all you're eating.
“The beauty in the Italian way of eating is that you might start with wild asparagus in season for only a few weeks or fried artichokes, then have a little pasta and something else and panna cotta for dessert,” says Auriana. You get three for four different tastes in one meal.
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