Because of my dietary sensitivities, there are certain foods that I avoid when dining out: pizza, dim sum, Philly cheese steaks, and most Italian food. True, my choice to not eat these delicacies is based on culinary stereotypes. But they are not unfounded and the majority of these dishes, especially when prepared by someone else, will be full of cheese, cured meats, soy sauce, and other salty ingredients. So if you’re thinking about picking up some ravioli take-out, fuggedaboutit!
But as it often happens, I was wrong. And no, I’m not afraid to admit it.
Thankfully, after seven plus years of low sodium detective work, I defied my instincts and walked into a small, Italian corner store. I had a few minutes to spare and something was telling me that I had some low sodium snooping to do. It turns out, a lot of Italian food, made in the traditional Italian fashion, contains very little salt. Surprising, sì?
Basic tomato sauces, Tuscan bread, and most pastas are all made without salt due to the fact that other critical Italian ingredients–like cured meats and cheeses–contain enough sodium for the entire dish. So in reality, many of these small, Italian delis are low sodium hot spots, selling products that you cannot find in normal grocery stores. And if you live in the city, chances are that you have an Italian delicatessen no further than a tomato’s throw from your doorstep, and I highly suggest doing some urban adventuring to find the specialty markets that lurk nearby.
My particular neighborhood favorite is Pasta Gina, just blocks from my own San Francisco villa (slash condo). And for the past year, I have frequented Gina’s counter for pounds of fresh pappardelle, rigatoni, and fettucini, that come in a rainbow of garden-fresh flavors, from simple pepper and garlic, to lemon, herb, and spinach–all salt-free.
Beyond the salt-free pastas, though, Gina’s counter is also filled with an olfactory festival of prepared Italian foods–from Panko-crusted chicken, a refrigerator of sauces, a flurry of desserts, and always tubs full of roasted garlic–dishes that I look at longingly and try to recreate in my own kitchen. But it was upon a recent visit, for my latest Examiner.com article, that I noticed something strange about Gina’s offerings. The words “dairy-free,” “vegan,” “gluten-free,” and even “tomato-free” crowded her menu board, like tourists on the Ponte Vecchio. Clearly, it was strange enough to see Italian food made without such customary ingredients, like tomatoes; but the spectrum of choices on Gina’s diet-friendly menu was even more intriguing.
So how did this little Italian market become a haven for those with dietary needs? Turns out both Gina and her husband have culinary limitations of their own. Gina was diagnosed with Chrone’s disease when she was nineteen and her husband is lactose-intolerent. And as a result, they have learned to expertly navigate their cooking challenges while creating authentic Italian food that is so good, it would even knock off the orange clogs from Mario Batali’s feet.
From personal experience, Gina knows how hard it is to eat out with health-related, dietary needs, and so she tries to make food that will suit anyone’s requirements. She always keeps fresh ingredients in the back kitchen and she told me, that if there is something you want made in a specific way, “just ask.” Even more wonderful, it turns out Gina does not roast any of her vegetables with salt. Instead, she uses a clever combination of oils, herbs, and citrus to give the them the texture and flavor she desires. So fuggedabout a simple pound of uncooked pasta and grab a pound of orange-roasted beets. Or ask Gina for a sodium free version of her gorgeous raviolis.
The next time you think something is off-limits, give it a try. These days, it seems more and more people are sympathetic to (or aware of) health-related, dietary needs, and simple, fresh cooking is becoming the norm. Which makes cooking, eating, and ordering all the more simple and all the more delicious.
Mangiamo and as always, chow on!