You’d be hard-pressed to find an American with an eating life as steeped in Italian food as mine. My mother started me on spaghetti with marinara sauce perhaps six hours after I conquered strained bananas, and when my father took us out to eat, which he did often and exuberantly, it was Italian followed by more Italian. Later on I lived in Rome, where a plate of bucatini all’amatriciana is never more than a half-block away. I wallowed in Italian. I marinated in it.
But I only recently realized I’d never eaten exclusively Italian, for days on end. I’d never confined myself to those ingredients and dishes that can be credibly found within the contours of a boot-shaped country. I had this epiphany when I challenged myself to go on a five-day enforced food march, to test the appeal, not to mention the elasticity, of Italian cuisine.
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The challenge hit hardest at the start of one of those days when I stood on a corner near my Manhattan apartment, hungry and inconsolable. My multiday experiment demanded that I dip into the restaurant on my left, where an Italian-style breakfast cheesecake—in Italy, breakfast is treated pretty much like dessert—awaited me. But straight ahead was my favorite bagel place, and right then, I would’ve killed for a bagel. I wasn’t sure I could ignore the allure of a sesame one with lox spread.