I have a handful of coping mechanisms to tide me over between trips to Italy. I spend hours scrolling through the Instagram accounts of my favorite locals abroad, I plunge to the depths of Netflix to find any and all Italian series and movies, and most importantly I make an Italy-themed run to Trader Joe’s. While TJ’s is a far cry from my old grocery stores in Italy, it does offer a nostalgic selection of some of my favorite dietary staples from Italy. Thanks to Trader Joe’s I can fuel my delusions that I am actually sunning myself on a terrace in Tuscany, enjoying an afternoon aperitivo.
Note – I am not a cook (I still have PTSD from my attempt at cacio e pepe) but luckily, many of my favorite Italian foods require nothing more than simple assemblage as reflected in this grocery list. If you are looking for exciting Italian culinary challenges this quarantine I suggest you go here, here, or here. If you are looking to spend more time eating than cooking, stay put.
First thing’s first – carbs. Specifically – ciabatta. Chewy, kind of dry, but somehow still delicious, ciabatta serves as the perfect base to cradle any creative crostini you can dream up. My personal favorite is the OG – diced roma tomatoes, fresh basil, and olive oil.
Speaking of olive oil – TJ’s presents an impressive collection. I opt for the standard organic EVOO – not the cheapest (because I’m an adult with a salary) but not the most expensive (because I’m not that fancy yet).
While I’m in the neighborhood, I also make sure to restock on balsamic vinegar. Before you jump to conclusions – no, this is not to mix with my EVOO for a ciabiatta dip. Although that is a delicious combo, it’s frowned upon by Italians. In the spirit of keeping my Italian fantasy pure, I will instead use the balsamic as a delightful addition to salads, vegetables, and even prosciutto and melon. When picking up a bottle of balsamic there is really only one rule – make sure it’s from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. Most likely you’ll see that the balsamic is from Modena – as a city in EM and primary producer of balsamic that checks out.
Next comes perhaps the climax of the grocery list – cheese. TJ’s has a solid selection of Italian cheeses, but what sets them apart is their burrata – which can be a hit or miss find at other grocers. I love burrata. I could write poetry about burrata. I can’t even say the word burrata without needing a moment alone. Thanks to TJ’s you don’t have to wait until you can make it to Puglia to try this masterpiece of a cheese. If you’re catching up, burrata is basically mozzarella but better given the surprise creamy center. I am a purist when it comes to preparation – a dash of salt, pepper, olive oil and perhaps a tomato on the side is all I need. Don’t get me started on the “creative” taste profiles you’ll see paired with burrata at New American style restaurants. Keep your pomegranate and pine nuts to yourself please!
Next, I find myself in the aisle of pickled delights. TJ’s offers am impressive assortment of pickled anything for your aperitivo pleasures – a variety of olives, peppers, capers, etc. My personal favorite, however, are the artichokes. I really didn’t eat artichokes until I lived in Italy – so this particular pickled delicacy triggers a uniquely Italian nostalgia for me.
Of course I won’t be leaving without my nitrates well represented, in particular, prosciutto di Parma (another lovechild of Emilia-Romagna). I love prosciutto so much that if I had to choose one meat to eat for the rest of my life, this paper-thin pork product would be the winner. I try to pair my prosciutto with the above cheese and pickled delicacies. However, a package of prosciutto in my fridge is quite honestly in danger of consumption prior to any sort of preparation occurring.
To ensure I’m getting all of my daily nitrates I also make sure to pick up a package of pancetta (Italian bacon, more or less). I typically include pancetta in simple pastas to instantly feel more Italian. For example – pancetta + pesto, pancetta + tomato sauce + chili pepper flakes (a hack arrabiata/amatriciana), or pancetta + pecorino + pepper.
My basket is in dire need of more carbs at this point, for which I turn to dry gnocchi. These Italian dumplings are a quick and easy substitute for pasta and with an expiration day 10 months away, they’re a good pandemic staple. And no – I absolutely do not plan on “hand-making” gnocchi at any point during quarantine. I would need to drain Netflix of all content prior to considering that as a form of entertainment.
For those of you out there like me who lack the ability to grow absolutely anything, I always make sure to grab this unreasonably large package of basil to dress up any and all of the aforementioned dishes.
Finally, I can’t leave without a delightful warm-weather (what would be Italian-terrace-worthy) beverage. Specifically – the addictively-refreshing Italian Blood Orange Soda. A sweet, sour, and extra bubbly complement to all of the above.
With grocery shopping complete, I can now get back to taking virtual tours of Italy on the gram, lounging on a suburban deck which I will pretend is a cozy rooftop terrace, or streaming The Lizzie McGuire Movie (let’s be honest).
**If you have other TJ’s finds that quell your Italy anxiety, make sure to share in the comments below!