It is valuable to arrive in Italy with a good sense of the way Italians look at food. Forget complexities or recipes, concentrate on the closeness of Italians in traditional life to food, its production, its sale, its preparation. If French cuisine is a process of sophisticated alteration of the natural, Italian cucina is about the enhancement and appreciation of the natural.
The SBS Italian Food Safari is a good place to start.
Then, in Italy, with the opportunity to prepare food in your own kitchen, avoid doing the 'supermarket life' thing, with the big shop. It is best to shop meal by meal, or at most day by day. It takes time, it takes thought, but it will enable immersion and proper preoccupation with food as central to life, not as a rush job.
Look at what others are buying, consider buying similar, use the internet to research, to find out what might be done at home. Ask for advice. Some prices are the opposite to Australia. Prosciutto Cotto [cooked ham, what we call 'ham'] is more expensive generally in Italy than Prosciutto Crudo [raw ham, what we call 'prosciutto'].
At the core of everything are these things:
- wines which in normal life are low priced and local... check the labels, start out with products made within a modest radius. They will go best with local food too.
- olive oil: extra virgin olive oil is oil which has been extracted without heat treatment. Olive oil can be pale and golden coloured, in which case generally late season, less flavour, may suit use in the frying pan. Or it can be bright fresh and green tinged, earlier season olive oil with more flavour suitable for abundant use on salad or vegetables or skin.
- bread which really does need to be bought every day. If you can find a place which bakes through the day, you need not buy a whole loaf but buy by the hectogram (100gms), buy enough for one meal. Three hundred grams is 'tre etti' [pron: tray etti] etc.
Look for special things in markets, things brought to market by growers. I asked for best artichokes for Carciofi Romani and the market stallholder obliged.
It can be disappointing to go to Italy and find the same apple varieties (Delicious, Fuji, etc). Look in the market for unusual apples. Price is likely to closely follow quality. In the mandarin season, you can buy items called 'mandarine' but next to them will be 'Clementine' - almost identical to look at, amazingly better to eat. Also with oranges, note that blood oranges produce a juice from a planet much closer to heaven. To experience this best, ask for a spremuta di arancia [orange juice] in a bar.
Expect in most places (shops, market stalls) that the range may be limited. It will generally only include what is seasonal and fresh. Don't hunt out of season things, unless you want it to taste like supermarket food).
Try to avoid eating within a kilometre of a major tourist attraction, or at least at sufficient distance to imagine that locals would be seen in an eating place. Avoid 'menu turistico.' Go to where ordinary Italians eat in ordinary (often wonderful) places. Try to adopt the eating hours they adopt when they have time - lunch after 1pm with siesta to follow. Dinner after 8pm after a walk.
Above all, abandon all prior conceptions of food. As Elena said to her daughter on the phone after dining at Tre Scalini "I didn't know food could be orgasmic". Open your heart.