Eating Italian Style
Italians love to talk about food. Men and women alike. At some point in our conversation, whether we’re in Beijing or on an African Safari, either with friends or mere acquaintances, food becomes the main topic, and we engage in lengthy and detailed descriptions of how to make a dish, or nostalgic talks on how much we miss our food back home, even if we are only staying on the Fiji Islands for 8 days.
More than the actual recipe, we might exchange the different versions and modalities of preparing something. Do you think that ragù (meat sauce) is only done one way and with set ingredients? There can be stark differences between a “North Bolognese” and a Southern one. Every family has its own variations too. But when it comes to table setting, the etiquette brings us back united as one. A British or French table may be more sophisticated than ours, as we tend to give more importance to what’s on our plate than to the plate itself; yet this doesn’t mean that we do not look for elegance and we don’t follow some fundamental rules.
Have you been to Italy yet? If so, have you noticed? Italians eat almost exclusively seated at the table and almost always prefer a tablecloth to more informal table mats. The tablecloth is very important, we find it adds elegance to a meal, and almost every household owns at least a handful of beautiful precious ones, mostly coming from our mothers’ or grandmothers’ dowries. A bottle of wine and a carafe of water are omnipresent, and if we are having a slightly more formal meal, then paper napkins are banned.
Different plates are used for each course and this hierarchy is also displayed in the way the dishes are placed: if a meal starts with an appetizer this will be placed on a small plate either on top of the ‘piatto fondo’ (literally a deep plate), or to the right side – depending on the regional tradition and on the space available at the table. The ‘piatto fondo’ is where we serve our first course – simply called ‘primo’ – mainly a pasta or risotto dish. This, in turn, is placed over a flat dish or ‘piatto piano’, where we serve our ‘secondo’, usually meat or fish. Every time we are done with a course, the plate is removed from the top, and so on.
The Italians usually have their green salad as a side dish served with their second course. However, we have been taking a leaf out of the Americans’ book, and lately, we have started to eat greens at the beginning of our meals. We know now that it curbs our appetite, but in Italy – until some time ago -having a hearty appetite wasn’t considered necessarily a bad thing. Also, many of us just like anywhere else, has started to go vegetarian or even vegan, but with this type of cuisine as well, things are done with attention to gusto (taste). Next time you’re in Italy, try a vegetarian restaurant and you’ll be deliciously surprised; a lot of typical Italian dishes are reinvented, like the ragú made with seitan, and old dishes are re-discovered, like the Panzanella Toscana made with stale bread, the polenta, or the minestrone – all naturally vegan, because they are made simply, with locally farmed fresh ingredients.
Did I mention, dessert, coffee, and fruit? We usually have them in this order, many times skipping the first one, and almost never skipping the second one. As for fruit, yes, it can bloat, and some of it can be fattening. But in almost any Italian house you’ll be invited to or in any restaurant you’ll go to, it will be offered or simply placed on a tray or a bowl at the center of the table. Nothing fancy, and almost exclusively seasonal. And please remember, that whenever possible, Italians do not like to be rushed, and thus, a Christmas lunch or even a Sunday meal will keep you seated for hours. The coffee ritual itself can take about 30 minutes, by the time we decide and count who will have one, and with how many sugars. Maybe one ‘caffettiera’ won’t be enough. Maybe we’ll “correct” it with some liquor, maybe we’ll just have the ‘Amaro’ or the ‘Grappa’ by itself later. Meanwhile, it’s dinner time.
Nicoletta Lucia Paganucci