My last post about Italy has to be about the food. I am like my mother in that I believe love surrounds the table, and meals cooked for family and friends bring people together to create lasting memories.
There is a real difference in the way Italians eat compared to most Americans. Do not expect to see any take-out restaurants or fast food chains, other than the occasional McDonald’s. Eating in a space not designed for eating (such as on a train, bench, or sidewalk curb) is frowned upon and is downright illegal in some cities. A lot of restaurants do have hustlers outside who will try to entice you to come in. DO NOT FALL FOR THEM, NO MATTER HOW CUTE AND CHARMING THEY MAY BE! In my experience, restaurants that were good had no need to hire hustlers. Once you have found a restaurant and are seated, a waiter will come over to offer you some water, which is always followed by the question “Gas? Or no Gas?” This became a running joke in our party as we would say “Gas? Or no gas?” in our best thick Italian accents. What the waiters were referring to was whether you wanted carbonated or non-carbonated water. A word to the frugal: charges are incurred for every bottle of water that is brought to your table. You can ask for tap water, which is free, but the waiter will act like he doesn’t understand what you are saying, and it is more than likely that you will never see such tap water. Ever. Then, you will have to quench your thirst with the wine, which isn’t a bad idea, unless you are dehydrated after a day spent sightseeing in the hot Italian sun.
While in Italy, it was my goal to try as many different foods as I could. Dinners are served in five courses, and are purchased a la carte. I would usually order one course, which gave me lots of opportunities throughout our trip to try different things without coming home a blimp. The antipasto, or appetizer is the first course. First courses were things like salads, crostini, cold cuts and bruschetta. Salads in Italy are different than what I’m used to in that they are layered or clumped in the bowl and not mixed. No dressing is needed, because the contents of the salad are so flavorful. Hard boiled eggs, slices of moist mozzarella cheese (the real jiggly stuff) shredded carrots and wedges of sun ripened tomatoes add flavor and moisture.
The next course is the primo course, which is where you will find pasta dishes and pizza. I did try pizza, and I wasn’t a huge fan. Cheese was sparse and crusts were soggy. I guess I’m used to American pizza. I do love ravioli, and tried several variations while in Italy. I also discovered the great combination of pasta with beans one day for lunch in Verona. I vowed to try to make this at home.
The secondo course is where you will find chicken, meat and fish dishes. The contoro course is usually served along with this and contains vegetables. Finally, desserts are known as the dolce course. For us, this meant nightly doses of gelato. There are gelato cafes all over, and this is really the only socially acceptable thing to eat while you are strolling through the streets. The best restaurants I went to had menus entirely in Italian. Most waiters were kind enough to translate and recommend great dishes. I had out of this world chicken in Siena, the best Cafe American and croissant in Lucca, great appetizers in Tuscany, ravioli in Assisi, caprese sandwiches in Cinque Terre and a leisurely breakfast of fresh fruit, croissants, meats and creme brûlée on a sunny balcony in Verona. No matter what city we were in there was always good wine.
Coming back, we flew into Philadelphia before heading home. I went into a bit of culture shock as I took in the fried foods, saw the huge portion sizes and watched people eat (gasp!) on benches and not at tables. Not too long ago, I was at the mall, and I watched as a teenager chowed down on a full meal out of a styrafoam container while waiting to see a store representative. I think the Italians have it right here. Meals are meant to be lingered over and enjoyed. You should really taste what you are eating, and shouldn’t eat while you are rushing to get somewhere. Expect dinners to take two hours, and lunch at least an hour. That being said, I did sneak a chocolate croissant while we were waiting to get into the Vatican. I felt like one of my students, sneaking bites of food when it is not snack time, as I stealthily broke off bits of the croissant that I had hidden in my bag.
A common type of eatery you will see in Italy is a bar. It is not the bar that we think of in America; rather these are multipurpose establishments and change throughout the day. In the morning you will find coffee and croissants, at lunch you can get sandwiches and slices of pizza, and after dinner these places are open for drinking, with people spilling out onto the piazzas to socialize.
When it comes to the check, the waiter usually does not bring it until you ask for it. Also, they are not quick to whisk your plate away. You know how if you are a fast eater and your plate gets cleared away and everyone else is still eating? Well, you look like you’re either starving or a glutton, and it can be uncomfortable to not at least pretend that you are scraping up that last bit of food with your fork, while your companions finish their meals. In Italy, they wait until the last person is done, and may not even clear the table before you leave. Once you have your food, waiters leave you alone to enjoy your food and companions. If you need something, it’s relatively easy to flag someone down. After the meal is done, you sit. there is no rushing you out so someone else can have your table. And tipping is not necessary. It is customary to only round up to the next euro.
If there was anything I learned about food in Italy it is this. Make it fresh. Linger over it and enjoy it, and be willing to have an adventure as you seek out and try a variety of food and establishments.