When Italy is mentioned, what immediately comes to mind? Food, right? Pasta and pizza being the more common favorites. Eating and good food are ingrained so much in their culture that they are one of the countries with famous chefs. What makes Italian food and culture different from others around the world?
The rich Italian culture
Italian culture is rich because it encompasses music, arts, architecture, food and family. Most usually, these different factors all come together when centered on family. When there is family, there is up to be food and good music. When there is good arts and architecture to be celebrated, family comes together. Italians raise their children to remain close to family even in their adulthood, and every birth of every child is good reason to come together and celebrate.
The richness of their culture is also a result of the deep and long history of Italy. It is the birthplace of western civilization. It is also the birthplace of the Roman Catholic Church, the ancient Roman Empire and the Renaissance period. The emergence of laws, religious practices and arts all influence the rich Italian culture of these days.
The diverse Italian cuisine
In Italy, cooking is not just a chore; it is a form of art. A good example is the variety of pasta that varies in shapes, lengths and widths from penne to lasagna to spaghetti. Wine and cheese are important either as part of the meal or as ingredients of the meal.
Because Italy is an economically rich nation and it dates back to the Roman Empire when feasts were common, foods are rich and aplenty using ingredients like meat, grains, spices and vegetables.
A day of eating in Italy
For breakfast, it starts simple – at least in their terms. For most of us, a breakfast of croissant or brioche together with cappuccino or espresso is already a treat. When in Italy, this starting meal for the day is taken in a local coffee bar where they remain standing while eating.
Whatever hurriedness in the morning is compensated by the leisurely lunch around 1p.m. that usually lasts for more than an hour. Lunch is called Pranzo, and is the main meal of the day especially in the countryside where labor is hard and toilsome. In the metropolitan areas, while lighter, it still involves a three-course meal. There is the antipasto or the appetizer, followed by the piatto which is the first plate. This can be pasta or soup or rice. The second piatto is meat or fish. For dessert, there is fresh fruit.
In the mid-afternoon, perhaps after a siesta, one may enjoy cakes and pastries during coffee break.
Dinner, or cena to the Italians, is another three-course meal that starts at 8 p.m. – maybe a bit later, but never earlier. For starters, antipasto is a small serving of olives or meat. The main meal is pasta or rice or soup. This can be followed by meat or fish with vegetables as side dish. And it ends with fruit and Grappa, an alcoholic beverage that is a pomace brandy from grapes.
While breakfast is hurried, lunch is leisurely; dinner is a celebration with family and friends. Dinner time is the time to chat, sit back and gossip or laugh. In an Italian restaurant where tables are sought-after, the check is never given unless asked and nobody is asked to leave just to sit someone else.
Merging of cuisine and culture
When there is food, there is family. When there is family gathered together, there definitely would be food. One is part of the other, and thus the merging of cuisine and culture.
Marcella Hazan, in her ‘The Classic Italian Cookbook’, says Italian food is the product of two arts – the art of cooking and the art of eating’. Food – like family – is enjoyed, the companionship savored, the relationships examined all at a leisurely pace. It is done with thorough enjoyment, with sheer appreciation, and never of greed.
Do as the Italians do
As eating is part of culture, there are some local customs that have to be followed to show good etiquette:
- In a restaurant or when invited to a home for dinner, remain standing until shown to a seat. Wait for the invitation to sit before doing so;
- Follow the hostess. Wait for her to be seated first, to start eating first and to get up after eating. You are not to do these things before she does;
- Eating is done with a fork on the left hand and the knife on the right;
- When eating cheese, use the knife, not your fingers or even your fork;
- The host may offer a toast. If he does, as a guest, you are to return the favor and give a toast towards the latter part of the meal;
- Your first serving should be a smaller portion so you can be invited and cajoled into having seconds. Incidentally, you have to wait for your host to cajole you;
- For Italians, it is acceptable if there is a small portion of left-overs on your plate;
- If you do not want to be cajoled into another glass of wine, leave it nearly full. Do not be tempted to finish it all.
When in Italy, soak in the culture and the cuisine by staying near the locals. Follow where they eat. Do not be surprised if they get a pizza to go from a pizzeria that is just a hole-in-the-wall. Get a Panini from a nearby bakery. Listen to the laughter of big families coming together for a hearty dinner. The culture is as rich as the food.