One of the first things, “first timers” to Italy discover that surprises them: how much structure there is at a meal. And even though one can impose American habits on a restaurant experience, the menu will give you the road map of how Italians eat. But if you are fortunate enough to dine in someone’s home, it will be an experience to remember – not only because of the deliciousness of the food and wine, but the fun, elegance and style that the Italians deem equally as important.
The aperitivo is both a drink and an occasion. Coming from the Latin word meaning “to open up” – it is what Italians drink to ready their appetites. The drink is normally alcoholic and not sweet. Think Campari and Soda, the Aperol Spritz, a glass of bubbly Prosecco. It is the festive, social kick off for the evening!
Note: Most of the time, you will see people enjoying their aperitivo in a café with friends before going elsewhere for dinner. But it’s a lovely idea to hand someone a glass of prosecco if you are entertaining at home and welcoming guests. This is always a part of my “at home” ritual with guests.
As with many Italian words, this one means exactly what it is: “before the meal”. (It does not mean “before the pasta!”). Presentation and thought go into what is served so that it complements the next courses. Bruschetta (pronounced “broo-skettah” not “broo-shetta”) is a simple and elegant offering that can be made with a variety of toppings depending on the season. Fresh chopped tomatoes with basil for summer is always a hit. Salami, olives, a little cheese also can be served.
Here comes the first plate which is almost always a starch. It will be a pasta, lasagna, risotto or soup. This is not the Olive Garden size portion. Luxurious and seasonal ingredients will be used such as truffles.
Note: Bread is not served with the starch, but rather with what comes next:
This is the main event, the second dish. If one has eaten the portions of food served so far and not ordered seconds, there should be room in the stomach for this course, which is always a protein. Fish, meat, poultry. In Italy, there are no automatic “sides” that come on this plate unless you order them. Known as contorni, which are normally vegetables, will be served at the same time, often on a separate plate. Why? Italians hold for high regard for each dish served and do not allow flavors to get mixed up with others unless they go together.
Bread is on now on hand!
To wipe up the last delicious morsel on the plate, Italians will use a “scarpetta.” This is the word for “little shoe” and it comes from using a small piece of bread to pick up what’s left. They may not do this in a fine restaurant, but certainly at home and at less formal gatherings.
Note: Unlike our tradition of serving a salad first, Italians may eat a salad after the main course. There is a very good reason for this! They do not use salad dressing, so the extra-virgin olive oil with a vinegar such as balsamic or red wine, will cleanse the palate and help you digest what you have eaten. It’s a mouth refresher!
But wait a minute, what would we be drinking through all of these courses?
Italians drink either water or wine with their food. (unless it’s a pizza, in which case they might have a soda or beer). The water bottles will arrive first, either sparkling (frizzante) or still (naturale). Italians, like all Europeans, do not drink their water with ice cubes. Another good reason why: iced water coagulates with the food in the stomach and hinders digestion. Cool water is best. I know America is ice-obsessed but next time you have a dinner party, buy some chilled Pellegrino as an option. Just putting this on your table adds a nice Italian touch!
(The wine, either red or white, will be chosen to go with the Secondo Piatto. I will write about this in a future blog.)
A variety of local cheeses with fruit that complements them will be served, such as a percorino (sheep cheese) with pears.
Note: Italians have made an art of peeling fruit during this course. Since they do not normally eat the peel, it has become a ritualistic act, which not only is a lovely thing to do and watch, but once again serves to SLOW DOWN the meal. A sharp knife is always provided for this reason.
Dessert, which can be anything from gelato to sorbetto to cannoli to tiramisu.
(Did you know that tiramisu means “ lift me up” in Italian?)
This stage of our Italian dinner calls for an espresso. Strong, no milk.
Note: Italians do not drink cappuccino after 11 a.m. Coffee with milk and sugar is considered a breakfast drink.
As its name implies, a digestivo is served at the very end of the meal to aid digestion. While sweet liqueur such as limoncello is offered, a better choice is an amaro. Amaro means “bitter” in Italian and these are mostly made of herbs which when ingested, have a wonderful effect on the digestion. Fernet Branca is a personal favorite, but there are many.
“A tavola non si invecchia.” - Italian proverb
“At the table (with good friends and family) you do not become old.”
So, this was quite a journey! And now you know why an Italian dinner can take hours to get through. They have perfected the art of dining. It is one of the great joys of Italian life, which I infuse my own dinner gatherings with both in Italy and here at home.
Slowing down, savoring each bite, enjoying the company of friends and family. What more is there?
We will be doing this every day of the next Aria Tour of Tuscany, which begins October 21st in Florence.
The Pasta Making Class: Voted Best Food Experience of the Week by Spring 2017 Aria Tour Group
Most meals are taken in our Villa or in private residence, chefs on hand to create daily culinary experiences you will never forget. And no, we don’t always have all the courses listed above each time, but you will have had an immersion into the healthy and delicious benefits of the Italian table that will last you a lifetime.
We have created not so much a Tour of Tuscany – but a Trip to Italy that is truly transformative.
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