Food is an Italian art form linked to the changing seasons. (Photo: fresh fruit on market image by Melissa Schalke from Fotolia.com )
In Italy, food is “twice blessed because it is the product of two arts, the art of cooking and the art of eating,” famed cookbook author Marcella Hazan wrote in “The Classic Italian Cookbook.” Italian food is something to be savored, revered, studied and examined, at a leisurely pace and with gusto, but not greed.
In the first meal of the day there is little hint of what lies ahead. Italians start the day simply, perhaps with a cornetti (croissant) or slice of brioche, accompanied by a cappuccino, or just an espresso taken standing up at a local coffee bar as it is cheaper than sitting at a cafe table.
Pranzo (lunch) traditionally was the main meal of the day, and in the countryside, it still is for many workers. In urban areas, lunch has become lighter, although it remains a three-course meal: antipasto (appetizer), primo piatto (first plate) which is usually pasta, soup or rice, followed by secondo piatto, a meat or fish dish. It is also a leisurely affair, lasting more than an hour and ending with fresh fruit. Italians prefer to enjoy cakes and pastries with a mid-afternoon coffee break.
Cena (dinner) follows the same pattern of lunch, usually three courses beginning with antipasto – small servings of cured meat, olives, little bites to perk the palate. Next is pasta, rice or soup, followed by a meat or fish dish, accompanied by contorni (vegetable side dishes), ending with fruit and perhaps a glass of grappa.
Italians consider dinner an opportunity to relax with friends and family, to chat and gossip, laugh and share. Typically, Italians eat later than many Americans and northern Europeans — lunch at 1 p.m. and dinner never before 8 p.m., often later in summer. Waiters will not bring a check until one is requested, and no one will be asked to hurry up and eat to free a table.
There has been a blurring of the lines in defining types of restaurants in Italy. Trattoria used to refer to a local restaurant featuring affordable, regional foods in a relaxed setting, but the name has been co-opted by some chic urban restaurants to denote authenticity and rustic cooking. An osteria is a more humble establishment, usually family owned and operated, a place where customers are served homecooked-style meals, often at communal tables and for a reasonable price.
There are two cardinal rules of Italian cuisine – eat locally and eat seasonally. Imported foods are changing this picture, but faithful Italian cooks would never eat asparagus, tomatoes or artichokes out of season. Food is part of the rhythm of life, and so Italians eagerly await the arrival of seasonal ingredients from mushrooms in the fall to wild strawberries in the spring.
Follow the Locals
Eat like the locals to save and savor: Buy picnic fare at outdoor markets and city salumerias (Italian delis). Opt for a take-out panini (sandwich) for lunch from a bakery. Buy pizza al taglio (by the slice) from a tiny hole-in-the-wall pizzeria. Eat cafeteria-style at a tavola calda (hot table) – choose from a wide variety of home-style dishes and pay at the register. It is hard to eat badly in Italy, but look for a spot where the locals are eating, pass on the “menu turistico” and ask for the “menu del giorno” — the daily specials.
Robin Thornley has been a successful writer for more than 25 years, penning articles for national magazines, newspapers and websites. She specializes in a variety of topics, including business, politics, lifestyle trends, travel and cuisine. She also is the author of two guidebooks.