Italian traditional food is known for its wonderful recipes and wines, but often an important side of it is hidden or even unseen.
This side is what eating means for Italians. It’s not just eating, it means much more.
If you happen in a major Italian city you may find some shops with continued opening time. But the most close from 1 to 4.30pm. Italians do stop for lunch.
Life has changed in Italy too, not allowing everyone to go home for lunch and maybe take even a rest. But most public offices close at 2.00pm and the ones that work from 9 to 5 have lunch time, where people go to restaurants and have a real meal.
I went to meet a friend who works in a bank office in Rome and we had lunch together. She suggested a small familiar restaurant (trattoria) where I ate wonderful potato gnocchi and unforgettable artichokes with potatoes. A real lunch, that is maybe served in luxury Italian restaurants abroad, eaten during a lunch break from job.
This idea lead to another interesting fact about restaurants in Italy and Italian restaurants abroad.
Usually, the Italian restaurants abroad are good and sometimes luxury restaurants. Very well decorated and often a very pleasant environment, many times tied to society fashions.
In Italy, the luxury and the “environment” are secondary. Often an Italian friend takes you to a very good restaurant, and it looks too poorly decorated. Don’t worry, he cares about you, because…you eat wonderful food, and that’s the important thing for your friend.
He does not think about taking you to a fashionable place where food is not good. He would fail towards you, and for an Italian, it hurts.
There are so many restaurants in Italy that are square spoiled rooms that are really not inviting…but their food is wonderful. They just don’t consider the decoration, but what you’re going to eat.
In Italy go out to have dinner is also a social program, as all around the world. But what you eat has a stronger role in the whole evening.
Among other cultures, the food may be medium, and people talk about other things and have a good evening.
In Italy, may be the most enjoyable people, but if the food is not good, they will feel like the evening was a little bit wasted for that. They will talk about it, comment it, showing that the food isn’t merely part of the evening, but quite the main attraction.
Another side of tradition concerning Italian food regards eating at certain times, following a established order in eating (never eat a meat dish before the pasta one, for example), and some other small but present rules.
Concerning time, Italians have lunch from 1.00pm to 2.00pm. Most restaurants close at 2.30 pm. It’s frustrating for a tourist visiting Rome, for example, to find the restaurant closed at 3pm.
Now some restaurants are offering different scheduled times, but these are the tourist restaurants, not the good ones. These keep pasta cooked and re-warm it. It’s better not to trust them if you desire a good Italian homemade dish.
A traditional Italian meal begins with the antipasto (which means before the meal). Usually it’s “from land”(di terra) or “from sea” (di mare). Those from land are usually Italian cold cuts, olives, cheese and so on. Those from sea are seafood salad and similar.
After the antipasto comes the first dish, that can be pasta, soup or rice (risotto). After then there’s the second, when you can choose between meat and fish. It’s necessary to add a side, because in Italy they are not included. If you ask for a steak, it will come by itself, with no French fries or salad.
After that, you can eat fruit and a dessert. Then a good coffee and a liquor called “ammazza caffè” (kill the coffee). It can vary between many choices, being the more used nowadays the lemon liquor (limoncello) and grappa.
At this point, your Italian friend looks satisfied. He will probably rest his shoulders on the back of the chair and take a long breath. After a perfect meal, these few minutes just enjoying it all are surely needed.