What I’ve Learned About Eating in Italy… so far…

Hey everyone. I’ve been absent for a couple days trying to get some work done. Geez, why do people have to work? It’s so boring… no matter how old you are. Maybe even MORE boring as you get older because you’ve been at it for so long…

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about the food culture in Italy and there’s really no way to describe it adequately. Italians love to eat. It’s almost a sport. And it has rules. Not that they stop any goofy Americano from breaking them because they aren’t aware, but the Italians will sure roll their eyes if you do.

ImageFor instance, I was in one of my favorite haunts the other night where the owner Michele brings me a small jug of wine and leaves me to work in my sketchbook. I did this sketch for him – it is him in the Tavola chatting up a customer.

After 90 minutes or so (Michele timed me) he brought me some soup. “You must be hungry!” he exclaimed. And I was. And I was breaking a rule – Italians don’t drink wine by itself. They have it with an aperitivo or with a meal. Always with food. However, aperitivo and/or meals can go on for hours…

After the soup, Michele came back and said, “what are you hungry for tonight? Pasta? You want some pasta?”

“Well,” I replied, “what I’m really hungry for is fried fish. Do you fry fish?”

“Oh,” he exclaimed, “I make you fried prawns and squid! Wonderful!” And he hurried off to the kitchen. A little while later he returned with a beautiful plate of seafood garnished with lemon. And it really was good, but oh how I could have used some cocktail sauce! The Italians do not heavily season their food – which is a great thing – but I could just taste how amazing this would be with some cocktail sauce.

Michele returned and hovered. “You like?” “Oh yes,” I answered, “but do you have any mayonnaise or ketchup?”

A look of pure horror crossed his face. “Ketchup???? You wouldn’t!!!”

“Oh of course not!” I reassured (even though I probably would). “But in America we eat cocktail sauce.”

“ohhhhh,” he conceded. “I make you some cocktail sauce.” He disappeared again and brought out a mild pink mayonnaise mixture that was nothing like cocktail sauce. But it was a bit of flavor and I thanked him heartily. And I’m sure he rolled his eyes when I wasn’t looking…

ImageAnyway, Michele runs a Tavola, which in Italian is a bit like a cafeteria. There are hot dishes already prepared at the counter for people who want to duck in for a quick meal or takeaway. But I think it is not a typical Tavola because Michele also offers a full menu for all 3 meals of the day, including homemade pizza in a wood-fired oven. Here is the sketch I did of the outside of the Tavola. I worked on it during dinner and the staff kept coming to look and check the progress.

So from there, Italians have more words for restaurants than Eskimos do for snow. Although the lines seem to be getting a bit blurred now with everyone vying for tourist business.

A Bar in Italy is more likely for coffee. Although I’ve yet to see a place here that does not serve alcohol. But stopping by a bar during the day usually means caffe. And if you order that you will get an espresso in a small cup. Italians usually stand at the bar and chat while they quickly down their caffe and off they go. Some do get a cappuccino – but only in the morning. It is considered strictly a breakfast drink and no one would order it after noon. The bar will also have pastries on hand for breakfast (colazione) and sandwiches in a case. The sandwiches are heavy on the bread and very light on the filling – just one slice of meat and cheese and no mayo or mustard. These Italianos eat BREAD!

ImageAnd pastries! There is a quite famous Pasticceria in Lucca called Taddeucci, founded in 1881. It is now being run by the 5th generation of the same family. A pasticceria is more than just a bakery. It has pastries, desserts, breads and sometimes sandwiches and table service. This one has the traditional bread original to Lucca, Buccellato, flavored with raisins and anise. It’s a cross between a bread and a cake and you can only buy it by the whole loaf.

Other mealtimes are defined as well. Lunch (Pranzo) is usually between 1 and 2 pm. It used to be the main meal of the day, but with more people working, that is changing. But an Italian very likely might have a glass of wine with lunch before going back to work.

Aperitivo is around 6:30 to 7:30. Many places set appetizers on the bar that you can help yourself to when you order a drink. It is understood that you will moderately partake of these and not mistake them for a free supper!

Dinner (Cena) runs from 7:30 till 10pm. In fact, a lot of restaurants don’t even open for the evening meal until 7:30pm. And you have a lot of choices of where to go…

A Ristorante is a nice, full-service place. You can expect real tablecloths and a wait staff that is professional about food and wine. Dinner will be ordered in courses, which are a la carte. You might want to look at the prices before you sit down.

ImageA Trattoria is a less formal place. The one I like in Lucca is da Leo, where the locals go. Service is casual but fast and prices are mid-range. The menu is printed on a piece of placemat-sized paper and changes according to what they have available. And this place has its own scruffy little dog that is always there. I think it belongs to one of the waiters because I’ve seen him out running errands and the little dog is always nearby. The dog waits while he goes in the market for produce and then trots right back to da Leo behind him.

ImageAn Osteria is traditionally an even more informal place. It is usually family-owned and serves simple dishes and wine. However there is a trend afoot to take the idea of a rustic osteria and turn it into an upscale place with an old-style name. Again, it is best to check the menu and prices before you commit.

ImageAnd who in the world doesn’t love a Pizzeria? I have several favorites here in Lucca. For just one slice (al taglio), I have gotten addicted to da Felice. And I alternate it with this place, Pizzeria Pellegrini. You can get a slice of margherita pizza hot out of the wood oven for 1.20 euro. Or get a square from the case and they’ll heat it up for you. It is a bit thicker crust and has meat on it. The one I tried looked like it had something similar to pepperoni only smaller. Only when I was walking down the street did I realize it was hot dog! Which they call “wurstel.” And oh was I transported back in time! When I was a kid we used to get Chef Boyardee pizza mixes from the store and put hot dogs on it to mimic pepperoni. (My brother still makes one of these occasionally today!) And this was the real thing in Italy! Who knew? Larry – you would love it!

Just remember, if you actually go out and order pizza, a WHOLE pizza is considered one serving. People do not order pizzas to split. They each order what they want and eat the whole thing! They really do!

Also, you won’t want to order pepperoni unless you want “peppers.” They don’t even have pepperoni. The closest thing is salami piccante.

If you get a salad, forget Italian dressing. It doesn’t exist. Even in the grocery there is no row for salad dressing. It’s a foreign concept. You will get good olive oil, some vinegar and salt and pepper. You put it on yourself at the table. And the salad either comes with the meal or after it.

And then there’s bread. There’s always bread. They will set it on the table when you first arrive but an Italian doesn’t eat it then. There is no bread plate because Italians do not dip bread in salted oil to eat it either. Evidently that is an invention of American Italian restaurants. Nope the bread just sits there for later. So you order a first course, Primi, which is usually pasta or rice. And no, the Italian does not eat bread with pasta. No, no, no. (Although they may soak up a little pasta sauce with it at the end.) Pasta comes with sauce or maybe mushrooms, but not meat. No spaghetti and meatballs! And don’t use your spoon to coil long pasta onto the fork. American again…

Finally, when you order secondi – the meat or fish course – you can eat some bread with it. Still no bread plate. Just set the bread on the table next to your plate. And no butter. (American) If you want a veggie with your meat, it is separate. Side dishes are contorni and are usually roasted potatoes or some kind of vegetable or salad. As for the meat, if you order beef it will most likely be bloody-rare. And I mean still moo-ing. To get it more cooked, order “bencotto” – it will still be a bit pink. Same goes for some seafood. Best to ask how it is cooked before you get a nice raw surprise on your plate!

As far as drinks, Italians only drink water or wine with a meal. Usually both. It kills me to pay for water, but they do it all the time. You can get “still” (naturale) or “with gas” (frizzante). If you do order a coke, you will get a cold can and no ice. You have to ask for ice because Italians don’t drink iced beverages. Expect an eye-roll.

ImageThen, on your walk home, stop at the Gelateria. This is not ice cream… or sorbet… or sherbert. It is made from whole milk, not cream, so it has less fat and the oil doesn’t coat your mouth. It also has less air whipped into it. Those two factors make the flavor stand out – so if you get lemon or chocolate or cherry or melon, that is what you taste.

Most places will put two to three flavors in one serving cup or cone, so the hard decision is picking out what you want to savor. Also, you’ll want to go to a shop that makes their own gelato, not one that gets it from a big commercial distributor. One key is to look at the colors. If the banana is bright yellow, that is not a good sign. That means artificial coloring. Authentic gelato just uses the natural fruit flavors and is a bit less colorful than the ones with artificial ingredients. It really is worth going to a gelato shop that has the real thing. You can taste the difference and no, the best gelato does not taste like ice cream. It is much more fresh and flavorful.

So now this has made me hungry for a slice of pizza and a cone of gelato! I think I’ll get my coat on and go find some. And it’s very cheap – if I have two 2 euro coins in my pocket, I’m covered. I have a mind to go get that hot dog pizza in honor of Larry and a gelato for Mary Beth. I’m sure they’ll appreciate that I’m thinking of them!

14 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. hungry monkey
    Nov 16, 2012 @ 16:26:32

    I don’t think Dave would ever survive eating out of the country. Bread and potatoes and bread and pasta etc. Americano all the way. Sounds yummy to me but I am very hungry! A nice lesson onItalian quisine!


  2. Ellyn
    Nov 17, 2012 @ 09:19:21

    Interesting. Although I do think eating out has a different set of rules from eating in. I think it’s funny that I watched you swirling your spaghetti on a spoon my whole life only to hear you say now that it’s a major no-no. I prefer cutting it with the side of my fork instead.

    And now, like Paula, I’m hungry too!


    • thesketchylife
      Nov 18, 2012 @ 03:35:45

      yep, whoever told me about the spoon method was wrong! And you are just as bad! NEVER break long spaghetti before cooking it and NEVER cut it on your plate with a knife or fork! it is considered “pasta-cide.” In one experience I read, an Italian man took his American friends out for pasta. He was so horrified when they began to cut up their spaghetti on the plate that he told them if they didn’t quit it they would have to go eat in the alley!


    • thesketchylife
      Nov 18, 2012 @ 03:37:59

      Oh! And they serve long pasta in a shallow bowl. That way you can twirl your fork on the slope of the bowl, which is much like a spoon!


  3. Pam
    Nov 17, 2012 @ 09:59:55

    Carol and I are sitting reading your blog together in Cape Town wishing we were in Lucca, joining you with many of your experiences and meals. We recognise many of the places you paint so beautifully with your words and sketches. Think of us when you have your next gelato. Try the Sienna almonds biscuits at your bakery next to where you buy your gelato. We bought some home and our families loved them. Enjoy!


  4. MaryBeth
    Nov 17, 2012 @ 15:46:28

    I am sooooo hungry for that food and gelato! Ugh.


  5. thesketchylife
    Nov 18, 2012 @ 03:40:48

    Next I will have to get one of Michele’s pizzas just for you! And he always asks about you, by the way…


  6. Billy D
    Nov 18, 2012 @ 07:21:50

    I am more amazed at the variety of independent local places to eat, obviously all well supported. What are you going to do when you get back to Ohio and have to choose between Wendy’s and Taco Bell? UDF or a Frosty? That has to sound horrible to you right about now!


    • MaryBeth
      Nov 18, 2012 @ 09:23:47

      I just live the painting if Michele at Tavola!!! You are awesome.


      • thesketchylife
        Nov 18, 2012 @ 10:08:29

        Thanks MB! I actually think of this tavola as “our place” since you are the one who discovered it. (and now it is one of my fav’s!) Remember the day we got pizza there and went up on the wall so I could paint and you could write? That was a memorable day…

    • thesketchylife
      Nov 18, 2012 @ 10:05:18

      You make a great point, Bill, that I hadn’t even realized – these ARE all local eateries – and they ARE well-supported. There are no chain restaurants here and Lucca actually has laws to keep them out! They want to protect their local heritage. Naturally there has been a lot of pressure from commercial concerns that want in, but I hope they never cave. It would be a travesty! And no, I don’t know how it will be to go home to chain-food world… Ugh!


  7. MaryBeth Tipton
    Nov 18, 2012 @ 20:04:55

    I have tears in my eyes as fond memories flood my thoughts this evening. Please tell Michele I say “Hello and greetings from America.” I would love to be along those ramparts again, whether it is walking, biking, or sitting and writing while you paint.


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