The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Thursday, October 17, 2013

Minding Your (Italian) Manners

10 More “Food Rules” To Keep In Mind When In Italy

I recently read an article on the Huffington Post in which blogger Whitney Richelle discusses the “10 Essential Food Rules for Americans in Italy.” Ms. Richelle brings up some good points and her article is definitely worth a read. Find it here: I'm going to supplement a few of these “food rules," also known as "manners," in just a second, but I'd like to rant about another issue first. Some of the comments attached to Ms. Richelle's article are troubling. Like this one:

“If the Italians are looking askance at what or how you're eating you just hit the table hard and forcefully say 'Basta'!”

Yeah, I can see that working well. Or this one:

“It seems like some of these [rules] are mostly concerned with impressing others. Enjoying my meal is more important to me than impressing people.”

You know, there are other notes on the scale of life besides “mi, mi, mi, mi.”

This one is my favorite: “With all due respect, those 'Essential Food Rules for Americans' only apply to Americans who want to do things the way the Italians do them. Even when traveling, Americans and all other people should do what makes the most sense for them. If a person wants to eat the apple with the skin on, eat the damn apple with the damn skin on. If you love eggs for breakfast, have eggs for breakfast. Why would anyone really care whether Italians do likewise or not? Is someone trying to pass as Italians? Does someone think Italians really know what's best for the whole world?”

Well, I'm certainly glad this ignorant screed was tendered with “all due respect.”

Obviously, these folks are not aware of the term “ugly American,” a pejorative used to refer to the common perception people in other countries have of Americans as being loud, arrogant, demeaning, thoughtless, ignorant, ethnocentric louts. These commenters exemplify the breed, but in typical “ugly American” fashion, they probably don't give a damn.

The comments also reflect behavior typical of us “Baby Boomers.” We're also known as “the Me Generation” because we abandoned our parents' Depression-era ethics of dedication, self-sacrifice, and the postponement of gratification in favor of the new mantras of “me, me, it's all about me.” “Me first.” “Make sure I get mine.” “Do your own thing and to hell with everybody else.” “I am the center of my universe. The world revolves around ME, so I don't care what you think.”

While America can justifiably boast about being the best in the world in a great many areas, it is still just one of 196 countries that populate our planet. Each country has its own unique culture and each culture is an integral part of the grand tapestry that covers the globe. And if you possessed two working brain cells, you would understand that the ability to appreciate the diversity of the world's cultures is one of the things that makes for an educated, sophisticated, civilized, well-rounded individual. Oscar Wilde said it best: "America is the only country that managed to go from barbarism to decadence without passing though civilization."

<Drag, scrape, drag> (Putting the soapbox away.) Okay, let's talk about more Italian table manners.

Hold The Cheese

Ms. Richelle mentioned not asking for “salad dressing” and being sparing in the use of condiments. This also extends to that Italian staple, Parmesan cheese. In the U.S., you can't go to any “Italian” restaurant or pizzeria without encountering the ubiquitous little shakers of grated Parmesan cheese. Either that or the server comes around with a grater.

In the first place, the powdery substance in the little shakers bears little resemblance to real Parmesan cheese. It's nothing but a bulk food service version of the abomination in a green can that you buy in grocery stores. What the server grates over your food has the benefit of at least being fresh and some sort of real cheese, although it's not likely to be Parmigiano-Reggiano. It'll probably be some form of domestic Parmesan or maybe a pecorino.

Either way, the practice is frowned upon in Italy. Unless it is explicitly offered, you shouldn't ask for cheese. American stereotypes aside, Italians don't put Parmesan cheese on everything. They especially don't put it on pizza. That will get you some really funny looks.

Bread Is Not A First Course

Ms. Richelle also addressed “fa la scarpetta,” or using your bread to mop up your plate. But something she didn't mention; in Italy bread is not considered a first course.

Here's how you judge the authenticity of an “Italian” restaurant in the U.S.: If they don't throw a basket of bread at you as soon as your butt hits the chair, you're in an authentic place. Bread is intended as an accompaniment to your primo and secondo courses. You don't fill up on it as a pre-meal snack or as a course unto itself.

Garlic bread,” the way Americans know it, doesn't exist in Italy. Slices of bread slathered in garlic-infused butter and served with “Italian” seasonings on top are strictly an American creation. And while “dipping oil” like they serve at some Italian-American places is not unheard of in Italy, it's not terribly common.

One more note on bread etiquette; break the bread, don't cut it. Italy is a country steeped in religious symbolism and this is an old custom that can be traced back to the Christian Eucharist. At the Last Supper, Christ did not whip out a knife and slice up the bread for his disciples. He broke it by hand. Doing so at your table won't make you holy, but it will make you mannerly.

Sedersi e Mangiare (Sit Down And Eat)

This was sort of included in Ms. Richelle's rules when she talked about taking time to enjoy your food, but I'd like to expand on it a bit. In the first place, it is considered ill-mannered to get up from the table before the meal is finished. Unless your pants are on fire – or unless you really have to “go” – you remain seated at the table until everybody has finished eating. The self-centered idea that “I'm done now” permits you to be dismissed doesn't fly at an Italian table. Sit down. Your life can wait five minutes more.

Secondly, you should literally sit down and eat. The concept of grabbing something and chowing down on the run is totally foreign to the Italian way of eating. You seldom see Italians walking around stuffing their faces with some form of hand-held food. It runs counter to the whole philosophy of Italian food culture. The one exception might be an afternoon gelato. Everybody likes to get a little gelato and go for a stroll.

A Meal Is Not An Eating Contest

This sort of ties in with the idea of “sit down and eat” except it should be noted that nobody eats until everybody eats. Even if you haven't seen food because you've been wandering in the desert for forty days, you don't just rush to the table and dig in. Italian eating is almost ritualistic. It follows a specific form. Once the call to the table is given, everybody moves to the table. There's no “just a minute,” “I'll be right there,” or “let me just finish this.....” It's call, boom, move. Everybody is seated but nobody touches so much as a fork until mama, papa, the host, or whoever is in charge of the meal gives the signal to begin. And then there's no wild free-for-all where everybody lunges for whatever is on the table, heaps it on their plates, and then mows through it in order to see who finishes first. It's an orderly process of passing and receiving. Oh, it can be loud and boisterous, but it's always orderly. And there's no heaping and no rushing. Which leads to the next rule.

Don't Be A Pig

Abbondanza! is mostly an American marketing gimmick. Italians don't serve food in great heaping portions. That's one reason why their obesity rate is among the lowest in the world. Food is served in moderate portions and if you are serving yourself, it is expected that you will only take a moderate portion. It is perfectly acceptable – indeed, complimentary – to ask for more, but don't load up from the beginning. You'll look like an ill-mannered pig.

When Is The Head Not The Head?

When it's in the middle! In many cultures, including American, the host or most important person sits at “the head” of the table, meaning they sit at one of the far ends. Not so in Italy, where the host is seated at the middle of one of the long sides. An important guest is seated immediately to the right of the host. If there is a hosting couple, they sit opposite each other on either side of the table.

Hands Up!

Well, not “up” as in above your head, but certainly above the table. When they are not actively engaged in transporting something from the plate to the mouth, your hands should rest above the table at the wrist (never the elbow) and they should be apart, not touching. It goes back to medieval suspicions about hiding weapons under the table. I don't suppose there's much to fear from hidden daggers anymore, but modern Italians still like to see where your hands are.

I Have A Fork And I Know How To Use It

You know, of course, that the Italians are responsible for the introduction of the dining fork to Western European culture. That said, Italians are still very fond of their forks.

In Italy, as in the rest of the Continent, they practice – ta dah! – Continental dining etiquette. This means that the fork is always held in the left hand with the tines pointed down and the knife stays in the right. There's no switching around and back and forth as in the American style. However, unlike the rest of Europe, if you're eating something that doesn't require the use of a knife – pasta, for instance – you don't have to keep holding the knife. It's okay to set it down.

Also unlike other parts of Europe, in Italy there are very few “finger foods.” Small items such as olives, pieces of cheese, slices of fruit – even French fries, or “chips,” when you can find them – are eaten with a fork.

And now for the really devastating etiquette Italy, pizza is not picked up and folded. It is eaten with a knife and fork. I'll wait until the New Yorkers stop howling. It's true. Even in Napoli, the birthplace of pizza, it is generally considered maleducato to pick up a slice of pizza. In the first place, Italian pies aren't served “sliced.” You get the whole pie and you use your knife and fork to cut it into quarters. Then you continue to use your utensils, especially for the first few bites. After you work your way up toward the crust, it's usually okay to pick up what's left and finish it off. But the whole “pick up a slice and fold it” phenomenon is an Italian-American affectation that would get you disapproving looks in an Italian pizzeria. Sorry.

Another place where the fork rules is in the pasta bowl. Here the fork is king. No knives and no spoons. I know, I know.....every “Italian” restaurant in America sticks a big spoon in the pasta bowl so you can use it to help twirl up your spaghetti. Not in Italy. Spoons are for children. Little children. Pre-school children. By the time you reach the age of five or six, you are expected to know how to put your fork into the pasta and lift up a few strands, which you then continue to lift and twirl around the fork until you have a manageable bite. The bite should fit neatly and completely into your mouth and should you have to deal with a stray dangler, you do so discreetly without an overabundance of smacking and slurping. Taking big sloppy bites that end up dangling from your lips and being slurped into your mouth is rude even for children. And we won't even address the disdain for those who chop spaghetti up into tiny fragments and eat it with a spoon.

Fido Will Have To Fend For Himself

Italians don't do “doggie-bags.” The simple rule is don't take more than you can eat. If you do leave a little food on your plate, you'll likely have a concerned host or waiter asking if everything was alright. If you leave a lot of food on your plate, you'll probably encounter a very insulted cook. Italian-American restaurants serve outrageously gargantuan portions and “to go” containers are common. That's not the case in Italy, so do yourself a favor and don't ask.

Si Beve, Si Beve (You Drink, You Drink)

Ms. Richelle correctly noted that an Italian table offers two drinks; water and wine. Italians believe in the purity of the taste of their food and they don't want anything messing with that flavor. Wines are selected and paired to compliment the food being served. And water, of course, has no effect on flavor.

Yes, Italy has water taps. Free-flowing taps and fountains of potable water have been around since Roman times, but you'll seldom find tap water being served at the table. It's always bottled water. In fact, Italians are among the highest consumers of bottled water in the world. You will be offered your choice of plain water – naturale – or sparkling water – gassata or frizzante. You might also be offered minerale, or mineral water. But you'll have a hard time getting a glass of tap water. There's nothing wrong with the water. Italians just don't serve it. And don't look for a lot of ice. Like most Europeans, Italians aren't big on iced beverages.

Almost nobody drinks soft drinks like Coke or even lemonade with a meal. This goes back to the diluting the flavor issue. Same thing with beer, although both beer and soft drinks are sometimes served with pizza.

As much of a shock as it may be to Americans, your kids aren't going to become rampant alcoholics if they are served wine with a meal. In fact, studies have shown the opposite to be true. At most Italian tables, home or public, kids drink wine with their meals. Little kids get it watered down a bit, but by the time they're teenagers, they drink the same wine the adults drink. In 2013, the Italian government raised the legal drinking age from 16 to 18, but enforcement is likely to be spotty, especially where family meals are concerned.

Finally, nobody has mixed drinks or cocktails with a meal. Such can be offered before or after a meal as an aperitivo or a digestivo, but never during a meal.

There you have it. More annoying, restrictive “rules” for proper behavior. My rebellious peers did a fine job of tearing down “The Establishment” back in the '60s. Unfortunately, they hadn't a clue of what to replace it with, so a form of social anarchy prevailed. Manners and customs are sometimes all that remain to remind us of the need to be civilized. So, Mr. “Do-Your-Own-Thing” Commenter, do Italians really know what's best for the whole world? No. No more than Americans do. But they do know what's best for them. And there's always that age old adage; “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Try it. You might like it. And who knows? You might learn something about other people who share your world.