If you've ever watched Lidia Bastianich on either of her PBS programs, Lidia's Italy or Lidia's Italy in America,” you'll be familiar with the Italian phrase with which she closes every episode: “tutti a tavolo a mangiare!” But you may not be familiar with what it means.
The simple English translation is, “everyone to the table to eat.” But it actually means much more.
In the traditional Italian culture, sitting down at the table to eat isn't just a matter of parking your butt in a chair for a few minutes while you wolf down whatever is in front of you so you can get back to your game or your TV show or whatever else you consider to be more important. The true Italian dining experience is radically different. There's almost a sacramental transcendence involved in which the participants in the meal are bound in another state of being to the shared rapprochement coming together over food imparts. “Tutti a tavolo a mangiare!” doesn't just mean “come and eat.” It means “come together.” Don't just bring your appetite to the table; bring your day, your thoughts, your happiness, your sadness. Bring your life to the table and share it.
My sister and I both married people from the American South. The phrasing there is different – “y'all come and eat” – but the sentiment is much the same.
Unfortunately, I have a few in-laws who were apparently not brought up in the same traditions. Or maybe they just lost them somewhere along the way. Either way, there is nothing – I say again, nothing – that frosts my cupcakes faster than announcing that a dinner I have spent a great deal of time preparing is ready, only to have my announcement ignored by people too busy watching TV or carrying on discussions or playing games or whatever. “Yeah, okay. I'll be there in a minute” is the quickest way to see what my temper really looks like. There's an old saying in Italian kitchens; “Pasta waits for no one.” And neither do I. You come to my table ready to eat when I call you, or you can go eat cold leftovers in the garage.
The art of preparing good food – Italian or otherwise – is an act of love. The cook – the good cook, anyway – does more than just throw a few ingredients into a pot. There is an outpouring of creative energy, of time spent planning and preparing. There is a thoughtfulness and care that goes on each and every plate. A well-prepared meal set on a well-prepared table is the ultimate act of love expressed by the cook toward the family and friends – or even complete strangers – for whom the meal is prepared and the table set. It is an expression of an artist's soul. And you're gonna tell me, “just a minute?” You're gonna tell me that my time and effort and love are worth less than your watching some damn TV show or something? Not in my world.
In my world, as in the Italian world in general, the call to the dinner table is inviolate. It's like a call to prayer. It's an invitation to come together as a family and share the dance of life. When the pasta hits the table, the butts hit the chairs and the dance begins. To say something like, “I'll be there in a minute” is the ultimate insult. It is a rude, classless way of saying, “I don't care about the time you put in or the money you spent. I don't care about your effort or your feelings. I don't care about being a part of the whole. I've got more important things to do.” It's not done in an Italian family and it shouldn't be tolerated in any family.
Deep breath. I'm fine, now.
Once the food is served, the magic begins. Separate entities become one as people share thoughts and experiences. Stories of the past are told and plans for the future are laid. Somebody tells a joke. Somebody else recalls a memory. Another person introduces a topic that changes the direction of discussion. Conversation flows freely and comfortably and there is a sense that, for a little while, anyway, the world can wait outside. The needs of both the body and the soul are met at the table.
Another thing that makes the Italian dining experience unique is what happens after the meal is consumed. Nobody is in a hurry to leave. You'll find this phenomenon prevalent at the Italian table whether it is located in a home kitchen or in a restaurant dining room. Mario Batali says it's a “rule” in his house that nobody leaves the table for fifteen minutes after the conclusion of a meal. He probably doesn't need an actual “rule,” because in most Italian homes nobody wants to get up and run after dinner anyway. In Italian culture, this postprandial time is the time for leaning back from the table a little and letting the easy flow continue. This is the time for talking about the meal and complimenting the cook. Don't worry about clearing away the dishes just yet. Sit back and relax awhile longer. There's time for one more good joke, one more engaging story, a few more sips of coffee or wine. The chores and the responsibilities and the world itself can wait for a few minutes more. This time is still our time.
This is actually one of the ways in which I grade a good Italian restaurant. In most eating establishments, profits hinge on turning tables. Get them in, feed them, get them out the door and bring in the next bunch. The more times you can do this in a lunch or dinner service, the more money you make. Now, nobody comes right out and says, “here's your hat, what's your hurry?” but notice that in most places that check hits the table pretty quickly and the dishes are promptly cleared away and the server whom you haven't seen much of suddenly appears and says, “will there be anything else” and you get the feeling that you're done even if you're not.
I have two favorite eateries in my area. One is a ristorante featuring a full menu of anything and everything and the other is a simple neighborhood pizzeria. One is run by an Italian family and the other by an Italian-American family. Both serve wonderfully authentic food, but equally as important, both have wonderfully authentic atmospheres. Okay, so I spend a lot of time and money there and I bring a lot of new people through the doors, so naturally they're going to call me by name and pay a little more attention to me, right? Uh-uh. In both places, you're a “customer” only once. By your second visit, you're family. For real, not just in some fake marketing slogan. And don't feel like you have to rush off when you're through eating. Stick around. Have something more to drink. How's your day? How's the family? Give me a minute, I'll come over and sit with you. That is vero Italiano. And it's something Olive Garden and Carrabba's and the other imitators can't touch.
“Tutti a tavolo a mangiare, amare, ridere, e di essere una famiglia!” Everybody come to the table to eat, laugh, love, and be a family. Enjoy the food then sit back and enjoy the company. Savor the experience and appreciate life. That's the Italian way of eating.