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, January 21, 2016

Eating Italian Food Like An Italian

Spoons? No. Knife and Fork? Yes

In survey after survey, Italian food remains the most popular “ethnic” cuisine in America. So it's a mystery to me how so many Americans don't know how to eat it. This is particularly true of the two most popular representations of “Italian food,” spaghetti and pizza.

“Now wait a minute,” you say. “What is there to eating Italian food? You open your mouth, shovel it in, chew it, swallow it, and repeat the process until it's gone.” And if that's your take on it, don't bother reading any further because I can't help you. But if you're interested in the correct way to eat Italian food – the way Italians eat it – please read on.

Let's start with spaghetti. The only utensil you need for spaghetti is a fork. In fact, Italians are responsible for popularizing the fork throughout Europe back in Renaissance times. It's the perfect tool for negotiating longs strands of pasta. You don't need a knife and you don't need a spoon.

I've never understood the penchant some people exhibit toward reducing everything to “bite-size.” In the case of long pasta, it's supposed to be long and it's intended to be eaten that way. In Asian cultures, it's acceptable to slurp long noodles. In Italian culture, you twirl them around a fork. In neither case do you ever cut them up with a knife. In many instances, it's considered rude and unmannerly. And some Asians equate long noodles with long life. Do you really want to risk cutting your life short? I don't think Italians have any such superstitions; it's just something that's only done by children and adults with bad manners. I guess that explains the popularity of Spaghetti-Os. I'm sorry, but I was lifting and twirling pasta proficiently by the time I was ten. And I was a late bloomer compared to children in Italy. I know of marriages that almost didn't take place because an Italian or Italian-American girl brought her American boyfriend home for dinner and her family reacted with horror when he cut up the spaghetti. It's just not done.

Using a spoon won't get you the same look of revulsion; it's more like pity. Whenever I go to a so-called “Italian” restaurant and they bring me a horse trough full of spaghetti (portions are another issue for another time) with a big spoon stuck in it, I ask, “Do I look like a bambino to you?” Because in Italian culture, children are the only ones who use spoons as an aid to twirling spaghetti around a fork. As I said, I had the technique down before I was ten, and I'm only part Italian.

At this point you might say, “Okay, bocca grande, then how DO you eat spaghetti like an Italian?” And I'll tell you: Put your fork into a few strands of spaghetti. Note the word “few.” You’re not trying to gather up the entire serving in one mouthful. Rest the tines of the fork against the curvature of the bowl or against the curved edge of the plate. (More on plate vs. bowl in a minute.) Twirl the fork around while at the same time lifting it briefly from the plate to keep too much pasta from accumulating at one time. When you have gathered an appropriate bite, lift it quickly to your mouth. There should be only enough pasta on the fork to comfortably fit in your mouth without your having to ratchet your jaws open and, as cute as it might have been in “Lady and the Tramp,” you should not have to slurp up long, dangling strands of spaghetti. If you do get too much on your fork, or if you have lots of dangling strands, just start over again. If at first it takes half an hour to eat that serving of spaghetti, trust me, practice will make perfect.

The number one complaint about the “twirling” method of spaghetti consumption is that the sauce splashes on your nice white shirtfront. There are a few things you can do to make it easier on yourself and on your wardrobe. First off, do as I do and wear black. (Just kidding…although it’s not a bad idea.) Seriously, though, one of the reasons the whole “spoon” thing came to be is that once upon a time, for reasons nobody can fathom, Americans served spaghetti exclusively on plates. In Italy, spaghetti is generally served in broad, shallow bowls. The flat surface of a plate does not lend itself well to chasing and capturing spaghetti, hence the introduction of the spoon. But if you use a bowl, the natural curvature of the bowl does what the spoon would do, so no spoon is necessary.

Now we turn to the big controversy, one which even embroiled the mayor of New York not long ago: how to eat pizza. The answer depends.

Hizzoner got in hot water for eating his pizza with a knife and fork. This is because many New Yorkers believe the only way to eat a slice of pizza is to pick it up, fold it over, and stuff it in your face. Most other Americans just grab a slice and gnaw away, starting at the pointy end and working their way to the edge. (That edge is called a cornicione in Italian, in case you wanted to learn something trivial and new today.)

Pick it up, cut it up, fold it up......what IS the right way to eat pizza? All of the above. It depends on the type of pizza and where you're eating it. Obviously, if you're dealing with one of those tomato and cheese casseroles that Chicagoans erroneously identify as “pizza,” you're gonna need a knife and fork....and maybe a chainsaw. Ain't no way you're ever gonna get one of those bad boys to fold. And as far as picking up a slice? Fuhgeddaboudit! Only if you want to wear half of it.

At the same time, a slice of that skinny little New York pizza is just as likely to end up on your shirt as in your mouth when you try to fold it over. Notice that people who do it that way fold it and stuff it really quick. And usually while bending over or leaning over so as not to redecorate their wardrobe. Thank you, no. I'd rather take my time and savor the flavor and not have to worry about running to the dry cleaner.

One thing you've got to understand: in Italy, they don't serve pizza the way they do in America. Unless you're in a tourist joint. You're not going to get a 12 or 14 or 16 or 18-inch pizza brought to your table all sliced up in neat wedges ready for you to pick up and eat. What you will get is an uncut round “pie” about the size of your plate along with a knife and fork. You use your knife and fork to cut the pie into quarters and then you continue to cut bites out of the quarters until you reach a point where you can cleanly and comfortably pick up the remainder of the slice, which you can then either fold over or simply continue to munch flat. Neapolitans – the inventors of pizza – tend to be folders. And since that's where most New York pizza makers hailed from back in the day, it's no mystery that the custom caught on within Neapolitan neighborhoods. Order a pizza in Rome or most other Italian locales and you'll see mostly cutting with a knife and eating with a fork until you can pick up what's left. And that's the way I eat mine whether it's a pizza I make at home or one I order in a restaurant or pizzeria.

By the way......I saw an ad the other day for a “pizzaria.” If I'd been the owner of the place, I wouldn't have paid for the ad. I know there's no “e” in “pizza” and that the word sounds like “peets-ah-REE-ah” when you say it, but the reason it's spelled with an “e” is because “pizze” is the proper plural of “pizza.” Just because adding an “s” makes everything plural in English, it's not so in Italian, where the word “pizzas” does not exist. So when you're a place that makes more than one pizza, you're making “pizze” and that makes you a “pizzeria.”

Can we talk about bread for a minute? In Italy, bread is life. Bread is a part of nearly every meal. Everybody eats bread. But they don't treat it like an appetizer and eat it before a meal. Sorry, Olive Garden and every other faux-Italian place in the country. A real Italian ristorante will bring your bread with your meal, because that's when you're supposed to eat it. Obviously, bread covered in some kind of topping, in the form of bruschetta or crostini, is intended to eat as an antipasto, but just plain bread or “breadsticks” is not supposed to be its own course. While it's okay to dip that kind of bread in oil as an accompaniment to another course, it is most commonly intended for you to fare la scarpetta or “make the little shoe” to sop up any remaining traces of sauce on your plate. I used to think that was pretty disgusting when I was a kid watching my grandmother do it, but I've learned a lot since then. A word of caution: the little shoe thing is only done on relatively informal occasions. You probably wouldn’t do it at a state dinner or some other highfalutin' soiree, but at home or with friends and family, go for it.

Finally, there's coffee. In Italy, there's always coffee; more than a dozen different preparations of it. Italians love coffee as much as Americans, if not maybe a little more. After all, they had it first. But they have much stricter rules about how and when to drink it.

First off, when you order a coffee, or un caffè, in Italy, you will automatically be served a cup of espresso. Actually, you'll be served a demitasse, literally “half cup”, of espresso. Espresso is, shall we say, rather stout and I don't think anybody could handle it in the quart-size coffee mugs Americans prefer. The intensity of espresso comes not from the type of bean or the roast, but rather from the method by which it is prepared. Finely ground coffee is tightly packed into a “portafilter.” Then high-pressure water is forced through the grounds and extracted in small, concentrated amounts. If done properly, the results are not dark and bitter as most Americans seem to think, but very bold and quite pleasant.

As I said, there are many preparations of Italian coffee. I'm not going to define them all here – maybe a topic for another post – but they include ristretto, lungo, machiatto, cappucino, caffè doppio, caffè breve, caffè latte, caffè con panna, and, of course, caffè Americano. The last is a watered down version of espresso served in a large cup, which only Americans drink. Even in its weak state, it is still considerably stronger than typical American coffee.

Now about those rules: the main one is that coffee is primarily served after a meal. It is seldom served as a beverage with a meal, as is common in the United States. The only exception might be colazione, or breakfast, which, in Italy, consists of a cup of coffee and a pastry.

Speaking of breakfast, another rule dictates that cappuccino is only for breakfast. Don't try to order it after noon or you'll be subject to much suspicion and derision. And, unlike espresso, cappuccino is consumed with the meal rather than after it.

You don't linger over coffee in Italy. They don't call it a “shot” of espresso for nothing. You are expected to down your beverage in one or two gulps. It should never take you more than a minute to finish a cup of coffee. Often you don't even bother to sit down to drink it. And don't be surprised if the price changes depending upon whether you choose to drink standing at the bar or sitting at a table. It's an Italian thing. Fortunately for American coffee drinkers, most “Italian” places in the States don't follow any of these rules and you are free to drink as you please. Just don't try the freewheeling approach in Italy.

The takeaway? If you want to eat like an Italian, it's okay to eat pizza with a knife and fork, but it's not okay to use a knife or a spoon with spaghetti. Don't fill up on bread before a meal and wait until after your meal to bolt down your shot of strong coffee.

Ora sei un italiano! Congratulazioni e buon appetito!


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