A Few Inviolable Rules For Eating Italian Food
it ain't so. But the Big Apple is the Big Apple and you can always tell a New Yorker.....you just can't tell him much. For those of you too busy, lazy, or disinterested to follow the hyperlink, I'll briefly reiterate the basic premise: 1) pizza was invented in Italy; 2) the majority of Italians – not Italian-Americans – eat pizza with a knife and fork, ergo 3) misinformed New Yorkers can stuff it wherever they wish.
That said, let's move on to a few other inviolable rules for eating Italian food. I know, I know, who am I to dictate rules for eating food? This is America, dammit, the land of the free and the home of the brave. And we should all be free to eat anything any whichaway we want, right? It says so in the Declaration of Independence.....sort of. I think it falls under the “pursuit of happiness” clause. Hey, sorry; I don't make the rules, I just report them.
Okay. You've got this really big date planned and you want to impress by showing off your urbanity and sophistication and demonstrating your overall Italian-ness. So you pull up to the Olive Garden......and you've already blown it. But you know that, right? So you make a U-turn and head for that “Mom and Pop” place around the corner. You know, the one with the red-checkered tablecloths and the plastic grapes and the wine bottle candles? The one with the name that ends in a vowel, so it's got to be authentic, right? (Sigh)
Let's start with salad. Actually, let's not. Serving a salad at the start of a meal is a non-starter in Italy. Wha-a-a-a-a-t? C'mon! Every Italian restaurant in America offers a nice salad of iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, onions, maybe some olives, a little cheese.....and they top it off with creamy Italian dressing. Yeah, well, that's America. In Italy, salads, if they are served at all, are served near the end of a meal to act as a palate cleanser and digestive aid. And that creamy “Italian” dressing? Fuggedaboutit! Real “Italian dressing” consists of oil and vinegar.
Another thing you'll only find in faux-Italian places is an endless supply of “garlic bread” to start off your dining experience. In the first place, there's no such thing as “garlic bread” in Italian cuisine. Hunks of bread slathered in garlic-flavored butter simply don't exist. And don't look too hard for “rustic” bread and a plate of herb-infused oil in which to dip it. Some places will serve it, but almost never as an appetizer. Italians love their bread, but they love it with the meal, not as a starter to the meal.
Italians serve the main meal in courses. They just do. At a minimum, expect a three-course meal consisting of a primo course of pasta or rice followed by a secondo of meat or fish, then a contorno of vegetables. Often these days, some restaurants will combine the secondo and the contorno. This is largely due to the influence of Americans who bitch and complain if all their food isn't piled up on one plate. But don't be surprised if you spend over an hour at the table fielding one plate after another, usually culminating with some sort of a fruit preparation or a cheese plate. “Dessert” as Americans know it is not all that common.
Okay. So let's move on to the classic, quintessential Italian entree, spaghetti and meatballs. Well......we could if such a dish really existed outside Italian-American home kitchens and red sauce joints. In Italy, it's an either/or proposition; never both. You can have spaghetti OR you can have meatballs. Or you can have spaghetti AND you can have meatballs. You just can't have spaghetti and meatballs. You don't believe me? Hop a flight to Italy and try it. I'll wait here so I can help you translate words like "deficiente,”“cafone,” and “stronzo.”
Now, let's say you did order some spaghetti. “Mom and Pop” bring it out to you with a spoon stuck in it, because that's the way Italians eat it, right? They hold a fork in one hand and a spoon in the other and twirl the noodles around the fork with the aid of the spoon. NOT! You do that in Italy and you'll hear those same words from the previous paragraph. Unless you're under, oh, say, five years of age. In that case, it's okay. And if you take a knife to your pasta, every Italian in the room will faint dead away. If you can't “cut” eating your pasta uncut, you'd better order something less challenging. A nice bowl of soup, maybe?
Now, Italians love Parmesan cheese, right? So surely they can't complain if you douse your entree with a generous helping of Italy's favorite cheese, right? Ehhhh......not so much. In the first place, chances are the dry, powdery, cheese-like substance you're shaking out of that shaker at the “Mom and Pop” bears as much resemblance to real cheese as reality television does to reality. Or as margarine does to butter. But even if the stuff you're using is the real deal and not just cheese-flavored sawdust, it's still a rule breaker in every instance except pasta. Adding Parmesan to a pasta dish is generally okay – unless it's a seafood pasta dish. More on that in a second. But adding it to a beef, veal, pork, or other meat dish? Ehhhh.....not so much. And don't even think about adding cheese to fish or seafood. There's logic behind the prohibition. Italian cheeses in general, and Parmigiano-Reggiano or “Parmesan” in particular, have very definite flavors of their own. Many of them, especially Parmigiano-Reggiano, are very salty and would, therefore, run the risk of substantially altering or overwhelming the natural flavor of the dish. That and the fact that it's just not done.
Speaking of putting things on your food, let's talk condiments for a minute. They are practically non-existent in Italy. At least in the common American sense. I once prepared a beautiful, delicate pecan-crusted chicken with Dijon mustard sauce for somebody and then stood watching in abject horror as he doused it in ketchup. “I just put ketchup on everything,” was his rationale. He'd last about thirty seconds in Italy. Don't go looking for ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, ranch dressing, barbecue sauce, steak sauce or any of the other add-ons common to the American table. Italians like the taste of their food. They don't bury it under gallons of stuff designed to “add flavor.” They like the flavor as it is. About the only “condiment” you're likely to find on an Italian table is olive oil and even that is to be used sparingly so as not to mask or overwhelm the natural taste of the food itself.
By now you must be a little thirsty. How about a cup of coffee or a soda to help wash down that washtub full of pasta “Mom and Pop” just put in front of you? (Portion size is another issue for another time.) If you're in Florence, South Carolina, no problem. If you're in Florence, Italy, it ain't gonna happen. Coffee is for after the meal and soda is only offered in pizza joints that cater to Americans. The vast majority of Italians drink water or wine with meals. Water is frizzante (sparkling) or naturale (still) and you'd better be a fan of room temperature because asking for ice will get you talked about, perhaps even to your face. And to the horror of puritanical, prohibitionist American parents, kids drink wine with meals! Yeah, it's pretty watered down, but it's still a normal thing that does not result in roving gangs of drunk children staggering through the streets.
While we're talking about coffee, if you're a big cappuccino or latte drinker, guzzle it down before noon. Those are considered breakfast beverages in Italy and are pretty much banished after midday. After that, it's all espresso. (And that's ES-presso, not EX-presso, by the way). If you really can't hack the black, you can order a caffé macchiato, an espresso topped with a little frothed milk.
If you like a really big breakfast of bacon, sausage, eggs, potatoes, pancakes, toast, jam, etc., or if you're a milk and cereal person, either way, you're gonna hate Italy. In Italy you get a cornetto (a kind of pastry) and coffee.
And if you're a “grab and go” person who likes to eat on the run, you won't get far in Italy. In America it's commonplace to grab a hot dog or something and hit the pavement, munching as you walk. In Italy, that's almost unspeakably rude. Meals are social occasions and food is meant to be savored and enjoyed, not shoved into your face as you perambulate. Even “snack foods” like suppli or panelle aren't eaten on the go, although standing and eating is acceptable if there's no place available to sit. The only exception to this rule is gelato. Italians love their ice cream, and going for un passeggiata (a walk) while eating ice cream is almost a national tradition.
One last rule to wrap up, and this one applies more to dining in a home situation than in a restaurant: clean your plate. No matter how trendy it might be in America, in Italy it is still insulting to the host when you leave unfinished food on your plate. Don't worry about gaining a hundred pounds. Unlike the “abbondanza” foolishness Italian-Americans promote, wherein tables groan and diners moan as they undertake to consume portions that would feed armies of starving Armenian children, Italians are very moderate and balanced eaters. Your Italian mama in Naples, Florida might pile enough pasta on your plate to fill up the trunk of a Buick, but your Italian mama in Naples, Italy would give you a portion about the size of your closed fist. Despite what hokey TV commercials would have you believe, that's Italian. But be careful not to clean your plate too quickly. Your politely concerned host might refill it, thinking you are not getting fed enough.
When it comes down to it, these are just rules, not laws. They represent respect for a culture and its traditions. If you break them, nobody is going to report you or have you arrested. At worst, you'll be looked upon as un maleducato, ignorante cafone. If you can live with that, so can I.