Save Your Money On Quantity And Concentrate On Quality
You're planning a big dinner party. And because you are a person of unquestionable taste and sophistication, you want it to be an Italian dinner party, right? Bravissimo! As the saying goes, “chi mangia bene mangia italiano.” (Those who eat well eat Italian.) So you take a cue from hundreds of church socials and civic “Italian Night” suppers and you go out and buy bagged salad, creamy Italian dressing in a bottle, frozen garlic bread, and the fixings for spaghetti and meatballs. You even score some Neapolitan ice cream for dessert. Find some plastic tablecloths in a red and white checked pattern at the dollar store, stuff some candles into Chianti bottles, throw around a few plastic grapes and you've created the ideal menu and décor for the perfect authentic Italian experience, right? Only if you are trying to achieve the atmosphere of a cliched old movie set somewhere in New York City fifty or sixty years ago. Real Italian entertaining is much different.
For example, unlike American meals or the common American “salad and spaghetti” concept of an Italian meal, traditional Italian entertaining and dining involves long meals with lots of courses. Italians don't think so much in terms of “courses” as they do of plates. Italians say “primi e secondi piatti” (first and second plates), etc. An American meal consists of an “appetizer course” followed by a “main course” or “entree course” which includes a “side dish,” and concludes with a “dessert course.” Even a simple Italian meal is more complex. And a formal meal can have as many as eight “courses” as Americans would consider them. We recently prepared a simple four-plate meal for my sister and her husband. As we explained the order of service and started bringing out the plates, my non-Italian brother-in-law commented, “Looks like we're gonna be here for awhile.” To which I replied, “Yep.”
We plated this meal because it was just the four of us. For larger groups, the food is often served family-style and platters are passed around rather than having individual plated portions. And get that hokey “abbondanza” idea perpetrated by American advertising companies trying to sell spaghetti sauce right out of your head. Because there are many so courses, Italian portions tend to be much, much smaller than Americans are used to. The whole “abbondanza” schtick glorifying wretched excess comes straight out of Madison Avenue, perhaps by way of Arthur Avenue, but would never be found on any street in Italy. Italians just don't eat that way. Save your money on quantity and concentrate instead on quality. Now that's Italian.
Here are the basic steps to a dinner party-worthy full eight-course Italian meal. If you don't have the money, the time, or the endurance, you can skip some of the courses, but you'll also be skimping a bit on the authentic experience.
Start out with the Aperitivo course. This is simply a pre-dinner drink. You may have heard of an apéritif? Same thing. The term comes from the Latin “aperire,” meaning “to open.” And that’s the point of the exercise: an aperitivo is meant to stimulate, or “open,” your appetite. Because an aperitivo is meant to stimulate the appetite, the drink should be very dry (low in sugar), since sugar actually limits the appetite. It should also be low in alcohol, because......well, you don't want people getting rip-roaring drunk before dinner. Traditional aperitivi include Vermouth, Prosecco or Italian liqueurs like Campari and Aperol. Recently, spritzes and other cocktails have also become popular aperitivi.
Move on to the Antipasto course. “Antipasto” literally means “before the meal.” In general English terms, it means “appetizer.” There is no such thing as “an” antipasto. There are countless varieties of antipasti across Italy, limited only by the imagination. Some of the more traditional offerings include olives, cured meats, cheeses, bruschette, crostini, preserves, and grilled or fried vegetables or seafood. Usually a variety, hot, cold or mixed, are served together. Portions are small: antipasti are intended to whet the appetite, not overwhelm it.
The next plate or course is the Primo Piatto, which literally means “first plate.” Obviously, if you've already had an appetizer, the primo piatto is technically not the “first” plate, but work with me here, okay? That's just the way they do it. Primi piatti are starches like pasta, risotto or polenta. Unlike at the American table where these starches are served snuggled up next to a hunk of steak or chicken or a pork chop, Italian primi are self-contained, stand alone dishes. That's one big reason why Italians don't serve the monstrously huge piles of pasta commonly seen in American Italian restaurants: the pasta is intended as a course, not as the entire meal. No Italian in his right mind would think of trying to consume enough pasta to feed a small village and then move on to the next two or three or four courses. In general, a primo piatto serving is about the size of a man's closed fist rather than the size of his head. In Italy, it’s not uncommon to see two primi served with a big meal. Something like, say, a spaghetti carbonara and a gnocchi alla sorrentina; two distinctly different dishes allowing for a little variety.
The Secondo Piatto is next in line. These are your protein dishes. Meat, poultry, seafood, and sometimes an egg dish like a frittata are served as secondi, a word which means – I bet you can guess – “second.” Although most secondi are meat-based, there are a few vegetarian options. Melanzane alla parmigiana (eggplant Parmesan) comes to mind. Again, this is a separate plate all its own. The food served as a secondo does not share space on a plate with starches or vegetables. The starches come first and the vegetables come next.
The vegetable course is the Contorno. Contorno means “outline,” “boundary” or “edge.” Served on a separate plate, it occupies space on the edge or the boundary or the outline of the secondo piatto. Contorni may be served at the same time, but never on the same plate. A contorno may be as simple as a few stalks of asparagus or it can be a complex creation containing many elements. Or maybe something like a stuffed tomato. Insalate (salads) kind of sneak themselves onto the contorno's playing field. In general, salads are just not an Italian thing and they are never served before a meal or as a meal. Sometimes insalate can be served as contorni, but usually they are presented near the end of the meal as a separate course to cleanse the palate.
Some Italians serve a Formaggi course as part of a full meal. It's basically a cheese platter, the purpose of which is to provide a transition from savory to sweet flavors. Typically the platter includes a variety of fresh cheeses and aged ones that can be paired up with fresh fruits, dried fruits, jellies, honey or nuts. Not all Italians utilize this course, but among those who do, there are many who use it to close out the meal in place of the sweet or “dolci” course that follows.
Dolci means “sweets.” But the Italian idea of sweets and the American idea oftentimes don't match up. Americans tend to lean toward heavily sweet desserts like cakes and pies and ice cream concoctions. An Italian “dessert” may consist of a plate of fresh fruit. That's not to say that Italians don't have “desserts.” They do and there are hundreds of varieties of them, ranging from simple “biscotti e torte” (cookies and cakes), to regional specialties like cannoli siciliani and panforte di siena, to festive seasonal offerings like panettone and colomba di Pasqua. But most often, Italians reserve these options for big meals or celebrations and rely on combinations of local, seasonal fruit for less auspicious day-to-day occasions.
In Italy, coffee is a course. The final service to almost any Italian meal is Caffè e Digestivo. Especially the “caffè” part. Of course, when Italians say caffè, they mean only one thing: espresso. Rich and flavorful, espresso caps off any meal. And it is always served at the end of the meal. Unlike in America, coffee is never served with lunch or dinner; it is always served after. And cappuccinos and macchiatos are strictly breakfast drinks. You'll never find them served after 10 or 11 a.m. As far as digestivi go, they are beverages served on the opposite end of the digestive spectrum from the aperitivi. Intended to stimulate digestion, digestivi run the range from dark, herbal, medicinal drinks to lighter but still bitter beverages. Amaro is a common example. In fact, the digestivo course is often called the Amaro course. Grappa is also quite popular, as are Sambuca, Limoncello and other liqueurs. Digestivi flavors are pretty bold and complex, leading the course to also be called “ammazzacaffè,” which translates to “coffee killer” because they finish off the taste of coffee.
Speaking of beverages, we've already established that coffee is not an appropriate accompaniment to an Italian meal. Neither is Coke, Pepsi or any other flavored soda. Iced tea is practically unheard of. Wine is the beverage of choice, but Italians also drink a lot of water. Strangely, although most of Italy has perfectly potable tap water, Italians tend to eschew water straight from the sink (acqua del rubinetto) in favor of bottled water. When you ask for water, you'll be offered the choice between “acqua gassata o naturale”; fizzy water or still. Sometimes the choices will be between “fizzante e minerale,” which is pretty much the same choice expressed in different terms. Italians drink a lot of sparkling water, the most popular of which is probably San Pellegrino. Among non-carbonated or “still” mineral spring waters, Aqua Panna is a leading brand. Serve either or, preferably, both, since drinking straight carbonated water is an acquired taste many Americans are slow to acquire.
As far as “authentic” décor for your party, forget the kitsch. Red checkered tablecloths, candles stuck in fiaschi (that's what those Chianti bottles with the baskets are called), and plastic grapes are relics of a bygone time that may or may not have ever existed outside the mind of advertising executives. Nice meals in Italy are served on nice tablecloths and nice plates with nice flatware and glassware just like anywhere else. And nice fresh floral arrangements are also....nice. Put on some nice Italian dinner music (there's tons of it on iTunes), some light opera by Mario Lanza or Luciano Pavarotti, or maybe mix in some more recognizable tunes by Italian-American artists like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett and others, and you'll have the perfect setting for your perfect Italian meal.
Okay. Obviously, what I've outlined here are the preparations for the whole megillah. The big party meal. This is not something you're gonna throw together for supper on a Tuesday night. Truth be told, the evening meal is not all that in Italian culture. Lunch, or pranzo, is the big meal of the day, a leisurely one that takes place as part of the afternoon riposo. Dinner is most often a light meal, eaten late by American standards and consisting of soup, salad, cold meats, or leftovers from lunch. But since we Americans make such a big deal of dinner, you could probably do with half the courses. You could still make a very impressive – and delicious – dinner showing with a little antipasto, a primo, a secondo and contorno, and a nice dolci.
Just remember, whether you go all out or scale back, Italian dining and entertaining are all about the food and the fellowship. No TV in the background, no cellphones at the table, and no wolfing down your food and running off to do something else. I have two signs posted in my dining room that sum up the Italian philosophy. One says, “vivere, ridere, amore, mangiare,” meaning “live, laugh, love, eat.” The other reads, “a tavola non s'invecchia,” which loosely translates to “at the table, one does not grow old.”