by Jay Kitterman, consultant, LLCC Culinary Institute
Last April my wife Carol and I, along with our friends Nancy and Pay Chesley, traveled to Italy. We discovered that eating a leisurely Italian meal was one of the main pleasures of our trip. We traveled to Rome, Florence, Venice and Tuscany. Italian food culture is very different from what we are used to here. Italians have been perfecting their traditions for over 1,000 years, and when you visit, have fun accepting their culture along with the great wine and olive oil. Even if you are intimidated by the language barrier, learn some basics so you can do your best to speak. We found that hosts and servers often treated us like family and found that a few Italian words went a long way.
Traditional Italian menus have four or five sections. The Antipasti, Primo is often a pasta or soup, the Secondo, usually a meat, poultry or fish. Side dishes are listed as the Contorni and may include a vegetable, potato or insalata. Finally “Dolce” or dessert which may be a choice of a fruit, cheese, cakes and ice cream. It is not necessary to order from every course but at least normally the custom to order from at least two.
Drinks: Since most Italians drink wine and we did not want to look like tourists, we did our part in following this custom. Often there will be a house wine that can be ordered by the half or full liter and is economical. Also often served with dinner is mineral water (acqua minerale) and if you order iced tea or soft drinks (same price as house wine) do not expect free refills. Italians take enjoying their food very seriously and important not to mess up one’s taste buds with other flavors.
Coffee: Coffee first thing in the morning is a necessity for Carol. In Italy she normally requested an “Americano” – a shot of espresso in a glass that is filled to the brim with water. If you like espresso you may want to ask for a “doppio” or double shot. If the espresso is too strong then try a cappuchino-espresso with frothed milk. Most Italians only have cappuccino at breakfast. I am not a coffee drinker and one morning tried Italian hot chocolate. Unique to Italy, it is thick and creamy, almost as if they had melted a pure bar of chocolate and mixed it with frothed milk. It was decadent, sweet and utterly delicious.
Meal Times: Italians eat fairly late meals. We stayed in great hotels and all had large breakfast buffets including pastries, meats, eggs, fruit and yogurt. For most Italians breakfast is a light meal, often just consisting of a cappuccino or coffee and brioche standing up at a bar, with sitting costing more. Lunch will be offered between 12 and 3 p.m. and dinner not before 8 p.m. Often they will close between lunch and dinner. The same is true for some shops. The earlier you have dinner the more likely you will be dining with other tourists. Traditional meals may last one or two hours or even longer.
Salads: We found are normally topped with a combination of olive oil and vinegars and seldom offered a choice of our French, Ranch and low calorie Peppercorn. Be brave and taste authentic Italian oil and vinegar (olio e aceto) the varieties are endless and flavors intense. The same is true with mayonnaise, ketchup, ranch dressings, etc. Italians believe in enjoying the exceptional flavor of what they are eating (usually fresh) and not mask it with other flavors. I will devote a future article to Italian olive oils.
Take Your Time! Dining is an experience. The waiter will not bring the bill until you ask for it. When you are ready simply ask for “il contro.” The bill may include a small bread and cover charge and often service. We found that most restaurants accept credit cards and many have portable units to easily divide the bill. Eating in Italy is not a race, courses are many, service can be slow, and it’s important to relax and remember you are in Italy.
Pizza: You will see it everywhere and often sold by the slice with different toppings. It is an inexpensive snack and normally acceptable to eat with your hands. Pizza is one of the few items that soft drinks and beer are acceptable to share with. Don’t make the mistake we did – when at a small pizza shop in Venice we moved the chairs and tables. We heard some new Italian words (not in our phrase book) from the upset owner.
Gelato: Important to eat it every day. For us it was around 3 p.m. when we would search for a gelato shop. Never a problem to find one. If visiting the Jewish Quarter in Rome I recommend Cremeria Romana Gelato. They make their gelato with fresh fruit – delicious! Try the five spices: vanilla, white chocolate, mint, pistachio and chocolate. If you are very brave, try the halvah yogurt with figs.
You will soon discover there is no shortage of places to dine in Italy. Often the small, tucked away streets will be filled with restaurants, and look for the ones busy with Italians. You can spend hours trying to figure out what to eat or where to dine simply because there are so many choices. You will notice that most places post a menu outside for you to see the food options and prices. In tourist areas there will often be a charming young man outside inviting you in – don’t feel rushed to make a decision.
A practice that Carol had a challenge with was that Italians do not generally tip. We owned a restaurant and strongly believe and understand the practice of rewarding good service. Of course no one in Italy will get mad at you for doing it but you will be recognized as a tourist. Most servers in Italy are considered professionals and paid a livable wage. Make sure you check your bill for an “il coperto” or cover charge or separate “servizio” charge. If there are none, a tip of 5–10 percent is normal. If you do tip, try and do so in cash. Our tour guide instructed us that as a matter of principle, if not economy, the local price should prevail and that tipping 15 or 20 percent in Italy is unnecessary, if not culturally ignorant. Often, for great service or for simplicity, just round the total bill to a convenient number.
Learning to dine like an Italian might not be easy, and it’s important to remember one thing – “a tavola non s’invecchia” meaning “at the table one does not age.” Take the time to enjoy every opportunity you have to dine, and you will surely learn about Italian lifestyle and culture.
A special night for us was dinner at L’Osteria di Giovanni in Florence. Owner Caterina studied Culinary Arts in America, and she shared with us some of the challenges of operating a restaurant in Italy. She truly made us feel at home. At the end of a sumptuous dinner and drinking great wine, she sent over complimentary Limoncello, and on the way out provided us small bags of homemade biscotti. When you visit Florence make sure you dine at this restaurant and tell Caterina that Jay from Lincoln Land sent you. They have their own website in English that will provide you menus, location and reservation information. Caterina provided me the following family recipe for this article.
Kale and Sausage Ragù with Pasta
(They serve it with Pici, but another “long” pasta could be used instead)
Ingredients for approximately four people:
3 tablespoons of olive oil
1 small red onion, minced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon of fennel seeds
4-6 leaves of basil
1 pound of sausages, pealed of skin
1 cup of red wine
2 cups of tomato sauce
1/3 cup of pitted black olives
1/3 cup of cherry tomatoes cut in half
1 cup of kale, blanched in boiling water (unsalted)
In a pot, sweat the onions and the garlic in olive oil.
Add the fennel seeds and toast them a bit to extract flavor.
Break with fingers the basil leaves and add to mixture.
Add the sausages in chunks. Stir the mixture and try to brown the sausages.
Add the wine and stir until wine has evaporated. Lower the flame and cook for approximately 40-45 minutes.
Stir often. Degrease if necessary.
Then, add the tomato sauce and cook for 20-25 minutes.
Add the olives and then add salt and if necessary, add black pepper.
Before tossing the pasta into the sauce, add the cherry tomatoes and the blanched kale.