The second part of Ceri Morgan's interview with Martine Delvaux, author of Rose amer, which is published in an English translation by David Homel as Bitter Rose (Linda Leith Publishing, 2015).
How to Eat Like an Italian, by Davide D'Alessandro25 March 2013
It is impossible to overestimate the importance of eating, and in particular of eating well, for Italians. To identify Italy with the art of eating has become a global reflex, and the link we make between Italy and superb food is one that exists for good reasons. This is not mere prejudice on a shaky footing. Italians know what good food is, they are willing to spend time and money to obtain it, and they commit large swathes of time to discussing it. When in Italy, I feel like I am at a nation-wide academic conference that is chronically convened with the mandate to celebrate and promote the culture of enjoying food. All around me are the delegates of the conference, every citizen holding a doctoral degree in food theory, preparation, and consumption.
At a time when it is standard practice to dissect general intelligence – illustratively, think of social intelligence or emotional intelligence – there is little doubt that Italians collectively have high food intelligence. I am always impressed that when Italians, young and old, answer their mobile phones, what they just ate is often a topic of discussion. Teenagers oozing coolness will greet their peers and leap into a discussion of the subtleties of the risotto they just savoured, and how the tomatoes in the salad were candy-sweet. Family discussions towards the end of lunch tend to be dominated by dreamy wish lists for that night’s supper. Despite important regional differences in style and ingredients, food dominates the national psyche. We all must eat to survive, but visitors to Italy are invited to join in a little activity, done three times daily, that is another pillar of the dolce vita, namely eating to have pleasure. And lots of it.
Of course, anyone can eat rather easily in Italy. But for a visitor to eat well, a bit of background knowledge is required. Not surprisingly in a country infatuated with eating, social scripts pervade the Italian customs of food consumption. For most of us, the promise of eating truly outstanding food is among the principal motivators for a trip to Italy. Unfortunately, without some culinary culture basics under their belts, too many tourists are left disappointed by their Italian eating experiences. Let me now provide the social scripts and useful pointers to help you confidently savour eating in Italy, as you undoubtedly should.
Some General Laws of Italian Food
Though food styles in Italy vary widely from region to region, even from town to town, it is possible to zoom out and abstract some common characteristics that define Italian food across the country so that visitors can know what to expect. Here are three general qualities that govern food preparation in Italy.
A fundamental aspect of Italian food is an obsessive focus on fresh, high quality ingredients that have a punctuated, decisive taste. Blandness is anathema to Italian cooking. You can expect to savour tomatoes that are sweet and aromatic, as opposed to the sad cardboard-flavoured varieties that dominate supermarket shelves in too many of our hometowns. Basil will have a pleasantly pungent fragrance that is intended to be noticed. Fruit is invariably ripe and sweet. Little of Italian food is served from the freezer, and on menus it is common to indicate transparently the dishes that are made from ingredients that have been previously frozen, a virtual warning to customers that potentially better choices abound.
Italian food is unapologetically simple. This poor word – simple – has developed a bit of a bad reputation of late, and unjustifiably so, I think. If a dish is simple and tastes good, it is a compliment to its cook and to the quality of the ingredients it contains. In simple food, there is no place for poor quality to hide, thus the simplicity of Italian food acts as an implicit quality control mechanism that helps keep cuisine at a high level. Consider one of Italy’s most simple but delicious dishes: spaghetti aglio olio (spaghetti with garlic and olive oil). The name of the dish doubles as its ingredient list. If it tastes good, as it invariably does, it is because there is good garlic, good extra-virgin oil, and just the right light touch of the cook’s hand. No mysterious additions or complex manoeuvres. Many an Italian grandmother would roll over in her grave if she knew that Italy’s simple dishes were selling at chic-level exorbitant prices in many restaurants outside Italy, easily double what Italians typically pay.
Related to the notion of simplicity is a characteristic avoidance of combining too many ingredients in an Italian dish. In my experience, this avoidance borders on a phobia. In Italy, more is less in the domain of ingredients. Each ingredient is intended to be well savoured and to make a distinct contribution to the dish at hand. For Italians, too many ingredients is a declaration of a culinary civil war, where the battling factions that are unwillingly united in a single recipe have a tendency to act in disharmony, each struggling against its opponents to reign supreme. Ultimately there is no winner, and the dish itself is vanquished. Accordingly, you can expect a small number of ingredients in any one recipe, but also expect them to be delicious and symbiotic, each working to make the other taste more sublime. Pizza is a good example. A pizza in Italy often carries the name of the one topping (besides tomato sauce and cheese) that it features. A favourite pizza is often straightforwardly named funghi (mushrooms), and you can guess how many toppings it has and how it should taste.
Breakfast at Italy’s
Italians have a different approach to the day’s initial meal than do most English speakers. Breakfast (la prima colazione in Italian) is by far the least structured of meals in Italy; it's an open question whether or not Italians consider it to be a meal at all. For most locals, breakfast consists of a cappuccino (considered more of a heavy food of sorts than a beverage per se) and a pastry, cake, or a biscotto (literally “twice-cooked”, a large, crunchy, crescent-moon shaped cookie that is great for dunking in your coffee). Breakfast is rarely taken around a table, but is instead most often quickly taken either at home or at a bar along one’s route. Savoury foods like bacon, eggs, or sausage are not typical Italian breakfast foods.
Many Italian lodging options include breakfast in their prices. Here, you can expect a variety of fresh pastries, cakes, biscotti (the plural of biscotto), yogurts, and fresh fruit, often offered in a buffet format. A server will usually come to your table to take a coffee order, and you are free to have whatever what you wish. Again, a cappuccino is standard issue for Italians, and this is the perfect time to have one.
If your place of lodging does not include breakfast in the price, then the Italian bar is the place to have it. Finding a bar is a snap, and one will be close to your hotel as you walk out. There, you may have your coffee fix and savour one of the lovely cakes or pastries that are on display. You can either have your coffee and sweets standing at the bar (like most Italians) or seated at a table, but be aware that table service comes at a higher cost than does standing at the bar, on the order of double the standing price. My chapter in The Dolce Vita Code on the Italian bar houses the details about how to properly order a coffee in Italy. To order a pastry or other sweet to accompany your coffee, simply pointing to the object of your desire is simple and effective enough. Don’t forget a hearty “grazie!” to the bar staff.
If the potentially dainty nature of your Italian breakfast leaves you feeling peckish come mid-morning, it is certainly part of the social script of eating in the morning to pop into a bar for something to pick you up. I recommend a supplementary cappuccino and a little snack at any time until about 11:00 am to provide you with a kick of energy and to evoke a little smile as you embrace this small but effective custom of the dolce vita.
How to Choose Where to Eat In Italy
Eating establishments for lunch and supper are everywhere in Italy, on every corner, in every piazza, along every street. Overall, it is tough to make a horrendous choice. Certainly in small towns that do not see that many visitors, you can do well by closing your eyes and choosing the first place into which you smack. In larger centres that see limitless droves of tourists, though, you will do well by keeping a few basic tips in mind to help steer yourself towards a virtuous place. Sadly, profiteers are always to be found, and it is easy for such types to let quality slip when the seats of their locales are always full with flocks of foreigners who do not always have the eye to suss out the gastronomic wheat from the chaff.
Here are some general ideas to help train your eye to detect a noble eatery, especially in the big cities. Look for places that draw local Italian families and workers. If the police are having lunch in a pizzeria, you know it's a good bet. Walk by and inspect the patrons before making your decision. If you see young children gaily playing and adults gesticulating wildly, you've hit the mark. Waiting for a table to join in with an Italian-speaking crowd will be well worth the effort.
On average, you will be rewarded for deviating a bit off of the beaten path. In Italy, that means being aware that establishments stationed in prime tourist areas like famous squares generally are not obligated to offer peak levels of quality to keep their businesses humming. And even if quality is a priority for a venue in such locations, that quality usually comes at a premium price. As you walk around during the day along back streets and less touristy areas, keep an eye out for more modest and tucked-away places to eat and judge the menu as you pass by. Make a note of appealing addresses for later. If an eatery is located in a less than ideal spot and looks less than flashy, remember that something else is keeping it in business, and you can guess what that something else is. In the same vein, avoiding places with touts posted outside who aggressively try to wheedle you into their dining room is probably a good move.
Last, a word about menus. By all means, peruse the offerings and the prices, but also consider the linguistics of a menu. One that has each dish written in five different languages raises a flag in my mind. It signals the possibility that the establishment in question does not rely on local Italians as their bread-and-butter regulars. Of course, as the world becomes a village it is certainly more common to expect translations, especially into English. But have your feelers out. In my book, any place that has a simple menu printed only in Italian gets an ‘A’ for authenticity. It is great fun to go into such places and ask questions to the staff about words you do not understand on the menu, and such experiences will make you feel proud and adventurous as a traveler. Italians will be happy to help decipher any mysteries, and any hurdle in communicating will most often be compensated for with premium cuisine and kind service.
Categories of Eating Establishments in Italy
As a good example of how cultural values dictate the breadth of a people’s lexicon, Italians have different names to refer to different types of dining venues. You will notice people eating in either a trattoria, an osteria, a ristorante, or a pizzeria. These different categories of establishments carry descriptive weight in Italy, where Italians have different conceptions of a meal in an osteria compared to a meal in a ristorante, for example. Outside Italy, cunning marketers have noticed the apparently sophisticated sounds of these words and have indiscriminately adopted these categories to name their establishments. Not so in Italy, where the type of eatery still matters with respect to what and how you can expect to eat and the prices you can expect to pay. Here are the details you need to know.
The trattoria – Simple, friendly, and good
A trattoria (a thorny word to translate, but perhaps done best simply as “traditional family eatery”) is the midpoint of Italian dining establishments. A trattoria is typically an informal locale with moderate, mid-range prices. Do not expect uniformed staff, three different forks beside your plate, or a wine list sprawling over several pages. Do expect lovely food choices that are clearly listed on a printed menu, pleasant but unobtrusive service, and a convivial, amicable atmosphere.
The ristorante – Refined and comprehensive
A notch up on the formality scale is the Italian ristorante. This is a full service restaurant, typically more elegant and posh than a trattoria. Here you are likely to encounter prim and proper staff, a more refined and muted (but certainly not silent) ambience, and somewhat higher prices, but not astronomically so. The menu of a ristorante is typically well developed and wide-ranging, and its wine list is usually extensive. Because of the more formal tone of a ristorante, and despite Italy’s unabashful adoration of children, this is probably not the best choice if you are concerned about your little ones starting a ruckus.
The osteria – Rustic and unpretentious
The Italian osteria, translated loosely as a “tavern,” is less formal than the trattoria, and specializes in eating instead of in drinking. Some of my most memorable Italian meals have been savoured in an osteria. Here you can expect wonderfully rustic, typically local food offerings in a warm and unpretentious atmosphere. There is more of a pleasant bustle to an osteria, so it makes a fine choice for families with small children. Prices tend to be most economical in an osteria compared to a ristorante or a trattoria. The trade-off is that the food offerings in an osteria tend to be more limited, but certainly not to the point of being restrictive. Just don’t expect twenty different pasta dishes to be on tap. Instead, the menu of an osteria will be simple and brief (not a bad thing, in my opinion), with a more limited selection of wines. An osteria that is frequented mainly by locals may not even have a printed menu, but this is becoming rare. Just confirm with the staff as you arrive or check if one is posted outside the establishment. (The Italian word for “menu” is, easily enough, menu). Food quality tends to be excellent, especially considering the fair prices.
The pizzeria – Al taglio or al piatto?
Last, everyone’s favourite, the pizzeria. There are two types of pizza places that you will see regularly during your visit to Italy. A pizzeria al taglio, typically well labelled as such on its sign, is a small, often charming hole-in-the-wall type of establishment that serves individual slices of various large pizzas that are already baked. The pizzas that are available change often throughout the day, and they tend to sell briskly and are then speedily replenished, so freshness is never an issue. Pizzas that are available at any given moment are well displayed in a glass case. As a visitor, it is completely acceptable to point to the specific pizza from which you would like a slice, and then to indicate the number of slices you would like, even using your fingers as a numerical guide if helpful. The ingredients are self-evident. The staff will cut a reasonable slice, and typically will ask you if you would like it reheated (Riscaldata?). You can answer si or no, of course, and the slices will be boxed or wrapped in paper, depending on the quantity purchased. The pizza is sold either with a flat price by the slice or it will be weighed. Either way, rest assured that eating pizza al taglio is one of the most economical, delicious, and prized food options in the country.
The other type of pizza place, also omnipresent in Italy, is the more familiar and larger establishment with menus and table service, usually signed simply as a pizzeria. Here pizza is served al piatto, or individually on a round plate, and normally each client orders his or her own pizza. There is a printed listing of the pizze (this is the plural form) available, and it is common to find at least twenty different pizze on the menu. Happily, prices are much more gentle than you are accustomed to in your hometown. What are firm, in contrast, are the standards, and a good pizzaiolo (“pizza maker”) can demand a wage that easily rivals that of a university professor, and rightly so given the roundish marvels that are dispatched from the oven.
A pizzeria is usually a bustling, rambunctious place with a jovial atmosphere that makes them great for largish groups or children. If at all possible, opt for a pizzeria that boasts a forno a legna. This means that the pizze are baked in a wood-fired oven, yielding the high temperatures required to quickly crisp the crust without overcooking the toppings.
How to Structure Your Meals in Italy
Italians are choosy about how a meal is presented and the order in which different foods are ingested. Thus, depending on the category of eatery in which you find yourself, there is a social script that dictates a certain ritual and structure to the meal you are about to enjoy.
At a pizzeria
For Italians, the simplest of meals is most often that enjoyed in a sit-down pizzeria al piatto. Be aware that it is considered strange for adults and teenagers to split and share one pizza in Italy. Given the great taste and favourable prices, go ahead and order one pizza each. You will be happy that you did. If you have young children in your entourage, say under five years of age, then it is perfectly acceptable to share a pizza between two children. Alternatively, at times your server might suggest a smaller, bambino-sized individual pizza for youngsters. But be warned – children tend to devour them and you may be forced to dole out some of your own pizza to your young gluttons. If you order an individual pizza for the children and there ends up being significant leftovers, you may always take them away with you.
Be prepared for a different appearance to your pizza compared to what you typically see at home. Outside Italy, I have noticed that pizzas tend to have a somewhat industrial, standardized look – perfectly circular, with symmetrically distributed toppings, and a uniform and consistent layer of cheese. I cannot forget the occasion when my cousin Raffaele, a professor in Italy, visited me in Montreal. Stupidly, perhaps, I suggested we go out for a pizza, and I nervously directed us to a place that I heard had a decent reputation. When the pizza arrived, round as a clock and obsessively organized, I looked to him for a sign of approval. After examining his plate with a detective’s level of scrutiny, his response was curt: “It is not pizza.” I learned my lesson. But I now see his point. In Italy the pizze are a reflection of the country itself – chaotic at first glance, irregularly shaped, and with a topography that is playfully arranged here and there. But you will come to adore this whimsical lack of order, and the taste of the sum of the pizza’s parts will convince you that more organized does not necessarily mean better.
A stern warning regarding peperoni! If there is a common blunder among visiting pizzeria patrons in Italy, it surely is to expect meat as a topping when selecting a pizza that lists peperoni as an ingredient. In Italy, peperoni are peppers, as in the vegetable, and not the meat product that you may be seeking as a pizza topping. The sausage-like dressing that visitors call “pepperoni” (note that the double consonant is present only in English) is not to be found in Italy. If you are craving meat on your pizza, the topping to look for is prosciutto, a delicious, thinly sliced cured pork.
At a ristorante, trattoria, or osteria
If in a pizzeria, the pizza itself might constitute the only dish you will order, in a ristorante, trattoria, or osteria the social script of eating dictates that dishes be served serially in discrete courses. If you order an appetizer, pasta, and a meat-based dish, each selection will be served alone. Even an espresso, if ordered, is treated as a course of sorts and is often served only after dessert, if itself ordered, has been completed. The social scripts regarding eating in courses are universally respected in Italy, where even children are well versed in these rites. Case in point, on a cold autumn day back home in Montreal, my son and I were playing an Italian trivia game designed for young elementary school children that follows the adventures of a famous Italian cheese-crazed mouse. One question listed four food dishes, and required placing the dishes in the correct order of consumption as an Italian restaurant script would dictate. It was not a no-brainer, and I shook my head in wonderment as we discussed whether the zuppa ai quattro formaggi (soup with four cheeses) ought to be served before or after the crostini al gorgonzola (toasted bread garnished with gorgonzola).
Here is the sequence of courses in Italian meals when dining out. These course labels will form the headings of most printed menus you encounter.
Antipasti: literally “Before the meal”, a pasto being a meal, thus appetizers
Primi: “Firsts,” these are pasta or rice dishes
Secondi: “Seconds,” typically meat and fish dishes
Contorni: “Contours,” typically vegetable-based side dishes, and salads
Dolci: “Sweets,” thus desserts.
These course labels are listed in their plural forms, as is usual on menus. The singular forms are antipasto, primo, secondo, contorno, and dolce. A few words on the nature of each will help you appreciate them.
Antipasti are generally served as smallish portions and are meant to whet your appetite and give you something little to enjoy while waiting for your other dishes to be prepared. A favourite is bruschetta (pronounced with a hard ‘c’ as in “broos-ket-ta”), a simply splendid concoction of crusty bread topped most often with fresh tomatoes, but also occasionally with mushrooms or grilled vegetables, and dressed with good olive oil and garlic. As mentioned, portions tend to be dainty (but not ridiculously so), thus I recommend an antipasto for each patron, if you opt to have one.
Primi form the core of most Italian meals. The fear of pasta, rice, and other foods labelled somewhat crudely solely as carbohydrates has not caught on in Italy, and Italians certainly seem none the worse for it. Pasta remains the perennial Italian staple, and most Italians eagerly eat pasta in some form daily.
Should you feel some malaise about making pasta a regular little thing to enjoy in Italy, perhaps some Italian notions regarding its consumption will bolster your efforts to decriminalize this worshipped Italian food. First, nobody can argue with the economic virtue of pasta. In Italy it is gentle on the wallet, a welcome relief from the pasta prices elsewhere when dining out that tend to be exaggerated, if not offensive. Second, pasta in Italy is served obsessively al dente, which translates literally as “to the tooth.” In practice this means that all pasta is carefully cooked to a perfect point where it still has a core of firmness to its bite. Pasta thus prepared is healthier (it has a lower glycemic index) relative to the overcooked, mushy pasta to which many of us are sadly accustomed. Third, regardless of any potential debates regarding the virtues of pasta itself, Italians rightly see their beloved primi as carriers of delicious and healthy ingredients into the body. Can you imagine a better vehicle for transporting fresh vegetables, healthy olive oil, and garlic? Last, the portion size of primi tends to be well controlled, and probably will be a tad smaller than you are used to at home. Thus, pasta is eaten in reasonable quantities that tend to take the edge off of one’s hunger, preventing the subsequent overconsumption of animal-based foods.
To miss out on pasta in Italy would be to miss out on one of Italy’s great simple pleasures. Think twice before denying yourself such a marvellous little thing. To list all the Italian variations of pasta is beyond the scope of most human cognitive capacity, let alone the scope of this article. But don’t worry – pasta dishes tend to be uncomplicatedly described on a menu, with the cut of the pasta listed first, followed by the additional ingredients. Be fanciful – it is difficult to make a bad choice. Rice, found less often on menus and typically served in a dish named risotto, also makes fine primo, and the aforementioned Italian virtues of pasta apply equally well to this other much-maligned grain.
Secondi are most often meat and fish dishes. If you are a lacto-ovo vegetarian, you may at times also spot an egg-based dish, most often a frittata (the Italian version of an omelette), listed on a menu as a secondo. In Italy, meat dishes are characterized by the high quality of the product and the nature of the cut. The use of sauces as a condiment for meats is considered suspect by Italians, who believe that meat should taste like meat and not be camouflaged by flavoured potions that detract from the dish at hand. Meats are thus prepared simply with few ingredients, perhaps with the addition of just an herb. The standard is for meats to be well cooked, and it is uncommon to ask customers about preferences (e.g., medium, rare, etc.).
Fish tends to be lightly but properly cooked, so that it maintains a delicate texture and does not become tough. Again, the focus is on good quality so that the fish can stand alone and impress its consumer without too many bells and whistles that tend to distract. A squeeze of lemon is the most that Italians tend to tolerate as far as condiments go.
Because meals are served in courses, Italians tend to have satisfied any ravishing famine by the time the secondo arrives, so portions are more moderate compared to what you may see at home, where meat is often the central, if not sole, component of a meal. These more moderate portions help keep the consumption of meat at a lower level, certainly not a bad thing health-wise, and will facilitate being mindful of your food and savouring its high quality, as opposed to high quantity.
Contorni, elegantly labelled and translated as “contours,” are the most unappreciated and under-ordered course by foreigners in an Italian meal. They are typically vegetable-based dishes that act as accompaniments or side-dishes, literally adding some welcome contours of colour and texture to your table. As such, they form excellent options for visitors who are vegetarian or otherwise limiting the amount of animal-based foods in their diet. Examples of common contorni include patate arroste (roasted potatoes), verdure alla griglia (grilled vegetables, typically topped with good olive oil), and fiori di zucca (typically fried pumpkin or zucchini flowers).
When your contorni will be served depends to a degree on what else you have ordered. If you have ordered a secondo, then you can expect your contorni to be served shortly after the meat or fish arrives, again, to add those colourful contours of texture. If you have not ordered a secondo per se, then the contorni will typically arrive after you have completed your primo. If you are trying to avoid meat products (and I proudly put myself in this camp), it is lovely to order one or two contorni in lieu of an official secondo, and thus enjoy these delectable vegetables as a sort of stand-alone course after your pasta or rice. Contorni are almost always the most economically priced course on the menu, so don't be shy about ordering them.
A word regarding salads. Insalate, as they are known in Italian, form ideal contours for a meal, and are often found in the contorni section of a menu. If not, look for a separate heading. Salads are invariably eaten at the end of the meal in Italy, and not at the beginning. This is a tough concept for some foreigners to wrap their heads around. During the initial phases of my relationship with my wife’s family, proudly Canadian through-and-through, they always thought that I served the meal backwards when I was in charge of cooking. I persisted in eating against their grain, and now they have become happy converts to the salad-at-the-end approach to meals. Not surprisingly, digestion is at the core of this Italian convention. Ending the savoury phase of a meal with some roughage is thought to favour the harmonious deconstruction of all those gastronomic wonders you have just relished.
Be aware that salads are served undressed. Patrons drizzle their own condiments using the olive oil and vinegar that will be brought to the table. When in Italy, do as the Italians do. Have your salad at the end – you will feel competent as you fit in with the locals around you, and this little digestive custom may well become one of your favourite imports once you are back home. If you are not in the mood for a salad, the other contorni listed on the menu will act as equally formidable and delicious digestive allies.
Last come the famed Italian dolci, literally “sweets” or desserts. They are almost always homemade from high quality ingredients, and are frankly irresistible. Do not deprive yourself. Instead, adopt the Italian philosophy towards having a sweet to end your meal: it is merely the natural way to do things, and there is no need to excoriate oneself for having pleasurable and satisfying foods.
Spectacular desserts to look for include tiramisù (drolly translated as “pull me up,” which is an accurate description of its psychological effect). Made with sponge cake that has been merrily drowned in sweetened espresso, then layered with luscious mascarpone cream cheese, only then to be covered in a veil of powdered chocolate, this is Italy’s national antidepressant, and if it doesn’t pull you up, nothing will. Also look for panna cotta, literally “cooked cream.” This is a sweet, custard-like cream that is topped either with caramel, chocolate, or berries. Try the torta della nonna, should you spot it. This is “grandmother’s cake” and it differs from place to place, but, as you would expect from an Italian grandmother, it is always legendary. Last, frutta (fruit) is a common Italian dessert to end a meal. If you order fruit, you will receive what is local, in season, and ripe. Can you fathom an easier way to savour the dolce vita than with a perfect Italian dolce? I cannot.
Money Matters When Eating in Italy
In a country where meals are unrushed and meant to be lingered over, it is rare that the check will automatically find its way to your table. In any type of eatery, when you are ready to leave, you will typically have to ask for the check, as follows:
“Mi scusi, il conto per favore.”
(Excuse me, the bill, please.)
The bill will then make its way to you. In a ristorante you can certainly pay seated at your table, but in the less formal pizzeria, trattoria, or osteria you may have to head over to the counter and settle up at the register.
Take note that small, more informal establishments that cater mainly to Italians (these being the establishments that I recommend seeking out) may not accept payment by a credit or debit card. Italians have not embraced the practice of indiscriminately paying for anything with a card, and cash is still the most common form of payment when eating out. Confirm your options before sitting down and have some cash on hand.
A word on tipping. Overall, the practice of tipping is rare for Italians, who view the staff of an eatery to be the rightful employees of the owner, the latter being responsible for paying out fair and reasonable salaries from the establishment’s revenues. I have always wondered why such a seemingly logical business model is perceived as so revolutionary by visitors to Italy. Any charges for service are usually incorporated into the listed prices, as are taxes. Thus, clients are generally not asked or expected to pay any more that what is expressed on the bottom line of the bill.
It is normal to be charged a coperto, literally Italian for “cover,” for each person in your party. This is a nominal fee, on the order of a couple of euros, that covers the cost of incidental items like good bread on your table, and the service of the staff. Foreigners are infamous for being confused about the coperto, and at times raising a bit of a fuss about it. Relax. Everyone pays the coperto, foreigners and Italians alike, and it is a standard component of the eating out social script in Italy. In my book, a small fixed cover for something enjoyable and tangible, like good service and good bread, is much better than being expected to hand over an additional 15-20% of the bill as a gratuity rather indiscriminately.
If you thought that the meal you just enjoyed was a superlative experience and you wish to express this to the staff, you can choose to leave a token of appreciation on the table. A rough-and-ready rule of thumb is the equivalent of one euro per adult client, but bear in mind that even this gesture is not an automatic reflex like tipping is back home. When eating out in Italy, I find that the tips most appreciated are the gracious social skills demonstrated by clients coupled with some positive reinforcement to the staff for offering a memorable meal. So, as you leave, let go of any remaining inhibitions and jubilantly proclaim,
“Grazie! Abbiamo mangiato bene!”
(Thank you! We ate well, and the food was great!)
This little phrase is part of the jovial Italian social script following a good meal, and expressing it will make both you and the staff members feel good. And feeling good with a full belly (that is joyously digesting, of course) is an inextricable piece of the dolce vita.
Of all the Italians I know, no two better personify the Italian love of superb cuisine than my aunt Maria Pia and her dear friend Camomilla. On most days Camomilla joins my aunt’s family for lunch, and she venerates the dishes that my aunt prepares. Maria Pia serves the most exquisite pastas to her chum – homemade linguine with wild porcini garnished with olive oil from my family’s grove, or fresh gnocchi with tomatoes and basil from her garden laced with local pecorino cheese. Camomilla does not hide her enthusiasm when she senses the aromas wafting about the kitchen, and she cannot wait to eat. But, Camomilla does impose a single request. She insists that the pasta must be cooked precisely al dente. On the rare occasions when my aunt becomes distracted with an urgent phone call or my uncle Ettore’s endless shenanigans, and the pasta thus arrives just a hair overcooked, Camomilla, despite her usual sweet demeanour, becomes quite discourteous. I have seen her walk away from her plate, leaving the still delicious, if slightly imperfect, pasta behind in protest. My aunt takes Camomilla’s insolence personally, and begins to curse the blasted telephone or even poor uncle Ettore for having ultimately caused her culinary misstep.
When I have witnessed this scenario unfold, I feel bad that my aunt is so offended, but I admit that part of me is impressed with Camomilla’s uncompromising principles. I appreciate Camomilla’s contention that in Italian cooking, there are some rules that just cannot be broken, and I think this philosophy is what keeps standards securely high. Camomilla and my aunt do love each other, and eventually things settle down. To atone for her humiliation, my aunt cooks the pasta anew, this time with undivided attention, and everyone reconvenes around the table to share the now impeccable food.
I would be remiss if I did not mention one more tidbit to round out this tale. My aunt’s picky pasta friend, Camomilla, is a dog, a beloved rabble-rousing terrier that adds a welcome dose of spiritedness to my family’s days. Understandably, my aunt never likes to see food go to waste. So, the pasta that was rejected by Camomilla makes its way down to the chickens that dutifully supply the family with fresh eggs. I always wonder how long it will take for these birds to wise up and realize that they are getting the shaft, and in turn begin to cry out their own gobbles of protest. If you are incredulous upon reading this, you certainly could be forgiven. Even I, having witnessed it with my very own eyes on various occasions, shake my head in disbelief as I ponder it all. But it is true, to the letter. Such is the nature of food in Italy. Even dogs hold cuisine to exacting standards. No wonder that they, and their fellow Italians, eat so well.
© 2013, Davide D'Alessandro
Author Davide D'Alessandro [Photo: Kimberley Burton]
Davide D’Alessandro is a proud dual citizen of Italy and Canada. A clinical psychologist by trade, he holds a Ph.D. from McGill University, has published scholarly peer-reviewed articles, and maintains an independent psychology practice with the goal of using the lessons of science to help clients live more satisfying lives. When not employing psychology in his office, he does so in Italy, observing the habits of his fellow Italians and joining them in the enjoyment of little things to boost their moods and his alike. He generally considers himself happy, despite not owning a car and watching television on a smallish screen. Just don’t ask him to give up his sacred caffè. He lives in Montreal.