Italians see food as a source of pleasure and cultural identity. Food is about bringing people together and sharing hospitality. Eating is ingrained in daily life as a sacred social act and form of art. It is emphasized with simplicity, passion, and the utmost pleasure. Sophistication lies in the highest quality ingredients and attention to detail. Eating is a representation of respect to the land and local traditions. It is an elegant, no-fuss food culture.
Italians pride themselves on passing along traditions. They value things being done in a habitual way. Most families dine together on Sundays, and grandma, or “nonna”, will do the cooking. Aging parents are valued for their wisdom. They live at home, helping pass down traditions and raising the kids. Kids and adults share the table and eat the same food. The table is lively and passionate, a way to make others feel welcome.
Italy has twenty different regions. Food is highly seasonal and varies greatly from one region to the next. “While pasta, sauces, and cheeses are staples across the country, every region has its own unique ingredients and dishes that have contributed to the influence of Italian cuisine.”
Here’s a glimpse into six of the twenty regions and the foods they are best known for….
• Lombardy: risotto, gnocchi, and osso bucco.
• Emilia-Romagna: Parmigiano Reggiano, tortellini, and balsamic vinegar of Modena.
• Tuscany: Pecorino cheese, steak alla fiorentina, and ribollita.
• Lazio: bruschetta, spaghetti alla carbonara.
• Campania: Neapolitan pizza, lasagna and mozzarella.
• Sicily: caponata, arancini, and veal marsala.
Families in the same region make the same dishes, while they are all similar, they vary slightly from one kitchen to the next. When sharing a meal with others outside of the family, they will talk about the difference in recipes. The first moments of the meal are about expressing the pleasure of the food, then other topics such as society or politics are discussed. They take things slow, especially when it comes to eating. Dining too quickly is considered rude, and no restaurant will ever rush customers through a meal.
Traditional meals will last several hours. When dining with friends or family, Italians make dinners special. They savor the moment, and practice “stare a tavolo,” which literally translates to “stay at the table.” Rather than planning their meals ahead, most Italians go to the food market to get the freshest seasonal ingredients, straight from the maker. The ingredients inspire the meal.
Special, multi-course meals with family and friends consist of four or more courses….
• Antipasto: starter, typically smoked or cured seafood in Venice and crostini with pate in Tuscany.
• Primo: first, usually pasta course or risotto. Popular varieties include spaghetti (long, thin strands of pasta); penne (tube shapes from Liguria); tagliatelle (thin pasta ribbons from Bologna); fettuccine (long, flat pasta from Rome); and pappardelle (flat, wide pasta ribbons from Tuscany).
• Secondo: second, usually fried, baked or roasted meat or fish.
• Contorno: side, typically vegetables such as peppers, broccoli, peas, artichokes, spinach, zucchini, and eggplant carefully chosen to balance the other dishes.
• Insalata: salad, typically not served if the contorno has leafy green vegetables.
• Dolce: dessert, such as cheese and fruit, sorbeto, gelato, tiramisu, or panna cotta.
- Coffee: sometimes drunk with fruit or dessert, but never the main meal
Claudius Galen was a physician and philosopher during the Roman Empire who studied the mind and body connection. His ideas influenced the development of the modern Italian food culture by putting an emphasis on digestion, indigestion, and quality over quantity. Galen highlighted the importance of food combinations, leading to the multi-coursed Italian meal. Many eat the same food every day, because “too many ingredients create molecular stress in your body.” Foods, such as lemon and wine, were added to aid digestion. Traditional Italian foods include olive oil, garlic, pasta, tomatoes, cheese, wine, porcini mushrooms, and balsamic vinegar.
A typical day in an Italian life looks like this…
• Breakfast: typically cappuccino and cornnetto (brioche, pasta, croissant).
• Coffee break: typically espresso, before lunch.
• Lunch: around 1–3pm, most shops usually close during this time so everyone can have a proper meal and rest until about 4:30pm. In Sardinia, lunch typically looks like minestrone, bread, and a small glass of wine.
• Aperitivo: typically includes a small drink and nibbles, seen as an opportunity to meet friends in the late afternoon (sometimes before lunch).
• Dinner: around 8–9pm, length and size of dinner depends on what was had at lunch.
What we can learn from Italians….
• Eat seasonally: get to know and buy from your local producers and buy the freshest ingredients.
• Indulge a little: relish in the pleasure of food and eating as a harmonious ritual.
• Live slow and linger: enjoy a slow pace of eating and stay at the table longer — “a tavola non s’invecchia” — at the table one does not grow old.
• Wine with others: enjoy a little bit of wine when sharing a meal with others.
• Family values: family acts as a social glue, while providing support mentally and emotionally.
• Gather outdoors: dine, shop and spend time with friends “al fresco.”
• Bella figura: maintain a good public image with aesthetics and good behavior. Appearance is very important.
I’m Callie, and I’m the Founder & CEO of Nonna Eats, a Boulder (CO) startup dedicated to fostering community through food. I have experience running a variety of culinary teams, as well as web design and branding.
About this publication
This is a series of stories about reclaiming the art of eating and gathering. Through working with the highest quality chefs and producers, we know how to eat well. If you’d like to read more, please follow. Originally posted on nonnaeats.com.