When I spent my gap year as an au pair in Italy, the family I worked for happened to live in and run an hotel. A rather historic, opulent hotel that Italian royalty used to holiday at in the distant past and celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor have stayed at.
Restaurant Dining Every Day
During the first couple of months of my stay (still classed as summer season), my host family chose to eat their meals in a corner of the main hotel restaurant in which the hotel guests dined. This allowed me to indulge in my people-watching hobby very well, as I (inconspicuously, of course) observed the comings and goings of couples and families that were staying at the hotel. Many of them were wealthy, with luxury sports cars parked outside the hotel and often were dressed head to toe in designer clothes. Guests from multiple nationalities came to stay, and I enjoyed trying to figure out where they were from based on their appearance and trying to identify the language they spoke. Anyway, I digress.
The restaurant was a truly stunning room, with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the azure Mediterranean sea. The tables were simply dressed with pristine white tablecloths, pure white crockery and polished silver cutlery. Each diner was provided with a starched white linen napkin. A vase of fresh flowers, usually roses, was placed in the centre of each table.
Italian style mealtimes
From the first day, despite being seated in a restaurant, it became apparent that my host family followed pretty standard Italian meal traditions (at least for the region I visited), which I shall describe for you.
There was a bread basket placed on the table almost as soon as we were seated. For my host family this included breadsticks (grissini) and locally-made fresh, crusty bread which was eaten plain, never spread with butter or dipped into oil or anything. On my first day, I almost asked for butter but stopped myself after observing that the other members of the family, even the little boy, ate it plain. There were large bottles of mineral water, always a choice of either still or sparkling. The family would usually eat a piece of bread or perhaps two each and sip water while waiting for the first course to arrive.
About the Courses…
The primo (first) course, almost always consisted of pasta, or occasionally a risotto (made from arborio rice) or a polenta dish. Fortunately, I’ve always been a fan of pasta so it didn’t bother me to eat it every day, but they successfully varied it by cooking many different shapes and types of pasta, from long spaghetti to shorter penne and orecchiette to tiny orzo. Plus, different sauces were added to the pasta. Most often, it was sugo al pomodoro, a basic but delicious homemade tomato sauce, and sometimes meaty bolognese. During my stay there, I had my first ever taste of green pesto sauce (made from pine nuts, olive oil, garlic, basil and parmesan). No exaggeration, that first bite of pasta al pesto was sheer, unadulterated bliss and I couldn’t believe I’d been missing out on it my whole life! Sadly though, no pesto I’ve had in back in the UK can compare.
There was always freshly grated parmesan in a bowl with a tiny spoon to sprinkle over the pasta ourselves.
The main course, known as secondo, comprised a piece of meat or fish, maybe steak. The fish usually had bones, sometimes was a whole baked fish so I had to learn quickly how to deal with removing those bones. Sometimes they even had an omelettte or a couple of fried eggs with a side dish of vegetables (contorno) or salad. For every meal, olive oil and/ or balsamic vinegar was present as the salad dressing and often drizzled over other vegetables, too.
With regards to dessert, this was usually just a bowl of fruit from which we all helped ourselves, sometimes to several pieces. This is a ritual I’d like to start with my own kids as it certainly helps ensure the five-a-day get consumed. Only occasionally, perhaps once a fortnight, would there be a different type of dessert such as creme brulee or a selection of choux pastry delicacies purchased from a local specialist shop. However, plenty of Italians clearly do possess a sweet tooth, as lots of them buy a gelato (ice cream) from one of the many gelaterie in town. It was often an afternoon treat for me to buy one, too, when I wasn’t working (between 3-6pm).
What I’ve detailed above was standard procedure for both lunch (starting at 1.30 or so) and dinner (from 8.00). If people were feeling less hungry, they sometimes opted to have a very small portion of pasta. Perhaps it sounds like a lot of food, but Italians are not big breakfast eaters. Adults often consider coffee a breakfast in itself, perhaps with a croissant. Plus, generally speaking they do not snack a lot between meals. When I was invited to eat at several friends’ homes during my stay, I found the types of food and number of courses to be similar each time.
When the main tourist season finished and the restaurant closed (apart from breakfast time), my host family instead opted to take their meals in a small private room. The types of foods consumed and the courses remained the same, though. As did the beautifully laid table complete with fresh flowers and starched napkins.
Inspiration for my Family’s Mealtimes here in England
When I make the effort to set our table at home in an attentive, beautiful way, it sure seems to make the meal more of an occasion and makes me feel as though I want to slow down and enjoy the experience more. When we eat outside al fresco in the summer, my eldest daughter enjoys picking a few flowers from the garden to place in a vase and fills a jug of water with ice cubes and lemon slices. This, along with a pretty tablecloth really enhances the experience for all of us, even the children (as a bonus they tend to eat better, too).
Even though we don’t manage to sit down and eat an evening meal together as a family every single night, reminiscing over the mealtimes I experienced with my host family has inspired me to renew my effort to make dinners a more positive and pleasurable experience for my family, too.
Actions I plan to implement:
- Move the vase of fresh flowers that I usually have on the kitchen worktop to the kitchen table before I serve dinner.
- Cover the table with a clean, pretty tablecloth just before family meals (rather than the scruffy one that protects the table from my eldest daughters’ glue and sticker attacks).
- Make dessert be a ‘fruit course’ similarly to what I experienced.
- Experiment cooking different types of vegetable side dishes.
I hope you enjoyed this insight into eating meals the Italian way.
I’m fascinated by how people live their lives in different countries and cultures, so if you live outside the UK, or have lived elsewhere, I would really love to hear what mealtimes were like there, please do leave a comment. I really love hearing from readers, whether you read my blog regularly or it’s your first visit here 🙂
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