Food is one of the great pleasures in life, I believe, and I love to explore different cuisines from around the world. Italian cookery is a firm favourite – in fact, I love the whole culture in Italy around dining. The Italians approach food with such passion and reverence, it can make even the simplest of meals really special.
My latest novel, Concerto, is set on Lake Como in Italy, at the Palladian mansion of pianist composer Umberto. There, Catriona, an English music therapist, experiences some grand Italian dining. Having dressed for the occasion and shared an aperitif with Umberto and his friends, she enters the dining room:
The dining room was austere, despite the four elegant waterfall crystal chandeliers diffusing their bright light on to the high, frescoed walls and the fact that the much lighter ceiling was painted with representations of the four elements: water, fire, earth and air. An imposing fireplace, standing between two tall, narrow, elegant windows, was of red Nakoda marble. The dining chairs and curtains were all upholstered in heavy Bordeaux damask silk, and the length of the table was impressive…
Each course is savoured, eaten slowly with great attention paid to the flavours and the ingredients. The first course is fig, mascarpone and pesto torte, accompanied by Italian bread sticks. Next is osso buco alla Milanese, veal shanks braised with vegetables in a delicious sauce of white wine and stock, served with gremolata and saffron rice. Then comes the cheese course: Branz, from the Alta Brembana province, served with homemade ciabatta. For dessert, she enjoys torta sbrisolona, a crumbly, almond-flavoured tart.
Of course, every meal in Italy is not such an occasion, but some of the aspects of this dinner – the leisurely pace, the passion for the food, the simplicity of the dishes – are part of the Italian culture for dining. It’s a culture that I love, and incorporate into my own dining.
Here are some of the rules for Italian dining. Will they inspire you to change how you dine?
- Eat simple meals. Many dishes we may think of as Italian are in fact American – there’s no such thing as chicken fettucine alfredo in Italy, for example; pasta is served with a simple cream or tomato sauce. Authentic pizza, too, is very simple – just the base with tomato sauce, cheese and perhaps mushrooms.
- Have small courses: antipasti first, and then pasta or rice, followed by meat or fish and vegetables, and then dolce (dessert). Portion sizes should be small, and meat and pasta aren’t mixed in the same course.
- Only drink wine or water with a meal. Other drinks, like cocktails and spirits with mixers, can be taken as aperitifs or after-dinner drinks.
- Drink coffee – but know the rules! Milky coffees like cappuccinos and lattes are for breakfast only (which, incidentally, comprises a sweet pastry, not eggs and bacon). Espressos may be drunk after lunch and dinner, but not during the meal.
- The only condiments you need are olive oil and balsamic vinegar. These make the perfect salad dressing. Italians like to enjoy the flavours in their meal, not mask them with the likes of ketchup or mayonnaise.
- Eat your vegetables! Italian cuisine incorporates a wide range of vegetables and they really are delicious. Leaving vegetables on your plate in a restaurant in Italy is considered most rude.
- Keep your bread for the end of the course. Then you can do la scarpetta (the little shoe), which means mopping up the remains of the sauce with the simple, plain bread. (Note: this is a relaxed custom for dining at home, not for dining at a restaurant or with important company.) You don’t need butter for the bread.
- Eat slowly, and in company. Dining is a sociable activity, a chance to get together with others. In Italy, dinner is often as late as 9.00 or 9.30 p.m., so there need be no rush at all. You can just… relax and enjoy. As they say in Italy, ‘At the table with good friends and family you do not become old.’
Finally, keep in mind this Italian proverb: Mangiare per vivere e non vivere per mangiare – Eat to live, don’t live to eat.