Eat Like an Italian: A Walk Through an Italian’s Day of Dining and Drinking
In Italy, more than perhaps any other place in the world, food is life. From sunup to sundown, Italian society is ordered by traditions that reach back into the mists of time; every meal and snack is a little testament to civility, to priorities that place the sensual experience of food, the warmth of family and the joy of friends above all else. The details vary greatly from region to region, and of course, every Italian every day is unable to partake in every mealtime listed below. But in a perfect day, under clear skies in warm weather, the life of Italian eating, broadly speaking, might look something like this.
9:00 a.m.: Colazione
Breakfast in Italy looks nothing like that of the average American household: there are no heaping piles of fried eggs and ham and bacon to be found on Italian plates. Colazione, as breakfast is called, consists of a coffee and pastry. The pastries aren’t the prepackaged and microwaved varieties found at your local mermaid-themed coffee shop. Though some have a subdued sweetness, some are savory, like a breaded and friend rice ball called arancino. You might order a biscotti or cookie to dunk in your coffee. Children might have a pastry with milk, or dip their goodie in Orzo Bimbo, a sort of barley-based, decaf coffee substitute.
Colazione can be something of a rushed affair at home, or a crowded one at any of the hundreds of coffee bars in larger Italian cities.
10:30 a.m.: Pausa Caffè
Just like in the U.S., 10:30 is a great time for a coffee break, though in Italy, it is common for people to leave the workplace and walk to coffee bar, where he or she might get caught up on latest gossip; the world, local, and community news; and other such things. You might get a savory snack at pausa caffè—Italian for “coffee break”—and if there is some sort of work you are trying to get or do, or service you need or offer, this is the time and place to do it. During the conversation, you might mention you are an electrician with an opening in your schedule, or that you need a plumber or mason, or that you are looking for a house to rent—it’s how many Italian communities remain connected and vibrant.
It should be noted that coffee culture in Italy is stronger even than sports culture on the Gulf Coast. Some enjoy coffees roasted by celebrated Italian companies such as Lavazza, while others might lean toward local roasters. The latter know the demographics of the area, what people want, and what flavors most appeal. Italians in the southern part of the country, for example, might lean toward a stronger roast—an Arabic or Ethiopian blend. Coffee bars oftentimes work with local roasters, who hold their own against the larger national and international brands.
1:00 p.m.: Pranzo
Lunchtime is Italy is precisely nothing like lunch in the United States. Just erase everything you know about it, because nothing you know will apply. The lunches are long. Long. Much of Italy basically closes down at 1 p.m.—businesses, banks, the post office—everything. Everyone goes out or goes home, but the day is done. Even schools close (the kids go to school on Saturdays to make up for the shorter days).
The meal can be five courses long, or even longer. (Not every Italian, every day, is doing this, of course, but we are describing the perfect day.) It is the biggest and most sustaining meal of the day, and highlight courses include antipasti, primi, secondi, insalata and dolce.
Taking it from the top, antipasti might consist of different artisan salamis, olives, cheeses and bread—a nice charcuterie plate, in other words: something to start things off. Cutting boards might be passed around, and you can take what you’d like.
Let’s pause for a moment and talk about what making groceries means in Italy. It is not a one-stop situation, but rather, can take a good part of the morning. It means a trip to the bread store—the panificio—and then a trip to the local fish store—the pescheria—if that is the day’s protein of choice. If it’s meat that day, a walk to the macellaio—the butcher shop—and at some point, a stop for the frutta e verdura, for fresh fruits and vegetables. Everything is local, fresh, homegrown, pulled from the earth or the sea that very day. Because of all the walking, the interacting with friends and grocers and bakers, Italians manage to avoid diabetes and weight problems found elsewhere in the world. Moreover, you could live in Italy and have no idea how to use a freezer or microwave. There is no need to! You are eating the way a civilized human being is supposed to eat.
The next course, primi, is when the pasta is served—not some heaping pile of noodles, and not slathered in tomato sauce. Whatever the size plate of pasta you had for dinner, halve it, and that’s primi, with a light coating of sauce at best. You are enjoying the freshness and delicacy of it all, and not being beaten over the head with it.
At this point you’ve enjoyed your antipasti and your primi. By the time secondi is served, you’re not as hungry. (By spacing things out, you are also not taxing your system.) This is the course when a protein is served. It might be some small, simply prepared piece of meat: a bit of beef, a little olive oil, fresh oregano, some salt, and pepper, and seared on the fire for just a few seconds.
The last of the non-dessert courses is insalata. Yes, salad is served last. It is better for digestion, and more importantly, helps cleanse the palate of the savory, earlier courses, preparing you for the sweetness to follow. A typical salad—like any food served in Italy—is seasonal and simple, with arugula, lettuce, spinach, artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes and olives. It will be robust and leafy. As for the dressing: no thousand island or ranch there. Dressings are made from scratch, with olive oil, fresh herbs, oregano, basil, salt and pepper, all whisked together. (You can make the exact same dressing from ingredients you pick up at Rouses Markets. The store brand of olive oil was hand-picked and imported straight from Italy.)
The last course of pranzo is dolce: dessert! Of course, this will be homemade, and could come in any number of manifestations; common options are tiramisu, panna cotta or cannoli. The type of dessert prepared and served will differ based on region. Down south you will find more crusted, bread-based desserts. The reason? There aren’t a whole lot of cows down there; the 119-degree heat of Sicily does not make for happy cattle. In Northern Italy, conversely, you’ll enjoy desserts with a lot of dairy ingredients.
All this food with such a big meal in one of the greatest agricultural environments in the world probably has you wondering about drink. Enter vino da tavola—the house wine. It would be highly unusual to drink something other than wine with this meal, or dinner. It is likely, in fact, depending on the region of Italy, that you got that wine through a sort of barter system that is part of Italian culture. One family might have land and grow nothing but tomatoes. One might grow olives. One might have a little vineyard. From this, families trade tomatoes for gallons of olive oil, or olives for wine. This is yet another manifestation of the country’s communal nature.
4:00 p.m.: Merenda
Lunch is over, and a sense of serenity has descended upon you. It’s time for a little snack. Right around four in the afternoon is merenda—snack time! You might give your kids a bit of fruit or Nutella on bread. But it is perhaps better enjoyed as gelato time. And gelato in Italy is no trifling affair. (When it comes to Italian food, it never is!) Moreover, you’ll also find sciroppos at coffee bars and elsewhere—these elaborate ceramic vases are filled with cherries and cherry syrup, or other such sweet, flavorful fruits, and it’s all added to seltzer water. Sciroppo is the perfect afternoon drink when it is hot outside. You might even have something a little stronger: corrected coffee, caffè corretto. This is a shot of espresso with a shot of liquor added to it, usually grappa (a type of grape brandy that is licorice on the palate), or brandy or sambuca.
6:00 p.m.: Aperitivo
Italians tend to have dinner much later in the evening than we are used to in the United States, but as you’ve undoubtedly noticed, they never quite have a chance to get hungry—or thirsty. Before dinner is a late afternoon/early evening drink called an aperitivo. This might be a bit of limoncello—a sweet lemon liqueur—or some other liqueur made by the family. It might be grappa. You might also have a small pastry to elevate the experience.
8:00 p.m. (or much, much later): Cena
Particularly in southern Italy reaching downward as far as Sicily, it gets hot outside and many homes lack air conditioning. Rather than roast in houses that bake under summer heat most months of the year, Italians walk to the town square and socialize. The idea is to let the house cool down before you eat dinner, called cena. (This is obviously different than, say, Milan, where it might be too cold to go out!) In southern Italy, it might be 9 or 10 p.m. before families and friends sit down to dinner. It will still be a warm affair, both physically and emotionally.
Cena is much different than the large dinners to which Americans are accustomed. They consist of small servings of antipasti: bread, cheese, salami. Then the meal—indeed the day—is ended with a digestivi, intended to close off the palate after fine dining from sunup to sundown. As the name suggests, such drinks should aid in digestion. Amaretto is a popular option, as is limoncello. Italians won’t go to bed stuffed until they are bursting at the seams. Rather, quantity is replaced with quantity, with artisan breads freshly baked. The smell of baking bread, indeed, is consistent with life across the country, from morning to night, when winds sweep through the streets carrying aromas of baked goods, coffee beans roasting, and olives being pressed.
Thus ends the day of Italian eating. It bears repeating that Italy is a large, diverse country—almost three times the square mileage of Florida—and every area has a unique and vibrant culture. These are simply the broad strokes. The ingredients will vary. The times will vary. The wines and liqueurs and attitudes and customs will vary. But what is universal is a love of food, a love of drink, a love of family and community. Food is more than three meals and two thousand calories. Italian food is fresh. Italian food is clean. Italian food is nourishment, yes, but for the body as well as the soul. Buon appetito!