When Americans are asked if they like Italian food, they are likely answering the question, Do I like pizza, pasta, and lasagna? But what if I told you Italian food is much more than pizza at the Costco food court? Pizza, pasta, and lasagna may have originated from Italy, but the contrast between Italian and American food is not just the ingredients. It’s the ingredients AND how you eat – vastly different from our dining experience.
To start, let’s talk ingredients. Italian food in America is generously flavored with common seasonings such as basil, thyme, oregano, rosemary, and parsley. However, in Italy, each dish consists of a few ingredients. They would rather focus on the flavor of the main food served instead of masking an untastely, main ingredient with several seasonings and sauces.
Italian food and its ingredients also depend on what part of Italy you dine in. You have more rice-based dishes in northern Italy, or “risottos.” The further south you go into Italy, you’ll encounter wheat-based dishes like pastas, pizza, and gnocchis. Americans do not often associate Italian food with seafood, but it is abundant along its extensive coastline. The most often associated food of Italy – pizza, olive oil, fresh farm vegetables, figs, and herbs – is found in southern Italy and Sicily. Italy boasts world-class wines, incorporated into daily meals and adding flavor and lightheartedness to the conversations.
Dining etiquette in Italy includes table manners like using knives in the right hand and forks in the left hand, placing your hands above the table when finished with your meal, passing all dishes to your left, and eating pasta by twirling the pasta to eat one entire forkful at a time (rather than slurping the pasta or using your spoon to assist). When seated, you will receive a number of utensils. If you find yourself confused about what utensil to use for which dish, a good rule of thumb is to start with the outside utensils and use others progressively throughout the meal.
One of the main differences between dining culture in Italy and dining culture in the United States is the length a meal lasts. Americans are all about efficiency. Seat people as soon as possible, take orders shortly after, bring out the food, eat, and place the bill on the table shortly after everyone has finished. Not the same with restaurants in Italy. Italian meals are meant to be enjoyed with good company. You can enjoy your company at the restaurant for upwards of 3 hours – free to relax, take it slow, and go to bed satisfied with a full stomach and lifted spirits.
Italian meals also differ in the times to begin breakfast, lunch, and dinner. A standard nutritional tip says to avoid eating a large meal before bed. Why? Because your body needs time to digest the calories you just consumed. Eating late into the night may affect your weight and sleep over time.
Well, to put it bluntly, the Italians don’t really care! Italians eat dinner late. Late, late. If you show up at a restaurant in Italy at 7-730pm, you’ll find you’re one of the few – too early for the rest of the crowd! That’s right. Dinners last all the way to 1130pm. Not something Americans are used to.
Italian dining culture significantly differs from what Americans are used to. As efficient and hard-working Americans are, we might be missing out on the joy of dining. Something the Italians would never do. Maybe we could take a lesson or two from our European friends. Slow down. Enjoy the night. And dare I say it. Don’t let life’s troubles occupy your mind and your meals.