|Bruschetta, pronounced Brooskehtah|
Lingering over dessert In a noisy restaurant in Padova I tell my friends about conquering the Italian driver exam. Directly across my table, with face cupped inside her palm with a toothpick, my friend politely listens while she picks her teeth clean. More than frequently when dining with a group of Italians I see the majority looking like a group of giggling Japanese school girls, hand over mouth. It causes me to smile when I see the whole table mining their “denti.” I never know whether I should stop talking to them and instead gaze off to do some people spying. Encountering these teeth pickers I am a bit flummoxed. (Now there’s a word you don’t see much.)
The rooting out of stringy bits of flotsam and jetsam has caused me to consider my next few posts: a good discussion of Italian restaurant customs and idiosyncrasies as seen through my American eyes. 7 years of culinary exploration has revealed restaurant behaviors displayed in “hole in the wall greasy spoons” to “flashy eateries”. With sleeves rolled up I want share with you what I have discovered from the far North of Italy to the South. However,....
Before reading further, please take this short seven question test.
No time limit!
Cell phones off!
The five food groups are: Fast, Frozen, Instant, Microwaved and Pizza? True False
2. Most Italians drink a lot of wine when dining out. True False
3. Venetians know the difference in taste between donkey and horse meat? True False
4. Italians drink coffee with their desserts? True False
Personal taste questions
5. Do you eat pizza more than once a week?
6. Do you eat at McDonald’s often?
7. What is the capitol of Europe?
Answers to 1 false, 2 false, 3 true, 4 false,
If you answered 5, 6, with a NO, good for you! (ten points reward)
Answered 7 with a name of a city? Turn in your passport and suitcase!!
Let’s plunge into the customs of Italian dining. Keep in mind that my comparisons will be through the eyes of an American.
The Biggest Difference
I have a neighbor friend who is a British expat, married to an Italian. Her son upon reaching high school age has chosen as his focus of study food preparation, hotel management and wait staffing. In Italy, young people make a decision as to which kind of high school they attend and the field of study. This young man is in his 4th year and working part time at a local restaurant. He wants to be a full time waiter after graduation. Waiters are paid a full time salary in Italy and therefore do not depend on tips to survive. There are few moonlighters here. They also have full coverage health insurance, and the Italian health coverage is one of the best.
The results of this training and full time work is that waiters in Italy will not be hovering over you, thus eliminating American waiter traits such as refilling your glass of wine in hopes that you will order another bottle of wine, making your bill higher, resulting in a higher tip based on percentage. Italian waiters do not expect tips. (If in a tourist area, if they decide you are American, beware, they know you are fair game in the tipping department.) I have noticed this in particular areas such as Lago da Garda, Rome, Naples and Florence. And speaking now as a resident of Italy, please, when visiting Italy, refrain from tipping waiters, unless they do something extraordinary.
The first few times I went out with my Italian friends for dinner, I was so used to “wolfing down my food” within 45 minutes and leaving my table. I found that Italians spend a much longer amount of time while eating. Your waiter will not be concerned to hurry you through your meal, and pushing you to eat faster by bringing your next course before you finish the one in front of you. In America waiters do this so that he can have a new table open and earn more tips during his shift. (The book by a waiter in New York, Waiter Rant, is a great read on this subject) In Italy, when dining with friends, I normally expect to be at the table 2 hours or more. I have sat with a group for 3 hours a few times. They actually stand up, walking around and return to the table after a good stretch and continue conversing. I cannot imagine sitting at a table in Olive Garden for three hours. I bet that they would ask you to leave after two hours.
Because your waiter is schooled and works as a full time employee he will well know the items and explain the menu. He will know what is in the dish, and basically how it is made. The menus in Italy remain, with few changes, the same year round. He will know the specialties of the house and you should consider his suggestions. (I must say that usually in Italy the posted menu suggestions are not made up by the management to get rid of food about to go old.) Bear in mind that these restaurants are mom and pop businesses and therefore most of the food is prepared on premises and not out of a box produced in some factory. This is a great benefit of eating in Italy. The Italian people benefit from a lack of corporate restaurants and the result is a negligible multitude of overweight fast food lovers.
|Canneloni, (home made pasta)|
The next post will be a continuance of these differences….