Thursday, September 10, 2009

Dining in... Italy

Well foodies, it’s been a while since we last talked. A LONG while. Between the heat, and my crazy life (3 weddings, 3 showers, a bum knee, and an international trip, geeze!), I feel like I’ve been on the run for months. I’ll eat somewhere and think ‘Oh I should write about that,’ but then I never seem to make the time to do it. But I just returned from an amazing culinary journey of Italy and I feel so inspired that I felt compelled to write about it. But, before I write about my Great Gelato Awakening, I want to give y’all a quick overview of what its like to eat in a restaurant in Italy. In my two trips to Italy, this is probably the one thing I am the most proud of having learned, and the one thing I think everyone who travels there should know: how to understand food like an Italian.

I’ve tried to provide a few notes, below, on common American-to-Italian food “translation” problems, because, I don’t know about you, but I consider food and the rituals of food to be its own language. There are a couple of sticky food “translations” that can really get you in trouble if you don’t know what to expect. I was lucky to have a travel companion who’d lived in Italy for a while. She was able to keep me from fucking up too badly. So now, I am paying it forward to keep any of you from fucking up when you travel there. Good deed for the day… done!

- Ordering 101 -

If you’ve never travelled in Italy, it’s a trip (literally). It’s like a world away from everything you’re used to here, especially when it comes to the rituals of food and eating. First of all, a normal day in Italy starts around 7am; then you have breakfast at 9, lunch around 1, and dinner around 9. Secondly, restaurants in Italy are quite different from what we’re used to here. You’ve got two main classes of eatery, your cafes, and your formal sit down eateries. How can you tell the difference? Cafes generally only serve coffee and pastry for breakfast and/or paninis at lunch (all of which is displayed in a big glass case). While sit down restaurants have no glass case, but will, instead, have a big menu hung in their window listing what they serve. And to further confuse you, there are a lot of café/restaurant hybrids that have a big glass case AND tabled areas where you can sit down and order.

Breakfast, in Italy, generally consists of a coffee and a pastry eaten standing at a counter in a cafe. Lunch is usually a sandwich either eaten quickly at the counter of a café or on the go, or you sit down for a more formal lunch at a restaurant (or the sit down section of a café) when you have the time. Dinner is always eaten sit down style at a restaurant.

But before you approach any Italian eatery, you have to be aware that no matter what meal you’re eating, Italians have three distinctly different ways to order and eat food. The first, the “Italian Bar Ordering Process” (henceforth to be referred to as IBOP) is used at cafes primarily at breakfast and sometimes at lunch. The second, the “Italian Carry-Out Ordering Process” (ICOP), is again used at cafes sometimes at breakfast but normally at lunch. The third, the “Italian Table Ordering Process” (ITOP), is used either in the table section of a cafe or at a restaurant for lunch (if you have the time) but is always, always the way dinner is eaten.

(Note the glass case full of pastries and paninis)

Italian Bar Ordering Process - IBOP:
1) The first step in the IBOP is to find yourself a nice café. Cafes usually have a glass case full of pastries or paninis. There will usually be a bar where you can eat and maybe a table or two.
2) You walk up to the cash register and pay BEFORE you order (I know that seems f’ed up, but this is the IBOP, bear with me).
3) You walk up to the bar with your receipt, put it on the bar (see, it kind of makes sense now, you’re showing you paid) and order the specific coffee and pastry you want.
4) Eat standing at the bar

Italian Carry-Out Ordering Process - ICOP:
1) Follow steps 1-3 of the IBOP
4) When your picking your food, make sure you order is “a porta via” which means “to go” in Italian.

Italian Table Ordering Process - ITOP:
1) Find yourself a nice restaurant with a tasty sounding menu
2) Ask for a table (not always required, but it’s always nice to ask).
3) Order and eat as normal
4) When you want to leave, ask for the bill (“il conto”)

See, once you break it down into simple, scientific steps, ordering food in Italy doesn’t seem so daunting. But ordering is only part of the Italian food ritual. The other part is being able to eat and understand food like an Italian.

- American-to-Italian Food Translations -

Coffee: Coffee in Italy doesn’t even remotely resemble coffee in US. You will never ever, ever (ever) see drip coffee in Italy. Think of coffee in Italy like Starbucks with their espresso based coffee. Everything is espresso shot based there. In fact, if you ask for a coffee there (or caffe in Italian), you will be given a shot of espresso. BUT the coffee in Italy tends to be a lot smoother and not as bitter and sharp as the espresso shots you get here so drinking a shot of espresso is not unpleasant. So what kind of coffee do you get? The entire time I was in Italy, I only saw Italians order one of 3 drinks, and as far as I know, these are the only acceptable coffee options: the caffe (the shot of espresso), a caffe macchiato (what I always get, it’s essentially a shot of espresso with a little dollop of frothed milk), and a cappuccino (part milk, part espresso with frothed milk). A caffe or a macchiato can be ordered at any time of day, but a cappuccino is ordered ONLY at breakfast. The caffe will come to you unsweetened, but they will generally give you a packet a sugar (zucchero) to use at your discretion. Never ask for a double pumpkin spiced latte, a caramel frapuccino or any other pansy coffee offering you might find at Starbucks.

Pastries: Pastries in Italy come in a variety of different names, none of which match up with what they’re called here. So when you go to pick one, do what I do and point at one while saying “questa pasta” if you want one or “due paste” (that would be “doo-eh past-eh” not “doo paste”) if you want two. They’ll get the idea. Just FYI - you will never ever eat eggs for breakfast in Italy (unless you’re in a touristy area and then it will always say “American Breakfast” and they’ll want you to sit down a la the ITOP).

Wine: Order wine with your lunch (and obviously you’re going to order wine with your dinner too). It’s totally acceptable. In fact, don’t even bother looking at a wine menu. Just go ahead and order the house wine. It’s usually tasty (unlike here). But don’t try to go to a restaurant to just drink wine (or alcohol). If you want a “bar” experience in Italy, go to an English style Pub or to a dance club. The concept of an American style “bar” is rather foreign to Italians. They generally only drink alcohol with their food.

Courses: At a sit down restaurant, the Italian menu will be separated into courses, antipasta (appetizers), 1st course (pasta and rice), and 2nd course (meat and fish). But don’t let the 1st and 2nd course menu scare you. While it’s traditional to order a full meal with an antipasta, a 1st course and a 2nd course, in today’s modern world, people generally only order one or the other. No one is going to look at you funny or accuse you of being rude for just ordering one. I know I certainly can’t eat that much food! But, something you should be aware of, in some restaurants (particularly in smaller towns or in the country), even if you order a antipasta, 1st and 2nd course, the food will arrive whenever it is ready and not necessarily in the proper order and not necessarily when you may want it. You may find yourself with a table full of plates. It just happens, go with it.

Water: Oh yeah, and if you want water, you have to ask for it. It will always come out as a bottle of mineral water, and you will inevitably be asked if you want “naturale” (regular water), or “frizzante” (club soda). And you’ll never get ice in your drink unless you ask for it.

Paying: Getting the bill is a sticking point with some Americans, but it doesn’t have to be. Italians consider it rude to have their server bring them the bill before they’re ready (which kind of makes sense). So you have to explicitly ask for it by saying “Il Conto” when you’re ready to leave. And make sure you pronounce it “il cone-toe” instead of “il kahn-toe”, so they know you’re asking for the bill and not a singer. I make this pronunciation mistake a lot (according to my Italian speaking friends) and aside from a snigger or two, the servers generally get the idea.

Tipping: Italian restaurants have something called a “coperto.” It’s like the fee you pay for sitting at a table and being served. It’s kind of like the tip. Italian waiters don’t live off tips like American waiters, so you’re not expected to leave a tip. Depending on the place, the coperto is usually a couple of Euro per person and will always be listed as a separate line item on your bill. Now, if the service is good, you may want to leave a few more Euros as a tip, but it’s not required and it’s not expected. If you eat at the counter (per the IBOP) or you order to go (see ICOP), then you won’t be charged the coperto.

So now that you understand the ritual of eating like an Italian, we can discuss the actual awesome food I ate while I was in Italy… in the next post.