The Italian Meal

views updated

The Italian Meal

Meals are a central part of Italian family life. Italians are passionate about food and eating, and much of their socializing is done around the sharing of meals. As with most cultures, there are specific dishes associated with specific Italian holidays. Unlike many Western societies, however, Italians have not embraced a multitude of foreign and ethnic ingredients. Although Italian cities have many more foreign and fast-food restaurants than they did ten years ago, most Italian restaurantsand indeed most homes as welltake a more traditional and conservative approach to meals. "Fusion" and "nouvelle cuisine" are not terms commonly associated with Italian meals.

Fast food is popular with the young. Eating fast food is more a social than a culinary experience, and signifies conformity to a peer group, an identity independent of one's household, modernity versus tradition, and being in the company of, and behaving according to the rules of, chosen friends as opposed to family.

Due to Italian attention to tradition, there are reactions. Movements such as il ricupero (the retrieval) and la riscoperta (the rediscovery) are founded to maintain tradition in the modern world. The best-known such initiative is the "slow-food movement" that began in Italy in 1986 to challenge "fast food," which was believed to harm health, destroy the environment, and wipe out traditional cuisine. By 1999, thirty Italian towns had designated themselves "Slow Cities," where regional tradition in food, parks, and similar values are emphasized over traffic, neon signs, noise, and fast-food chains.

Shopping and Meal Preparation

The traditional Italian housewife shopped daily. Her morning visit to the open-air market was a form of ritual. In separate stalls she would purchase fruits and vegetables, fish or meat, eggs, cheese, and salumi (cold cuts), depending upon what was in season and what she needed. If she needed something more in the afternoon, she could pop out to the latteria for fresh milk, the alimentari (grocery store) for bread, cold cuts, cheese, and packaged foods, the macelleria for meat, or the frutteria for fruits and vegetables. These small family-owned stores populated every neighborhood. Today, however, things are changing. Supermarkets, especially the megastores, are rapidly replacing small neighborhood shops.

The designation of housewife (though she is likely to be a working woman) above is deliberate, for in traditional Italian society gender roles are closely associated with food preparation. In the home, women are responsible for meals. Men may cook occasionally or prepare a specific dish, but the responsibility for daily cooking rests with women.

Eating Out

Average Italians do not socialize in their homes with friends and acquaintances; meals at home are usually shared with family members. Eating in restaurants with family, friends, and business associates is quite common. On weekends it is not unusual to see extended families of four generations eating at a large table. There are many different types of eating places, as described below.

A ristorante is traditionally a proper restaurant. Ristoranti have attractive table settings, starched tablecloths and napkins, and numerous choices for every course. To be a waiter is a career opportunity, and many stay with the same restaurant for a lifetime. Female waiters are still infrequent but are increasing in number.

A trattoria is a small eatery with a limited menu. An osteria is a less sophisticated eating place frequented by neighborhood people, with a few characteristic dishes. Both are simple, family-run operations, in which people often sit at common tables, large sheets of butcher paper under their plates. A pizzeria is an eating establishment specializing in pizza. Some serve only pizza, salads, and antipasti (appetizers), while others also serve pasta dishes and a limited choice of meat dishes.

An enoteca is distinguished by its large selection of wine; a limited selection of dishes is served there, usually comprising cold salads and other appetizers. Recently, many have started serving a limited menu of hot foods. A tavola calda (snack bar serving hot food, often cafeteria-style) is not considered a restaurant and is used for quick snacks, usually at lunchtime. A rosticceria (rotisserie or grill) sells ready-to-eat foods such as grilled chicken, pizza by the slice, roasted potatoes, cooked vegetables, and some baked-pasta dishes to take home. Some of these distinctions are disappearing in the modern world; it is chic today to call a restaurant a trattoria or osteria, and enoteche have become popular eating places.

Coffee Bars. Bars serving mainly coffee during the day are a very important part of Italian social life. The number of ways Italians drink coffee seems to be endless: espresso (small but strong), cappuccino (espresso with steamed milk), lungo (with extra steam), ristretto (very strong), caffe latte (with much hot milk), macchiato (spotted with milk), corretto (with a shot of brandy or grappa), doppio (double), and caffee Haag (decaffeinated), to mention just a few. Romans claim that the quality of the coffee is determined by the three Ms: Mano, Macchina, and Miscela (hand, machine, and mixture). Italians drink their espresso quickly, unlike other Europeans, who sip it for a long time. Bars also serve fruit juices (spremuta or sugo ), as well as gelato (ice cream), granita (flavored ices), and, recently, iced tea during the hot season.

People gather in bars to have a drink and a snack. They stand at the counter and read the newspaper. As Italians are avid soccer aficionados, they are likely to be loudly discussing last night's game. Bars that have tables, especially outside, charge extra for sitting at them.

Food Events

Historically, Italians had their major meal, or pasto, in the middle of the day, and then rested. Workers would go home to eat and return to the workplace in the afternoon. Today, distances are greater and more people work away from home, and so in many households, pranzo, the main meal, is now eaten in the evening. The exception is the Sunday midday meal, considered by many to be the most important meal of the week. On Sunday afternoons (often post-Mass), extended families will gather for large, lengthy multicourse meals.

Breakfast, piccola colazione or prima colazione, is not a major meal for most Italians. It is usually taken at a bar and includes coffee (often cappuccino) with a pastry such as a cornetto, the Italian equivalent of a croissant. There are many types of cornetti: plain, or filled with chocolate, cream of rice, jam (called marmellata ), or custard. Other popular pastries are the brioche and the doughnut.

Structure of a Meal

Most people, when they think of an Italian meal, think of pasta. And while an Italian meal is much more than that, it is indeed the pasta (or at any rate the pasta course) that sets the Italian meal apart. The common American or European practice of serving stews and braises over noodles, rice, or dumplings is not found in Italy. Instead, these starches are served on their own, as a separate course. (The exception is potatoes, which are considered a vegetable, not a starch, and are often served with grilled meats.) Normally, the starch course will be prepared with its own separate sauce, though in the home the starch may be served with the sauce from a stewed or braised dish, followed by the meat from the same dish as a second course.

At first glance, a meal in Italy appears strictly structured. The traditional meal contains at least four courses: the antipasto; the primo (first course) of pasta, rice, polenta, or soup; the secondo (second course) of meat or fish; and the dolce (dessert). However, these multicourse meals are no longer daily occurrences for most Italians. At home, they may have just one or two courses for dinner, and the order of these limited courses contains some flexibility. While the primo would never follow the secondo (as is obvious from the names), Italians will eat meals of antipasto followed by primo; or primo followed by antipasto; or, less commonly, antipasto followed by secondo, or secondo served with selected antipasti on the side. They will not, however, eat two dishes that are considered primo together, such as soup followed by pasta, a sequence common in central European meals but shunned by Italians.

Despite eating fewer courses at home, Italians tend to regard eating out as an occasion for a more traditional three-or four-course meal. Bread, wine, and water accompany all meals (except, of course, breakfast), no matter how many courses are served.


Formal meals start with antipasti. There is tremendous range and regional variation, and in many situations an antipasto could be considered an elaborate meal by itself.

There are several bread-based preparations that may be included with an antipasto. Most typical are bruschetta (known in Tuscany as fett'unta )toasted or grilled bread rubbed with garlic and drizzled with fruity olive oil (chopped tomatoes or other toppings can also be added); and crostini, thin slices of toast covered with an assortment of pastes made from chicken livers, mushrooms, truffles, artichokes, olives, bone marrow, and so forth.

One may find any or all of the following on an antipasto table: marinated cold vegetables such as eggplant, zucchini, whole small onions, and peppers; boiled greens such as spinach, cicoria (chicory), and broccoli rabe; anchovies, seafood salad, and mushrooms marinated in olive oil; frittatas (unfolded filled omelettes); affettato (cold cuts) of cured meats such as salami, prosciutto, mortadella, smoked tongue, and sausage.

There are also cheeses, especially mozzarella, Parmesan, and pecorino. The favored cheese is mozzarella di

bufala, which is made at least partly from buffalo milk (that is, the milk of the water buffalo, not that of the American bison) and has a distinctive taste. Some popular cold antipasti are not on the buffet but can be ordered from the menu. Perhaps the most famous example of this is prosciutto and melon (or in season, figs). Other popular ordered antipasti are carpaccio (very thin slices of raw beef or fish), and bresaola (cured air-dried beef) drizzled with olive oil.

Antipasti can also be fried and served warm. Crocchette (croquettes) are popular; one type is suppli (rice balls filled with cheese or ground meat, dredged in bread-crumbs, and fried). There are olive ascolane (fried stuffed olives), baccalà filetti (dried salt cod, fileted and fried), and vegetables dipped in batter and fried. The famous fiori di zucca (zucchini flowers) are stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies before being dipped in batter for frying.


Primi piatti or just primi are felt to constitute the first course of an Italian meal, though they follow the antipasti. This course includes either pasta, rice, gnocchi, or polenta with sauce, or soups containing pasta, rice, or farro (speltan ancient variety of wheat).

Pasta et al. The variety of pasta shapes and sauces is seemingly infinite. Regions and even villages often have their own specific creations. A few examples are offered here.

It is important for Italians to match the shape of the pasta with the sauce, though they allow much flexibility. Certain pastas are always mentioned within the context of a sauce, such as bucatini all'amatriciana (tubular pasta with a tomato and bacon sauce), or fettuccine all'Alfredo (fresh egg noodles with butter, cream, and Parmesan), or spaghetti alla carbonara (spaghetti with bacon, eggs, cheese, and pepper); but substitutions can be made. At restaurants, waiters recite what is available by the shape of pastapenne, spaghetti, fettuccineand expect the customer to state what sauce should go on it. While almost any combination is possible, there are "rules." One general rule is that smooth sauces are appropriate on long pasta, and sauces with chunks of vegetables or meats are better on small pasta shapes, which trap the chunks. Another is that fresh egg pastas work better with butterbased sauces than olive oilbased ones. In the dairy-rich north of Italy, fresh egg pastas are very popular, whereas in the olive oildominated south, dried or eggless pastas predominate. An important "rule" is that all pastas are consumed without a spoon (that is, with just a fork), even spaghetti.

Fresh egg pastas include noodles such as fettuccine, tagliarini, and pappardelle (all ribbon-shaped in various widths), and filled pastas such as ravioli, tortellini (small, hand-pinched, ring-shaped), and agnolotti (small, half-moon-shaped). Popular dried pastas include spaghetti, penne (short, thick, tubular, cut diagonally), and farfalle

(bowties). Some pasta types are quite specifically associated with a certain region, as is the case with orecchiette (little ears), a traditional pasta from Apulia (Puglia).

Risotto is a uniquely Italian way of cooking rice, resulting in a dish with a creamy consistency. Risotto is best made with special types of rice such as arborio, canaroli, or vialone nano. Popular renderings include Milanese (that is, with saffronrisotto Milanese, unlike other risottos, is traditionally served with osso buco, a meat dish, as a secondo), con funghi (with mushrooms), con frutti di mare (with seafood), and nero (with squid ink).

Polenta (thick cornmeal mush) is typically a northern dish. It can be soft and creamy with a sauce on top (often tomato with sausage and pork ribs), or it can be cut into shapes and baked, fried, or grilled. It is traditionally a cool-weather dish served on a wooden plate.

Gnocchi (dumplings) are either di farina (made from wheat flour) or di patate (made from potato). There are also gnocchi alla romana, made of semolina flour and traditionally served on Thursdays in Rome. Crespelle (crepes) may also be a first course and can be filled with meat or with cheese and spinach.

Sauces. Most pasta sauces are either butter-or olive oilbased. Tomatoes are probably the next most frequent ingredient, particularly in the south. An important component of baked pastas from Emilia-Romagna is balsamella (béchamel sauce). Whatever the sauce (called sugo or salsa ), the most important thing is just to moisten the pasta with it; Italian pasta is served with much less sauce than its American counterpart.

The best-known sauces are probably ragù alla bolognese, made of vegetables, tomatoes, cream, and beef and simmered for a long time, and pesto alla genovese, a mixture of fresh basil, garlic, pine nuts, pecorino cheese, and olive oil that is traditionally served over a mixture of trenette (thin strips of pasta), potatoes, and green beans.

Other popular pasta sauces are quattro formaggi (four cheeses); boscaiolo (woodsman-style), containing mushrooms, peas, ham, tomatoes, cream, or whatever the chef wants to add "from the forest"; arrabbiata (literally, angry), a tomato sauce with hot peppers; as well as many for seafood (which are served without cheese).


The primo is followed by a usually more austere second course of meat or fish and contorno, a vegetable or salad side dish.

Meats and fish. Meat and fish can be prepared in a variety of ways: grilled, roasted, or baked; braised with vegetables; fried, as in fritto misto (mixed fry); or boiled (bollito ) and served with salsa verde (a piquant green sauce made with parsley) or mostarda (a sweet-and-sour condiment). Regional specialties include fiorentina, a Tuscan T-bone steak usually served rare, and osso buco, veal shanks in butter, garlic, anchovies, grated lemon peel, and herbs from Lombardy. Trippa alla bolognese is tripe with bacon, onion, garlic, and parsley, while trippa alla romana is tripe with tomatoes and mint. Fegato (liver, usually calf's liver) can be prepared alla veneziana, (with onions), or with sage, or grilled, or Milan-style (dipped in egg and bread crumbs and fried). Large porcini mushrooms are often treated like meat: grilled and drizzled with olive oil, garlic, and parsley as a secondo.

While lamb is more popular roasted or grilled, veal is prepared in many different ways. Saltimbocca (literally, leap into the mouth) is a dish of veal, prosciutto, and sage associated with Rome, while scallopine alla bolognese is veal layered with prosciutto and boiled potatoes. Thin slices of veal are often prepared in light sauces flavored with Marsala or lemon juice.

Chicken and turkey are also favored. Pollo alla diaviola is a spicy chicken: in Abruzzi it is sautéed with hot red pepper, in Tuscany with black pepper, and in Florence with ginger. Chicken Marengo is named after a battle won by Napoleon and contains chicken, brandy, tomatoes, olives, crayfish, and poached eggs on toast. Stuffed turkey is popular in Lombardy.

Pork is extremely popular, either as chops, roasted with fennel and rosemary as in porchetta, or made into sausages like zampone and cotechino, the former stuffed into pigs' feet.

Game, especially cinghiale (wild boar), lepre (hare), piccioncino (squab), venison, and pheasant, is available in season.

There is an abundance of both freshwater and saltwater fish, such as spigola (sea bass), rombo (turbot), orata (bream), dentice (dentex, a marine fish related to the porgy), and sogliola (sole), as well as tuna, swordfish, and anguilla (eel). These fish are often served grilled. Frittura di paranza is a dish of small fish fried in oil. Fish baked with potatoes is also a favored preparation.

Seppie (cuttlefish), calamari (squid), polpi, polpettini, and moscardini (types of octopus), and a variety of shellfish are also consumed. There are more shellfish in Italy than there are popular terms in English for them; for example, scampi, gamberi, gamberetti, gamberoni, mazzancole, and canocchia may be types of shrimp, prawn, or crayfish. Cozze and muscoli are mussels, and vongole (clams), poveraccia (poor or small clams), and vongole veraci (true or large clams) are all popular. There are many varieties of shellfish used mainly for antipasti such as dattero (date musselso called because its shell resembles the fruit), and various others called cuore di mare ("heart of the sea"), tartufo di mare (truffle of the sea), and so on.

Contorno. Vegetables are frequently just boiled and served at room temperature, to be drizzled with olive oil and lemon. Sometimes they are marinated in olive oil. More creative ways of cooking them include sformato, a creamed pudding of vegetables such as spinach or zucchini; agrodolce, a sweet-and-sour preparation; in padella (stir-fried, often with hot peppers and/or garlic); and trifolato, sautéed with garlic and parsley in olive oil.

Carciofi (artichokes) are seasonal and very popular. They can be prepared in a variety of ways; two favorites are alla romana (Roman stylemade with garlic parsley, mint, and olive oil), and alla giudia (Jewish styledeep-fried whole, or cut into wedges and fried, or stuffed). Other popular stuffed vegetables are tomatoes stuffed with rice and mozzarella, zucchini stuffed with chopped meat, and eggplant stuffed with cheese or bread crumbs.

Fresh salads are usually dressed with olive oil and vinegar. Panzanella is bread salad made with stale bread, tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, and basil. Caprese, a dish of sliced tomatoes and mozzarella drizzled with olive oil and chopped basil, is available in Italian restaurants all over the world.

A classic seasonal Roman salad is puntarelle, shoots of a particular variety of chicory, picked while still young and tender and tossed with a dressing made with anchovies, garlic, and lemon juice. Some salads are a mix of greens and may include rughetta (also called rucola, rocola, and, as it is in English, arugula ).


The next course in the Italian meal is dolce (dessert). Due to geography and climate, there are abundant varieties of fruit available most of the year, though the more interesting ones are seasonal. Many berries, figs, grapes, nespole (medlarsround orange-colored fruit of a tree in the rose family, which, like the persimmon, is inedible until overripe), watermelon, and Sicilian blood oranges are still seasonal. Fruits are either served in bowls of water, or cut into large chunks on a platter (watermelon), or as fruit salads; if a mixed salad, it is called macedonia, but salads of specific fruits, such as berries, are also possible.

The best-known Italian dessert today is tiramisu (literally, "pick me up"), composed of mascarpone (a very creamy, soft cheese, typically made from cow's milk), ladyfingers, coffee, and other ingredients specific to the home or restaurant. Then there are zabaglione, a light fluffy whip of egg yolks and Marsala; torta della nonna (grandmother's cake), made with custard and pine nuts; panna cotta (boiled cream), served with a variety of toppings, such as berries, chocolate, and caramel; profiteroles (mounds of little cream puffs filled with ice cream and drizzled with chocolate); crem caramel; zuppa inglese (literally, "English soup"), a triflelike concoction; and many different types and flavors of gelato. Other desserts are based on ricotta (for instance, cannoli, crisp pastry shells filled with sweetened ricotta), almonds, sponge cake (for example, cassata, often flavored with an alcoholic beverage such as maraschinoa wild-cherry liqueur), and chestnuts. Monte bianco (Mont Blanc) is a seasonal dessert of chestnut puree, brittle meringue, and whipped cream. Crostate are open-faced tarts filled with ricotta or jam.

Though it is technically the last course, the Italian meal does not quite end with dessert. Italians always drink their espressos after, not with, their dessert. And with or after the coffee, there are always digestivi alcoholic beverages so named because they are believed to help digestion. They are made with herbs or fruit. Amaro (for example, averna and montenegro ), sambucca, and limoncello are popular examples. The meal may also finish with almond biscotti, called cantucci in Tuscany, which are dipped in Vin Santo (literally, holy wine), Moscato, or Marsalasweet dessert wines.

See also Crustaceans and Shellfish; Pasta; Slow Food .


Bugialli, Giuliano. Giuliano Bugialli's Foods of Italy. New York:

Stewart, Tabori, and Chang, 1984.

Carluccio, Antonio, and Priscilla Carluccio. Carluccio's Complete

Italian Food. New York: Rizzoli, 1997.

Fant, Maureen B., and Howard M. Isaacs. Dictionary of Italian

Cuisine. New York: HarperCollins, 1998.

Hazan, Marcella. Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. New York:

Knopf, 1992.

Mariani, John. The Dictionary of Italian Food and Drink. New

York: Broadway Books, 1998.

Paolini, Davide, and Michela Vuga. From Rice to Risotto. London: Kea & Cartago, 2000.

Root, Waverley. The Food of Italy. New York: Vintage Books,


Judit Katona-Apte

Polenta and Shrimp

1 cup polenta or quick-cooking cornmeal 1 tsp. salt 5 cups of water or milk (or part water, part milk) 2 tbsp. butter 2 pounds shrimp, shelled and deveined 1 lb sausage (kielbasa or chorizo), cut into slices 1 onion, sliced 3 slices of bacon (optional) ¼ cup vegetable oil (less if bacon is used) 2 cloves of garlic Seasoning: salt, pepper, and cayenne to taste Make polenta: bring 5 cups of water or milk (or part water, part milk) to a boil in a heavy pot (best to use nonsticking surface). Lower the heat to simmer, add salt and slowly add the polenta (best sprinkled by hand) and stir with a wire whisk or wooden spoon until it forms a mush. This should take from about 7 to 15 minutes. If the cornmeal is less processed it may take a little longer. Add butter and mix it in.

Make shrimp: cut bacon into 1-inch pieces and render in large frying pan. When most of the fat has separated, add the onion and garlic and stir fry for 35 minutes. Add the shrimp and seasoning, and cook until it turns pink, then add the sausage and stir until sausage is warmed through.

Pour polenta into serving platter, and pour shrimp mixture on top. Serve at once.