Italians are often stereotyped, among other things, for their passion for food and dedication to family, and although I hate to perpetuate stereotypes these particular two have proved to be largely correct. It follows, then, that Italian mealtimes – providing a combination of both elements – hold such an important stance in their culture. The family meals are very much obligatory events for members, providing a chance to recount one another’s days and – of course – enjoy some home-cooked food (takeaways are a rare occurence). Yet to those new to the culture, they can appear confusing and even daunting events. But fear not. I have compiled a list of things you can expect, so if you ever happen to be taken in by an Italian family you know what you’re in for when you sit down for dinner.
- Serve yourself. In most cases, there will be a few dishes placed on the table: a main meat or fish course, a pasta, various vegetables or salad and some bread. It is fully expected for you to dig right in, taking as many servings as you please – it will be taken as a compliment the more you eat. If you’re going to be correct about things, the pasta is the first dish, followed by the main and vegetables (often the places are laid with a bowl on top of a plate: the bowl for the pasta, to be removed when you move on to the main).
- Make conversation. Mealtimes are often the social event of the day – rather than going out for drinks, it is much more of a custom to meet for food. Consequently, it is deemed proper to spend the seconds between each mouthful catching up with your table neighbours. If you’re struggling for something to say, complimenting the food is always a good start.
- Eat quickly. Okay, this may seem bad advice – I’m not telling you to gulp it down so quickly you choke. For your health, it is obviously preferable to eat slowly. Yet when among Italians, you will quickly notice how you fall behind. I’m really not sure how it works, especially combined with the above point – you will be having a fully fledged conversation and suddenly realise the main speaker has finished their meal while you’ve barely had the chance for a few mouthfuls. They’re also quite proper and don’t talk with their mouth full, so it’s quite honestly a mystery I have yet to solve.
- Stay sitting after the food. Generally, it’s polite to keep the conversation going for a few minutes after the meal, or at least until everyone has finished eating. If you’re lucky, there may even be some more wine and a cheese course to follow. And of course, coffee. The call for coffee is the call that the meal is coming to an end.