People seem to think that Italy being an artistic country is also a free spirit nation. This might be true to a certain extent, but underneath a layer of free spirit living there are a few rules that you might want to learn before embarking in a trip to Italy. One of the most important elements in Italian life is food, being seated at a dining table with the locals is one of the things you want to learn, not because your way of eating is wrong, but it is better to blend in when in a foreign country. “When in Rome do as the Romans” will only make your life easier.
In the English language the word table remains table, but in Italian language the table has two genders. It takes a masculine gender “Il Tavolo” when Italians use it for various tasks, such as paying bills, schoolwork, or discuss things. It takes a feminine gender “La Tavola” when Italians eat at the table.
This means that the table is always dressed for dinner, like a woman invited out to dinner. Just as the Italian woman gets dressed with class and very little fuss, a simple jewelry over a stunning mise, or vice versa expensive shoes/accessories with a simple dress, so does the table. Italian table is all about elegance and simplicity. Home décor, table setting, fashion and all the aspects of Italian expressions follow the classic order and classic elegance found in Italian architecture .
Italian table setting is elegant in its characteristic way, no fussy decorations, only the essentials. Food takes the stage, because is the element that will make us feel good. Atmosphere and ambience contribute to our feeling good, but food gives us expectation.
Dressing The Table
A tablecloth is the first thing that goes on and it is not just for the holidays. Italians eat with tablecloth and fabric napkins every day of the week. It’s about respect for food and for themselves. Holidays deserve a more expensive tablecloth. Napkins are generally the same color of the tablecloth, but you might want to take the color of the dishes as an inspiration to match napkins.
Setting places is easy, there are only two plates in front of each guest: a shallow plate goes on the bottom and a large bowl goes on top, usually the two dishes are of the same colors, but this is not a rule. The bottom plate can be colored and the top plate hand painted, or in a contrasting colors. There is a new trend to add a charger plate underneath all, but only for special occasions and I must say this is custom monkeyed from foreign countries.
Silverware are kept at a minimum: two forks on the left of the same size, spoon and knife on the right, smaller fork or smaller spoon in front of the plates for dessert. Smaller forks are not used for salads, only dessert. To the right of the plates, we place two glassware, one for water and the other for wine whichever it might be, if you see a third glass is because the wine will change during the dinner.
In the middle of the table there is no decoration, but you might see a small low flower arrangement to allow guests to converse from across the table, or a couple of candles on each end of the table.
In the center of the table there is only a water carafe, or a bottle of mineral water, a wine bottle and breadbasket.
In the middle of the table there is no food either. Each plate comes filled from the kitchen and nobody will pass dishes around at the table. Italians do not fill one plate with the entire dinner, we like to keep flavors separate in separate dishes, thus when we change courses, we change plates.
No bread and butter dish and no saucer with olive oil and balsamic vinegar will ever be seen on an Italian table. Between courses, while we are waiting for the next dish, we entertain ourselves with raw fennel to help the digestion. Dipping bread in olive oil and balsamic vinegar is never been an Italian custom. There is no salt and pepper shaker either, the cook of the family knows how to balance flavors. Try not to ask for one and avoid offending the cook.
The hosts, or the older persons of the family, usually grandparents sit at both ends of the table and the most important guests sit on their right side.
Time For An Apéritif
Now the table is set, let’s go for an apéritif. On Sunday and holidays, before lunch or dinner, Italian treats themselves with an apéritif. Aperitif usually happens an hour before the meal starts. It is a moment to get acquainted with guests who don’t know each other, or to catch up with people we know and haven’t seen for a while. It is also a transition time to allow food to cook to perfection and to finish up the table with the last touch. Aperitif consists of a variety of appetizers, almost like tapas in Spain, served with a sparkling wine, prosecco or champagne. Often on Sunday, Italians go to downtown coffee shops to have an apéritif in style and meet some friends before lunch.
Succession Of Courses
It starts, after the apéritif time is over. Courses come marching in the dining room from the kitchen and take place in front of each guest. Italian portions are small. The first dish is always a plate of pasta or “risotto” and this is our entrée. No more than 2 or 2-1/2 oz. of pasta per person, plus condiments, it makes a satisfying dish light in calories. The pasta docer or scales are our gauges.
Second plate consists of meat or fish with two or three vegetables. One of the vegetables might be a salad, otherwise salad goes in between courses as a palate cleanser. The only condiment used on salads is olive oil and lemon or balsamic vinegar. Salad dressing, just as butter on bread does not exist in the Mediterranean diet.
A fish specialty is de-boned in the kitchen and brought to the table cleaned, otherwise shell-fish or mollusks will be served in a soup, over rice or pasta, or baked, in which cases no cheese will ever be required. I say this because I often spot someone in restaurants asking for cheese over pasta with seafood. You want to smell and taste the aroma of the sea and not the dairy. After serving a fish specialty, it is very proper to pass a warm towel to let the guests refresh their hands, just as airlines do.
In Italy to cut food with the proper gesture is very important. The fork is kept in the left hand and knife on the right. Fork never changes hand to bring the bite to the mouth. At the end, when the plate is empty, crisscross the silverware in the plate to indicate that you have finished. The space you occupy when eating with fork and knife is only the space your body occupies, your arm shouldn’t go out of your space to touch the guests sitting next to you. During dinner, let’s say you are eating a soup, the hand that is not using any silverware show rest on the table not on your lap. You don’t want to give the impression to have something to hide.
What To Avoid
I know by now how much you are enjoying eating Italian food, but it is important to pace yourself. Finishing before the other guests, means you have enjoyed food so much that encourages the host to fill up your plate again. See what other people are doing, go at their speed and finish at the same time. In restaurant is OK to finish first; restaurants will never serve you the same dish twice unless you are ready to pay twice.
“Scarpetta”: it is not OK to clean the plate with a piece of bread in your hand. In restaurant is definitively a bad custom, just as much if you are a guest in someone’s home. In a family home is OK to attach a piece of bread to the fork and go around the plate one time.
You might want to keep a couple of rules in mind:
1. when pouring wines or water, the bottle should point forward into the glass, never you should pour with your hand tilted backwards. It is not elegant and actually Italians see it as an offensive gesture. If you are in an Italian restaurant where wine is poured backwards, for sure you have landed in a non-authentic Italian restaurant;
2. if you need to leave the table for any reason, put the napkin on the table and not on the chair, that is also considered offensive.
The End Of Dinner
After the salad, we give the stomach time to settle down with “pinzimonio”, which is a combination of raw vegetables to dip in olive oil and S&P.
This interlude will give time to prepare the end of the dinner with an array of cheeses paired with dry nuts and lot of fresh fruit.
Italian meals end with desserts, cakes, or ice cream followed with espresso coffee, digestive drinks or some type of alcohol, but never latte, cappuccino, latte macchiato, or similar drinks with milk in it. Digestive drinks have the property of cleansing and detoxifying, help digestion, eliminate toxins and at times help with reflux problems. Natural herbs, roots, tree barks and spices, infused in a base of alcohol are the magic of all digestives. Latte or cappuccino after you have ingested a meal full of oils, wines or citrus condiments will only help the fermentation in the stomach and create a reflux.
If you are a traveler in Italy, you don’t have to worry about ordering a 3 – 4 course meal any more as it was in the past, restaurateurs understand that foreigners eat in a different way. Eat what you like, in the order you like and please know that “pane e coperto” is a surcharge for tablecloth and bread, always present on the bill. Often when the tip is included in the bill you don’t have to pay a 15%. Ask the waiter, if the bill is not clear, but don’t forget to ask for a receipt. Outside the restaurant one of the “guardia di finanza” might stop you to ask for a receipt and you could be fined if you can’t produce one.
I hope this information has been helpful. As the professional who is always ready, I shall be prompt and ready to help you with any of your needs, whether it will be decorating, designing, remodeling, or designing your “mise en place” Italian style. Ciao,
Copyright © 2011 Valentina Cirasola, All Rights Reserved
Valentina Cirasola is an Italian Interior Designer with a passion for kitchens and cooking. She operates in the USA and Europe. She loves to remodel homes and loves to turn unattractive spaces into castles, but especially loves to design kitchens and wine grottos, outdoor kitchens and outdoor rooms, great rooms and entertainment rooms. She is the author of two Italian regional cuisine books available here on the Books page and in various other locations: