the appetizer:

Though there are many individual regional cuisines in Italy, northern and southern Italian cuisines are primarily differentiated by the cooking fat and style of pasta commonly used. Northern Italian cuisine (other than on the coast) favors butter, cream, polenta, Mascarpone, Grana Padano, and Parmigiano cheeses, risotto and fresh egg pasta. Southern Italian cuisine tends toward Mozzarella, Caciocavallo and Pecorino cheeses, olive oil and dried pasta. Southern Italian cuisine also makes greater use of the ubiquitous tomato.

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How To Eat Italian-Style

"No man is lonely while eating spaghetti; it requires too much attention."
—Christopher Morley

Italians believe that God keeps an Italian kitchen, and so everyone should enjoy la cucina italiana. The following advice will help you do it in style.

Dealing with Italian waiters is similar to crossing Italian streets: you can do it if you are brazen enough, showing skill and courage and looking all the time as though you own the place. A good waiter should explain the dishes on the menu and help you select the wine. But if you order coffee or tea during the meal, ask for the ketchup, bottle, or request a doggie bag... watch out, you will be in big trouble.

Cocktails before dinner are not popular and are associated negatively with Americans and the three-martini lunch. However, an aperitif, such as a flute of sparkling wine to sip as you are deciding what to order, is often served.

You do not have to order all of the courses in an Italian meal, but you will be expected to have more than a pasta and salad in a nice place. When you add the cover and service charges, fine dining will not be a Cheap Eat. If you want a true Cheap Eat, go to a cafeteria, snack bar, or dine al fresco with a picnic you have put together yourself.

A guiding principle in Italian dining is that you eat one food at a time and that every food has its place. If you order a light supper of pasta and salad at an informal trattoria, you will be served the pasta first and the salad after. If you want to start your meal with a salad, the key word is come, as in come antipasto, vorrei un insalata mista (as an antipasto, I would like a mixed salad), or comme secondo, vorrei un contorno (as a second course, I would like a vegetable).

If the waiter does not bring the Parmesan cheese, it probably does not go with what you are eating. Parmesan is never used on pasta with fish or lots of garlic, but it is offered with many types of soup.

Bread is served with all Italian meals and is part of the pane e coperto charge. Butter is seldom served except with breakfast.

The container of olive oil on the table is for more than sprinkling on your salad. A plain broiled or grilled fish is enhanced with a few drops of olio, and maybe some lemon.

Don't order fish on Sunday, when the markets are closed: the fish will be at least one day old. In Venice, extend this to Monday, since the Rialto Fish market is closed that day as well.

Coffee is served after a meal, never with it.

Most places do not require men to wear a tie, but Italians do dress with casual elegance when they eat out, and they do not consider athletic shoes of any type to be acceptable with street clothes.

Taking children to restaurants in Italy is not the problem it can be in France. You can ask for a high chair (seggiola or sediolina) and for half portions (mezze portione).

Solo diners may be relegated to poor table locations. To avoid this as much as possible, reserve a table for two. Upon arrival, say your dining companion had to cancel at the last minute, and tell the waiter how sad this makes you. It usually works.

Cheap Eats in Italy
by Sandra A. Gustafson
Paperback, 206 pp, $10.95
Chronicle Books, 1996
ISBN: 0-8118-1070-4
Reprinted with permission


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This page modified January 2007