The British comic Douglas Adams said; “Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.” I can draw two concise conclusions from this statement, one; he is insightful, and two; he has clearly never lived in Italy.
Having recently moved to Italy with my Italian boyfriend, it didn’t take me long to discover that time moves at a measurably slower pace, allowing people around the tavolo (table) to savour every precious moment and taste sensation.
The mentality in regards to cooking and food is that less is more. Of course this strictly refers to the quantity of ingredients and clearly not the amount consumed or the time you take to enjoy every single mouthful.
Less is more on Pizza
The ingredients are often simple and few, but quality is paramount and emphasis is placed on tasting the individual flavours rather than being overwhelmed by varying ingredients.
This approach of simplicity and embracing the moment can be seen in all aspects of Italian life. People of all ages commonly return home from their workplace for a leisurely pranzo (lunch) with their familia and an afternoon nap. During which time retail shops close for 3 hours from 12.30-3.30, because needless to say, they are busy eating.
Like everywhere else in the world, you start the day with Collazione (breakfast), which in Italy usually consists of a brioche (croissant) or craffen (doughnut), with the filling choices of chocolate, jam, crema or zucchero (sugar). Being an Aussie who is well accustomed to my collazione grande (big breakfast) of bacon and eggs, the idea of a sweet breakfast is foreign to me, but ‘when in Rome’…
These indulgent pastries are often eaten standing at a bar on your way to lavoro (work) and washed down with an espresso or cappuccino.
As a general rule, espressos are drunk at all times during the day and night and as frequently as (acqua) water. Cappuccinos are to be drunk solely with breakfast, and tea is under no circumstances served with latte (milk).
I love tea with milk, so every time I order; “Vorrei un te’ con il latte”, I am met with the same blank expressions on the waiters faces. Of course they will accommodate your ‘alien’ request, but not without first staring at my forehead which evidently has FOREIGNER tattooed in large, bold writing.
I have willingly fallen into a daily routine of having a traditional home-cooked 3-course pranzo (lunch) and cena (dinner), yes you read correctly; 3 courses EVERY DAY, twice a day, courtesy largely of my boyfriend’s mamma (god bless the Italian culture).
The first course is usually pasta of some delicious description, but could also be risotto, gnocchi, lasagne, or essentially anything that screams carbs!
Just for starters
The main course is always some form of carne (meat), most often sausage, beef, chicken, or pork prepared as a stew or cooked with wine, burro (butter), cream and ollio (olive oil). Cavallo (horse) has also been on the menu several times, and once I moved past my initial hesitation and thoughts of Black Beauty, it has quickly become one of my favourites.
The carne is often served with either polenta and gorgonzola (blue cheese) or creamed potato. I have on more than one occasion been served an entire wheel of tomino (a brie-like cheese, similar in appearance, taste and texture) which has been wrapped in speck (bacon), and baked or fried and then (like everything else) drizzled more than generously in ollio, as a ‘simple’ accompaniment to my carne.
Would you like some cheese with your meal?
In the middle of the tavolo is a never-ending supply of fresh, crusty pane (bread), and antipasto containing an always changing variety of formaggio (cheese) and cold meats, some of which I had never previously heard of.
My favourites are unquestionably prosciutto crudo, salami, bresaola, speck and lardo (pure fat), which are all bought fresh from the village market or a nearby farm.
Dessert completes the meal (well, almost) with the likes of panna cotta, gelato, torta (cake) made with almonds, hazelnuts, lemon or orange, and my personal favourite; tiramisu. This is normally followed by biscotti, chocolate and/or sugared almonds and espresso. After dinner however, I choose to stay true to my English origins and drink my tea with milk and ignore the sideway glances.
Beautiful homemade tiramisu
Then lucky last is the digestivo, often limoncello, grappa or amaro, because at this point your digestion needs all the help it can get! Needless to say, these meals are washed down with an ample supply of bianco (white) or rosso (red) vino, because who can argue with the popular Italian expression; ‘a glass of vino a day keeps the doctor away’. Clearly, far more practical than an apple, and hence why embracing this new culture is so very facile.
In Australia we have the pub, in Italy they have the bar, and a large part of the bar culture is the Aperitvo. Before a meal, you drop into your local or favourite bar and order a drink, namely a prosecco, vino, or spritz with campari or aperol and chat briefly with your friends about your day or weekend before heading to your casa (house) or a restaurante. But the real charm of the aperitvo is the gratis (free) buffet of food that accompanies your drink of choice.
The quality of the food fluctuates according to the bar, and can vary from a simple spread of nuts, olives, chips, basic pastries, mini-pizzas and paninis to a truly extravagant spread of gourmet delights.
My two favourite bars for aperitivo are The Sosteria in Botticino and Checchi in a neighbouring village called Rezzato. After a visit to one of these bars, the prospect of then facing a 3 course meal can be quite frankly frightening. Yet I am always up for a challenge.
All for free!
After 2 months in Italy my recipe repertoire has expanded by 13 pages (and consequently my backside by 5cm), I have tried over 20 traditional Italian dishes, eaten 186 meals (not that I’m counting), 372 courses (not including aperitivo’s), the bottles of vino are literally a quarter of the price, the pizza tastes 10 times better with 1/3 of the ingredients and thus it’s countless times easier to get out of bed in the morning.
About the Author
Kate Halpin is an Australian currently living in a village called Botticino, which is located in the city of Brescia and about a one hour drive from Milan, Verona and Venice, where her life has become one giant smorgasbord!