Dining like a True Italian

Dining like a True Italian

The Americas had a very profound influence on Italian cuisine. Tomato sauce, polenta, and Italy’s piccante (hot) flavorings would never have been added to the Italian menu without those ingredients native to the Americas: tomatoes, corn, and peppers. Although Italian cuisine has been influenced by inherently American crops, as well as many other diverse groups over the course of history, the Italian dining experience is like no other.

While in America, meals are often meant to accompany an activity, and are considered secondary to the elected entertainment, in Italy a meal is served as the focal point of a celebration. Unlike the American tradition of scarfing down a fast-food meal while driving to or from work, eating the Italian way is a leisurely experience, drawn out over many hours, during which one savors each fresh, flavorful bite with thoughtful consideration.

Italian meals are events in themselves. They can last anywhere from two to several hours. Each course is served separately, appearing in the appropriate sequence:

The Aperitivo opens the meal, as an appetizer. Small amounts of food are served, such as olives, nuts, cheese, crackers, and dips. Diners will gather around, chat standing up and sip alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverages such as wine, champagne, prosecco and spumante.

The Antipasto is a heavier appetizer. It is typically cold and features sliced meats, charcuterie, salami, cheese, paninis, bruchette, cold fish, and vegetables.

The Primo is the first course, a little heavier than the Antipasto. This is a hot dish and it usually features staples such as risotto, lasagna, pasta, soup, gnocchi, polenta, or casserole.

The Segundo is the main meal and is the heartiest course. This course always includes meat. Examples are fish, chicken, turkey, sausage, steak, lobster, and lamb.

Contorni are side dishes served alongside the Segundo, always in a separate dish. They consist of raw or cooked, hot or cold vegetables.

Insalata is the salad course. It consists of leafy vegetables in a simple garden salad style.

Formaggi e Frutta is a course dedicated to the sampling of local, seasonal cheeses and fresh fruits, native to whatever province one is in.

The Dolce is desert. Traditional Italian deserts include panna cotta, cannoli, mostarda, zuppa inglese, gelato, tiramisu, cake, or pie. On Christmas, Panettone or Pandoro is served. For Easter, the Colomba Pasquale cake might be served.

Caffè (coffee) is served with or after desert. This is not enhanced with milk or cream, but is taken at full strength as espresso. It is drunk in very small amounts, in small sips, at a high temperature.

The Digestivo is the drink that concludes the feast and is meant to aid in digestion after such a long meal. Grappa, Limoncello, Amaro, or herbal and fruit drinks are served for this purpose.

While this array might seem to boast elaboration, Italian chefs do not rely on elaborate sauces and seasonings. They claim that the secret to authentic and tasty Italian cooking is sapori e saperi (flavors and skills). This philosophy instructs one to do very little to first-rate, fresh ingredients – the excellent quality of your basic elements will ensure a superior dish.

The essence of the Italian dining experience is concentration and appreciation. Italian style dining invites participants to relish in the moment and delight in the luscious experience of flavor. By appreciating every bite, Italians are consciously grateful for the food provided to them. Eating is not simply a means to an end for Italians; it is a protracted gastronomical celebration of what it is to be fortunate, creative, and sensual beings.

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