I have had the good fortune of being able to travel in Italy for two weeks and I'm learning all about the food culture here. (Super excited, since it's my absolute favourite topic)
While mealtimes in Italy are just like anywhere else- meals provide family time, time to relax and enjoy- they are also very different.
A traditional meal consists of 4 courses: an antipasto or appetizer, a primi or first course which is often a pasta dish, a secondi or second course which might be a meat or fish dish and the dolci which is dessert.
What is interesting is that each dish is enjoyed independently of the others. It is not served all at once so as not to complicate or confuse your palate. Each dish is served in small portions so you can enjoy each taste and enjoy small amounts of different types of food, resulting in a balanced diet.
Before dinner you might have drinks or appertivo which could be wine or a cocktail...but what's interesting is during dinner you'd typically only drink water or wine. This is because Italians take their food seriously and would not typically drink something that would take away from the flavour of their foods. So coke, milk, juice and beer are just not typically consumed at meals.
Additionally, the only condiments they will bring you to accompany your meal would be olive oil, salt, black pepper and balsamic vinegar. Some restaurants will also bring chilli oil but in my experience so far, I'd say this is not the norm. In fact if you ask for something other than the pre-approved condiments, they will probably try to talk you out of it. This is because Italians enjoy tasting their food. They do not over-season their meats but rather hope that you will be able to taste each ingredient.
Bread is something that is served with meals and is not meant to be eaten with olive oil and balsamic vinegar as many of us think over in North America. Rather it's almost a tool to sop up the remaining sauce on your dish after a meal so you can savour the flavours a little more. (This is something you can do at home or in a casual cucina but not something you'd do if fine dining.)
Overall, in Italia, meals are not meant to be consumed quickly or rushed through. Rather, meals are meant to be savoured, relished and enjoyed. In fact, wait staff in Italy will almost never bring you the bill without you having had requested it. Why? Because they want you to sit, relax and enjoy. The goal is not to rush you or get you to spend more but they want you to experience the true Italian joy of eating.
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