Italy is one of those countries that literally tugs at your heart – and stomach. So strong is the pull of the people and places – and pasta – that travelers like me don’t want to be perceived as tourists. We want to drink it all in like a local. That means, of course, sipping the right beverage in the right place at the right time. Finding those little out-of-the-way bistros that cater to the in-crowd, without the large crowds. And eating up the sights – and house specialties – like we lived there.
The best way to get a real taste for daily life is through your dining experiences. Italian breakfasts are traditionally much lighter than our hearty American morning meals and usually consist of a pastry and a cappuccino. Take heart though, the locals favor pastries filled with custard, cream or chocolate like the sfogliatelle, warm from the oven, I devoured in a sidewalk bakery and café in Amalfi on the piazza in front of the beautiful Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, heavenly!
And those frothy cappuccinos? They are thought of as breakfast drinks, so do indulge your craving for them before 11 AM!
Lunch was once regarded as the most important meal of the day but as cities and towns have become more modernized with young people working in offices, it has become less complex and time consuming. That said, you can still linger at the table longer than you would in the U.S., and you’ll have to ask for the check – il conto, per favore – because the waiter won’t automatically bring it.
Before you ask to be seated al fresco if you are visiting Italy on warm day, you may be interested to know that this common phrase for eating outside literally means “in the cooler” in Italy, a place more like jail than the patio you had your eye on. Ask for a table all’aperto and you’ll end up where you want to be.
Knowing a few handy phrases of Italian as you read the menu can mean the difference between getting peppers on your pizza – peperoni in Italian – instead of the salami picante you thought you ordered. It also helps to become familiarized with local culinary customs too so you look like you know how to eat in Italy like you live there. Don’t ask for tap water – in Italy, they drink bottled water, au naturale or frizzante. Espressos and caffès are commonly served, without milk, after your meal.
Table wines, bianco, rosso and rosato, are a great choice for in-the-know diners, light and flavorful and usually locally produced. I have to admit that I was so impressed with the vino rosso I was proudly served by the owner of a trattoria tucked away in a back lane in Taormina that I had to tuck a few bottles in my suitcase to savor at home – this Sicilian wine is just one of the reasons my lunch here was unforgettable, along with the extra thin-crusted pizza, eaten with a knife and fork, that keep residents coming back for more.
Snacks are irresistible all over Italy, with many villages and islands famous for certain ones. Gelato is found everywhere, although Sicily claims it as its birthplace in the 16th century. I had my first taste of this cold creamy confection on Elba at a seaside gelateria where I pointed to a chocolate-laced Stracciatella (chocolate chip ice cream to the uninitiated) just like I had seen other, more knowledgeable, patrons do. After savoring my first bite, I understood why people ordered with their hands, their mouths reserved for watering in anticipation of this delectable treat. Capers and olives are a staple of Italian cooking and are especially celebrated on Aeolian Islands like Lipari. We sampled them there, mid-afternoon, with another island specialty, a potently sweet Malvesian dessert wine, served in a roadside bar frequented by the locals. Crusty home-baked bread dipped in vineyard-made olive oil and savory cheeses aged on site made us feel like family at a private winery on Elba. Thin slices of parma ham and figs whetted our between-meal appetites when we stopped in a small gourmet food shop in Bonifacio, Corsica, and in the fishing village of Ponza, we savored the catch of the day – a freshly harpooned, grilled swordfish that graced our dinner plates with spices flavored in the Mediterranean.
Dinner in Italy entices with meals served family style and a multitude of courses: Antipasti, light bites, Primo, small bowls of pasta, risotto or soup, Secondo, the main course of meat, poultry or fish, Contorni, side dishes and insalata, served after the main event, and Dolce, dessert if you still have room. And to help you digest your Italian feast, you may want to order a limoncello – made from those luscious Amalfi Coast lemons – just like the locals do! Alla salute!