When it comes to food, Italians don’t mess around. There are rules. Customs. And time frames. Oh, the time frames.
“We don’t open for dinner until eight, senora.” I heard this so often over the four years I lived in Italy, it’s the name of the memoir I’ll probably never write.
As North Americans, we’re so used to getting whatever we want, whenever we want it, that closing your restaurant all afternoon (plus Mondays and, err, the whole month of August) seemed crazy. Aren’t you going to lose a lot of business? And what about customer service?
It’s not just dinner, either. Italians have very strict ideas about every single meal.
Breakfast is no time for giant platters of pancakes or fluffy eggs and bacon. No, no. It’s coffee, standing bellied up to a bar. Cappuccino or espresso. Espresso can be enjoyed all day but absolutely no cappuccino after the strike of noon. (Because milk. And milk is a breakfast item, in fact usually reserved for children.)
Lunch is a sit-down affair. One that requires all shops to close for two hours in the afternoon. You eat from noon until two. And you certainly can’t show up toward the tail of the serving period. The day I felt the initial twinges of labour with my first baby, my husband and I (plus a midsection that defied the laws of physics) were refused lunch by three restaurants. Because it was 1:30 p.m. “No, senora. Finito.” Eventually the restaurant around the corner from our apartment took us in. Because they knew us. And that’s when I started to understand, and even appreciate, Italian priorities. Everything centres around food, family and friendship.
Once I stopped trying to find a Disney version of Rome, one where everyone spoke English and whipped up cheeseburgers when the craving struck, I actually learned to love the way Italians feel about family and food.
I discovered that organizing your day around a fresh meal with people you love is among life’s richest pleasures. When you’re eating food that fills and satisfies you, you have no need to snack all day long. Dinner isn’t a task to get through before Netflix. It’s an event to be enjoyed, leisurely.
Learning how to cook in Italy changed my entire approach to life. My children were born in Italy so it’s hard to separate becoming a parent and becoming a cook but lucky for me, both turned out to be about love.
Italian Kids Eat Real Food
Food is taken very seriously and that lesson starts early. At their Italian preschool, my tiny toddlers ate three-course lunches every day: pasta, contorno and carne. Everything was prepared by a cook whose fresh vegetables arrived each morning from the open-air market around the corner. At drop-off, you’d see the delivery man’s dolly coming in, groaning under the weight of tomatoes, fennel, leeks and the like, piled three crates high. All that goodness was prepared for kids under the age of five, but it didn’t seem indulgent to the Italian parents. It was expected. Eating fresh, gorgeous meals was just another lesson Italian children learned from the start. How else could they grow into adults who shared this value with extended family and friends?
Food IS the Social Event
We spent Saturdays with friends—and their small children—at long tables in countryside restaurants where lunch lasted three hours. Our kids brought backpacks full of activities and when they got bored, our brood played in a corner of the restaurant. No kids’ menus, rarely a high chair but don’t get the wrong idea: Italians LOVE babies. They oohed and ahhed over our little ones, always offered to make plain pasta, and make it quick. But our kids shared a portion of whatever we had. Hand-made pasta, grilled vegetables, slow roasted pork, panna cotta… Teaching them to try new foods was easy because everything was so delicious.
Sometimes I tried to remember what I used to do with my friends back home. It seemed every get together in Italy centered around a meal, a long and relaxed one. Even at a busy restaurant, lunch was basically a private party to be enjoyed all day long if we liked. There was time to talk, time to enjoy. La dolce vita.
Making Food a Priority Has Huge Payoffs
Fresh food is such a huge focus in Italy. Not just making it but making the time for it.
Where cooking is considered drudgery in North America, it’s beautiful in Italy. A skill to be admired, and ultimately shared. One of our Italian friends owns an olive oil company and we learned so much from meals with his family. The olives might be from the same region as his grandfather. This fish recipe? His nanna’s been making it for 40 years. There’s attention, care and stories to be told in each detail.
It’s no coincidence that one of the five blue zones in the world, areas whose residents live longer than anywhere else, is in Italy. That combination of a Mediterranean diet and rich sense of community have proven health benefits—not to mention being a pretty lovely way to live a life.
Now that we’ve moved back home we still eat dinner together every single night. Our kids don’t have a lot of activities and I work from home, so it works for us. It’s not for everyone. But I wouldn’t change it.
I love cooking and make tons of meals from scratch. Not every meal. I’m not a martyr. I’m just a mom who wants my kids to notice their food. My goal is for our kids to know how to enjoy a long meal. To bite into an olive and recognize its wonderfully pungent flavor. To value local produce that’s from the same region they are. But at the same time, can they be comfortable trying food from anywhere in the world? I want them to have that combination of curiosity and courage to dig in.
In the end, it’s about making the time to share meals together. That’s my way of teaching our kids patience, appreciation and generosity. Luckily for a food lover like me, all three are best learned around a kitchen table.
Charity Curley Mathews is a former VP for marthastewart.com and hgtv.com who’s now a freelance writer and blogs at foodlets.com.
Originally published January 2019; Updated December 2019.
Watch: Chatelaine Quickies – How to make fresh Sicilian pasta sauce