Italians take food very seriously. Though they aren’t rigid or enforced, there are certainly some deep traditions in the Italian dining experience. Observing these traditions is like taking friendly advice from Italians of past ages. These customs are not limiting, but rather liberating. Menu items include most every food in the world. Mealtimes are flexible and differ with regards to the season or even the food. In general, meals take longer and people take this time to socialize. An Italian meal is a social event. When savoring an Italian meal anywhere in the world, set aside a couple hours to kick back and enjoy life.
That said, let’s look at Italian mealtimes and customs, starting with breakfast or colazione. As in most places, breakfast can be most any time in the morning. Restaurants will usually serve between 7-11am. Italians will usually get cappuccino with a light choice like a croissant or yogurt. Fruit is also a popular Italian breakfast food. As the seasons change, so will the times that people stroll into the restaurant. Those in southern Italy will often dine outside more often than northern Italians. One interesting tradition is that you won’t find many Italians drinking coffee after 11:00am. If someone does, in Italy, they’re most likely a foreigner. It would also be natural to have a second breakfast, if needed, or just invited.
Lunch and Merenda
Lunch, or in Italian pranzo, also takes at least an hour, one or two friends, and it’s usually around two or three in the afternoon. It’s served up with a side dish and two main courses known as il primo and il segundo. Lunch is treated as an important break in the day and is as much a social event as it is a sustenance. One could serve themselves from a plate of antipasto and fresh ensalada. The presentation of these dishes is a true art and cultural treasure admired worldwide. Someone may also stop into a ristorante for a mid afternoon merenda which, much like a breakfast, could consist of fruit, yogurt, or brioches, a version of croissants.
Supper, or cena, is a lighter meal in Italy. Usually very late, often nine or ten in the evening. Cena is defined as a late meal, but the time, and what you may eat is very much wide open. You may have a cold meat and cheese or vegetables. Though not as much as in years past, wine is a traditional accompaniment to any meal and flows freely from lunch on through the day. Now, traditional vino is often replaced by fresh squeezed juices and of course, Italian sodas.
As a customer, you will learn other customs and traditions visiting an Italian restaurant. Even in the most homestyle trattorie, or diner, meals are a more formal affair. Unlike other countries, it’s not customary to request changes in a menu item. Tables usually have formal sets, and people are expected to know their table manners. Yelling across the table and reaching over plates is frowned upon. Drink, certainly, but don’t overindulge. An Italian dining experience is meant to be a relaxing, happy time spent enjoying well prepared meals with family and friends.
If you’d like to experience an authentic taste of Italy closer to home, visit Italian Garden, located in San Marcos, TX.