Eating with family and friends consumes more calories.
It’s also much more enjoyable. In Italy, the planning, preparation, and enjoyment of even the simplest meals brings out the best of people. “Food makes people happy, it takes you back home, it says so many things that words can’t say,” says Sophia Loren.
But a meal is not just a three-course affair that may or may not start with appetizers, those tempting “stuzzichini” that tease our taste buds. Small bites can be a meal in their own right – a small cannolo with coffee in mind morning, or olives, tramezzini, and pizzette bites (soft pizza) over aperitif in the late afternoon.
Sometimes the opposite works – a late morning aperitif to punctuate a productive morning or an early evening gelato with friends are good substitutes to a lunch or dinner. The operative word is substitute. It’s when you add snacks to meals that things get out of control.
Time flies when you’re having fun
When we’re engrossed in conversation time flies, and we’ve had a good time without sacrificing food quality. Stuzzichini go fast, and they’re usually fresh from that day. It’s the chips, peanuts, and other packaged snacks that pack a punch.
A get-together with family and friends is the main dish. Food is our supporting actor for the social occasion. Groups of friends out for pizza don’t order food and drinks all night, and not in a hurry to leave, either. Tables don’t rotate as quickly as in the U.S., especially at dinner – no tips.
Italian restaurants add a cover charge to meals. “Coperto” is a token fee that covers service and the bread basket.
It may not be very efficient to delay ordering and chatting up with friends and the wait staff, but part of the point of not eating at home is to enjoy the company of others. Conversation and not piles of food is the reason a meal could take hours to finish.
I remember many a group of eight to ten friends coming to the pizzeria where I worked through high school. They’d simple pizzas and a mix of mineral water and house draft beer. In fact, nobody complained when I ordered their favorites on their behalf when the restaurant was full. Getting that done meant more conversation.
Thank social connection for Italian hospitality
Social connection is part of Italian culture. Even in a distracted and harried world, we still seek the moment of pause. Talking during a meal helps us slow down, relax in the company of colleagues or friends.
Italian hospitality is legendary. We open our homes for a delicious and simple meal without pretense or an expectation that you’ll reciprocate. I can’t remember the number of times we welcomed a neighbor whose wife was out of town, or a school mate to join us at home for lunch.
Whatever you think of the movie Eat, Pray, Love, the Thanksgiving meal at the farm is a realistic representation of what happens. We don’t celebrate the holiday, but we love celebrating each other, and cooking together is a great way to relate. The focus is on the quality of the food and enjoying each other’s company.
Cooking is a gift to share (and a relaxing one to boot)
Sophia Loren won the Oscar® for Best Actress for her performance in Two Women at the 34th Academy Awards® in 1962. Burt Lancaster presented the award, and Greer Garson accepted it on her behalf.
Loren had not gone to the awards but was waiting for word from the U.S. She was so nervous while waiting – it was a super important award for a foreign language movie – she made sauce and pasta. In her autobiography, she says cooking had a calming effect on her, grounded in something that she could share with others.
Having grown up during WWII, Loren was part of my father’s generation. Young children who had little to no food to put in the belly and scarce supplies to go on. Simple food thus was a gift and a blessing. Better yet, when one could share it with their entire family, as Loren did while waiting up with her husband, film producer Carlo Ponti.
To the joy of cooking, Italians add and eating together. Try it, and swap stories in between bites – you’ll eat less, learn more, and make a new friend.
- Sophia Loren’s Recipes and Memories, Sophia Loren
- The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food, Lynne Rossetto Casper (my secret favorite book of all times)