Food Not as Fuel but as a Way of Life
Soon after she arrived in Italy, Erika Lesser was invited to a friend's house for dinner. When Lesser asked, "What time?" her friend looked puzzled. She replied, "Why dinnertime, of course!"
In Italy, as in France, that means sometime between 8 and 9 p.m., and Lesser, who is now the head of an organization called Slow Food USA, soon learned that "no matter who you are or how hard you've worked, in the Italian household that is a time to sit down together and eat."
The loyalty to dinner in Italy goes well beyond the table. Because of the pride each region of Italy takes in its local farm products, the dishes served depend greatly on where you're eating-whether it's in the Piedmont or Tuscany, Puglia or Sicily-and ingredients in season. Even the olive oil most likely will have been pressed locally. "If you see strawberries out of season," says Sally Spector, an author and artist in Venice, "you know it's not good."
Sensual. In short, Italians are deeply serious about food. "Go to a business luncheon," says Spector, "and 70 percent of the conversation from the men as well as the women will be about food. ... Food is not just a biological necessity; it is a sensual experience."
Even at the most casual trattoria, white tablecloths and cloth napkins raise the level of the dining experience. It's just as "you act a little bit different if you're dressed up," says Spector. At the same time, you don't have to spend money to eat really well. Una cucina povera (simple, plain cuisine) features delicious recipes with fresh cabbage or potatoes, fresh herbs, and inexpensive wine you can pour into a bottle you bring from home.
Authentic Italian cooking uses much less sauce or garlic than its heavy-handed American versions. Antipasto may simply be lightly grilled fresh vegetables with a mere drizzle of olive oil and parsley. And even if restaurant food tends to be richer in Italy, at the home table the portions are small. "You don't eat seconds," says Lesser. "And you don't feel stuffed and comatose at the end."
This story appears in the March 26, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.