Dining in Italy…

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

We drive half an hour of so to a town called Castiglione, on the Thyrrenean Sea, to eat out. The area is like Sarasota in Florida, San Diego Harbor in California, probably like bays and beaches in South Africa, the Cote d’Azur, Vladivostock in Russia? Fancy restaurants and chi chi clothing shops stand next to T-shirt shops and souvenir stores, pizzerias and ice cream parlors.

Stretched across the wide piazza between the shops are sparkling blue neon Italian words that mean gratitude (gratitudine), friendship (amicizia), happiness (felicita’), laughter (risata), joy (gioia). I think it is a lovely idea to display across a shopping center.

As we sit in a restaurant built and styled like a cruise ship, the Castiglione marina is quiet. It’s wintertime, and no boaters are sailing out to watch the sun sink into the sea. Older men fish from the quay in the dying light; like them we watch the little lamp glowing on their bobbers.

We order drinks. The waiter brings chips and olives, he points at the bar. It is lined with food – a phenom in Italy in the late afternoon. It is actually a buffet—small sandwiches, slices of various pizzas, dishes of fried potatoes, bowls of potato chips, plates of cheeses. It seems, however, that if we want the sweets from the glass case, we have to pay for the mango, chocolate, pistachio cheesecakes, the peach and lemon fruit tarts, the tiramisu.
The most expensive glass of wine or beer I’ve ordered anywhere is $3 in euros—about $5 US. There is no tipping, so I ask if that is because bartenders and waiters make a living wage. No one knows.

Italians eat late—after 7 pm. The 5 o’clock “tea time” of drinks and bar food carries them over until the restaurant opens for real food. Even at home with my hosts, there is a snack of some sort around 5, with tea or caffe or wine. Dinner comes late.

The biggest noodle I’ve seen served so far is the pappardelle. It is at least an inch wide, about twice the width of the egg noodle I use for a stroganoff, and it is 18 inches long! It tastes homemade, as most pasta I’ve eaten in Italy does; maybe the restaurants all make their own noodles.

My host finishes his meal and wipes his plate with bread. The waiter grins at him and says, “Scarpetta.” It means that the diner is grateful. When a dish returns to the kitchen scraped clean, the chef is pleased—this is the high compliment—a scarpetta.
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It is now the next day, and it’s lunchtime here. We eat banana frittata. No flour, no sugar; just very ripe bananas and whipped eggs sautéed. Delicioso.
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Italians use lots of words for food: nutrimento (nourishment), mangiare (something to do with one’s mandible/chewing/jawbone!), vitto (life itself), pane (bread [of life]), alimento (a part of the canal between the lips and the stomach!).

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