Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Italian Restaurants

Now that we are back in Canada and have had a few days to acclimatize and to become re-acquainted with North American food, some reflections on Italian cuisine might be in order.
Eating lunch or dinner in an Italian restaurant is very different from Canada.
A full Italian meal consists of an (1) apertivo (pre-meal drink),  (2) antipasto (an appetizer), (3) the primo (first course, almost always pasta in one of its hundreds of variations or risotto),  (4) the secondo (the second course--typically fish or meat),  (5) contorni (a side dish such as seasonal vegetables or roasted potatoes, etc. If you order meat, that is all you will get on the plate--you order the contorno to accompany the secondo. Sometimes the secondo will come with a salad, but not always.),  (6) formaggio e frutta (the first dessert, literally cheese and fruit),  (7) dolce (main dessert which is sweet--tiramisu is very popular), (8) caffe (post-dinner coffee or espresso (but never cappuccino--Italians never drink coffee with dairy products after lunch! They believe the dairy product interferes with digestion. You mark yourself as a tourist if you order a post-dinner cappuccino; in some restaurants, the waiter might refuse to serve it to you, so great is your culinary faux pas.),  (9) digestivo (a post-meal drink such as limoncello which is quite pleasant, or grappa which can substitute as jet fuel. It is made from the grape skins left over from the wine production--certainly an acquired taste.
Few people, Italians or visitors, order all courses. It is quite acceptable to order antipasto and dolce, or antipasto and secondo. Waiters are very obliging and will gladly bring a second plate if you want to share a course. For example, the antipasto is quite a generous serving and is nice to share, especially if it is an assortment of seafood or dried meats.

Gelato (Italian ice cream served in special shops that typically sell nothing else) is simply delicious. It comes in almost infinite flavours (always natural and fresh in the best gelateria where owner take enormous pride in their product). Gelato uses milk compared to North American ice cream. Unlike North American ice cream, real gelato never uses additives, preservatives or other noxious chemicals found on labels of ice cream in Canada.
Italian restaurants never rush customers. You have to ask for your bill; otherwise, the waiter assumes you are simply relaxing and enjoying yourself after your meal--and it would be impolite to disturb you.
Many restaurants automatically add a cover charge to your bill. That takes care of the tip. You can leave a couple of Euros on the table if you really liked the service and the meal--but it is not expected, and certainly the waiter does not glare at you as you leave. Instead, you are always sent on your way with a cheery and sincere comment or farewell. Waiters do not hover like they do in Canada, pestering you with "How are the first bites tasting?".  They are attentive but not overly so. 
Waiters will always ask if you want water (still or fizzy), but it costs you extra since it comes in bottles--sometimes ones that they simply refill in the kitchen. Wine is quite inexpensive--a glass of good house wine is about 3-4 Euros ($5). Typically, waiters will set a basket of bread on your table, whether you ask for it or not. It, too, costs extra--usually about 1.5 Euros per person.
Prices in Italian restaurants vary--they are higher in Rome and Florence, and much higher in tourist spots as we discovered when we paid over 30 Euros for an appetizer and a drink in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence. Wine is less expensive than soft drinks. A coke may cost you 5 Euros ($6-7). 
Many restaurants have tables outside, a nice alternative if it is very hot and there is no air-conditioning inside. Even if there is, it is not always up to the task and its efficiency is compromised by the fact that doors and windows are open!  On very hot days, there are large fans pointed at the patrons that blow a fine, refreshing mist to cool you off if you are sitting outside.
A meal in an Italian restaurant is always a pleasure. Waiters are helpful explaining dishes, especially when the menu has no English subtitles. They always want you to fully enjoy the meal and do everything then can to make sure that happens. An occasional waiter might seem a bit abrupt, but most are friendly and helpful. And when I say waiter, that's what I mean: there are very few waitresses. About the only place we saw women serving tables was at family-owned establishments where everyone pitches in.
Italian eating places use different labels, depending on the type of food and service provided. A bar or caffe serves only drinks and coffee. An osteria serves local food, sometimes with no written menu. The chef uses local produce that is available that day. A paninoteca is a sandwich shop (but infinitely better than Subway!). You grab a slice of pizza at a pizzeria. A trattoria is the place to go for informal dining (they are often family owned). A ristorante is more upscale and has printed menus and tablecloths. 

A seafood appetizer. The seafood is lightly fried in batter and served very hot and crispy.
Pasta with mussels.
Eggplant (aubergine) and seafood combination.
A wonderful restaurant around the corner from our apartment in Florence. 
We ate there twice!
Bruschetta pomodoro with olives--a typical appetizer.
Pasta with wild boar sauce.
Pear cake with chocolate.

Steak Florentine with pepper sauce. Steak is always served rare. To ask for it otherwise will result in bewildered looks or refusal to comply.
Contorni, in this case, grilled seasonal vegetables. 
Gnocchi with pesto sauce
Tortelli with asparagus
Seafood secondo. Notice the absence of vegetables on the plate. 
They are ordered separately. 
A very popular appetizer: Caprese salad (tomatoes and basil with buffalo mozzarella - a wonderful, fresh cheese - tastes nothing like mozzarella cheese in Canada).
Ricotta cheese mousse appetizer with bean puree
A hearty bean and lentil soup
Wild boar cacciatore 
Ravioli with sage
Spaghetti Amatriciana--a popular pasta dish

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