Food in Italy is a form of art rather than mere entertainment or nourishment. It drives much of the structure of the day, and has come to shape the operating hours of the businesses in town. Meal times have been craved out from the pausa pranzo to the late evening cena that seems to start off the festive nightlife that can run until 1 am.
Dinner can take as long as you wish, as the bill will never be given without being requested. Giving a bill out before an inquiry has been made is seen as rude, as if the owner is forcing an untimely exit from their establishment. In America the mindset of the restaurants revolves around shifting as many groups in and out the door in order to maximize profit and the number of individuals fed on any one occasion.
Traveling to Italy and experiencing this difference in the dining expectation was surprisingly pleasant. This about-face illuminates the idea of hospitality in Italy, making the act of inviting others into an enterprise with the intentions of treating them as friends important in the culture. By taking pride in their work and the food they prepare, the owners intend to create a welcoming environment where guests can escape the stresses of everyday and enjoy the modest pleasures in life.
The average dinner follows the ordering: aperitivo, antipasto, primo, secondo, and endings with some type of dolce or digestivo. These courses are ordered in a way in which the cuisine gets heavier as the courses go on, and the last is intended to help with the digestion of the decadent and carb-filled food that inevitably composed the meal.
Coming from the states I’m accustomed to my meal being served on one dish, only adding an appetizer if the occasion is considered to be exceptional or it’s a holiday meal. I’ve noticed that this progression of the meal forces me to take my time to detect the flavors embedded in the dishes. An added benefit being that due to the length of time it takes to indulge in the cuisine, it is difficult to overeat and instead you leave feeling replenished and recharged.
Other than the additional dishes that then require washing, I see no real downside to extending the time of a meal in order to socialize and revel in the wonderful food on the plate. The Italian method of dining may just have to accompany me back to America.