The Italian family dinner, at least in my host home in Siena, is fraught with alimentary challenges. If you join our meal, read this guide first.
1. Do not eat for at least several hours before dinner. It’s tempting to lunge for a pastry at 5 p.m., but you will regret it at 8 when you’re trying to stuff yourself with more pasta. If you can, eat very little at breakfast and very little at lunch to prepare.
2. Say “buon appetito” before beginning to eat. This is our prayer before every meal, that everyone will have a good appetite for the delicious concoctions to come.
3. Eat slowly. Our meals last between one and two hours. The food is fabulous – my host mom is a fantastic cook – so savor it!
4. Always have food on your plate. Try to time the completion of your portion to the other people at the table. If you wolf down your food too quickly, instead of being praised for a job well done, you will be offered more food. And because you’re headed straight to Dante’s hell for gluttony, you will eat it.
5. There are more courses than you realize. This is why keeping food on your plate is an essential strategy. If you finish your serving too quickly, you’ll eat more, thus subtracting room in your stomach for the next course.
6. When finished, avoid looking anywhere near the remaining food. If your eyes so much as rest on the pan of pork, at least one person will see it and say, “Vuoi ancora? Do you want more?” And, deaf to your stammering protests, they will vigorously try to spoon more of it on your plate. Look at the ceiling, the walls, the other people at the table, but don’t let your eyes drift below shoulder-level.
7. When you’re finished, you’re not really finished. You thought you were full? Nonsense. There’s still more wine and cheese to be consumed, and several desserts, and oh wait, there’s this traditional sausage that you must try! No, really, just a tiny piece! Your mother’s going to think we didn’t feed you!
8. Dinner only comes to a close when there’s nothing on the table but empty glasses and crumbs, and when someone gets up to smoke a cigarette. My host family usually clears away each course as we eat, so dinner’s not over until the table is no longer laden with food. The conversation lulls as everyone takes one last swig of wine, and someone gets up to go smoke outside. Only now is the meal considered complete, and you may stagger back to your room if you wish. Otherwise, stay and talk and learn about various aspects of Sienese culture until late into the night.
Now, who’s hungry?
(Photo: An aging room for parmigiano reggiano, or parmesean cheese -- a staple after-dinner treat.)