The Italian Table, Do We Eat to Live or Live to Eat?
In Italy, dining is not just about consuming calories to satisfy bodily needs, it is one of life’s great joys. Eating delicious, well-prepared food is a quintessential part of daily life and is treated as a pleasure to be savored and shared with others. Anyone who has had the great privilege of traveling to Italy can attest to the fact that Italians always set a beautiful Italian table, whether they are grabbing a quick bite in the morning before rushing off to work, eating dinner alone at home or hosting an elaborate dinner party in the evening. A well-set table is an important part of a daily ritual, it demonstrates respect for the food and the importance of aesthetics.
Setting the table
So how do Italians set the table? Well, first of all, Italians will typically start with a crisply ironed table cloth and matching cloth napkins, no matter the occasion. A small vase of fresh flowers often adorns the table. For breakfast, a decorative bowl of sugar is placed on the table, often together with a bowl of jam and a plate of butter. Instead, at lunch and dinner, olive oil, vinegar, and salt complete the look, along with a paper napkin holder and a basket of sliced bread.
Italians love to use gorgeous dishes. They will typically have a set of everyday dishes, and at least one other set of “Sunday” or holiday dishes. Dishes are always in good condition, and always match. The holiday dishes will often be very elaborate with brightly colored, typical Italian designs, such as those produced by Deruta. Intricately fashioned Murano Glassware is also highly prized by Italians, and almost every Italian household boasts at least one set of Murano serving dishes, bowls, plates, or glasses, if not an entire set of Murano tableware. Everyday dishes are generally simpler than holiday dishes, but are always of good quality and made to last.
For breakfast, Italians will set the table with one small plate in the center of each place setting. To the top right of the plate (or sometimes on the center of each plate, depending on the region of Italy) they will place a cup with a saucer for caffè latte (hot milk with coffee), or else a much smaller cup and saucer for espresso, known as the tazzino (little cup). A knife goes to the right of each plate, a fork to the left (if needed), and lastly a small spoon is placed above the plate horizontally, pointing toward the left. Prima colazione (Italian breakfast) generally consists of caffè latte (hot milk with coffee) along with bread, butter, and jam. Alternatives are cornetti (croissants) biscotti (cookies). Children drink caffè d’orzo, hot chocolate, or plain milk. Sometimes fruit or yogurt are served, but this is more rare. Italians generally join together to eat as a family when possible, and breakfast is no exception to this rule.
Italians tend to eat lunch and dinner in courses, so when setting the table, there will often be a large plate at the center of each place setting for il secondo (the second course, generally meat or fish) and i contorni (the side dishes, vegetables). A large, shallow bowl is placed on top of the plate, for il primo (the first course, generally pasta, rice, or soup). The amount of silverware on the table reflects the number of courses. The forks go to the left of the plate, the knives to the right, and the soup spoon is placed to the right of the knife. The dessert fork or spoon, as well as the coffee spoon, are typically set above the large plate horizontally. To the top left of the large plate, there will often be a small plate used for cheese or salad, to be eaten after the second course. There will be a glass for water to the top right of the plate, and in the evening on weekdays and on Sundays at both meals, a wine glass placed to the top-left of the water glass. Italians drink white wine with fish and red wine with meat.
The entire look of the Italian table is elegant and inviting. Italians believe that beauty, harmony, and abundance add greatly to the dining experience.
Enjoying the meal
As you can see, Italians eat with a lot of ceremony. Yet, there is also familiarity and simplicity within the ceremony. There is a sense of warmth and of family. There is a feeling of celebration and of gratitude.
Italians take the time to relish long meals in good company. Meals are all about the social experience. Typically, family members will return home from work or school each afternoon in order to eat a large, sit-down meal together and then enjoy a siesta before returning to their occupations. Before beginning the meal, they wish each other buon appétito! (enjoy your meal!). On Sundays, the whole extended family comes together to share stories, experiences, and laughter over a meal that can easily last several hours. It is a great privilege to be invited to one of these family meals. I can still remember the oohs and aahs as each course was brought to the table, and the lazy sense of complete contentment that enjoying these delicious home-cooked meals with loved ones brings. Evening dinner parties with friends are common. On the weekend, people take the time to slow down and meet over coffee, often chatting for hours, cognizant of the fact that maintaining close relationships with others is one of the most satisfying pleasures life can hold.
Italians relish the flavors of their traditional foods: homemade pastas, freshly caught fish or seafood, sumptuous meat dishes, creamy cheeses, vegetables drizzled in olive oil, fragrant breads, and decadent desserts. Italians choose fresh ingredients that are in season and eat guilt-free. In fact, according to a recent study, for every .8 ounces of pasta that Americans consume, Italians eat 2.3 ounces! However, there are rules to follow—no cheese on fish dishes, no milk with meals, ever! This means no milk in children’s glasses and no cappuccinos after a meal. No cutting your spaghetti and no heavy salad dressings. Italians believe in healthy eating, however they do not ever sacrifice quality, flavor, or cut food groups out of their diet. Instead, they eat well-balanced meals and, apart from one or two small snacks a day, they are disciplined about eating outside of meals. They avoid junk food and instead use fresh, healthy ingredients bursting with flavor when cooking. All of this ties into the uniquely social aspect of Italian dining, which includes both offering and receiving the gift of delicious, healthy, home-cooked meals, enjoyed together with loved ones. Italians believe that a beautifully set table sets the stage for an equally wonderful dining experience.
The Italian table is more than the many pieces that make up the setting; its’ significance goes deep into the Italian soul. It is where families and friends gather; where life’s greatest dramas and celebrations unfold. The dinner table is one of the most enduring images and metaphors in Italian art, celebrated in the greatest paintings and films, from the Renaissance to present day. With hearts wide open, the deepest ties of love and friendship are developed and strengthened; a magical synergy is created when the joys of conversation and intimacy commingle with the pleasures of beautiful food and drink.