How to Eat Like an Italian!

Italians are famous for their love of food and my family is no exception
by Vivian Zenari

I have always suspected that Italian families eat differently than other people do. To see if I was correct, I recently asked four family members to serve me a different meal—breakfast, lunch, coffee break and supper.

Note that I did this on four different days; eating like this on one day would, as you will see, have sent me to the cardiac unit.

When I walked into my childhood home at nine o’clock for breakfast, waiting expectantly with my parents were two guests: my maternal aunt Maria and my paternal aunt Francesca. I was the only native-born Canadian in the room. Immediately an argument broke out over what Italians eat for breakfast. When the dust cleared, I gathered that Italians don’t really eat breakfast. They will have espresso and maybe a brioche, possibly purchased at a bar on the way to work or school. Francesca declared that when someone woke up in the morning feeling out of sorts, zabaglione (raw egg whipped with marsala) was considered a reasonable breakfast. What a country!

Despite the cultural inaccuracy of it all, my mother served a whiz-bang breakfast—home-made brioche and cranberry lemon muffins baked that morning; watermelon slices, whole bananas, red grapes, strawberries, red plums, fresh figs and homemade rhubarb-strawberry and plum jam. Just in case there wasn’t enough food,

I suppose, my mother threw in some croissants from Costco.

My father made another typical Italian breakfast, a bowl of espresso with hot milk and chunks of bread thrown in. Although I now find the combination disgusting, the childhood me LOVED this. Maria said that yogurt and ricotta are also common for breakfast; whereupon my mother brought out a plate of Activia single serves. Further discord arose when Maria noted that there was no cheese on the table. My mother came out with some mozzarella. Maria said, “That’s not the right mozzarella. It’s supposed to be fresh cheese, formaggino Bebè, soft semi- ripened cheese triangles.” Fine. Neither was there any pane biscollato, dry, slightly sweet, similar to Melba toast.

As we drank espresso from the caffettiera (stove-top machine) my father offered a cautionary tale of the Italian man who moved to the US and acquired the taste for bacon and eggs for breakfast. The man returned to Italy but continued his bacon and eggs habit, so that he would even eat this for lunch. A habit, which, my father said, sent the man to an early grave. My mother subsequently brought out a white rhubarb sauce, useful for topping things or eating straight like applesauce. Believe me when I say that

I did not need to eat for the rest of the day.

In any event, I arranged for lunch at Maria’s house. At first, she seemed to be more of a purist than my parents. Lunch had to be at one o’clock because that’s

what Italians do. Present were Maria,
her daughters-in-law, her grandson and one daughter-in-law’s mother, who is Ukrainian but says gnocchi is better than pyrohy. Pasta is always served at Italian lunch, so we had rigatoni with tomato sauce and small meatballs. Maria also served the sausage that she cooked in the meat sauce. The sausage was made by my mother who has just started to make sausage, ‘because everyone is doing it now.’

Next was the main course, fresh buffalo mozzarella from the Italian Centre Shop (or Spinelli’s, as Edmonton Italians call it), served with tomato along with a plate of cucumber rounds and a green salad with tomatoes and vinaigrette. Even though she said that Italians don’t usually eat meat at lunch (and I hope you are seeing a pattern here), Maria served Rome-style veal saltimbocca and Calabrese meatballs. A saltimbocca is a thinly-sliced and pounded veal cutlet with prosciutto and sage, breaded, then quickly pan-fried. It was to die for. Also to die for were the Calabrese meatballs: deep-fried ovals of meat, bread and cheese. To drink we had the option of red wine, white wine, water and brewed ice tea. On the side (!) focaccia and oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping.

This was followed by what my aunt said was the normal dessert in Italy: fruit (in this case cherries and sliced cantaloupe), bread (a big round pagnotta from the Italian Bakery), and Asiago and Cambazola cheese. We then had espresso from a Nespresso, which is replacing the caffettiera in some of my Italian relatives’ kitchens. Since the day was so smoking hot, Maria made iced coffee with milk and a little sugar. Even though my aunt assured me that Italians don’t serve sweet desserts at lunch, she served some anyway. She said that since she didn’t make it herself, it didn’t really count as part of the Italian lunch. It was tiramisù, by the way.

In Italy, lunch is followed by a siesta, which I rather wanted to take. Since we finished lunch at 3:30 pm, however, I technically would have had to roll myself to work right away.

Before going to work, however, an Italian may visit someone’s house for coffee. Since Italians eat supper at eight o’clock, people don’t visit in the evenings. My aunt Nella, who was my coffee-time visit, said, ‘all people in Italy do is have coffee. That’s it.’

Sure. At her place, just coffee ended up being served to me, two daughters- in-law, one daughter-in-law’s mother, three grandchildren, one grand-dog, and of course her husband, Giovanni. We had espresso in tender blue and white demitasses. People tend to own more than one coffee machine (two-person, three-person, four-person, six-person) because the number of surprise guests is unpredictable. Nella whipped out a sponge cake layered with vanilla and chocolate pudding and garnished with pansies. Some debate arose as to what to call this delicious thing: zuppa inglese or torta genovesa or pan di spagna. Nella also brought out mini eclairs and homemade Eatmore bars. Okay, my aunt conceded, sometimes Italians serve biscuits at coffee time.

Finally, I went for supper at my brother Dario’s house. He and his family had just returned from a trip to Italy and they were enthusiastic about Italian eating. My sister-in-law Maureen works for a wine agency and before supper she served a typical Italian wine, Fiano — pale, dry, crisp, with a piquant sourness she likened to sucking a peach pit. I may have had two or three glasses of this.

The first course was gnocchi that Dario had made. Gnocchi day was always a big day when we all lived at home. Dario served his with a Gorgonzola cream sauce. These were not the striated gnocchi that my mother makes. They were smooth and chubby like a tiny baby’s buttocks. As no one needed to say, though of course being Italian we made a point of saying it often, rolling gnocchi pieces off a fork to get those striations is time-consuming and hard on the fingers, and we need our fingers to hold our fork as we pick off the gnocchi from our plates. The bread on the table, standard on Italian supper tables, sat neglected for a while.

On to the next course: tiny roasted potatoes, a marinated vegetable salad and duck. (Maureen’s favourite dish on her trip was the duck at La Mandragola in San Gimignano.) Maureen made duck breast medallions, medium rare, served with a sauce made with strawberry, raspberry and red plums. “Only one wine accompaniment was possible, and that is Sassicaia,” Maureen said.

The 2009 was a bit young, Maureen admitted, she had decanted it and let it breathe for the entire day. “Smooth, elegant, nice fruit, dark red berries,” she said. Or, as I said, “oh, yum.” I found myself chanting Sassicaia under my breath. In no time I had made up a little tune to go with the word Sassicaia.

Then came espresso, served short, as Italians in Italy do it, followed by dessert.

When I say that many members of my family love cooking I am including the young people. My 16-year-old niece Chloe and 14-year-old nephew Aidan made the chocolate biscotti with panna cotta and strawberry coulis. The biscotti were firm and dry as they should be, not cakey or dipped in chocolate as North Americans seem to prefer. I asked my nephew if the panna cotta was hard to make; he shrugged and said, ‘not really.’ I glowered and hummed my Sassicaia song to soothe myself.

We pretended the poplars outside the dining room window were Tuscan cypresses. With satisfaction and pride, we mused on the fact that Tic Tacs and Nutella were invented by the same guy in Italy.

What a people. What a country.

“My mom had six brothers and I had 30 cousins. We would eat homemade pasta and meatballs at my nonna’s house every Sunday. Our family was so large that there were two shifts for all the relatives. Our family was there for the 12 o’clock lunch shift. After we ate lunch the supper shift would show up around 1:30pm and major bocce would begin on the gravel alley behind the house. Out came the homemade wine and the games began. They played for the afternoon and dinner was served once again at 5pm sharp. The lunch crew went home and the supper crew would eat.

Imagine cooking two large meals every Sunday for one family. The ladies would cook, the uncles would play bocce and the cousins would get in trouble. Now, that’s Italian.”

– Mike Bianco, Canbian Inc.

“There is always a pasta course and always some- one bringing something because they need to outdo whoever is making dinner that night. We’re a very competitive people, especially about food. Over the holidays there is at least five turkeys. Nobody goes anywhere empty-handed.

“I’m very proud of what we do here at Cibo, but nobody cooks like my mom. I crave her pasta.”
– Rosario Caputo, Cibo Bistro

“In our house during family celebrations we always had a big lasagna in addition to any trad- itional foods for that meal. So, at Thanksgiving we would have roast turkey and lasagna; at Easter a ham and a big lasagna and so on. The other thing, when we were kids we were never allowed to have milk with dinner. It was not a dinner food according to my parents.”
– Maria Iacobelli, co-executive producer, Relish Food on Film Festival

“We always have a lasagna at every family gathering. Or at a picnic — my 88-year-old aunt Rosaria makes it. She makes the noodles, fresh, the whole thing. There’s always so much food. As soon as we finish eating we start thinking about what we’re having for dinner.”
– Teresa Spinelli, Italian Centre Shop

“I would wake up to old Neopolitan music playing and the smell of the sauce on the stove; any Italian kid can relate. I would get a piece of bread and dip it in the sauce, then take it and go watch TV. My mother would say don’t eat any more sauce, there won’t be enough, as if there was never not enough sauce; there was enough sauce for a week. I remember the chaos of getting ready, but by the time everybody came, the antipasti was on the table, then we would have pasta, then the meat. Then a break, some fresh fruit, some nuts, maybe some cheese. Then the digestivi would come out; the men would drink grappa and amaro. After that, coffee and dessert. There was always a lot of discussion and disagreements — it was dramatic and exciting.”
– Daniel Costa, corso 32

Vivian Zenari is an Italian-Edmontonian who owns one caffettiera and one Nespresso machine.