An Essay by Piergiogio NicolettiPOSTED August 25, 2014
Much of Italian life revolves around the family dinner table. Piergeorgio, our guide to food-life in Italy, grew up in Venice in the 1960’s. In this brief memoir, he recounts the feast day meals his family celebrated, as well as family dinners, when times were lean. From Italian table etiquette to the typical dishes that filled the family board, this charming story carries us right into the present day; as customs have changed with the times, the delicious foods remains the same.
It’s well known that we Italians are deeply versed in the gioie della tavola, or “the joys of the table.” Perhaps the first thing people think of when they think of Italy is the joy, warmth and magic created around the Italian table. The dinner table is one of the most enduring images and metaphors in Italian art, celebrated in our greatest paintings and films, from the Renaissance to present day. “A tavola” – or “at the table” – our hearts open, and life’s greatest dramas and celebrations unfold. Familial bonds and battles are forged a tavola; the deepest ties of love and friendship are developed and strengthened around a dinner table. We Italians understand and appreciate the magical synergy that is created when the joys of conversation and intimacy commingle with the pleasures of beautiful food and drink.
For many of us, our first experiences of family feasts and joyous gatherings leave indelible imprints, and my childhood in Venice is filled with memories of such special occasions. The word for “feast” in Italian is festa, and feasts they were: the tables were set so beautifully – silverware and glasses sparkled on the magnificent handmade tablecloth, and crystal carafes of wine and water seemed always filled. But even with extensions, the table often just wasn’t big enough. A solution was always handy: la tavola per i bambini (“the kids’ table”), and we children loved this special zone just for us. The food was always so lovingly prepared and delicious that everyone’s spirits were lifted; and as the meal progressed, the good mood grew in a kind of crescendo – helped along by family jokes, more and more boisterous play, which sometimes culminated in a few rounds of our family’s favorite songs – all accompanied by the seemingly endless flow of good wine and … more good food.
These miraculous feasts would occur on special occasions like Easter, Christmas, birthdays and religious celebrations – and went along with cherished holidays from school or work. But, for the women in the family – mothers, grandmothers, daughters, aunts – these were not leisurely days, though their joy and excitement was palpable too. The meals on such occasions would usually begin around 1:00 pm (except for Christmas Eve and New Years Eve, when dinner was served late) and would last for hours. For these feasts, there would be an antipasto; our family favorite was vitello tonnato – sliced roasted veal with a blended tuna and mayonnaise sauce. This course would be followed by lasagne alla Bolognese, or a risotto ai frutti di mare (seafood risotto), or pasticcio ai funghi – which for us was baked pasta, or a baked filled pasta (such as, tortelloni or agnolotti), with besciamella sauce and wild mushrooms. (I was crazy about lasagne, and my younger brother loved dessert, so secret deals were always being made “under the table”: he would discretely give me his second helping of lasagna and I would give him most of my dessert.) After one of these primi (first courses), came the roasted meats – such as, brasato, which was a delicious, dark, slowly stewed beef dish, or roasted veal (vitello arrosto). For dessert, we would have a simple torta (cake) or else a tiramisu. Finally, the adults would have coffee and a digestivo, such as grappa or Fernet, while we children were happy to be released from the table to run wild in the calli or fondamenta (side streets) of Venice, where no cars ever interfered with our games.
These were the special feste (plural form for “feasts”); of course, our everyday dinners were something else entirely. Growing up in a family of six kids in Venice, in the ’60s, our dinners followed a very different rhythm than they do today. After a long, loud “A tavola, è pronto!” (“Come to the table …. dinner’s ready!”) was bellowed out by whoever set the table that evening, the rest of us had just a few moments to wash our hands, turn off the lights and get downstairs. “Ti sei lavato le mani, hai spento le luci?” (“Did you wash your hands and turn off the lights?”) was asked so automatically and routinely that the words were barely discernible. Though we weren’t supposed to start eating before our parents were seated, usually our mother would call out her permission for us to go ahead and start without her while she finished up in the kitchen – cooking dinner for eight hungry people every night was no easy task.
Respect for elders is deeply ingrained in Italian children; if grandparents are present at the table – a more common scenario in the rural parts of Italy than in urban centers like Venice – special attention and deference is always shown to them at mealtimes. In our household, our grandparents were seldom present, and though dinners were not formal occasions, certain formalities were always observed. As in just about every Italian family, tablecloths were always used for lunch and dinner, as well as cloth napkins – though my mother insisted that we first clean our mouths, often covered with tomato sauce, with a piece of bread before using the cotton napkins. Elbows were not allowed on the table and no hand in the lap either – whichever hand was not being used was placed, loosely closed, on the table; forks, spoons and knives had to be handled correctly. Bickering about portions and who might have gotten the better serving – the last pasta plates served always got the most sauce – was promptly squelched by one of our parents.
The fifties and early sixties were very difficult times in Italy; the effects of the war were still keenly felt here. In those postwar years, a two-course dinner was the norm, but there were no luxury foods on the table. Most families had pasta or soups for primo (the first course), and then some form of meat, cheese or “salume” (cured meats) for secondo (the main course). The pasta was often seasoned with a simple onion-based tomato sauce (in the summer, fresh tomato and basil); or sometimes a ragù (meat sauce); or simply butter and parmigiano. Pasta was never sautéed in that era; rather, it was placed in a large serving bowl and the sauce was ladled on top. Soups were healthy and simple: minestrone (vegetable soup); pasta e fagioli (bean soup); or pasta in beef or chicken broth, which is called minestra in brodo. Meat was expensive and therefore served in very small portions, and prepared in a variety of ways – sometimes cotolette (breaded and fried beef, chicken or turkey cutlets), or spezzatino (stewed meat), or brasato (braised beef). A real favorite in our family was what we called carne alla pizzaiola, which was a ground-beef patty with a sauce made from canned tomatoes, topped with mozzarella and oregano. Salad or vegetables were often served along with the meat course. Antipasti and dolci (dessert) were not commonly served at home during these less affluent years, though sometimes fruit was served for dessert (or eaten as a snack in the afternoon). For a special treat, we would have gelato (ice cream) at the nearby gelataio.
But dinner wasn’t the only meal eaten at home by the entire family. In those years, children and husbands came home for lunch every day. In my family, that meant my mother would have to prepare lunch in three shifts to accommodate all our different schedules. It was a daily ritual for two or three of us to stop at the nearby panificio (bread bakery) on our way home from school and buy over a dozen of the various small loaves of bread (panini) to accompany our lunch. At least several of those little loaves would be devoured before we ever reached the door. Our consumption of bread in those years was enormous, which was typical for Italian families then; bread and pasta were how we filled our stomachs.
The daily routine is quite different nowadays – the foods are more varied and the habits less formal. Families are smaller in Italy than they used to be, and one-parent households more common. When there are two parents working outside the home, the shopping, cooking and clean-up are often more evenly shared. Today, Italian kids eat lunch at school – which makes a huge difference in the routine – as working parents are unable to attend to them at home in the middle of the day.
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