Food Culture and Tradition

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Italian Meals and Customs


The influence of Roman gastronomy on the foods and customs of countless peoples is unquestionable. It was a sophisticated influence that included meat inspectors, bakeries, private caterers, and even slave cooks. Early meal patterns comprised two or sometimes three meals a day. Jentaculum or ietaculum was a light breakfast of bread or a type of pancake with cheese or honey and sometimes olives or dates, with milk as a beverage. Prandium, a type of lunch, was served infrequently but included eggs, fish, or pork served with prepared vegetables or mushrooms and often fruit as dessert. Diluted wine was the meal’s beverage and mulsum (honey-sweetened wine) was possibly an appetizer.

The main and most important meal of the day was the evening meal, called cena. For many this meal was actually served in the late afternoon and for the average family it included a bowl of wheat porridge stirred with milk and served with honey. For the wealthier, it began with appetizers called gustato or promulsio (salads, fresh vegetable relishes, oysters, sardines, olives, etc.) and proceeded through six or seven main dishes prepared from fish or meats with vegetables and served with white bread and mulsum, and ending with sweets and fresh fruits in season. Occasionally the cena for the poor included vegetable soup and coarse bread.

By 200 B.C.E., the hour for the cena had gradually moved to the later part of the day, obviating the need for what had come to be known as the vesperna, a light snack before bedtime. The later cena became the practice as more and more people preferred to take a large meal after their daily public bath. Coinciding with the later cena, the prandium gained in importance. For many it was simply bread and cheese (similar to today’s sandwich), but occasionally it may have been a more formal miniature meal similar to the cena. As a rule, only slaves and young children did not recline while eating their meals.

Common practice in old Roman tradition was the silent offering of wheat, salt, and wine to household gods at the conclusion of the cena. Modern Italians in most urban areas have a wide choice of both location and menu for their meals. Cities boast simple or sophisticated ristorante, casual family-run trattoria featuring low-cost meals, or a choice of many rosticceria where a limited menu offers simple, inexpensive dishes and quick or stand-up service, and the osteria for quick light snacks. Innumerable street vendors, corner cappuccino and espresso cafes and pastry shops also eagerly offer sustenance to the passerby.

Throughout Italy, a hot morning drink of tea, coffee, or hot chocolate together with bread and jam or marmalade form the most typical breakfast. Lunch and dinner (the former usually about 1:00 p.m. and the latter usually about 7:30 p.m. and later in Rome) are similar meals but may vary in the number of courses depending on status and occasion, and perhaps appetite. Seven courses may be distinctly delineated in the most formal meal: antipasto, a variety of small servings of appetizers; minestra (soup) or asciutta, which may include either risotto or a pasta dish but in a small serving; pesce, one of a number of fish or seafood dishes; carne, meat dishes usually served with separately selected contorni or vegetables; fromaggio, some form of cheese so important in any Italian meal: frutta, selections from a platter of fresh fruits in season; and finally dolce, very sweet confections, pastries, and desserts.

Traditionally, the Italian stomach has required some small mid-morning and mid-afternoon sustenance called merende. This is usually a snack based on bread like crostini, bruschetta, focaccia, farinata (a bean pancake), fritelli (fritters), calzone, paniccia (fritters made from garbanzo dough) pizza, bite-size squares or cubes of polenta fried or grilled. Merende may also be a snack at home from leftovers like frittata, or a few fresh vegetables plucked from the garden and dipped in salt and olive oil. Or merende may be simply bread, cheese, and/or fruit nibbled out of hand and washed down with likely – wine.

Italians have some distinct preferences: they like their pasta al dente (chewy, not mushy), their rice tender and moistened with a sauce, and their tomatoes green unless specially ripened for sauces or specially requested as red. Italians also think it important to select carefully the piece of fresh fruit they would like to eat, so touching, pinching, and even sniffing for ripeness are all considered proper. Once Italians have finished eating, plates are immediately removed. It is almost a breach of etiquette both at home and in a restaurant to leave an obviously finished plate in front of the diner.

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