It’s no secret that Italian cuisine is one of the most popular in the Western hemisphere, and it’s no secret that mealtimes at an Italian table are often long, and filled with laughter, warmth, and yes, tight family bonds.
If you’re keen to get a glimpse into what is truly traditional, particularly when it comes to serving a big feast, or festa, in Italian, and eating with a large family, the following will help you know how to behave and what to expect if you’re ever invited to sit down at with an Italian family.
The feasts that people tend to envision when picturing a large family together, are usually birthdays, Christmas, Easter, and other religious celebrations. If you’re invited to a formal meal around these times of the year, you can expect an eight-course meal. Yes, that sounds big, but the key is always having small portions. The portion sizes in the United States are gigantic compared to what’s served in Italy, but again, because the meals in Italy are long in duration, it helps to go small with each course serving.
You can expect the courses to appear as follows:
- Antipasto (usually prosciutto, or pates and fruit)
- Main dish
The types of dishes that are served will vary from province to province, region to region. Seafood, for instance, is a common ingredient in dishes just about everywhere, as Italy is surrounded by water on three sides. In Tuscany, you’ll find boar and other meats, beans, olive oil, garlic and other herbs, and Sicily brings you pizza, fresh vegetables, figs, and of course, herbs and olive oil.
Every part of the world has a particular code of behaviour, particularly when it comes to the table. In English, it’s simply called ‘good manners,’ in France, the phrase is bon ton, and Italians have galateo. The rules of general galateo are followed during family meals, and a few more are particularly helpful to know if you’re dining with a family. Some of these you’ll recognise as just overall polite table behaviour just about anywhere:
- No Elbows On the Table. This is a common rule that most anyone will recognise, but in Italy, you’re expected to simply keep your free wrist on the table, not the elbow. But here’s a different wrinkle: Italian culture also frowns about putting your free hand in your lap.
- No Slurping of Noodles or Soup. Another common rule, but apart from slurping soup and noodles sounding rude, it only makes sense that you allow your soup or pasta dish to cool before eating it. Also, if you wait for your food to cool, you won’t burn your mouth.
- Wait Before Beginning to Eat. Italians see food as a means of interacting with others, so it’s good manners to wait until everyone is seated before the meal is begun. Besides, you’ll be sitting there quite a while enjoying everyone’s company, so there’s no sense of rushing your meal as you might do in other places.
- It’s Bad Manners to Use a Spoon for Rice or Pasta. Though you might have seen people scoop spaghetti and wind it around their fork with a spoon so the pasta stays on, that’s actually considered bad manners. Instead, simply wind the pasta around your fork using the side of your bowl or plate, and instead of slurping the noodles, put the bite of pasta entirely in your mouth. Risottos are also commonly eaten with a fork.
Those are simply table manners. If invited to dinner with an Italian family, it’s customary to bring a gift such as wine. Just be sure that the wine is of a good vintage, and don’t expect the wine you bring to be served with the meal, as your hosts will likely have already picked the wine. If your hosts are particularly formal, the elders will be the first to enter the room, and for the kids to stand when adults come into their presence, as a form of respect. Also the men will stand for the women.
There are other aspects to Italian traditions that are a bit more nuanced. These are some of the basics, however, and if you feel stumped, it can never hurt to follow the adage of ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do.’