The Structure of an Italian meal
Any rudimentary study of the Italian approach to cooking makes one thing abundantly clear to the eager pupil: when it comes to the kitchen the inhabitants of the peninsula have rules, and they like to stick to them. So while there may be regional variations on a theme regarding a particular recipe that is not to say that there is any room for experimentation: if the dish is to reach the table in perfect order, then ingredients and method must be strictly adhered to.
Economic MigrationThe discipline applied to food preparation is also evident in how meals are structured, whether that be lunch, or pranzo, or the evening meal, or cena. The time devoted to sitting at the table, particularly in the evening reflects the importance that the nation places on the family and time spent to build and maintain relations within it. Of course, social and work patterns in Italy, as in all industrialised nations, have undergone something of a radical change in the past 60 years.
Many families in the south of the country, for example, were fragmented in the wake of the Second World War as economic migration saw hundreds of thousands drawn away by the promise of work in the industries of the north around Milan and Turin. Likewise, work patterns in the 21st century do not always allow for the time to sit down for a leisurely evening at the table.
Vegetables Under OilSo while the traditional Italian family meal may for many be an ideal rather than a reality, it provides a template that can be followed when the opportunity arises.
Divided by courses, the evening at the table should begin with the serving of antipasti, such as cold meats accompanied by vegetables under oil, for example aubergine or artichokes.
Bread should make its appearance at the start of the evening's appearance, the basket replenished as dishes continue to arrive on the table. Il primo, the first, course is next on the agenda, and usually constitutes a bowl of pasta or risotto.Portion size is very much to taste, but it should be remembered that the feast should be enjoyed over a number of hours, fuelling the conversation as the evening proceeds. The second course, or secondo, would correspond in the eyes of British or American diners as the main course, consisting usually of a piece of fish or perhaps a meat roast accompanied by contorni, or side orders of vegetables.
Something More SubstantialThe primi and secondi dishes cleared away, a palate cleansing serving of salad, or insalata, helps to cut through the fats of the pasta and meat or fish and aid the digestive process. The departure of the salad bowls should be accompanied by the bread basket, its work done for the evening. Finally il dolce, or dessert, can be a simple sorbet or in winter time, something more substantial, perhaps a strong cheese such as gorgonzola piccante. More accommodating cooks may feel inclined to offer more than one, depending of course on the size of the appetites involved. The evening should be rounded off with an espresso coffee, after which braver souls may feel fortified enough to open the grappa.
If the above appears to many, more an event than a simple refuelling exercise, that is because the purpose is to celebrate life, friends and family. And when the Italians celebrate, they always do it in style.