Malcolm Jolley on what to avoid when dining out in Italy.
Greetings from chilly Umbria, where today we swore we saw a few flakes of snow swirl down into Perugia’s narrow medieval streets. No matter, my wife Apple and I siamo Canadese and don’t mind what passes for cold weather in Italy. We are having a lovely time on holiday eating delicious food, drinking beautiful wines and walking as much of both off as we can. I have been very lucky to have visited this glorious republic four times in this year alone, and several other times in the last few, with trips spanning the length of Peninsular and Insular Italy from, as the great Roberto Martella of Grano says, “From the Alps to Africa”.
I should like to think that I’ve I learned a trick or two from these trips, and the ones that have preceeded them over the last 25 years. What I present below is a sort of crystallization that Apple and I have been discussing on our trip about how to enjoy a meal at a restaurant in Italy from osteria and trattoria to Michelin starred ristorante. I hope there’re helpful, and (or at least) you get to try them out soon.
1. Make A Reservation
Italian restaurateurs do not seem to be very impressed with a walk-in. In my experience, showing up unannounced is a good way to get a table by the bathroom or in the basement, alone. I’m not sure if it’s because they don’t like surprises generally, or they prefer to know who is joining them, so they can figure you out. Anyway, I have learned to make a booking every time I can, even if it’s just a few hours ahead. At the very least, the exchange by telephone or email is an opportunity to demonstrate that one is a civillized and polite person worthy, at minimum, of the opportunity to demonstrate that one just might be worthy of respect.
2. Don’t Book Lunch Before 13:00, Nor Dinner Before 21:00
Notice the 24 hour, military time? You’re on The Continent, so you’re going to want to get used to adding the number twelve to all times after noon to avoid confusion. and if you want even the tiniest modicum of respect and goodwill before you walk into the door of an Italian restaurant, especially if you’ve booked your reservation in English, or English accented and poorly spoken Italian, then don’t reveal yourself to be an Anglo-Saxon Philistine by booking anytime earlier than the times above. For lunch, I would go for 1:30 just to be safe. But no later, since most places will close at three – I mean 15:00! You don’t want to be thought of as a Barbarian for either wishing to eat an all too quick meal or deprive the staff of their mid-afternoon break. Stick to 1:30 – I mean 13:30!
3. Don’t Get Pushed Around
Given points one and two, and the general tenor of this piece, I appreciate that this part of the post may seem contradictory. But, if you show respect for convention by following the first two rules then, not only are you entitled to some respect back, but a failure to (politely) ask for it to be reciprocated could be equally disastrous. What I mean is, if you settle for that crap table next to the washroom, or in the basement next to the group on the bus tour, then you will be accordingly treated like the sort of customer that doesn’t mind sitting next to the washroom or take bus tours. You don’t want that. You need to be prepared to voice or gesture your dismay at a crap table. And, if they won’t move you, you also need to be able to walk out with your head held high and have a not so fun lunch of a mayonnaise and artichoke sandwich with an Aperol Spritz at the plastic chair caffe bar in the piazza. Anyway, I’ve found, most times, they’ll find you a better table if you communicate that you are better than the one you’ve been given. Courage!
4. Order Your Food, Then Your Wine
Of all the rules this one pains me the most. Italy is not just a gastronomic paradise, its an oenophillic one too. Just as with ingredients, there are so many wines to order that we just don’t get back home. Sometimes the by the glass selection is just right, but most of the time, I want to look at the wine list and try and find something interesting. This has led to many awkward interactions at the beginning of a seating, until my wife cracked the ‘di vino’ code, and told me to cool it. The restaurant, or (especially) its sommelier, should it have one, is going to assume that you couldn’t possibly order wine until you knew exactly what you and your guests were going to have to eat. The wine list does not, and will not, appear until the food order has gone in.
I’ll admit, they have a point with this rule. In Italy wine is food, and food reigns supreme. In Anglo-Saxon culture wine is a drink, and you start a meal with a drink. At home, I’ll often (okay, always) order a bottle of white, or bubbles, or rosé before anyone has even paid the slightest attention to the menu. In North America and the U.K. this sort of behaviour is not only tolerated, it’s encouraged. It’s a good way to get at least an extra bottle onto the cheque, and winos like me don’t mind that at all. In Italy, the idea of wine without food is anathema, and it would also be considered odd to order the wine first and then the food later to match it. Like with every rule, there are exceptions to prove it: I have ordered and eaten out this way in the company of winemakers, of course, and one will often be offered a glass of sparkling wine to tide one over until it’s appropriate to receive the carta dei vini. But in general, get your food order straight, and then ask for the keys to wino paradise.
5. Nothing Begins, Until Something Ends
The dynamic described above in Rule 4 extends its way throughout a meal in a restaurant in Italy, especially at the end. Indeed, the middle of a restaurant meal in Italy is pretty much the same as one in the Anglosphere, it’s really on the edges of the experience that things can get a little hairy, and at the end that’s around coffee and the bill. This rule is really just about remembering it, since you won’t have an opportunity to run afoul of it. What I mean is, you won’t have an opportunity to order coffee until the last sip of wine is drained from your glass. Nor will you be able to ask for your bill until you have finished your coffee. (Well, you can ask, but no bill is going to arrive until the coffee is done.) Just roll with it. It’s all good. You’re eating and drinking in Italy.