Some people simply eat to live. They see food as fuel and treat it as such. I am not one of those people … and that’s pretty much how I found myself living abroad in Italy this fall.
“A tavola non si invecchia”: This Italian proverb literally translates to “you don’t get old at the table.” Enjoy the simple pleasures of life. Be present and share a slow meal and some wine with family and friends. These moments are when life is at its finest.
This philosophy on the connectedness of life and food is something that I’ve grown up with, and fully embraced since my arrival in Milan. Italians really do live to eat, so much so that their entire day revolves around a strict eating schedule. Let me take you through it:
First we have “colazione”, breakfast, from 7:00–10:30 a.m. Italians start their day at the bar. Sound hard core? It is … but Italian bar culture couldn’t be more different from ours. In the morning, these businesses function as espresso bars, serving up cappuccinos and fresh pastries. This first meal is light and won’t cost you more than 4€. These bars are on every block, loud with chatter and hazy with cigarette smoke.
The 10:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m. window suggests a coffee break. Students and professionals head back to the bars for an espresso (and probably another cigarette). Italians are VERY specific about their espresso — never order a cappuccino past 11 a.m. unless you want a dirty look.
12:30–2:30 p.m. is lunch time, “pausa pranzo”. Again, back to the bars — this time for a panini. At this point, the bars look a little different. Those glass cases once filled with sweet confections are now piled high with beautiful sandwiches.
2:30–6:00 p.m. calls for — you guessed it — more espresso, and maybe a cone of gelato.
6:00–9:00 p.m. — my favorite time of day in Italy — is a chance to meet up with friends for “aperitivo”. Picture a lively happy hour with specialty snacks like olives, cured meats and crackers — perfect to munch on while you chat. Each bar puts their own spin on these complimentary tidbits, and you’re charged a small fee for sitting. My drink of choice is a Campari spritz, the bitter sister of the beloved Aperol Spritz.
Dinner times can range from 8:00–11:00 p.m. — and let me tell you, this is the real show. A multi-course meal packed with flavor. Bread and olive oil hit the table first. Now comes a challenge: resist the inherently American urge to scarf it down. Bread is to be used as a vessel for flavor, soaking up all those saucy juices from other dishes, and enjoyed throughout the meal. “Antipasti” is next, fresh appetizers like burrata and bruschetta made with local in-season ingredients. The first course, “primo”, is a pasta or a rice dish. Risotto is a regional specialty and a must-order in Milan. “Secondi”is a meat or fish course, seasoned to perfection and served simply with garnish. Italians don’t like to mix their food, so “contorno”, side dishes, are ordered and served separately. Next up is “dolci”: a selection of Italian treats like tiramisu, panna cotta, gelato and fruit salad. A meal is not complete without an espresso and sometimes topped off with “ammazzacaffè”, Italian spirits made from herbs that aid in digestion. The meal won’t end until you physically get up and go pay — an Italian waiter will never rush you out.
My meals in Italy are pleasantly slow and leave me feeling fulfilled. This appreciation for good food and good conversation is something I’ll bring home with me.