May we recommend, if you find yourself a stranieri in Italy, when you go to any establishment and the product is good and the service okay – return. Italians have a great memory for faces and I can’t remember ever not being recognized on the 2nd or 3rd visit to an establishment. By the 3rd visit, you are treated like royalty as they cherish repeat customers.
There is no expectation to receive a tip in Italy as people are paid a living wage. However, in tourist areas they have been spoiled and are more than willing to take one. I mean, if you hand someone money, most people will take it. But beware of offending in non-tourist areas and restaurants serving mostly locals. We have actually had two restaurants refuse to take a penny more than the bill. One benefit of the no tipping approach, which is seen some places in the U.S., is that you get better service. One waiter may take your order, another may serve you, any waiter that passes your table will remove whatever items you are finished with, a different one may check to see if you want dessert, and yet another may bring your check. Whomever is available at the time is at your service.
Slow service is good service here. Outside the tourist area restaurants do not expect to turn their tables in an evening and Italians do not plan to leave their tables in less than two or three hours. Italians do not arrive for dinner until 8:30 PM earliest and it is quite common for them to arrive after 10 PM on a weeknight with small children. So in tourist areas a restaurant could have a sitting at 7:30 PM of tourists and another sitting of Italians at the same table at 10 PM if they played it right. You can spend all night in a restaurant and you will not get the check until you ask for it – it is considered impolite to rush the customers – and, hopefully, the longer customers stay the more courses they will order.
Alcohol is everywhere, and I mean everywhere. We went into a bookstore the other day and there was a full bar in the back! Every café has an expresso machine and, often, a full bar. Some Italians have a shot of grappa or Sambuca in their morning coffee, but I’m afraid I’d get whiplash from the quick high then low. Cafes are the other establishments that are usually open early in the morning until late a night. Yet, Italy has one of the lowest instances of alcoholism in Europe. This is because the Italians never drink without food. If you order wine or a drink any time of day, you will get a plate of snacks with it. (Except at Café Meletti?) This theory must work because, other than the twenty-somethings at La Birretta (a beer bar) in the building across the street from our apartment that loudly hang out there until 2:00 in the morning except on Sundays and Mondays when they are closed, we have only seen a couple adults that appeared to have had too much to drink. It think it was Frances Mayes who pointed out that if you drink as much water as wine, you usually get it right. After suffering from having a bottle of wine at lunch and then another at dinner, it didn’t take us long to switch to ordering half liters of wine at lunch and dinner. You pay for a bottle of water with each meal so you usually drink it all, and we often order a second bottle of water instead of more wine. So now sometimes we drink twice as much water as wine.
Over time we are acquiring a deeper understanding of the Italian eating habits. We are still in training and may never rise to the level of Italians who have spent their lives eating multiple course meals over many hours. Since it is usually just the two of us, we finish a nice meal in about two hours. Our multiple-course Sunday pranzas at Country House San Giorgio go about three hours. You are not required to order all courses but multiple courses in the right order, it appears, are a very smart idea. So Larry and I have learned to split each course so we can enjoy more of them. Few Italians eat in twos as they are usually with family members or friends and, therefore, it takes longer to enjoy a meal with all the socializing. I hope that will be us one day as they look like they are having so much fun. No doggie bags given here and considering the number of dogs we see, it is a wonder. You order what you want and eat what you order, or leave it. Sometimes I have been tempted to emulate the ladies of my Grandmother’s generation and carry baggies in my purse. All right, I confess I did wrap up some leftover prosciutto in a napkin today and take it home.
Italian eating is based on good digestion. For example, I have read you are not supposed to order a cappuccino after 11:00 AM (a rule I frequently ignore) solely because they do not believe that it is good for digestion to put warm milk in your stomach on top of a large meal. Breakfast consists of expresso or cappuccino and possibly a small (but fresh and incredibly delicious) pastry. Lunch, if you are lucky enough to have the time, may consist of a multi-course extravaganza. Or, as most do, grab a fresh panini from the closest cafe, down a strong expresso (all while standing) and return to work. Expresso is drunk any time of day or night, usually standing up, and is great for digestion (I don’t know about sleep.) Most businesses, unless catering tourists, shut down at 1:00 PM and reopen about 3:00 or 4:00, depending on how late they stay open. So you cannot shop at your local food chain in the early afternoon (or get your hair done, shoes fixed, have gelato, etc.). Food stores and small shops then stay open until 8:00 PM and restaurants and bars until very late. Shops are closed on Sundays (remember that?).
I have never been a napper, even as a small child, because I was always concerned I would miss something. But when the whole town shuts down so you can catch 40 winks, I’m in. This little rest time is how Italians manage to stay up so late. Considering the fashion trends here, it is no surprise that some Italians use this time for more amorous activities, which might be why they are in such good shape. Also excellent for digestion? Who cares. You fill the 8 to 9 hour gap between lunch and dinner with apertivo – drinks and appetizers – after work (or between 5 and 9 PM). The crowd naturally goes where the best appetizers are. If you had that multi-course lunch, apertivo can wrap up your day. This is also time for passeggiata, the stroll through the piazzas meeting friends and catching up on the gossip of the day.
Otherwise, that holds you until you go out to dinner between 8:30 and 10:30 PM. I can’t speak yet to what time folks eat at home. Then it is bring on the courses time. Usually these are a half or a third what you might get on a plate at in the U.S. Assume water and wine at most meals. First the antipasto (to whet the appetite – unless they serve three cold and three warm which is the beginning of a serious meal), primo (one of the innumerable pastas or risottos), secondo (usually meat or fish), contorno (salad or cooked vegetable – better for digestion after the previous courses), dolce (sweets, cheeses, fruit – the latter two being better for digestion), cafe (after dolce, never with), and sometimes a digestivo (liquor or grappa) that is obviously good for you as it’s name implies.
Our experience has been that if you have the recommended digestivo, you can usually eliminate one antacid. If you also walk around the town for thirty minutes or more after a large meal you can often eliminate the second antacid as well. So from our observations and experience so far, that is how the Italians eat so well.