Pranzo in Italy

Posted on
May 26, 2014
13

I suppose I should have warned Rand.

Rand, sitting with my great-aunt. He had absolutely no idea what was in store for him

 

Honestly, though, I thought he knew. That is why I didn’t lean over and whisper, “Pace yourself. There are four more courses to go.”

I mean, why else are they called primi and secondi? They are referring to courses. What they don’t really mention in Italian restaurants is that those are just the beginning.

There are also antipasti and contorni and insalate and dolci. There is wave after wave of food, eaten by ridiculously skinny people (don’t ask me how this works, because I haven’t cracked that part of the code. I can only assume that incorporating vigorous hand gestures into conversation burns crazy amounts of calories. So if I look like I’m trying to direct a plane the next time I’m engrossed in a polite chat, that’s why.)

In Italy, the midday meal (pranzo) is a sort of sprawling feast, lasting hours. It is the reason many of the shops in Italy are closed between noon and 3 pm. Because food is more important than Capitalism.

Come to think of it, that might as well be my family’s mantra.

When I was a kid, I would return home from school just as my grandparents were finishing up pranzo. There would be a massive white tablecloth on the table, decorated with breadcrumb confetti and the occasional stain of wine or pasta sauce, in dueling hues of red. (To this day, my family eats Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners around 2 in the afternoon.)

Most of my family came to America right around the time I was born, and so those early memories are of people who were far more mired in their Italian-ness than they are now. I remember my grandmother making pasta on a hand-cranked machine in the kitchen. Pigs’ feet cooking in massive pots on the stove. A stovetop espresso maker that was constantly being forgotten on a burner.

Even my mother’s accent was thicker then.

Back then. 1983.

 

But I was an American, with American friends and American habits, and so I soon learned that my family was not the norm. That other people didn’t eat lunch for three hours while screaming across a table at one another. And as the years passed, my family would become more Americanized, too. Not enough to fit in, not enough to blend seamlessly, but enough.

The biggest meal of the day became dinner. Lunch became smaller. Pasta was exclusively of the dried variety, and sometimes it was cooked past al dente.

Things changed. But the foundation of all those meals of my childhood remained, and so the structure and timing of authentic Italian meals never was all that foreign to me. It’s more like a rediscovered memory.

 

Rand carried with him the assumption that my family’s habits in America were the same as they were in Italy. The multi-course extravaganza was more of a stereotype than actual practice. And so, when a massive plate of pasta was placed in front of him, the noodles hand-rolled by my mother’s cousin (with a bit of help from my great-aunt), he ate it with the (mis)understanding that this was the entirety of the meal. He even took a bit more when it was offered to him.

Rand is a notoriously slow eater, and as he finished the last bit of pasta, he looked up, trying to figure out why everyone was watching him so expectantly. And when he placed the last bite in his mouth, one of my uncles clapped and two or three people at the table shouted, “Finalmente.”

Rand apologized for taking so long to finish, failing to understand what the big deal was. Weren’t Italians meals hours-long affairs?

Yes. They undoubtedly are. But until he finished his pasta, we couldn’t get on to the next course. That was what he didn’t grasp.

The look on his face when my aunt brought the rest of the food out will remain etched in my memory forever. His jaw dropped, every so slightly, his eyebrows knitting in the middle. And then he broke out into a small smile and a shaking of his head, as he finally realized what had happened.

Pretty much the face he made.

 

He had stuffed himself on the first course. And there was so much more food to come.

The meats and sausages which had been stewed in tomato sauce. My aunt’s costolette di vitello (tender slices of veal, breaded and fried). A place of vinegary vegetables that she’d pickled herself. A massive, simple green salad. A dish that resembled a frittata, but was loaded with potatoes and pecorino and surprisingly little egg. An assortment of salumi and cheeses, most of which were made locally. They were placed on the table, along with the expectation that he would try a little bit of everything.

The meats that had cooked in the sugo di carne.

 

And, mensch that he is, he did just that.

Rand told me that he looked at the food, took a deep breath, and thought, “Okay, let’s move on to stomach number two.”

We were at the table for hours. As we ate, my uncles and aunts shouted at each other across the table. My cousin gave Rand a highly-biased (but still totally accurate) account of why food in southern Italy is far superior to the cuisine of the north. My great-aunt occasionally broke into the conversation with some declaration, her hands waving. Something about the cadence of her speech reminded me of her older sister, my grandmother.

 

I participated in the conversation, but I kept having to stop, kept needing help on words or phrasing. When I finally did say something, or a long stretch of somethings, I’d pause and ask my cousin if I had said it right. I used to speak the language so well. When I was little, it was effortless.

For dessert, we dipped amaretti into red wine and nibbled on chocolates and talked about how we’d eaten too much.

Forgive the blurriness of this image. I blame my heart, which kept skipping beats at the sight of him.

 

After it was over, I looked at the tablecloth. We’d decorated it in the same manner that we had those of my childhood. With drops of wine and smears of bright red sauce, and a generous sprinkling of breadcrumbs.

I realized that this was what I had wanted Rand to experience. This was why I had dragged him all the way to a tiny village nestled in the mountains. I wasn’t trying to show him Italy. I was trying to show him what my family was like when I was young.

Back when lunch lasted three hours.

Back when we were all just a little more Italian.

Leave a Comment

  • Julia

    Please tell me you’re writing a book about this trip to Italy (and life with Rand). I can’t wait to read it!

  • Yep… I have made the same misstake The first time we visited Italy! And I never understood why they kind of laughed a bit until it was too late… Applause for Rand on making it through!

  • Natalia

    So lovely! Makes me want to jump the pond immediately for a similar family meal 🙂

  • Debbie

    G- leaving Poland today having spent a week around Piotrek’s family table amazed at gaining no weight in spite of breakfast at 8:30 tons of cheese and sausages, dessert and coffee at noon, dinner at 3:30 and then the evening meal at 8:30 which is again copious amounts of cheese and sausages. Long meals with lots of laughter. Now a quick dip into Italy…Vernazza for three days and Venice for two. Three weeks, three countries… a fine scouting trip for sure!

  • Dear Geraldine, days when you don’t post make feel sad. Thank you for this post today – and every other post! Your adventures are always of the hilarious slant 🙂

  • Madeleine

    My husband’s family is from a small village outside of Rome, and every single meal I had there is exactly like that. Last time they had prepared an antipasto I don’t eat, and his aunt gave me a couple of little mozzarelle instead, just so I don’t starve. And then we went to his other aunt where we started the same thing all over again.

    You should have added that the pasta sauce is actually the one that was cooked with the meat and sausages. I had that dish last month when my mother-in-law visited us. Once you realize the amount of work that goes into making the pasta (I even helped her make it – so proud :P) you get a new level of appreciation for that dish..!

    I’m just writing about the food part because the rest, along with your post on Finding Frigento, is giving me a knot in my stomach. Plus, I’m not allowed to cry in the office…

  • This is one of my favorite articles on Everywhereist — ever. It’s sweet. Sweeter than … wait a sec, you dip amaretti into red wine?

  • claire

    This. Your little slice of the internet makes me so happy =)

  • is that him?

    UM… was Rand ever in a movie called “How to be a man”?

    • Everywhereist

      I thought you were just being cheeky, but then I looked up the movie. I sort see a resemblance, but it’s mostly the facial hair. 🙂

  • I’m full just reading this! I tend to get nervous before there’s a family dinner with my in-laws, so I tend to make a joke like “oh wow, this is delicious! I could eat this all night…” hoping the cook, either my nonna or suocera will say, oh we have x, x and x too! Then I know to pace myself.

    Sometimes my nonno gets mad that my nonna made too much, so she’ll scratch the pasta while we’re still enjoying crostini and the whole table agrees. Not me though, as her ragù is killer! Luckily she adores my husband, so she give us the ragù to take home. Score.

    It must have been so great to be back at your family’s house eating up that homemade pasta! Hm and biscotti con vino?! YUM.

  • Erin

    Those last nine lines are pure poetry.

  • Georgia

    Ooh dear this and the last three or four posts nearly got my waterworks going, I swear this is the exact same thing that happens when my husband and I visit my family in Crete, Greece.. Everyone in that tiny mountain village will know who you belong to, there will be scores and scores of relatives, because all the great great aunts and uncles each had like six kids or something back in the day, and there will be FOOD. Lots of it, and of the most amazing. My husband is German and does not speak Greek, but he will win every last little black-clad great aunt and grannie over with his laughy loveliness and his ability to TUCK IN and DEVOUR. Don’t get me wrong, nobody is a match for Cretan cooking. But doesn’t it make you love him even more as you watch him embracing that aspect of the culture (and those five cheese pies my cousin just plonked on his plate)?

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