As a senior in high school I moved to Italy to live with a family. Before moving there, I had many preconceived notions about Italian culture and what the Italian lifestyle was like. Having always had problems with my weight fluctuating, I worried slightly over the abundance of pasta dishes and massive meals.
A handful of times, as a youngster, I had been to Italy (and around Europe) to visit my expatriate aunt and uncle during summer vacations, so I had some idea of what my time in Europe would entail. I also seemed to remember, however, that regardless of the elaborate meals, I always seemed to lose weight on these short vacations, so I wasn’t obsessing over avoiding (host) family meals like the plague.
Rummaging through my fridge the other night, I wondered if it would be a good idea to fix a yogurt and strawberry dessert after our stroll downtown even though my husband was making lightly breaded chicken covered in a decadent balsamic glaze complimented by caramelized mushrooms and onions. Then, a memory washed over me of those leisurely meals enjoyed with my host family, friends, and subsequently with my in-laws during our 6 month stay with them in Ladispoli.
How is it that
I can eat
and, if anything,
Meals begin with un antipasto usually in the form of sliced meats such as prosciutto, bresaola, mortadella and cheese such as fresh mozzarella di bufala, and, perhaps, some olives. Some sliced, crispy bread. And don’t forget your first glass of wine!
Wine flows freely throughout the meal in such a way only Bacchus could comprehend. After the antipasto would come some sort of pasta dish. Now, what’s funny about this is that in the States, a one pound package of pasta reads something like “5 servings.” What!? In Italy, the one kilo package is hardly enough to satiate a family of five. Then, yes, more wine.
After this, there is a sort of break while one sips a shot of espresso very possibly accompanied by a cigarette – outside, if you’re lucky enough to have outdoor space in your apartment. The host, usually a mother or nonna will then set to cooking il primo, or a meat dish: thin-sliced, fried chicken breast, fettine alla pizzaiola – thin-sliced beef cooked in a tomato and caper sauce – or, if you’re lucky enough to be in Rome, saltimbocca alla Romana which is tender beef cooked with sage, prosciutto and a butter sauce. Just as the name suggests, this delightful dish really “jumps in your mouth.”
As my nonno once told me, after all these courses you must eat salad to clean your system out. However, a salad in Italy is not iceberg lettuce topped with croutons, veggies, and ranch dressing. A salad is a buttery, leafy green plucked straight out of the earth, washed, then dressed lightly with olive oil and salt. I once tried to add pepper and was informed that I was crazy and would get sick, so I never made that faux-pas again.
Then, an apple, a peach, a plum – a fig!
Likely, by this time, the wine is finished and the supermarket is closed. Again the group adjourns to the porch with another shot of espresso and, yes, likely a cigarette. By this time, though the meal began around eight-thirty p.m. (or le 20 e mezzo), it will be eleven o’clock. Regardless, another hour or so passes as everyone chats and laughs under the twinkling night sky. At some point, the elderly and the very young retire to their rooms to sleep while the others often take a stroll together, perhaps to meet up with friends, have a beer, or even just to enjoy the cool night.
And this happens virtually every night. Ok, so it doesn’t always take three hours, and one might skip a pasta dish one night or an antipasto another, but in reality, in Italy, every night is like Christmas. I would like to touch on how beautiful this is to me, the importance of family togetherness and leisure, but that is another diatribe entirely. The point here is:
How can an entire country eat like this and not have problems with their weight?
How can I
eat like this
and not have problems
with my weight?!
In the States, whenever a family sits down to dinner (if even they still do), it is the goings-on of an hour, at most. Before you on the table, a massive, convenience store soda, a meatloaf bathing in its own fat, a bowl of mashed potatoes slathered with butter, green beans baked in cream covered with crispy onions, a loaf of white bread, maybe some corn – a salad if you’re lucky. Yes, it is a well-rounded meal: you’ve got your protein, your veggies, your carbs – but there’s something about the haste with which it’s prepared then consumed that weighs heavy on your psyche and, in turn, your body.
An Italian meal is full of interaction, laughter, moving about, joking around – forced second-helpings by the nonna. An Italian meal is full of love. There is no better way to put it. There is something about enjoying yourself so much during a meal, taking your time, breathing in the experience, truly appreciating it, that just makes it different. Yes, food is fuel, but, for me, food is more about a connection with the people around you.
In Italy, food is love – –