La Cena

Eating in Italy is a very, very important part of life, and eating well is a priority for everyone, in all walks of life. During the evening news on Christmas day, they showed footage of the soldiers in Iraq spending their day, which included a celebration of mass, but also a description of all the courses of their Christmas dinner, which the news announcer dutifully rattled off – tortellini followed by an ‘arrosto’, with a salad, and potatoes.

Not to say that one doesn’t eat well elsewhere. On the contrary, I miss the variety of food available in the US (especially Burritos!). However, Italians have truly perfected the art of dinner, “la cena”. Since we didn’t go back to the states over the holidays it’s a ritual I had plenty of opportunities to become well acquainted with. Do keep in mind that this is not how dinner is every day!

Things begin slowly with an antipasto, which is accompanied by an aperitif – everything is accompanied by some form of alcohol, although never too much. Antipasti would probably be a meal in and of themselves for many an American in a hurry at lunch. They tend to be small and delicate, with a spot of meat or sauce to give them some flavor. At weddings, where the meals are truly huge, a common piece of advice is to not overdo the appetizers, a mistake I made myself at the first wedding I attended in Italy. My friends had advised me not to eat too much – nay, anything that morning in preparation for the big feast. I was starving by the time we got there, and lit into the antipasti, much to my regret when the later courses were brought out…

“Il primo”, or first course, is probably what most characterizes Italian cuisine in the eyes of the world, for it is here that pastas, risottos, minestrones, and so on are served. The varieties are endless – each region has its own special kinds of pastas and sauces, but they are all delectable. Some of my favorites include ragu` (not the crappy brand of pasta sauce found in stores in the US), which is otherwise known as “bolognese meat sauce”, and pasticcio – or what we think of as lasagna (which is apparently just the pasta used), which is made in northern Italy with more ground beef, cream and bechemel than tomato sauce. Of course, all of this is washed down with a glass or two of red or white wine!

At this point, most normal adults have probably consumed a healthy amount of food, but depending on the event, the meal may just be getting started! It’s not rare to have another “primo” follow on the heels of the first, and who can resist another plate of delicious pasta?

The “secondo” is where meat, poultry or fish is served. Often, it’s a relatively simple dish, where the natural flavor of the meat is brought out through the judicious use of herbs, but really without much in the way of extraneous sauces.

Those are the main characters, but there are also the supporting roles, the “contorno” such as salad, potatoes or vegetables, served with the secondo. And after the secondo, there is still a small procession of fruits, cheeses, and deserts which wind down to an espresso and maybe a shot of grappa.

At this point, you are of course virtually immobile, but quite content with the world.

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