- ALREADY SUBSCRIBED?
Fill in your credentials below.
I’ll continue the theme I started last week by moving to Italy where I’m lucky enough to visit once or twice a year. I’m always struck by the cultural differences on setting foot inside the boot.
The welcome is probably the most apparent difference. This Spring I couldn’t figure out if a place in Milan was open for dinner and if so at what hour; the Michelin, Slow Food Guide and L’Express were all equally unhelpful. So I drifted by in the early evening when I figured the staff would be gearing up for dinner. The lights were on; a good sign; the door was open; ditto; and I stuck my head in timidly and said in my awful Italian: “Excuse me, but are you open for dinner tonight?” “Good evening, come in, come in, how are you, sure we’re open would you like a table for 8 PM?, how many persons?, see you soon, Bye.” The only people friendlier are the semi-nude Papua New Guineans with the bone through their nose and sharp spear in their hands who greet you with flawless Oxbridge/BBC English.
Which brings up a corollary issue: speaking the language badly. I used to think that the Italians excitement at my one or two words of their language versus the French puzzlement at what I thought was perfectly pronounced French was a cultural difference between these two romance peoples. Then I found myself struggling to understand my fellow Yankees’ French and realized that it’s more about the language than the people. In any case, when approaching a tough task (returning something to BHV or reserving a corner table in Italy) I sweat in anticipation in France but smile in Italy.
Then there are the settings. Sure there are restaurants in old mills and wine cellars in France, but the sort of ancient basements (caves), such as those along the via della Conciliazione en route to the Vatican, converted into restaurants, is more striking in Italy. I remember buying a cola for our then 3-year-old daughter at the Baths of Caracalla and somehow that Coke, consumed in that place, was a whole different experience.
I’m also struck by the continuance in Italy of the percentage of men wearing suits and ties versus the abandonment of such formality in France over the past 30 years.
Proceeding on to the meal, whereas in France, one no longer orders bottled water, except in fancy places, it’s still mandatory in Italy (although apparently the ecologists are ramping up to change that). And the bread is still charged for. However, as a long-time American in Rome told me, all establishments are required to let the bladder-challenged individual into their loo’s, whether customers or not.
Another cultural difference I love is when you’re asked “Red or white? which presumes that of course you’re having wine, that their house wine is acceptable if not superior, that price will not be an issue and all we’re interested in is what color/taste you want.
If memory serves me correctly, as opposed to the US and France, until recently, pizzas in Italy were not only served in pizzerias or as but one course in restaurants. Now no one looks sideways at you or at the ceiling if that’s all you order in a good Italian place.
On that subject, I recall one evening buying a “picnic” supper at a supermarket outside Florence and they were out of bread. Colette and I were struggling to figure out what to buy to go with our cheese and salami, etc., when a local guy suggested that we go to a nearby pizzeria and just get a “white pizza”; “everybody does it,” said he, “and it’s inexpensive and good.” Try to do that in other countries. P.S. We returned to said pizzeria the following night and their “real” pizzas were equally superb.
Courses and portion size. Again I go back in time 50 years when I recall that even in student cafeterias (mensas) one had a first, a pasta, a main (meat), cheese and dessert, all of which were not supersized. Now it’s not at all uncommon to see folks, especially at lunch, have just one course, whether pasta or a salad.
The old bar mitzvah rule (don’t fill up on the items at the start of the buffet table, the good stuff is invariably to be found at the end) still holds for some places in Italy. I remember our first meal at the Maison de Filippo in Courmeyer, just through the Mont Blanc tunnel. They brought out (for the two of us) huge platters of sausages and baskets of bread; boy! Then cold antipasti. Then hot antipasti cooked to order. And then they said “and now for dinner, what’ll it be?” Oh Lord!
A huge cultural difference, which I find inexplicable, is why the same Italians cooking on one side of the frontier make food so totally different upon setting foot in France. I recall once on a mountain hike coming across a pizza shack just on the French side of the border and despising the food that only a few hours later on the Italian side, I adored. Then this Spring, I was going from Geneva to Milan on the improbably-named airline – Fly Baboo and stopped at Lugano to catch a train. We were a full mile from the Swiss-Italian border but inside Switzerland, so I was wary of the espresso brewed at the train station café. “How do you make the coffee,” asked I, “Swiss or Italian style?” The Italian speaking barista looked wounded, “Italian, of course,” adding “do you take me for an idiot?” only by his body language.
And then there’s the attitude about serving you what you want not merely what’s on the menu/chalkboard. I arrived in Palermo on night, quite late, from Paris, and having made no dinner reservation, threw myself on the mercy of the hotel’s restaurant. I looked over the menu; nothing there that I was hankering for. “Can I help with your selection?” “Well, I’d really like spaghetti with clams and garlic.” “Of course, Sir, coming right up.” Or the time in Florence when I saw some delicious looking very early arugula in the green grocer I passed en route to the restaurant. “Is it possible the chef has some of that early arugula that I can dress with some oil and Balsamico, no tomatoes, etc?” “But of course, Sir, what a good idea.”
And finally the bill. In France, except for truck stops or fast-food places, I’ve never seen people at the end of the meal, settle up at the bar counter or cashier, but in Italy, it happens in the best of places.
Better, worse?; no, just different.
These thoughts were prompted by my thinking back to meals at:
La Maison de Filippo
Entrèves 11013-Courmayeur (AO)-ITALY
Closed Tuesdays, June & November
Menu: 45 €.
Blog: John Talbott’s Paris
©by John Talbott 2009