Dining in Italy: An Overview
An Italian waiter will never tell you his name or ask if you've ever been here before or use language that could be construed as anything but professional and formal. Waiters in Italy are not moonlighting from their acting careers or learning climbing the ladder to management. To work as a waiter, un cameriere, is to have a respectable profession and a career. And since in Italy it is very difficult to fire an employee, waiters tend to work at the same restaurant for many years, to know the clientele and to be treated, in the best of circumstances, like family.
If you feel a waiter has slighted you, do not rush to judgment. Meals in Italy are served at a more leisurely pace than Americans may be used to. Also, remember that pasta takes time to cook, and it is rarely made ahead. So slow down and enjoy the moment. If you're in a hurry, get a sandwich from a bar.
So how, then, to order? While most restaurants have printed menus, the best starting point is always, "What's good today?" If you speak Italian, you are home free. If you do not, there is a good chance your waiter will speak English. Menus in Italian restaurants tend to be lengthy documents that list more or less anything you might imagine eating. But Italians tend to eat what is seasonal or what looked good at the market that morning. So always start by asking what's good.
While in Rome over the Christmas holidays, we ventured out on New Year's Day to Da Nerone, a family-run neighborhood trattoria on the Esquiline Hill. Despite the rain and the otherwise foul weather, the place was filled with families, tables of young couples, and tables of carefully coifed and suited nonna's, who'd probably been coming here on New Year's Day for for longer then they wanted to guess. When the waiter informed us that the the cotechino with lentils was very good, we hesitated. Was this the sausage that's stuffed in a pig's foot?
"It's excellent," the grandmothers assured us. "You must try it, and it will bring good fortune," That is true, lentils should have been the first thing we ate in the new year to guarantee a steady flow throughout the year of coins, like so many little beans. Perhaps New Years Day still counted. Moreover, there was a fair bit of good-neighborly pressure riding on our order. So, we agreed to try it. When in Rome . . . And per usual, the dish was delicious. Moreover, there was not a hint of trotter's hoof. Turns out that's Zampone. And, finally, what the heck, next day the stock market shot sky high.
The moral of this tale: for any number of reasons, follow your waiter's advice. And that's rule #1.
Rule #2: pace yourself. Order one course at a time. There is no need and no good reason to commit from the outset to several courses. Maybe you won't be hungry after the pasta course. Maybe all you'll want is a salad or a plate of greens Or maybe you'll want another plate of pasta! Gone are the days when diners were expected to order a primo followed by a secondo and then possibly dessert. We simply cannot eat that much on a regular basis. So, one course at a time. "We will decide later," you explain to your waiter if he asks about the secondo. And order whatever you like in whatever sequence you choose. You are in Italy, the land of anarchists. When in Rome . . . .