Back to the task at hand…unofficial rules when it comes to food and dining in Italy. Disclaimer: this is truly my opinion and is based on my personal experiences here in Tuscany, note that I mention the word “unofficial”, I do not claim to be an expert. I think the logical thing to do is to start from the beginning of the day and go from there. So without further ado, a day of eating out in Tuscany.
1. La Colazione or Breakfast: Quite different from the American way of thinking…the most important meal of the day, etc., Italians typically start their day with a caffe’ and a brioche. The pastry will be croissant-like, but not too sweet and buttery, and the caffe’ will most likely be a, small by American standards, cappuccino. It is meant to be quick, give you a burst of energy, fill your stomach a bit, and get you to work.
Many Italians will also have a seconda colazione which can refer to a second breakfast or even early lunch around 10:00 am. This could consist of another cappuccino and brioche or for the more adventurous, a mortadella or prosciutto panino, sandwich, and a glass of red vino. Yes, wine in the morning sometimes.
FYI, although I have seen tourists accommodated, as a general rule un caffe’ is to be had within the bar, not ‘to go’.
2. Il Pranzo or Lunch: Here in Tuscany, pranzo is at 1:00 pm. Sometimes, a restaurant will seat you before 1:00, but if you watch your watch, your food will probably not arrive before this time. I have found that restaurateurs are not that interested in turning over tables or receiving new business after the normal rush, they would rather get home to their lives and families at a decent hour. Things are changing a bit, but as a rule of thumb, make sure you get in a restaurant between the hours of 1-2:00 pm, after that and you run the risk of not being allowed to eat. Also, never feel obligated to order an antipasto, then a primo, then a secondo, then a dolce…of course unless you would like to…many Italians will, but mostly only for Sunday lunch.
4. L’Aperitivo or pre-dinner cocktail: Join in on this great tradition. Pick a bar in the main piazza, plant yourself at a table, order a Prosecco, and watch the world stroll past. Between 6-8:00 pm is prime time passeggiata, the daily before dinner walk up and down the corso or main street of a Tuscan town. It is the time to see and be seen, enjoy it.
5. La Cena or Dinner: Again, in Tuscany, cena is around 8:00 pm. Most restaurants will have tables available, but in high season summer on a weekend, it might be nice to prenotare or make a reservation. The same rule applies, do not feel obligated to order each course. When you have finished your meal, you must ask for the check…as they will not bring it until you ask for it.
Bread will arrive to your table, do not be tempted to eat it immediately. I know, a little harsh, but believe me, you will not like it. Tuscan bread is meant to be eaten with your meal, therefore, it has no salt added to it. The food here is generally very well seasoned and the bread helps to counteract that, think salame, prosciutto. Also, as with some Italian restaurants in America, here you will never be offered butter or olive oil for dipping. Tuscan olive oil is a precious commodity to be used as part of the meal on toasted bread, bruschetta, or dressing your salad, and occasionally for your steak.
Speaking of salad, you will not be offered a choice of dressings, instead olive oil, vinegar, and salt will arrive to your table for you to dress it yourself.
Now speaking of Tuscan steak…la bistecca fiorentina to be exact…is one of the choicest meats you will ever eat, but let me warn you, here it is served almost blue. Yes, the slightest bit raw in the middle. I cannot tell you how many discussions I have had about the “doneness” of my steak! I am a meat eater…my favorite childhood dinner is my daddy’s steak on the grill…and I like my meat rare. But here, that is a whole other story. If you like your meat extra rare, then order “al sangue”. If you like your meat rare to medium rare, order “media cottura”. If you like your meat medium to well done…do not order steak…you really do not want to encounter the looks you will receive, they truly think it is a sin against good food!
I have heard many people comment on this one, but there are certain rules for coffee drinking…a cappuccino is to be had up until lunch. It is generally frowned upon if you order one after a meal. I have noticed that it is not as taboo as before, but you will stick out like a sore thumb so to speak. In the Italian sense, there is a logical explanation for this, the milk will only hinder your digestion process. However, as some of you may know, it is never bad to have a digestivo after your meal…i.e. grappa, limoncello, no idea why these help, but they are good.