How Italians Value Relationships Through Food

By Emily Nardone

“What is your interpretation of Italianita, or Italian-ness?”. This is a question that one of our professors, Julia Khrebtan-Horhager, asked us when we first arrived in Italy, and was to be a question that we continued to consider throughout our time in Italy and beyond. Throughout my time in Italy, I have made many discoveries about what it meant to be an Italian: some matching my prior assumptions, others completely surprising me. Having spent five weeks in Italy, I know that while there are many aspects of Italian culture I still do not understand, I also have a much clearer understanding of their culture than when I began this journey.

So, who are the Italians? What are aspects of Italian-ness?

Of course, when sharing my interpretation of an entire culture, there is no possible way that I could capture everything on one page. Therefore, I want to use some of my experiences in Italy to illustrate how the Italians view and value their relationships through food.

Slow Food Movement

A major difference between Italian culture and American culture lies in how we consume our food. As Americans, we tend to value time and money first, and often attempt to use every second of our time to advance ourselves in work or school. Therefore, eating is often seen as an obstacle to efficiency, so we consume many of our meals as quickly as possible to be able to move on to the next task. For instance, in America, you can find fast food restaurants at nearly every corner, crowded with people trying to get a quick meal. Even at American sit-down restaurants, the staff strives to be as efficient as possible, priding themselves on how fast they can get patrons in and out of their establishments. If you go to any school’s campus or corporate office, you may often see people eating and working at the same time, not letting their mandatory food needs get in the way of efficiency.

In Italy, food is treated much differently. While Italians certainly value time and money, they put a heavier value on relationships with loved ones, and view meals as an opportunity to relax and socialize. When coming to Italy, many tourists will be surprised to learn that fast food has barely crept its way into the country. Although McDonalds’ reach has extended into Italy, these types of restaurants (fast food and chains), despite their efforts to adapt their menu closer to Italian cuisine, are not the norm. Instead, Italy prides itself on celebrating small, local restaurants. Here, nearly every restaurant you find is its own unique gem and often family owned. Additionally, do not expect to get in and out of most restaurants quickly. Once you get seated at an Italian restaurant, you may have to wait at least fifteen minutes to receive a menu (that is, if you can flag down the server to bring you one). Once you’re able to order your food, do not expect it to come quickly, or even all at once, as many Italian restaurants adopt the practice of multiple courses. If you choose to order your food this way, you will first receive antipasti, or appetizers. Then comes primi piatti (first course), usually a pasta dish. Next is the secondi piatti (second course), which is your primary meat dish. Sides often come separate from or after the meal, and typically contain plates of vegetables and salads. Desert comes next, but not last! After indulging in an intense culinary experience, many Italians believe they cannot finish their meal without a digestivo, an after-dinner drink promoting optimal digestion. In some cases, this is an alcoholic drink, but my preferred digestivo of choice is a caffe (the more popular Italian word to describe espresso). Delizioso!

Whether you partake in a multiple course meal, or simply order yourself a pizza and call it good, expect to be in a sit-down restaurant for as long as two hours. Again, this slower service allows for time to relax and enjoy time with family and friends. In Italy, eating is more than a necessity. It is a celebration of relationships and carefully crafted cuisine. Personally, experiencing Italy’s slow food movement for myself has been one of my favorite parts about being immersed in their culture. As a type-A individual who normally subscribes to America’s efficiency values, it has been a nice change of pace to take my time and really enjoy the food and people in front of me. In 2019, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find small, unique businesses that value relationships over profit, and the fact that Italy has maintained their values despite the pressures of globalization speaks volumes about how seriously they value their culture.

Fattoria Del Colle Winery

During our stay in Italy, our class had the privilege of spending the day at the Fattoria Del Colle Winery in Trequanda, Tuscany region. Without a doubt, this has been one of my favorite places in Italy, with its breathtaking views, relaxing atmosphere, and fantastic food and wine. During our visit, our first activity was learning to make classic Tuscan pici pasta from scratch with two of the women who work in the winery. The women were absolute pros! They were confident and engaging teachers and I could tell they had been doing this for years, if not for a lifetime. Before coming to Italy, this image of passionate Italian women preparing classic Italian cuisine was an image of Italianita that I’d pictured, and it was cool to learn that one of my assumptions about their culture had some truth to it! Beyond this, seeing the women’s passion for food reinforced what I’ve been learning about the art of slow food and enjoying the process of not only eating food, but also enjoying it with others. Not only did we watch them make pici pasta, we were able to take part in preparing this classic Italian food, building and growing our relationships with our teachers and each other. As our tour came to an end, we were treated to an indulgent four course lunch, where we were able to spend two more hours together, relaxing and enjoying the carefully crafted food and wine in front of us. This experience truly taught me the importance of enjoying preparing food and eating food in the company of others and is an experience I will never forget.

Un Caffe, Per Favore

A very important part of Italian culture is coffee. Italians have a long history of loving coffee and for many, as one of our Italian tour guides said, can drink up to “six espressos per day.” I remember on out first day of class, Dr. Julia spent at least thirty minutes of class time explaining how to order coffee properly in Italy. If you want to do as the Italians do, go for a simple caffe (espresso) or caffe macchiato, complete with a heated ceramic cup to ensure optimal temperature and taste. Cappuccinos are okay in the morning, but if you order one after lunch of dinner, you’re basically committing blasphemy. After all, Italians highly value digestion, and ordering that much milk in your coffee can disrupt this essential process. Dr. Julia also informed us that while frappuccino sounds like Italian word, these frozen sugary drinks with a splash of coffee are an American invention, so if that’s your go-to in the US, don’t walk into an Italian café and expect the barista to know what you’re talking about.

Unlike most of their meals, Italians take their coffee and breakfast quickly. Most Italians order their coffee al bar (for the coffee bar), eat and sip for a few minutes, and then take off to go to school or work. Although the process of ordering and enjoying coffee is relatively quick, this does not mean it lacks in relationship building. Most Italian cafés, like restaurants, are independent and locally owned. If you go to the same café every day, you will likely see the same staff and customers each time and will quickly build relationships with them. While I haven’t frequented the cafés in Italy quite enough to experience this firsthand, each time I go for a morning espresso I always see the regular customers come in, receive a warm greeting from the employees, and they often do not need to order, as the staff already know their drink of choice. I have also seen customers and staff members sharing genuine moments of friendship, often laughing together and hugging each other during their exchanges. It is clear their morning coffee is much more than a Starbucks drive through experience. Italians come to cafés for more than food and drink. They come for the company, no matter how brief.

Italian Relationships are Delicious

When in Italy, whether you take five minutes to have coffee or two hours to eat dinner, relationships are almost always involved. It may be in the form of sharing a laugh with your regular barista, making pasta with your friends, or spending time with loved ones over four courses. If you spend time in Italy, regardless of how you take on their cuisine, you likely won’t be stuffing your face in front of a computer during your work “break” or sitting in a drive thru line, cursing the car in front of you because their order takes a few extra minutes to come out. Instead, you will likely enjoy every minute spent eating and drinking, and perhaps strengthen your own relationships along the way.

About the Author 

Emily Nardone is a junior honors student at Colorado State University studying Human Nutrition with a concentration in Dietetics. After graduation, Emily wants to explore careers in sports nutrition, ultimately with the goal of owning her own business. This study abroad program is Emily’s first time outside of the United States, and she couldn’t think of a better way to kick off her travels abroad than by spending five weeks in her favorite culture in the world. Growing up with Italian heritage, Emily has always had a love for Italian food and family traditions, but nothing has been more fulfilling than to finally see the country for herself. While abroad, Emily has learned a lot about herself, about fitting into a new culture, and about how to bridge the gap between her American-ness and her Italian-ness. This program has been amazing in every way, and an experience Emily will take with her for the rest of her life.

Emily would like to thank Dr. Carl and Dr. Julia for being the best study abroad professors she could ask for, the CSU honors department for providing her with this opportunity, her family for helping sponsor this trip and always providing support, and her friends for reminding her she’s capable of surviving and thriving in a foreign country.

Buon viaggio!


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