Portrait of an Italian Meal

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It took me a long time to eat a proper meal out in Pavia.  I mean that in two ways.  It  took nearly a month after my arrival to sit down to a menu in an Italian restaurant and, once I sat down, I was there for a while.

I’ve been fortunate enough to meet people in Italy who — like me — enjoy going out to eat and don’t mind spending money on a great meal.  We’re not talking Per Se levels of moment or even Dirty Candy levels.  No, we’re talking about a full Italian meal: first course (antipasto), main (your choice between the carby primo or the meaty secondo), dessert and a digestivo with some wine to accompany the feast.  This routine would never cross my mind in New York or Bristol where prices are too high and portions to big.  In Italy, however, both prices and portions seem adapted to this form of indulgence.

Last Friday, after a dusting of snow had covered Pavia, I bundled myself up to meet some friends for dinner.  After a week in which everyday presented some new motive to make me want to snuggle up in my piumino and never come out, I was ready for a nice evening out.  One of my friends — a fellow American— had scoured trip advisor to find a restaurant with high reviews and low prices, La Vecchia Pavia.  We only got slightly lost on our way, thanks to the directions she found as well.  The restaurant wasn’t like the other slick places we’d tried together, it was homey with a flashing neon pizza sign in the window.  My New York restaurant tendencies wanted me to run away.  Luckily, my stomach grumbled and urged me to enter.

From the moment we stepped inside it was obvious that we’d stumbled upon an authentic family spot.  It looked like a cross between a restaurant that might offer a senior special and a Southern Italian American stronghold from South Brooklyn.  I let go of my snob tendencies and sat down on a plastic coated wooden chair.  The cloth napkin was in a protective wrapper.  The table clothes were laid in tha particular diagonal angle.  We looked through the shockingly broad menu and tried to decide.  After much deliberation, we ordered:  the grilled vegetable antipasto, the sparkling white wine on tap, spaghetti bolognese, a pizza with tomatoes, olives and anchovies.  I asked the waiter for a recommendation and ended up getting gnocchi alla sorrentina.  It was a good choice.

The evening was only getting started.  Our antipasto, grilled zucchini and eggplant garnished with bits of parsley, came with a little basket of homemade rolls.  It wasn’t earth shattering, but a lovely little start to the meal.

Then our mains began arriving one at a time.  First the bolognese, then the gnocchi and, finally, the pizza.  The portions weren’t the insane like you might find in America, but they weren’t the dainty plates you may associate with European dining.  You felt satisfied, but like you could eat some more.

And some more we had.  We couldn’t leave without sampling some dessert, of course.  We went over to the revolving glass dessert case and looked in, pressing our noses to the panes like kid’s looking into a toy shop window at Christmas time.  Even though our waiter explained what each one was, beyond the word tiramisù the descriptions flew over our heads.  We got something that was chocolate (profiteroles), a hazelnut cake with chocolate and a slice of tiramisù.

While the tiramisù was fine, I’ve had better (like at Motorino).  Not one of us was bowled away by it.  Instead, my American friend loved the profiteroles, which were like balls of eclair dunked into a chocolate mousse and then topped with chocolate sauce.  My Belgian friend and I adored the hazelnut cake.  It tasted like the best gianduia you’ve ever had but with a more pronounced toasted hazelnut flavor.  Unlike most Italian desserts, they didn’t knock you over the head with sweetness.

We had to round out our meal with a digestivo.  Most of the other diners had left at this point, but we were in for the long haul.  Who could be bothered to check their watch when there was another course coming up?  While my friends knew what they were going to order (grappa and coke, respectively), I decided to throw myself to the mercy of the waiter.  He brought me a wee glass of limoncello, which was brilliant but strong.  Combining our forces we still only managed to finish half of the timble sized drink.

The bill didn’t make us sob about our lack of funds and we left a tip without meaning to. For less than twenty euro a head we got to enjoy a meal that could easily set you back a hundred a head at many New York restaurants.  It wasn’t just the food that was great, in fact that was the most forgettable part.  It was the experience of sitting down and relaxing after a crazy, hectic week.  It was the experience of letting it all come when it came.  It was the experience of asking che cosa mi cosiglierebbe (what would you recommend to me?) without the fear of being take advantage of.

I might not always want to enjoy such a marathon meal, but it’s a good description of the kind of eating that goes on in Italy.  And I still have half a year left of it.  Salute!

Do you enjoy ending the week with a long meal or do you have another favorite tradition?  Would you want to start a tradition like that?

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