On day one of every cooking vacation we offer, there is a little talk with all of the newly arriving guests. We go over the things that they can expect, and should not expect. We discus the plans for the days ahead, and we go over some of the more common cultural faux-pas that guests can avoid as we try to integrate them into Italian culture for their brief time with us.
One of the items on the list that seems to get more resistance than others is that of doggie bags. It just isn’t done in Italy, and once you understand Italian food culture, you will completely understand why.
Food is Sacred Art
It doesn’t matter if you are eating in the smallest Trattoria or the finest restaurant in the city. The chef in the kitchen is an artist. There is no line cook back in the kitchen throwing canned sauce over pre-cooked pasta. The chef is creating the dish you ordered for you. Your dish is served, not to your liking, but to the liking of the chef. In other words, this is the chef’s masterpiece, and he knows how it is to be prepared. He knows how it is to be cooked, and he knows how it is to be served. You cannot say your meat is undercooked, because the chef cooked it properly, and he knows better than you. It is YOU who does not know how to eat properly. You would not ask for extra sauce, because the proper amount of sauce was used, and you would not send back what you perceive as a cold dish, because you clearly don’t know what temperature this dish must be served at.
Furthermore, telling a chef his food is less than perfect is like telling a mother her child is ugly. Even a waiter would not normally ask you if your food is good… because the food IS good, of course… and I generally agree.
I know, it sounds like awful service…. really, I used to feel that way. But it isn’t. It is art. The chef put passion into the food, and from his perspective, if you don’t appreciate it, you don’t deserve it. You must take your mindset away from the American concept of ‘Customer-Focus’ and accept that in Italy, the customer is not right… the food is right. This is why Italian food in Italy is so incredible. Someone prepared it with true loving care… really!
You usually won’t see a dish come out that looks like a work of art — you know, the creative swirling drizzle of balsamic vinegar over a neatly stacked arrangement of geometric food shapes… No, it is pure art of flavor that will arrive. Each ingredient blended perfectly, cooked precisely, and portioned with care, such that your senses go into overdrive. And to change that delicate balance by cooking it more, adding extra sauce, or whatever… well, it would ruin the entire experience. Really!
While They Were Creating Perfect Recipes, We Were Swinging From Trees
Did I say that food is sacred? Let me rephrase: Italian food is sacred, and Italians feel a true sense of pity for the rest of the world, because we are all starving for lack of a decent meal. No, I’m not kidding. Furthermore, there is a way to prepare Italian food, a way to eat it, a place to eat it, and a time to eat various dishes. The combination is something not to be messed with. So if you are in Italy and Italians talk to you about food (they will), remember the point of view they are coming from: You are one step removed from the starving children in Africa, and God has graced you with the opportunity to finally have some real food in your life. Praise be to God.
Whenever Italians travel abroad, upon their return you can pretty much guarantee what the first words out of their mouths will be when asked how the trip was. They all start by uttering these words: Era bello, ma LA FAME!!! (It was beautiful, but THE HUNGER!!!). They then continue for quite some time describing just how awful the food was, how hungry they were, everything they did in their quest for a decent meal, etc. This invariably segues into a discussion about the pity they feel for those poor people that live there and have to eat that awful food. How can they possibly eat that junk? Who knows? Only then will they actually discuss where they had been. That is how important food is to an Italian.
I have had people tell put their hand on my shoulder, telling me how fortunate I am to have an Italian wife to cook for me at home. Of course, I would otherwise starve. I have had people look at me with a confused daze when discussing various ethnic cuisines, only to finally fire off the most important question of all: What on earth do those people feed their poor children???? After all, they wouldn’t dare give that garbage to an innocent child, would they?
Food Shall Not Touch Food
Perhaps this will help drive the concept home a bit: Whether you are eating in a proper restaurant or a roadside truckstop in Italy, food is divided into courses. Your salad has its own dish. Your pasta has its dish, your meat has it’s dish, and so on. You will never, never, never see salad, pasta and meat on the same plate. To any Italian, that is utterly disgusting, and those of us that find that normal are little more than barely evolved barbarians. Why? Because flavors should not mix. My pasta will be ruined if it comes in contact with the salad!
This is also why food won’t come out together. Appetizers, 1st Course, 2nd Course, Dessert. If your meat and pasta come out together, your meat will be cold by the time you finish your pasta. RUINED! You could not eat them together, because that would ruin the balance of flavors, of course. This brings me back to the chef knowing better than you, see? What do YOU know about the complexities of preparation and delivery? He is the master and you are a consumer!
You may disagree with these points because you have a different perspective, but this is a cultural reality, and as such, it is right when visiting that culture. Should you try to sway others into thinking that what the customer wants, the customer should get, any self-respecting Italian will invariably pull out their smoking-gun evidence that proves their point. Go to any country in the world and drive down the street. Count the ethnic restaurants and you will always see more Italian restaurants than any other. Therefore, Italian food is the most appreciated food in the world. That means they are right. And I agree!
So What Does a Doggie Bag Say?
Well, knowing what you know now…. how do you think a chef would feel if he knew you wanted to bunch the leftover food into a box, take it home, put it in the fridge, then microwave it the next day? Or worse… GIVE IT TO YOUR DOG???? For the love of God, this is sacrilege! The pasta will be soggy, the sauce will be mushy and soaked in, ACK!!! What an offense! You may as well tell him you will be putting the food in your car’s gas tank!
Face it, the food was prepared to be eaten right there, not warmed up later in a microwave. To reheat the food later would be offensive to the food itself… It just isn’t done. So the concept of taking food home in a doggy bag just doesn’t exist, except in the very touristy places. You can ask, of course. Tourists do ask, but the concept is utterly foreign. You may as well ask a waiter nail your leftovers to the wall and paint them.
So please… when in Italy, don’t ask for a doggie bag.