So I left off in Part 3 of this series, having had quite a unique morning, followed by some great time at the beach, but now it is 1:00 PM. It is still just Day 2 of my first trip to Italy in 1983.
If you are just starting here, I suggest you go back to the beginning in Part 1 of My Life In Italy, otherwise this post will make little sense.
If it is 1:00 PM, It is Lunch Time
So I learn what was a common rule throughout Italy. 1:00 PM is lunchtime, period. In a society that is known for everything but efficiency and schedules, mealtime is where they make up for it. You do not mess with anything that has to do with food, not even the time. More on this later.
We make our way to Nonna’s house.
“Hello, Mrs. Chicken. Hello Mr. Goat.”
OK, not gonna lie. The chickens and goat are quickly becoming friends. I mean, they hang out and mind their own business. Take little strolls from here to there, and are pleasant to be around. What’s not to like? They are nice pets!
I sit down at the table in Nonna’s One-Room Combo Bedroom, Kitchen, Dining Room, Family Room, and Nonna begins to serve us. This is a really good thing because I am getting seriously hungry and yesterday’s cafeteria food was my last real meal. But now I am getting a home-cooked meal by Rocco’s Nonna.
She Made “Crochette.” These were little fried pieces of heaven. Apparently, they were fried Potato, with cheese and sausage or bacon (pancetta), but she was very scarce on the potato and very heavy on the cheese and sausage and pancetta. And extremely heavy on the fried.
Oh. My. God. My taste buds have never experienced such an amazing combination of flavors. A culinary orchestral masterpiece of unprecedented amazingness. This is, quite simply, the best thing I have ever eaten, period.
The Pringle Effect
Oh, You know how you get one Pringle, and can’t help but getting more and more? I mean, they are small… and you can’t just have one. or two. or eight. Can you? Of course not. So I delightfully filled my belly until there was no room for anything else. I am perfectly satisfied and may wanna go walk this meal off.
So, Rocco had previously warned me to pace myself. But dude, it was left at that, and those things were soooooooo good. The dots I didn’t connect were that the Crochette were just a little appetizer.
Nonna now serves the pasta dish.
Now, in my world, there was an amount of pasta that one would serve for a solitary healthy human being. And there was the amount that you would serve a complete family of 5.
She served me a bowl the size required for the family of 5.
My eyes looked at it. I glanced at Rocco. Back at the pasta. I see that Rocco has a bowl the same size as mine. I glance at Rocco again, only to see a smirk on his face, as though to say
“I told you so.”
OK, Michael, you can do this. You are a guest here. So I start at it. Again, this is not the pasta I had back home. This is love in a bowl. It is a symphony of flavors and was made on that tiny little stove over there.
What have I been eating all my life?
Mangia, Fijo Mio!
I ate it! Done, baby, done!
Hold on a second…
Nonna starts giving me more pasta. I. Just. Can’t. I look to Rocco for help, and he has that smirk on his face and speaks.
“Dude, this is just the first course! There is more after this.”
I look up at Nonna, and I don’t speak a word of Italian, so I try to gesture that I will pass on seconds. Oh No! She is crying! What is going on?
And Rocco is just loving this. He tells me that she thinks I don’t like her food. So I try to make “Yum Yum” gestures, but she continues to cry.
“Mangia! Mangia! Poro Fijo Mio”
(Eat my poor child) — in dialect.
What do I do? “Rocco, Help!” He speaks with her for a little bit, and tells me she says I need to eat. I have to put some weight on. And this continues with them rambling.
I finally give in, have more pasta, and then the meat comes out.
Seriously, now have you seen Monty Python’s Meaning of Life? I’m feeling like Mr. Creosote here. If you have not seen it, have a look here.
Sorry about that!
More. Food. And then More. Food. Why would anything be different with the second course than with the first? This lady, wonderful as she was, was hell-bent on crying and giving me the guilt trip of my life. New York Jewish Grandmothers have nothing on her! But despite the fact that I could not understand a word she said (except “Mangia, Mangia, Mangia”), there was a sweetness in her eyes and voice that told me she was truly concerned for me.
This poor American boy has never had food, and we need to fix this situation, stat! Well, in a way she was right. I mean, I have never had food like this.
I realize there is literally no way out of this. I either die right here of extreme food intake, or I need to find a way out of this!
Michael: “Rocco? Rocco? Help me! How can I tell her I love it, but simply cannot eat another bite without exploding all over her house?”
Rocco: “You can’t.”
The smirk on Rocco’s face was priceless. It seemed as though he was finally getting revenge for some terrible thing I had done to him in the past. I am in an impossible position here.
In hindsight, I see it a little differently. Rocco wasn’t getting back at me for something. He was enjoying the moment in which he got to share this part of his life with one of his friends from L.A. His family. Their culture. The love. Or maybe I am just romanticizing it, and he was just happy Nonna’s focus was shifted away from him, and onto me? Whatever it was, I needed a solution before my stomach went nuclear.
Finally, Rocco teaches me my very first phrase in Italian:
Did it work? Of course not! Nonna cried more. And more. And more.
I honestly don’t know what Rocco finally did to get me out of the situation, I ended up leaving with a guilty conscience. I let Nonna down. But worry not, in 6 hours I have another shot to make her proud. Dinner!
Back then, throughout Italy, lunch was quite simply followed by “Siesta Time.” Siesta. What am I picturing? Yeah, a 1940’s cartoonish picture of a lazy Mexican with a Sombrero, laying down and doing nothing. I don’t roll like that! I am an ultra-high-energy guy. But I quickly learn that the Siesta is essentially a daily national event, and it is pretty much forced on you.
From 1:00 PM to 5:00 PM, Thou Shalt Eat and Rest
It begins with civil law. I learn that in Italy, all businesses (except restaurants, of course) are required to close by 1:00 PM. Ahhhh, 1:00 PM. Lunchtime, of course. We need laws to tell you when to close so that you can eat lunch. If you don’t get your priorities straight, we have laws to keep you in line. What if I wanna have lunch at 2:00 PM? No! Lunch is at 1:00 PM. What if I wanna skip lunch? No! Lunch is at 1:00 PM.
Of course, lunch is a serious thing, and we need to schedule a solid two hours for it. A quick sandwich? Something on the go? No No No, not in 1980’s Italy. Lunch is the second major event of the day, after morning coffee. It must be taken seriously.
After lunch, you need to rest, so roughly 3:00 – 5:00 PM is legally set aside for your nap time. OK, I get it. It is hot. If we eat like this every day, you really can’t move much. My body does, indeed, need to recover, right? But we are in a beach town! I really wanna hit the water, or at least hang out at the beach.
Death Comes to Those That Swim After Lunch
The beach? Oh dear, no! Not after lunch! You need to rest so you can digest your meal first. This is social law. Apparently, once the food has made contact with your stomach, a clock starts. It will now take 2 1/2 to 3 hours to digest.
Honestly, after what I just ate, I am thinking it will take 2 1/2 to 3 weeks, but I digress.
During this post-meal period, your stomach absolutely cannot come in contact with water. if it does, you can get the hit of cold in your stomach and die. This is a scientific fact that has been studied extensively by the most prominent people in the medical field, of course.
It is so serious, so dangerous, that anyone that cares for you will simply not allow you to go to the beach during this period. If by some chance you slip away and make your way to a beach, you will be stopped. If there is a lifeguard at the beach, they will not allow you to go into the water. If others are at the beach, they will stop you at all costs.
“For God’s Sake!!!! What are you doing???? You just had LUNCH!!!!”
So again, this L.A. guy is trying to take it all in. I spent nearly every day of my life between April and October at Santa Monica Beach. In a city of millions, with heavily crowded beaches, it was absolutely normal to have a quick burger, then jump into the freezing cold Pacific Ocean. Never in my life have I seen anyone taken away by an ambulance for getting the cold in their stomach! The occasional jellyfish sting, sure. But Eat-Then-Swim Disease? Never.
But here I am in small-town southern Italy, where the water is warm and beautiful, and I cannot go into the water because it is assumed that I ate, and will, therefore die from the cold in my stomach. My now most frequently used phrase escapes my lips:
Michael: “Rocco? WTF?”
Rocco: “Don’t fight it, dude.”
Michael: ” ‘K “
So we decided to go upstairs and take our required siesta.
“Have a good rest Mrs. Chicken. May I pass, Mr. Goat?”
I think I took my first nap since I was 4 years old. It was glorious.
5:00 PM rolls around, and we hit the beach. Mrs. Chicken and Mr. Goat decide to stay behind. What I don’t realize is that while my stomach is apparently well-prepared for the water by now, I have another ticking clock! I have maybe an hour at best before another social law goes into effect. It will soon be too cold to swim, and I will risk the notorious cold in my stomach.
Seriously? OK, roll with it, Michael.
The Wonders of Granita
After we get our beach time in, Rocco takes me across the street to a place that sells coffee, gelato, alcohol, etc. It has nice seating and a great view of the water as day turns to dusk. He asks me if I would like a Granita.
Michael: “What’s a Granita?”
Rocco: “You know, Italian Ice”
Italian Ice. That stuff in the freezer section back home. Basically a cup of frozen lemonade. No, not that Italian Ice.
I am presented with all sorts of flavor options. Lemon, Coffee, Cherry, Watermelon, Almond… Almond? That sounds different. “I’ll try Almond.”
A man behind the counter proceeds to fill a glass with what looks like a Slurpee (slushy ice). It is a very light beige icy beverage, and he puts a spoon in the glass, then hands it to me.
We sit down, and I try it. It looks kinda like a Slurpee, but this is no Slurpee! And it is certainly nothing like the Italian Ice I had back home. This was a glass of paradise. I have discovered the granita, and I am an addict. I have further discovered that almond is an amazing beverage flavor, and I am an addict.
For a little context, the flavor was “Latte di Mandorla,” literally “Almond Milk.” In 1983, we didn’t have Almond Milk in the States, and this did not taste anything like the Almond Milk you are probably thinking of.
OK, how disgusting does that sound? I know, but keep reading!
We head back to Nonna’s house after a bit, and Rocco asks me if I want some Salami.
“Sure.” I mean, this is gonna be the first time I have Salami in Italy. Let’s try it!
We are down in Nonna’s all-in-one room, and Nonna gets out a large tin can, I would guess about a gallon in size. “So that is what all those cans in our attic-bedroom are!” She proceeds to open it with one of those old metal can-openers. She puts a great deal of effort and skill into opening the can, and I’m thinking… Salami in a can? What am I getting into? But so far, with the exception of “The Warm Table“, everything has been a pleasant surprise. I mean, this seems disgusting, but we’re on a roll, right?
The can is opened. A hand is inserted. And what comes out looks like… well, the first thing that came to mind was Sigourney Weaver in the movie, Alien. If you have seen it, you have the picture. Otherwise, well… how do I put this. A big ugly clump of dark brown-reddish meaty gunk with all sorts of gooey slop around it, dripping. It did not look like something intended for human consumption… or anything except maybe nuclear waste disposal.
Thank God for the smell! Because it smelled nothing like how it looked. That part was at least appealing. But for the love of God, how can anything so freaking ugly be edible?
It turns out that she makes the Salami in the winter, and it is hot down there. So to preserve it, she makes it with copious amounts of hot peppers, fills it with lard, and seals it in a tin can. Still not sounding all so awesome, I know. As she pulls them out, she cleans off the lard, and we are left with bumpy, curly salami with a very sheen oily (lard) finish. It is dark and looks nothing like any salami I have ever seen.
When I had my first taste, I was a convert. never had I had anything so incredible. Spicy as fiery hell, full of fat and every other possible ingredient that heartburn is made of, but I had an iron stomach back then, and this was my jam! Looking back, I think every piece took a year off my life and cogged my arteries that much more. But it tasted just too good to care. For anyone reading this from L.A., it is like eating a Tommy’s Chili Cheeseburger and Chili Cheese Fries… times 1,000. IF you are not from L.A., you will just need to imagine (or get over to L.A. and try one of our true classics!)
If it’s 8:00, it is dinner time.
Remember when I said all stores and such close from 1PM to 5PM so you can have lunch? Well, that opens up a 3-hour window, because at 8:00 everything must close. After all, we are in Italy, and it is all about the food. Just as with “Thou shalt eat and rest at 1PM,” Thou shalt have dinner at 8:00 PM.
These meal times are so set in stone, that back then, restaurants didn’t have the concept of “turning tables,” that is, in the States one of the things that help people estimate the value of a restaurant in how many times they “turn their tables” at each meal. In other words, if you have 25 tables that seat four (100, people total), and you turn your tables an average of 4 times at a meal, you serve an average of 400 people per “meal.” But in Italy, the meal is about so much more than the food. It is usually a 3-hour event, so the concept of turning tables simply didn’t exist.
So if you would go to a restaurant at 8:00 PM, have a quick 15-minute meal and run, three things would happen:
- You would be labeled as insane for not having a proper meal.
- Your table would not be reset for another customer. Even if the restaurant was full, and someone rilled in at 8:20, they would be turned away. Because the table was still yours for the night.
- You would probably die from some Italian disease, such as getting hit by the cold in your stomach for eating too quickly and standing up. I am just guessing on this one because we have never tested this theory!
I digress (again)
I don’t remember what Rocco and I did during our window of time between siesta and dinner, except eat the salami. I am sure we hung with some friends, messed around, and had deep conversations with Mr. Goat and Mrs. Chicken. But now I am looking at 8:00, and Rocco had informed me of the 8:00 PM dinner laws. I do remember my stomach was still going nuclear from the monster lunch and atomic salami. And after the lunch experience, I have to admit that I feared dinner.
What Nonna made us for dinner that night escapes my memory. But I can promise several things. Whatever it was, I:
- Was served enough to feed a family.
- Got the “Poor Child Needs to Eat More” guilt trip.
- Caused her to cry each time I said I could not eat another bite.
- Used my new Italian words to try and soften the blow.
- Loved every bite of whatever she made.
- Was in Heaven (even if my stomach was firmly in Hell)
To wind this down, there was a wonderful evening with the family full of warmth, love, and more food. I surely made several trips to the bathroom with my handy bucket, and Rocco and I crashed. Good Night, Mr. Goat. Good Night, Mrs. Chicken. Good Night Termites in the ceiling. Farewell, Iron Stomach!
I learned a lesson this day that has been reinforced ever-so-more in the years since. When people ask me to describe Italian culture compared to American culture, I start with a very simple concept that is at the core of each.
Typically (and I say typically because not everyone fits into the same box in either culture) an American wakes up in the morning, and their primary thoughts are: “How much money can I make today? How will I make it? and “How will I spend it?” Food is an afterthought, even for most foodies.
In contrast, a typical Italian wakes up and thinks “What will I eat today? Where will I eat it? And with whom?” Money is an afterthought, even for most entrepreneurs.
But all of the silly beliefs in “The Cold in Your Stomach” aside, in Italian culture, food is just as much about the food as it is about the people you are having it with. This is why meals are 2 1/2 – 3 hour events there. It isn’t just about getting the food required to make it to the next meal. It is about the whole experience of breaking bread at the table with friends and family.
Some of this has been lost over the past 3 1/2 decades in Italy. You now see people doing a quick sandwich for lunch, but still, many Italians take that mealtime seriously. Families eat at the table, together. You don’t see groups of people at restaurants that are not conversing, all busy on their cell phones. And Italians are far more interested in eating their food than they are in taking pictures of it for Instagram.
They are connected, and even back then I saw something that we had lost in our society. Having been a latch-key kid, I had vague memories of my family eating at the table, but even then, it was a brief moment of time before dad went to his bedroom to get drunk, and I watched some TV while mom did whatever she did. Here in Italy with Rocco’s family, I saw something I had never seen in my life: People truly connecting on a completely human level. And it was beautiful!
So that wraps it up for Part 4. Ready for more? Continue on to Part 5: “If feathers are floating, It’s chicken for dinner.“