Elsa Morante, a famed Italian novelist who passed away in 1985, was once asked what is the most loving sentence one could hope to hear. The fellow writers on the same panel all came up with witty, eloquent or romantic answers, while Elsa Morante simply said: “Did you eat?”
In those three words lies the essence of love, Italian-style: as a child, a guest, a lover, a friend entering a house, the first question will always be “Did you eat? What can I get you?”, followed by opening and closing of fridges and pantries before an answer is even forthcoming.
Food is so central to the Italian culture that, naturally, it has become an expression of love. And it is so second nature that we don’t even realize it. My mother would bide me goodbye, on my way to school, with the question “What would you like for lunch?”. Ungrateful child that I was, I found it annoying. Now that she is due to arrive in about three weeks, she is already plotting what she will be cooking when she gets here.
I decided to learn to cook both to feed myself decent food once I left home but, mostly, to impress my first serious boyfriend. A friend in distress is provided with a meal, whether she wants it or not.
How vast the cultural difference was with the United States struck me shortly after I arrived here. Nobody lingered at the table. Gone were the dinners among friends who started at 8 and ended at midnight. Eating was a utilitarian occurrence, even when the food was good or prepared with care.
My friend Elisabetta, who straddles two cultures, Italian and French, made me notice how French hostesses always have just enough food prepared for their guests, and not an ounce more, while we are ready to feed an army at the drop of a hat. One of the first words foreigners learn when visiting Italy is “Mangia” (Eat): they will hear it repeated over and over wherever they go.
Last Saturday, in the middle of a heat wave, after having spent most of the day cooking, I didn’t have it in me to also prepare dinner, so I decided to drive towards the beach and find somewhere that would take my husband and I. Gravina, an Italian restaurant tucked away in the less glitzy part of Malibu, came to mind: it’s run by an Italian family from Southern Italy and the food is good. It was also packed but the hostess, a tiny woman teetering on impossibly high wedges, as soon as she heard me speak Italian drew me in. “I can’t give you the best table, without a reservation, but I will find you a table.” And find it she did.
And then she told me all about the halibut with chickpea puree the chef had made that her daughter loved so much, and pretty much sold me on the dish before I even looked at the menu. And did I want to try the handmade spaghetti? (I did and they were spectacular). The waiter, a pleasant young man from Varese, engaged us in conversation and, before we even asked, brought us an almond and cream tart.
“It’s my favorite. You have to try it. Mangia” and down the tart went, to the hell with my sugar restrictions. I ate until I could eat no more because it all reminded me of home, and of lingering at the table for hours, discussing politics and the facts of life, in front of coffee, limoncello, tangerines or nuts in their shells, cracked absent mindedly between arguments.
Whenever an Italian cook sets a meal on the table, he or she is expressing love. If you are lucky enough to be asked “Did you eat?” or prodded on with “Mangia”, remember you have just been told you are loved. Or appreciated. Even as a customer in a restaurant. Because in the mind of a self-respecting Italian, there is no good food if not prepared and offered with love, whether it’s nonna’s simple past with tomato sauce or one of Massimo Bottura’s intricate dishes. The root is all the same.
Congratulations to Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana in Modena for having been crowned best restaurant in the world. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer man (and if you subscribe to Netflix, do yourself a favor and check out the series Chef’s Table – but do it on a full stomach).
All food images from Osteria Francescana