Skip to content

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and you will receive our stories in your inbox.

Love, Italian style

Posted in Food & Entertaining, and Style & Travel

osteria-francescanaElsa 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.

Lemon Tart
Lemon Tart

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.

Massimo Bottura
Massimo Bottura

“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

Share on Facebook

19 Comments

  1. I must now find an Apple tech who can remove drool from my keyboard. Thank you…seriously. 🙂

    June 23, 2016
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      If you are ever in LA, let me know. I will feed you. Italian style.

      June 24, 2016
      |Reply
  2. Mmm.. Come to think of it, it’s a common greeting in my family too (Asian background). Even on the phone – I’ll hear my mum calling one of her sisters, and one of the first questions she asks is “have you eaten [insert meal appropriate for the time of day] yet?” (and this is often before or immediately following “how are you?”)
    And, yes, at gatherings there’s generally enough food to comfortably serve twice the number of guests who are there!

    June 23, 2016
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      I think Italian, Asian and Jewish mom do have the obsession of food in common!

      June 23, 2016
      |Reply
  3. Ellie Toffolo
    Ellie Toffolo

    So true!! – all your posts prompt me to share thoughts – at length !!! I was thinking that ‘saying things with food’ may also find signficance going back to the days when people mostly had to earn their living as farmers, so the most important thing we could offer a guest was the fruits of our toil – ‘here’s what I’ve been breaking my back to produce and survive with – by sharing it with you I am expressing total generosity and making you feel the centre of attention’. (At the other end of the scale, rich people could delight their guests by displaying the fruits of plenty). Added to this, Italy is a veritable cornucopia, the Garden of Europe – only natural for this to be demonstrated, seasonally and regionally. Lots of diverse things can be said with food. Growing up in England, I found the equivalent was ‘Come round to my house for tea’ – tea being the early evening meal – an invitation that was of great importance. It meant social bonding, particularly growing up at school. However, when my father sadly died, one thing I really appreciated was our neighbours, an American family, spontaneously coming round with trays of food that were so welcome, (we couldn’t bring ourselves to cook and prepare food) and so at least in our grief we didn’t forget to eat and also had something to offer all the people who came round to show their sympathy. Our US neighbours said it was their custom – a bit like a pre-wake. It made us feel comforted and cared for.
    PS The grammar fiend in me was also drawn to the use of the simple past (passato remoto) “DId you eat?” and the present perfect (passato prossimo) ‘Have you eaten?’ – making me think that the difference between US and UK usage is a bit like Southern Italy vs Northern Italy, don’t you think? Although Southern Italy uses both tenses – Northern Italy only uses the present perfect to describe events in the past (same tendency in German I’m told), whereas the US often tends to prefer the simple past.

    June 23, 2016
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      Funny you mention that, because I debated what tense to use. I feel like I straddle three languages (Italian, UK and US English) and I realize my writing is a mixture of two, and often inconsistent. I will use “whinge”, an eminently British word but I will spell realize with a z in the same sentence. And yes, in the US we tend to use the present perfect less. I guess Americans like an economy of words.

      June 23, 2016
      |Reply
  4. Amen. Some of my favourite times ever have begun with your mum saying “Mangia”. As for Massimo Bottura – I want to come tooooooooo

    June 23, 2016
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      Please do come. I am heeding Silvia’s suggestion and, if she can at all – it is now the hottest ticket on the planet – I will have her make a reservation.

      June 23, 2016
      |Reply
    • silvia
      silvia

      You HAVE to!!!! And I can easily make a reservation as I have contacts with someone who works for him. So book your your flight for Bologna!!!

      June 24, 2016
      |Reply
  5. It is also a customary greeting among several tribes in South Africa.

    June 23, 2016
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      Love to learn something new every day. Had no idea.

      June 23, 2016
      |Reply
  6. In northern England when I was a Child that was also a customry greeting, have you eaten? I had not thought about the meaning behind that before. Great post as always. Have you changed something? I can actually comment on one of your posts, that was something I could not do for a long time.

    June 23, 2016
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      When I lived in England, I really came to appreciate how a cup of tea would was a panacea for all ills, and always accepted it in that spirit. I didn’t realize there was an issue with commenting – it does ask if you want to proceed with an unsecure forum – can’t figure out why – but I did check with WP and there are no security issues on the site.

      June 23, 2016
      |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      I deeply miss the Italian culture of food. It’s not the same thing as being a “foodie” over here.

      June 23, 2016
      |Reply
  7. silvia
    silvia

    Bizarre as it might sound to you coming from the lips of someone who barely cooks, I’m sooo proud for Massimo Bottura. And I think we should treat ourselves and book a table for November when you’re here.
    I love this post of yours, beautiful.

    June 23, 2016
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      Go ahead, make a reservation. Just the two of us. No boys. It will be special (and let them know no red meat for me – they do ask about dietary restrictions).

      June 23, 2016
      |Reply
  8. Nostalgia can be most mouthwatering of all. Instead of “Did you eat?” the Irish version would be “You’ll have a cup of tea.” 🙂 We can’t compete with Italian grub with our million ways to boil a potato.
    But we beat you guys in the football today! How’s that for unexpected?! Allow me this momentino…

    June 23, 2016
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      I will allow it with pleasure, mostly because I don’t follow soccer and this is the first I hear of it (and I am trying to bypass my Italian friends obsessing on FB!).

      June 23, 2016
      |Reply

Got some thoughts? We would love to hear what you think

%d bloggers like this: