Last year, whenever our upcoming move to Italy came up in conversation, talks of food inevitably followed...usually in the form of envy. Therefore, a few days after our arrival in Italy, and with great excitement, we headed off base with another couple for our first, real deal Italian meal. I blogged about that first restaurant experience in the post Outside the Wire, and that experience has repeated itself over and over again. The thing you need to know about Naples is that their food is the one thing the Neopolitans pride themselves on above all else. They may have trash covering every street corner, a stranglehold on the local government, traffic that is known throughout Europe as the absolute craziest, but food...food is theirs. And their pride is well-earned, because the food is fantastic...BUT...it's very different from what Americans think of as "Italian food." On my recent trip to the "nord," we ate food that would be served in Italian restaurants back home. But, here in Naples, you have two real choices: pizza or seafood. Pizza deserves it's on blog post, so I'm not even going to write about it right now. To go out to eat at a restaurant (not a pizzeria), we've found a pretty standard formula for what we're going to eat and how the evening will play out. It goes something like this:
We go to a restaurant and are the only people there. That's because we have gone to eat dinner at 7:30p.m, far, far too early for Italians. Generally, by the time we leave (about 9pm), the restaurant has a steady trickle of families streaming in for their meal. Families including young children.
A kind, male (always male) waiter gets up from the table where he is watching T.V. in the back ("Simpsons" is quite popular) and asks, "Antipasti?" - he is asking us if we want appetizers. In almost all cases, we do not get a menu. In our Area Orientation, we were warned against this practice and told to insist upon a menu. However, I'd say at least 70% of the restaurants we visit do not have menus. And we've yet to have been taken advantage of except on Christmas Eve in Rome. Generally, we're brought delicious food and charged a fair price for it. We always reply in the affirmative for the antipasti and order a bottle of water (frizzante) at the same time as well as some table wine. Water is either bottled naturale or frizzante (carbonated) - there is no table water/tap water as in America. As for wine, we go with the table wine and haven't had a bad glass yet.
The waiter shows back up with a few plates of food, always including some fried, herb dough balls. I don't know what these are exactly, but they are delicious. The shape and outer fried bit of a southern hushpuppie, but inside, yummy, salty, goodness. Another plate is going to be the fresh octopus with lemon juice, sometimes over a bed of lettuce, sometimes not. Also, always delicious. Really...this is from someone who supposedly "hates seafood." All I can say is that it is completely different here. There is some type of grilled vegetable, whatever is in season.
After a few plates of antipasti and just when we've gorged ourselves, more plates of antipasti come out - more fried foods, maybe a ball of mozzarella (Nathan's favorite) or some creamy ricotta (my favorite), some more fresh seafood in the form of anchovies or oysters or shrimp. We now know enough to look at each other and begin assigning food to each other. We hate not eating it all, but it's just so much, so the bargaining begins: "If you'll eat the rest of the octopus, I'll eat three more dough balls," or something like that. At some restaurants, even more antipasti has then come out, to the point where we begin looking at each other in horror and wondering how much food is even left in the kitchen. At this point, our bargaining takes a turn towards nastiness (on both sides): "Last time, I had to eat all the octopus, mozzarella, and the anchovies! You need to step it up." Finally,we sit back, plates of half-eaten antipasti still littering the table.
The waiter notices we are quiet now and returns. "Primi?" (First Course?). At this, the routine varies. Either a menu appears, or we get a choice of two things, or the waiter just tells us what he's going to bring us, or we just say "Si," and more food appears. The few times we've eaten somewhere with a menu, what we want off the menu is rarely available. It really is best to just let your waiter bring you what he wants. The primi is always pasta, and here in Naples, it's generally pasta with seafood. I seem to recall one time when a spaghetti marinara was available, but generally, it's pasta with seafood. After about four bites, I am so full that I have reached misery point, that point where you are just staring at your plate, knowing you need to eat more for whatever reason, but also knowing that if you put another bite of food into your mouth, bad things are going to begin to happen.
But we are still not done. I have never, never made it to "secondo" (second course). While I surreptitiously look up the Italian word for "full" each and every time (I seem to have a mental block in learning the word), Nathan spends a few desperate moments trying to figure out if he can really fit in a secondo. He has made it to secondo twice, and only because he wanted to try it the specific dish, not because he actually wanted more food. Secondo is usually meat - beef or pork. It's served by itself. If you want a side dish, you order that separately. You can have roast potatoes, grilled vegetables or a salad. Secondo is for the heavy hitters. I watch in awe when other diners order secondo. I suppose one might (maybe, maybe, not sure) be able to skip antipasti and primi to go straight to secondo, but really, that's just not done. I certainly wouldn't try that at a restaurant I hope to frequent in the future.
Okay...time to rest, breathe, roll your eyes to heaven and think about how to walk to the car or back home with all that food sloshing around. After a sufficient amount of rest time, back comes the waiter to inquire about "dolci" (dessert) and "caffe" (coffee). Oddly, just the word "dolci," makes all the food currently in my stomach magically rearrange. Whereas 30 seconds ago I thought I was going to pass out from calorie overload, now I've reached the "why yes, I would love a tiramisu" phase of the evening. Dessert is yummy, coffee is a great digestivo. Evening over, right.
Nope...limoncello time. Or grappa. Or a coffee liqueur. Or a bit of each. You absolutely must have a digestivo. Must. The name says it all - "digestivo." Italians believe that a small drink helps your food digest in your stomach, so that is why one must partake. In ancient times, the Greeks and Romans steeped herbs and seeds in alcohol as an aid to digestion, which has led to the current philosophy. I did a quick bit of research and found the French belief is that your full stomach can now handle a beverage with a high alcohol content. Pick your reason or not. After all, do you really need a reason to drink a bit of limoncello?