Saturday was our dear friend, Anna’s, birthday. To celebrate, she invited her family and us to dinner. We felt very honored to be included in this group, even though out of the 10 people there, only four spoke any English (and two of them were us!). It was a night of trying to listen carefully and parse out general meanings and filling in the gaps with guesses or gestures. This is a great way for us to learn Italian. That’s what people keep telling me, although I feel a bit like I’m being swallowed by a whale every time I’m in a gathering like this. Since I’m naturally an introvert, it doesn’t bother me that I’m not part of the conversation. In fact, it’s somewhat of a relief that I don’t have to participate. I can be there, but not be there all at the same time. My extroverted friends will not understand this, but in a way it gives me some security not to be expected to converse. But I’m here to be part of this culture and that includes learning the language. So I have to step outside that comfort zone and try. It leaves me mentally exhausted listening, translating, thinking what I could be missing, and trying to respond. And I do it – not very well, but I do it.
We went to a pizzeria in Citta di Castello. Pizzeria is really a misnomer here because we think of them as only serving pizza. Here they serve other things as well. Everyone ordered pizza, however, except for Anna’s mother, Rossella. She got a delicious looking plate of fried shrimp and calamari. I got the most interesting pizza I’ve ever had. It was called Burrata and had dried tomatoes, basil pesto and burrata. A big ball of burrata right in the middle of it. It was wonderful, but incredibly rich. I ended up bringing half of it home. That’s something Italians really don’t do. For all their love of food and frugality, they just don’t get doggie bags. Mostly they eat everything on their plates – appetizers, mains, desserts, coffee, and digestivo. I don’t know how they do it.
Going to an Italian restaurant with Italians is a study in the love of food. First of all, there’s no pouring over the menu while sipping a drink. You get down to the menu first thing before you do anything else. And you do it fast. The waiter will be there to take your order before most Americans have turned to the second page. This menu was several pages long and the pizza selections alone covered four pages. No way I got through all of it. In the rapid fire exchange that took place between diners and wait staff, somehow appetizers and prosecco got ordered. Our appetizers were several bowls of french fries (potate fritte) and mixed fried veggies. They were good so I munched away, not knowing I was getting a full ball of burrata on the middle of my pizza.
When the main course comes, Italians devour it. They eat at the same pace that they order their food. I’ll be eating at what I think is a reasonable pace and I’ll look around and everyone else is almost finished. I don’t understand it because they never stop the conversation. That’s a lot to ask of your mouth in such a short period of time.
And there’s always dessert. In this case, it was a lovely fruit tart decorated with “Auguri Anna” and a sparkler kind of candle that really made it festive. Auguri means congratulations, best wishes, and I’m sure many other things. You say it on someone’s birthday, at celebrations, and holidays. Dessert is served with more Prosecco, never coffee. Coffee comes later and is enjoyed alone and quickly. Espresso cups are small and Italians don’t sip them, they down them in one, maybe two glugs.
After coffee is digestivo. This is an after dinner drink, usually strong and herbal, designed to help with digestion. This one was a licorice flavored amaro served chilled. It was good, but you could only take a tiny bit. Again, Italians don’t sip this – they turn it up and down it in one gulp. Amaro means bitter and is a broad term for these kinds of after dinner drinks. It took me a while to figure out that amaro was a general term. Years ago I was served an amaro that I really liked and I heard someone say amaro. I thought that what I was having was the one and only amaro, so if I ordered it again I would get that same thing. Well, I discovered that was like ordering wine. You have to be a little more specific to get what you want. There are hundreds of amaros in Italy and they are wildly different.
We had a delightful evening with our Italian friends who have welcomed us into their lives like family. Each one of these meals teaches us something new and we learn just a little more language. There’s something magical that happens when people sit down together and break bread. It’s a connection that transcends mere nourishment. It’s a celebration of life. And this one was to celebrate Anna’s life.
Si si si!
Wonderful experiences abroad allow us to learn the language in the manner you describe, Cathy. Frites and burrata, yum!
In France, with family and friends it was the same, for me. And as an extrovert, I also was relieved not to have to contribute, just listen. Learning the nuance of the culture through observing is interesting and satisfying. Its why we travel, giusto?