Dining in Italy vs. The United States
The dining experience in the US and Italy are quiet different. Sure, you are sitting down at a table, ordering food, eating and paying but there are small details within these scenarios that hold greater meaning than just a ‘different way of doing something’. Food goes hand in hand with culture; the way in which we consume, cook and purchase it says a lot about a nation’s traditions and norms. “Culture is a learned meaning system that consists of patterns, traditions, beliefs…that are passed on from one generation to the next and are shared to varying degrees by interacting members of a community.”(Ting-Toomey). This article also shares the layers of culture: surface level (pop culture), intermediate level (symbols/ meanings), deep level culture (traditions, beliefs and values), and universal human needs. I would like to make the connection between the surface level details in Italian dining that portray deeper level values in Italian customs.
To start, generally speaking Italians do not eat out as much as Americans do. There is such a great presence of fast food places in the United States that eating out does not hold as special of a meaning. We even tend to categorize not eating at home as ‘going out to eat’ and ‘eating out’; one is considered to be a more social gathering and the other just to find a quick fix for hunger. Even when comparing ‘formal’ dining experiences in the United States versus Italy, American dining is still rushed and not as meaningful. To provide a specific example: the check. For many people who have not traveled to Italy before they may find themselves waiting for a while to pay. Americans are so used having the check delivered to them shortly after their meal is served. The waitress might even present the check with a passive aggressive “no rush” statement as they slide the paper on the table. I have always found this practice to be presumptuous because the customer does not get to choose when their dining experience is over. The waiter brings over the check when the table looks like they are finished eating and that is exactly the issue. We see dining as just simply eating in a fancier space. In Italy, “eating together and sharing food are both metaphorical and practical expressions of commitment. Around the table, conviviality grows and relationships achieve their highest peaks. Eating together is a magical moment through which the beautiful reaches the sublime, and friendship turns into a rare form of intimacy.” (Baccetti)
To emphasize my point about the intimacy of Italian dining, think about how an American pays for a meal in a restaurant. Not only does the check arrive on its own, there is usually a slip of paper for each person at the table. In the United States we do not want to be responsible for paying for another person’s meal. That was their gastronomic experience, not yours.. right? In Italy you are presented one check and one check only. Often times the check does not even outline each specific dish. From my experience, I think that this highlights the idea that Italians experience the whole meal together. An Italian is aware of what everyone else is ordering and tends to match the price point of the other dishes- this way the cost can be split evenly. For me, this shows that eating as a group in the United States is simply satisfying your hunger in a public space and you don’t even have to think about the other culinary masterpieces other people are eating.
During my study abroad experience the notion of eating as a shared experience was very prevalent. A specific moment that I think captured this was a birthday celebration dinner at a La Balestra in Urbino. The dinner was a set menu consisting of meats, cheese, pasta, pork and wine. We all paid 20 euros for our meal and shared the dishes family style. It did not matter how much pasta the person next to you ate or if you only treated yourself two one glass of wine and not two, everyone agreed to pay 20 euros. I think that this is a wonderful concept because there was no tension on who split what dish or who drank what amount of wine.
From my experience, restaurants in Italy seem more like a large dinner party hosted by friends rather than a business. There have been many times where I have waited for a table and have been given complimentary drinks, or my group was gifted a dessert. Usually these sort of services come from very friendly waiters who take their time to talk to the customers and are excited to share the love that has been cooking in the kitchen.
Eating a meal in Italy is more than just fueling your body for the next activity, it is an activity within itself. This can be seen in the daily routine/ structure of an Italian’s work day. Most stores close in the early afternoon and even lunch breaks are longer for workers in the afternoon. This is because people are expected to have a proper meal and to relax and reflect in the before continuing their day. In addition there is a limited number of fast food places. In recent years Italy has been pushing the slow food movement. Founded by Carlo Petrini, this movement and organization emphasizes the importance of good clean and fair food. Slow food wants people to discover local products and inspire people to use food to spike conversations.
I think the purpose of dining in Italy versus the United States comes down to the work life balance. In the United States we definitely have a live to work mentality and Italy’s is more of a work to live. I feel as though I am constantly on the move during my life at home and every activity in my day must be done in the most efficient way possible. I hope to bring back the more relaxed culture in Italy and remind myself what I value most in life which is friends and family.
Baccetti, Paola. “The pleasure of eating together the Italian way .” Tuscookany, 11 Apr. 2015. Accessed 23 Jan. 2018.
Basilico, Stefano. The Slow Food Challenge: Italian Glocalism as a Response to Globalization, 2014, pp. 2-15.
Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side All-American Meal. Boston, Mariner Books, 2001.
Ting-Toomey, Stella, and Leeva C. Chung. Understanding Intercultural Communication. 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 4-5.