At the Italian dinner table

A place for “passing down”

Larry Basirico
February 28, 2018 - 20:18

Food and Italy are practically synonymous. Appreciating and embracing the gastronomic splendor of the Italian meal is one of the most remarkable experiences for tourists and permanent dwellers alike.

 

Indeed, part of the early love affair with Italy when visiting the first time is learning to understand the restaurant dinner menu. On complete menus there is the initial blur of sections: aperitivo, antipasti, primi, secondi, contorni, insalate, formaggi, frutta, dolci, caffè, digestivi. After struggling through ordering a few meals, confusion yields to selecting from a few favorite sections. Besides helping to negotiate the daunting prospect of overindulgence, since ordering from every section is impossible even for the most voracious appetite—although for a holiday home-cooked meal, expect to loosen your belt as no step is skipped—this newfound grasp of the menu helps you feel like a true Italian. What most tourists don’t understand though are the social functions of the Italian dinner table and its centrality to Italian life. This becomes evident when the infatuation with the Italian dining experience gives way to impatience when il conto (the check) is not delivered immediately after the last dish and it seems that you have been forgotten. On the contrary. The time left alone after the last serving is an essential part of the meal and symbolic of the respect for the real meaning and social functions of the Italian dinner table.

 

 

It is a place, above all, to reaffirm one’s identity as an Italian.
Ph. @marcobadiani for Osteria Il Borro

 

The Italian dinner table is the symbolic center of family life and intertwined with the family as a social institution. Social institutions are ingrained patterns that revolve around specific needs for societies to survive and family, arguably, is the central social institution in most of the world’s societies, and emphatically in Italy. Of course, as family life has changed in Italy as it has elsewhere in the world, generalizing about the Italian dinner table may be more of an exercise in nostalgia than an accurate description of current realities. Nevertheless, even as some family dinner practices have changed, the concept of the Italian dinner table remains and is still, at least symbolically, an important family ritual in this country.

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The Italian dinner table is more than a place to enjoy culinary delights and satisfy hunger. It is a place where families reinforce their values—what’s important to them—and a place to transmit these values to children. It is a place where they verify their beliefs, ideologies and core philosophies of life. It is a place where family norms and roles are exemplified.

 


It is a place where families pass down the knowledge of how to prepare that special arrabbiata sauce, ribollita, polpette or biscotti that only la nonna or la mamma can make. It is a place, above all, to reaffirm one’s identity as an Italian.

 

 

In a 2007 article for the journal Infants and Young Children, psychologists Mary Spagnola and Barbara Fiese wrote, “Family rituals involve communication with symbolic meaning, establishing and perpetuating the understanding of what it means to be a member of the group. The time commitment and continuity involved in the performance of rituals often transcends the ‘here and now’ and can include repetition across generations”. The classic French sociologist Émile Durkheim, one of the forefathers of sociology, especially noted the importance of rituals for helping people in society develop a sense of connectedness that minimizes individual differences and helps to create a collective consciousness. Rituals are the glue of society. Despite changing family patterns, the Italian dinner table functions as a central ritual in the country’s culture and society to help nurture the sense of human association and connectedness that is at the core of interpersonal relationships and cultural identity.

 

 

Growing up in New York with my immigrant Italian grandparents, who were often present for dinner, my nonna Rosina became very upset whenever a heated argument broke out during dinner, which was commonplace and expected in our family, or some disrespect ensued between members of the family, which was less common. She would stand and gasp in a mixture of horror and anger, “Gesù é al tavolo!” (“Jesus is at the table”) as if to say “how dare you desecrate this sacred place, this place of central importance to our family and our Italian roots.” This was as much an expression of her value about the importance of the dining table for the life of the family as it was a statement of her religious beliefs. Jesus may or may not be at the dinner table for contemporary Italian families, but, despite changes in traditional dining practices and family patterns, the dinner table still symbolizes a sacred ritual in the lives of most italiani.

 

 

So, the next time you’re sitting in a restaurant, becoming impatient about il conto, let the dolci, caffè and digestivi settle. Relax and continue the conversation. This is the real purpose of the Italian dinner table.

 

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