A Florentine dinner party

A Florentine dinner party

A step-by-step guide for decoding Florentine hospitality.

bookmark
Thu 22 Feb 2024 10:16 AM

You are lucky. You have been invited to a smart Florentine dinner, a reason to be proud. Florentines are hugely welcoming, but prefer to keep you, an outsider, outside. They may ask you to meet for a coffee, occasionally for lunch in a restaurant, rarely for dinner in a club, but almost never into their homes. So, to be invited to a Florentine dinner is an honour—and you want to know how to behave.

Curzio Malaparte, in his Maledetti Toscani, writes “Tuscans are different from all other nations, being cynical, ironic, honest, but above all intelligent… Italy would be fortunate if it had more Tuscans and fewer Italians.” You, a foreign guest, are not even an Italian, so you can see what you are up against. Be warned. From invitation to departure, there are pitfalls and unexpected hazards.

Invitation

Illustrations by Leo Cardini
Illustrations by Leo Cardini

First, be sure you have actually been invited. “You must come to dinner while you are in Florence” means no more than “perhaps we will meet again”. Next, double-check the time of arrival. It is lunch or dinner? The words pranzo and colazione are used differently according to social class. Restaurants serve pranzo at 13:00, while the elite club Circolo dell’Unione does pranzo in the evening.

Arrival


Be sure to arrive a little late. Otherwise you may be greeted by your host in a dressing gown, still dripping from the shower you have rudely interrupted. The last guest may arrive an hour late. Always bring some little gift, but avoid flowers. Like the host from his shower, these can drip and your host then has to run off and find a vase. You will be overwhelmed by how pleased they are to see you and feel that their life was hardly worth living before you met. In the face of their charm, ecstatic welcome and courtly manners, you may feel like a peasant who has forgotten to wash his hands and remove his boots. Do not be fooled. Later, when you have left, they will be discussing your impenetrable sense of humour, appalling dress sense, the length of your socks and their surprise that you decided to come without a tie. It doesn’t matter because they expected nothing better from a barbarian such as you. Indeed, they will be kinder than they would have been about a foreigner from Naples, Milano or, worse still, Palermo.

Greeting

Enter with an outstretched hand and a dazzling smile. This avoids so many decisions about the social kiss (who to kiss and where to kiss them: cheek, hand or five centimetres from their right ear). Hand kissing is a fast disappearing social nightmare, but you need to know about it just in case. The untrained beginner gets it wrong the first time and looks ridiculous, as the physical act calls for subtlety and the coordination of a gymnast. You must lift the lady’s hand towards your mouth using your right hand while bending slightly from the waist. Keep a discrete distance between the lady’s hand and your mouth. Do not involve your lips at all, not even to peck the air.

Leo Cardini

Daily hand kissing practice in front of a mirror helps, but otherwise do not even try. My general advice to men about kissing women is simple: over 70, not at all; under 30, almost everyone who is covid-negative. Man-to-man greeting is easier. A true friend gets a bear hug with both swerving to their left. Anyone else gets a very firm handshake like the one Macron gave Trump. If you are a woman, I don’t know what to advise, but I have told my sisters to stay calm and see what happens.

Conversation

Leo Cardini


Italian is vibrant with exaggeration (count the -issimos), so try taking risks and replace your “quite nice” and “perhaps a bit” with a few superlatives. Your usual dinner party politeness—with the next course—may not work because Italian conversation is not a delicately balanced person-to-person exchange, but more of a competitive monologue. Joining in is all about timing. Lurk like a conversational panther, waiting for the speaker to pause for breath and then spring in with a voice as firm as your handshake. The alpha male will usually be polite enough to give way, but hesitate and he will thunder on. Once you have got into the conversation, keep talking. It may be your last chance. If the monologue is at the other end of the table, you can try starting a second at your end, but do not be disappointed if the others don’t engage. They have already rated you as a beta male, even more boring than the alpha, and will ignore you. Most of them are not listening anyway, but instead checking each other’s clothes. They will take over as the evening becomes more animated and the conversation shifts to food and cooking. For this important topic, there are no rules: everyone will join in, talking all at once.

Humour

This can be tricky, especially if you are English. Our talent for ironic self-deprecation doesn’t work. People look embarrassed and then try to reassure you. Italian wit is different, either very quick, dry and biting, or repetitive like opera. Well-known stories are repeated with the narrator finding his story so funny that his laughter gets in the way of the punch line. No matter: everyone knows it anyway. No topic is off limits and other people’s sex lives are discussed surprisingly frankly. I remember one dinner when woman number one spoke of her infidelity with a man that everyone knew. The other three women in the group all jumped in at once and the conversation went like this:
-Woman 2: Really? I never knew you’d had him. Me too.
-Woman 3: Incredible. Me too.
-Woman 4: Well done. Me too. How did it go?
-Woman 1: Una cilecca. (I am too ashamed to translate.)

Table manners

Leo Cardini

No elbows on the table is pretty universal, but wrists? Go to a restaurant and see Italian wrists on every table. I was taught to keep my hands in my lap. Here the opposite is true. But it is more complicated as your elbows must be pressed close to your sides. Try it and you will find that you are sitting more upright, looking super elegant and unable to slouch. Now, with your elbows fixed to your hips, try spooning soup without slurping or spilling. See what I mean about pitfalls?

There are other strange rituals. Don’t lick your lips. Dab your mouth and dab often, especially before drinking as you may leave lip marks on the glass. Put your napkin on your lap at once, but never fold it. An English friend still feels bruised by the way she was reviled 20 years ago for such appalling behaviour. I was taught to wait until everyone had a full plate before starting to eat and never to talk with my mouth full. This meant cold food and long silences with the gentle chomp of synchronised chewing. Here you don’t wait. When you have the food on your plate, just get on with it. Talk as you chew.

Two worrying dinner party problems remain, however. Do you help yourself to wine and can you mop up the delicious sauce with bread? You sit nervously with an empty glass due to the stress of managing your napkin or putting your wrists and elbows in the wrong place. There is the wine, right in front of you. Do you sit and suffer, ask the host if he minds, or just pick up the bottle and to hell with it? In the end, I always pick and pour. There are two answers to the sauce-mopping issue. The first is never and the second that you can mop with the bread in your hand, but never on a fork. Remember that you are already an ill-mannered foreigner, so another example will not change the bottom line.

Leaving

The English are famous for just disappearing without troubling to say goodbye, which is known in Germany as a French/Irish exit. It doesn’t matter how much you want to escape; you must stay to the end. Hold back some special hostess compliments for the extra 15 minutes of chat after everyone gets up. As your fellow guests approach the exit, they become animated and you will see exhausted men having a hard time extricating their vivacious partners. Finally, at the door there is another kissing decision: do you kiss on your first date? Don’t give your hostess a smacker unless she initiates it.

Australian friends laugh at the English way of treating foreign visitors. Oh, so you are in London. I am terribly afraid that I am rather busy. Perhaps you could come to tea on Thursday in three weeks’ time. Florentines are much more welcoming, but remember that a lot of foreigners come here, so you may have to wait a long time to be invited. So long, in fact, that these guidelines will, by then, be out of date. So, you can skip the bit about kissing hands.

Related articles

COMMUNITY

Isolotto: Florence’s fourth quarter

The neighbourhood still represents an idea of community and identity.

COMMUNITY

What to expect at your citizenship appointment

As your journey to claiming citizenship by descent reaches the final stages, the day will come to submit the application and you may wonder what will actually happen at the ...

COMMUNITY

The fullness of summer: Editor’s letter

This issue is your comprehensive guide to summer in Florence: rooftops, riversides, alfresco cinema, pools, events and much more.

LIGHT MODE
DARK MODE