You cannot talk about Italy and not discuss the food. I loved the beauty of the Italian scenery, art and architecture. Each day that we spent in Italy, I was reminded of the majesty and diversity of both God's creation and the gifts He has bestowed upon His creatures. Yet Italians have certainly elevated food to an art form. Dining is an experience that incorporates all of the senses and is, perhaps, a sacramental element to life in Italy. In 10 days of travel, we did not have a single bad meal. And some of the foods that we ate will be remembered as the best I have ever eaten. But it's not just the food, it is the entire experience.
You sit down at an Italian restaurant and you wait. Be prepared. Americans are not used to this "breathing" experience where you settle in to the climate of the restaurant. You are expected to begin the process of relaxation as you begin to prepare yourself mentally and physically for the meal. After what often seems to Americans to be an interminable time, the waiter carefully and gently either catches your eye or approaches your table. They are always careful to give you your space; you are never rushed or pressured in a meal in Italy. If you are not ready to order, fine. You are welcome to sit there for as long as it takes. Italians do not understand the American concept of "turning" a table. Your table is your table. You can stay until the place closes if you wish.
The Husband and I have learned to carry a bottle of water everywhere as it never pays to enter a restaurant thirsty. You are almost always expected to sit for a bit before they will approach you about the beverage service, so if you are dying for a drink don't expect to be served quickly. Quick service is not in the Italian vocabulary.
After ordering your beverage, you may wait a bit longer. Relax. You will not be asked to place your order until you have closed your menu and put it to the side. Sometimes the server will bring you bread. Other times, you request it. We always asked for olive oil and balsamic vinegar to accompany our bread, as well...oh, and we always asked for a plate because they will do exactly as you ask: they will bring the bread basket, the oil and the vinegar but you will have no place to dip it...so request a plate!
The Italians eat a lot of food, but I never saw any obese Italians. I don't know how they do it. I watched the Italians around us, and they were generally eating three or four courses at every meal accompanied by wine, an aperitif, and coffee. Granted, the meal was taking 2-3 hours to consume, but it was still an enormous meal. Ed and I sometimes managed two or three courses (including dessert), but we never made it to four courses.
The Antipasti is usually cold. It's ham (pruschutto, pancetta, etc.) and melon or cheeses, salami, sometimes shrimps (they use the plural form) and calamari or octopus (if you are in a seafood town). The best antipasti course I had was a "duck" ham with a terrine of cauliflower accompanied by a pear chutney. I could have eaten it every night I was in Italy, and I am not a huge fan of duck. Or at least I wasn't until then.
The second course (Secondi Piatti) is meat. It may be veal, shrimp, beef (if you are in Florence) or fish. You will also have a variety of choices for sauces as well. You usually order sides with this course called Contorni. I don't know if it is in deference to American tourists, but in Florence almost every menu had french fries listed under contorni. Be sure to tell them that you would like the side with your second course.
I usually think of Americans as beef people, but the Florentines give us a run for the money with their steak known as Bistecca alla Fiorentina. They serve these giant T-Bone steaks from this special breed of cow known as Chianina. The steak is prepared very simply: salt, pepper and garlic and is cooked over a wood stove. The outside usually has some char but the inside is rare and succulent. Lemons are served as the garnish and all of the Italians I saw squeezed the lemons all over their meat. The piece of meat is HUGE (and a bit pricey), but The Husband finished all of his very nicely. He did afford me a bite, and it was delicious.
Pizza is another menu category all together. The pizzas differ by region in terms of thickness, sauce and cheeses. Southern Italy (Naples) is famous for its pizza which is the thinnest of the pizzas, but I loved all of the pizza we ate in the Tuscany region. My favorite had to be a pizza with smoked cheese called scamorza, the likes of which I had never tasted. It was divine.
Since I am a cooking channel aficionado, I had heard about this Italian bread soup called ribolitta which serves basically the same function as gumbo in the South. It is really more of a stew than a soup and incorporates all of the leftover vegetables and stale bread. I ordered it at the end of our stay in Florence and was not disappointed. It was hearty and very filling and could easily have sufficed for a meal had it not been our last evening. My tasty ribolitta had beans, peas, kale, onions and possibly cabbage or potatoes along with chunks of the requisite bread. To be honest, I was hard pressed to identify all of the ingredients, but it didn't really matter. My bowl was wiped clean.
No trip to Italy would be complete without a daily dose of gelato. The Husband religiously followed this rule. It's hard to believe, but I am not a huge fan of ice cream so I passed most of the time, but I made up for it by eating the weight of one leg in tiramisu. I also had at least two cappuccinos every single day. It was for my mental health. And my caffeine addiction.