When I was a kid, my parents would take us to dinner a few times a month. And Italian dinners are not like your regular meals in a restaurant.
Most people go to a restaurant, order their meal, wolf down their food, and get on with their day. Their objective is to get in, fill up, and get out within 45 minutes.
That’s like blasphemy to us. A meal isn’t a necessity before getting to your evening. It’s the whole damn evening.
We’d get to the restaurant and the adults would get their before dinner cocktails, while we all talked around the table.
The first thing my father would say was, “Don’t fill up on the bread.”
The bread, by the way, was glorious. It wasn’t a basket with some random rolls and crackers. It was fresh baked, soft but firm crust, melt in your mouth inside, Italian bread. You could put thick olive oil on your plate, sprinkle it with cheese and crushed red pepper, and sop up the deliciousness.
But no. We were admonished not to fill up on the bread…
Then the appetizers would arrive. Sometimes baked little neck clams with rich, mouthwatering breading and flavorful drippings of perfectly seasoned sauce. Sometimes we’d have grilled Sicilian shrimp or grilled or lightly breaded calamari or stuffed escarole. Often it was a combination of more than one of these delights and enough to feed the whole table.
Again we were told, “Don’t fill up on the bread.”
Because let’s be honest, what went better with those dishes than to sop up the delicate flavored oils on a perfectly baked piece of that bread? I could make a meal out of that bread.
Then would come the family course. Often it was a pasta. Maybe we’d have Penne with Arrabiata Sauce or Linguine with Broccoli or Rigatoni with a rich Vodka Sauce.
“Don’t fill up on the bread!”
He literally had to tell us that many times because pretty much every course begged to have the remaining sauces sopped up by something and popped into our mouths… even as full as we were getting.
Then there was the main course. Each person ordered their own main course. There was a lot of variety going on at that table and each of those courses came with choices of soup and salad, because why the hell not at that point? The adults would switch from their cocktails to a dinner wine to go with their meal.
After the main course, there was the dessert course – fresh platters of fruit, maybe a scoop of Spumoni or some type of baked fresh cake or pastry. All served while the adults enjoyed their coffee with a shot of Sambuca to settle their stomach.
The food, of course, was glorious. All Italians talk about the food, but it’s not really about that. It’s about the time. Our meals lasted hours. That’s not an exaggeration. If we went to a restaurant at 7, we didn’t leave until after 10, minimum.
And those hours were the experience. No one was talking on phones or checking their Facebook. No one was preoccupied by whatever would catch their attention at home. Those were hours of quality time spent together with family and friends. The people at our table were the center of our undivided attention.
When Italians talk about food, there’s more wrapped up in that for us – it’s family and where we come from, and friends we’ve shared meals with, and the home in our hearts.
All of our best memories come from talks at the kitchen table or hours spent at a restaurant. So we talk about the food because that’s easier to capture than gushing smiles, raucous laughter, and the warmth of the people who still love you whether you’re at your best or worst.
I think life is a little like that meal. There are a million things to grab your attention. There is bread, which is tasty and lovely but doesn’t offer a lot of nutritional value. That’s kind of like the snack part of our life – posting selfies to social media, or playing games on your phone, or zoning out in front of a tv show you’ve seen twelve times in reruns. It can be tasty and fun, but it’s not the meal.
Then there are appetizers which are delicious and often have some great nutritional value, but they’re not meant to fill you up. They’re extras that enhance your life, like great music and plays and movies and excursions with friends. They’re the ballgame or night out. They don’t sustain you but they make the road more fun.
Then there’s the main course. That’s the important stuff, like family, and relationships that matter, and personal goals, and life missions.
And, of course, there’s dessert. Because what good would life be without a little something sweet and sinful thrown in here and there?
Regardless of what you chose for your courses, or how you prioritize that, remember that the important part of it is always connection. It always is. It’s your family and friends and the people you meet and bring into your life.
Leave room in your life for the important stuff. Make it a priority. And as delicious as it is, don’t fill up on the bread.