The first thing you need to know about Italian meals is that they are an event. Because I was speaking at the Women's Fiction Festival, I got vouchers for every meal at about a dozen of the restaurants in Matera. And they kept apologizing when I presented my voucher. Until I got a bit more comfortable with Italian, I thought they were refusing the voucher. But no, they were apologizing because on the voucher I could only have two courses, coffee and wine, instead of the usual four courses, wine, coffee, and desert like a regular meal.
Now, on a regular Italian menu, you start with the Antipasti, which is what we call Appetizers in the US. The first course, or Primi, involves your pasta and pizza, which come on plates larger than I could consume in an entire day.
But wait! There's more! Second course, or Segundi, includes either fish or meat course, which would be an entire entree in the US. Each region has their special fish, which is usually either baked packed in salt or 'crazy water'. Nobody so far has had the guts to find out exactly what crazy water is.
You can also get vegetables, of course, or, to my eternal surprise, the best french fries I've ever had.
After that is the salad course, which includes bruschetta (every time I'd see bruschetta I'd get excited all over again, until my family said, “Bruschetta in Italy? What?” A special note about salads in Italy. Fruit and vegetables are impossibly fresh and delicious here (and, for the hesitant among my friends, safe). But Italy, probably because the produce is so good, doesn't smother it in salad dressing. They rely on good old oil and balsamic vinegar. Now I'd heard that you really need to know your balsamic vinegar because there's a world of difference among them, but I'm telling you right now, I had no idea. Real Italian balsamic—not the stuff you get at Costco—is a gustatory revelation. I'm thinking of buying a case of it, like wine, to bring home.
AFTER the salad course, you can have Fromaggio, or Dolci. Cheese or desert (which often involves cannolis or tiramasu).And then, of course, your after dinner digestive and/or coffee.
Full yet? Trust me. I was full after the Primi. I have yet to quite make it to the Secondi, even splitting either salads or antipasti. I hate to waste food, especially good food, and it felt a sin to leave so much on my plate those first days when I didn't know better.
Once you have your seat in a restaurant, you're there for the evening, though. Nobody keeps the place at meat locker temperature or blasts cheesy music to make your dinner so uncomfortable you don't want to linger. They consider it an insult if you hurry away. Food is to be enjoyed, savored, shared. It isn't just a meal, it's a celebration, and they enjoy nothing more than sharing it with you. My kind of country.
And I haven't even begun to address how good the food is.