Tuesday, July 14, 2015

To Dine in Rome

The all-you-can-eat breadsticks and salad of Olive Garden are the average middle-class American’s prototype of a great Italian dining experience. On weekend evenings and Sundays after church, the line weaves out the door and down the block. Most people in line tap their feet and check their watches with frustration. Once your pager buzzes and the hostess whisks you away to your table, you’re immediately greeted by Joe. If he’s a good waiter by the restaurant’s standards, he serves you in a timely manner with a big smile. You peruse the gigantic menu filled with rich dishes like fettucini alfredo, chicken parmigiana, and sausage-stuffed giant rigatoni.  While you wait, you scroll through your Facebook feed on your phone and let everyone know that you’re at Olive Garden.  

Twenty minutes and two drink refills later, Joe brings out your ridiculously- large portion of pasta, and you scarf it down in record time. As soon as you’re too full to function, Joe brings you the check and you reward with him a generous tip. “It was my pleasure to serve you,” he calls robotically on your way out, as he pockets the extra cash and the next family takes a seat. Your total mealtime is thirty-two minutes.  

Jump to Rome, Italy. The city’s traditional recipes, descendants from a Roman cookbook known as Apicius, are as ancient as their ruins. These recipes are followed in modern trattorias on every block and incorporate locally grown, harvested, or produced foods such as olives, figs, chickpeas, seafood, and cheeses. Though pizza was born in Naples, its predecessor, focaccia bread with toppings, was a Roman staple. My pre-trip misconceptions, based on my Olive Garden visits, are quickly dispelled on my first free evening in Rome. 

My friends and I stumble upon a quaint ristorante in an alleyway near the Spanish Steps. Thinking we would avoid the crowds by dining after eight in the evening, we’re surprised to find the small patio filled with Italian couples slowly sipping vino rosso and munching on light appetizers without any hint of urgency. We wait by the entrance for a few minutes, as waiters move carefully through the tiny gaps between closely-set tables. At last, one waiter notices our presence and gestures nonchalantly at a table that hasn’t been cleared yet.  

Sitting down and rapidly opening our small menus, we fail to recognize half of the dishes listed. Among the pastas are spaghetti alle vongole veraci, noodles dotted with clams, and cacio e pepea macaroni tossed with grated cheese and ground black pepper. They’re simple dishes not overtaken by excessive seasoning, sauces, or additives like the Americanized-Italian we’re accustomed to. The one basket of plain white bread resting before us is a far cry from the unlimited garlic bread of Olive Garden. Bread in Italy is not meant to fill up the customer, but rather as a pre-meal snack or as an instrument to soak up leftover sauce from your main course. Bread enhances, but doesn’t detract from, the chef’s preparations. I begin to think that this chef would be offended to see his recipes slaughtered with creamy sauce and mounds of salt. I begin to think that Olive Garden should remove the word Italian from its dictionary.  

When our meals arrive sometime later, we realize that we have lost track of time in our internet-free conversations and that early evening has turned surreptitiously into nighttime. We delight our taste buds with various seafood, pizza, and noodles. I savor each freshly-prepared bite of my pasta with pesto sauce, making sure that I take the time to appreciate the flavor. Our waiter is in no hurry to herd us out of the restaurant, though my watch reads half past ten and we haven’t yet thought about dessert. With our plates clean and our selves satisfied, we don’t even mind that our waiter takes an extra twenty minutes to bring us our check or that we have to rummage around in our purses for cash because we can’t pay individually. My previous notions that eating here would be anything similar to an Olive Garden experience seem silly. There is an art to eating in Rome that is lost on its American mimickers.  

           Structural differences explain part of the wide separation between American  and Roman dining experiences. Joe, the ideal Olive Garden waiter, is financially dependent upon the tips that his patrons leave for him because his employer only pays him about two dollars an hour. As a result, the American dining experience is focused on quick service. The faster the customers dine and leave, the more tables Joe can turn during his shift, and the more tips he can earn. Italian waiters don’t work for tips like their American counterparts—they are paid fully by their employers and thus less inclined to strive to please the customer. Speedy service is a low priority for the waiter, giving the customers more time to enjoy their meals and to interact with one another. 

Intertwining with this concept of slow service is the Italian concept of dining as a social affair. Americans worry about resolving their hunger and moving on, evident through the popularity of fast food chains and microwave dinners. It’s the result of a culture with a lack of dining traditions and the need to make everything time efficient. In Rome, they view eating as a time for conversation and for enjoying the camaraderie of friends and family, which is a product of their strong familial bonds and of their focus on community. They aren’t in a hurry because their priorities are different; they are focused on the nature of their overall dining experience.  

            Romans are more concerned about the quality of the food they put in their mouths over quantity. They rank more time-consuming, freshly prepared food higher in importance than food prepared with time-saving shortcuts. Though large portion sizes are becoming more common because of the influence of the United States, traditionally, a Roman meal consists of small portions of three or four dishes. Multiple courses provide them a variety of tastes. The average serving of pasta is only about 100 grams, contrasted against American portion sizes that triple or quadruple that amount. An excess of pasta leaves no room for additional taste bud thrills. 

A combination of historical, social, and cultural factors has shaped the art of dining in Rome, a tradition that has been passed down with each generation. It is, simultaneously, all about the food and nothing about the eating. To dine as a Roman is to savor the experience as much as the flavors. It is a far cry from stuffing your face with a pile of processed noodles at Olive Garden. This art is something I discovered in a quaint ristorante in an alleyway near the Spanish Steps, and it belongs to this bustling capital city of the boot-shaped peninsula called Italy.  

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