An Italian in the States - Part 1 - Restaurants.

This is the first part of a series of posts that I intend to write on the experiences I had when I moved to the States from Italy. It has been a wonderful ride, and I don't want to forget what I felt. These memories are from several years ago, but still fresh in my mind.

Let’s begin…

I remember the first time I was in the States. I had no idea how things work and I experienced first hand the concept of cultural shock. Today I experience the same kind of cultural shock when I go back to Italy.

In Italy we have a very different relationship with food and drinks. From food ingredients, to coffee, to alcoholic beverages, to restaurant etiquette; everything is very different. I remember when I first went to a restaurant. I don’t recall the name of the restaurant, but I remember vividly that my poor English wasn’t nearly enough to understand almost any of the items in the menu. It looked like Greek to me! I was trying to find the rigorously ordered sections of a classic Italian menu marked as Antipasti (starters), Primi Piatti (“first dish”), Secondi (second dish), Contorni (sides), Frutta (fruit), Dolci (dessert), Caffe’ (coffee) and Amari (liquor). In fact in Italy you start with a starter, you go to a pasta dish (called “Primo”), you move to a meat dish (called “Secondo”) that you eat together with a side dish (“Contorno”), then you move to the dessert (“Dolce”) after which you have an espresso (NEVER a cappuccino, that’s breakfast!) and, if you like, a little glass of a very bitter liqueur called “Amaro” (bitter) o “Ammazzacaffe” (coffee killer).Well, I was shocked to find out that there is really no standard defined dish order in the States. People were ordering sandwiches and as drinks 16oz. coffees (a real “bucket” o’coffee for Italian standards) or milk shakes (almost a dessert in Italy or perhaps something you would have as a dinner if you were on some kind of sport diet).I observed with amusement (and horror) people spread butter on bread and receive all the food on a single platter containing the various courses together. I was shocked and intrigued by the differences and highly amused by the discovery process.When I finally decided what to order (with some help) I received my food almost immediately. An incredible five minutes, instead of the thirty minutes standard Italian waiting time. The waitress asked us “how does everything taste?” twice during the meal.
“Do I look that disgusted?” I thought…
In Italy the first time this question would have raised some eye browse and the second time would have received an impolite answer such as “it tastes just like it did 5 minutes ago, thank you”. After eating, we immediately received the bill. This is considered highly efficient here in the States, and I learnt to appreciate it. However at the time it was like being told: “get out! we need the table for some other customer!”. In fact in Italy when you go to a restaurant, the table is yours “for the night”. You sit there, and you can stay there until the place closes. It is normal and expected. Perhaps that’s why restaurants in Italy rarely grow into chains and most often stay small family businesses.I thought I saw it all, but the biggest shock had yet to arrive. The waitress noticed some food leftover on my plate and she politely asked “would you like a doggy-box?”. Not having any idea what a doggy box was, I just looked at her trying to figure out what she meant (“did she just call me a dog?” crossed my mind), then I looked at the people at my table and asked for help.
They explained that if I wanted I could bring home the leftovers.
I found it really funny. In Italy if you asked a box to bring home the leftovers you would obtain the same reaction of asking a piece of soap to wash your hands in the water pitcher! Anyway, I did take the box to get the full experience, and I liked it.