italian gastronomy  June 2011
    by Nunzio Romano

How to dine “Italian style”

As written in the recent post, the “Top 10 most famous culinary traditions (not) from Italy in the world”, one of the most common misconceptions about Italian food abroad is the use of certain ingredients, though genuinely Italian, in different roles than the original use.

One of the most classic examples is pasta served as side dish in many “Italian style” restaurants abroad.
This, and several other misconceptions, in fact, derived from the unique structure of Italian dining which is not familiar to anyone who was not born in the “Bel Paese”.

In many culinary traditions around the world the meal is based on a main course or “dish” which is preceded or followed by dishes of secondary importance. You could delete all the “non-fundamental” dishes and you would still have a one-meal dish usually prepared with meat or fish.

The Italian gastronomy, however, contemplates two main course dishes: the first course dish (“Primo”) and the second course dish (“Secondo”).
The first course dish is usually a plate of pasta or rice (dressed with proper sauces), served by itself, while the second dish is usually a simple meat or fish recipe.
This does not mean, of course, that Italians necessarily dine everyday with at least two-course meals: lunch in midweek is quite commonly made of just the first course or only the second, but the important issue is that the “weight” of the two courses is practically equivalent in the structure of the meal.

A classic Italian meal would be composed of:
1) the starter – a light and tasty dish which introduces the meal
2) the first dish – usually a plate of pasta or rice, accompanied by a sauce, or soup
3) the second dish – meat or fish based recipe
4) the side dish – usually a salad or cooked vegetables (prepared according to some recipe), which is served with the second dish
5) pudding or dessert – usually a piece of cake, a semifreddo or a cup of gelato, which ends the meal before you go to coffee.

When Italian recipes are reinterpreted according to other traditions, it’s easy to adapt them to foreign meal structures, thus creating some misunderstandings and “culinary errors” like transforming a first course dish into an entrée or even in a side dish for the main course.

Although there is some sort of explanation for these “errors”, it’s more likely that they have historical and social reasons. In Italy, pasta has earned through time an increasingly important position within the structure of the meal because of the difficulty for different social strata to access expensive ingredients to prepare a main course dish. In some cases pasta replaced the main dish, in others it joined the main dish becoming equally important.

To finish this “guide” on the structure of Italian dining is necessary, however, to keep in mind that there is often an exception to every rule, which in this case is represented by Pizza.
In a system with two main dishes, Pizza is incompatible, thus becoming the true Italian one dish meal… but more about that soon in an upcoming post!

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