Fork & Knife: when in Rome

Imagine growing up accustomed to multi-course meals, hand-cut pasta and limitless wine. Then imagine moving to America, the land of drive-throughs, instant eggs and Fruit Roll-ups that tattoo your tongue. I imagine this sucks.

Having spent a good amount of time in Italy visiting family, I’ve always wondered how the seven Yale undergrads from Italy cope. What do they have to say about overcooked pasta, vegan ravioli, weak coffee and 5:00 p.m. dinners?

Peter Beck, a Morse junior from Rome, finds the notion of eating dinner at 5:00 p.m. — as opposed to 9:00 or 10:00 p.m. — ludicrous. “The hunger late at night is terrible,” he tells me. In Italy, his family doesn’t even start cooking dinner until long after 7:00 p.m., a time well known to Yalies as last call in the dining hall.

Stefano Malfitano, a freshman in Berkeley from outside Milan, doesn’t get it either. “If you eat before six or seven, it’s because you’re sick. At home, I eat dinner at 9:30.”

Italian Yalies are also struck by the brevity of American meals. When students go to the dining hall, they grab a quick bite and run off to class or the library. Beck misses the Italian tradition of dolce far niente, literally translated as “the sweet doing nothing.” “It is not done here, [relaxing] with the food for a long time.”

In Italy, a substantial amount of time passes between each course, as people linger and digest. The experience of eating doesn’t entail just the food. “Eating is more than just feeding yourself. It’s a social time … at home I’m used to eating, waiting, discussing. We don’t rush,” says Malfitano.

There’s also pisolino, the traditional post-lunch nap, which I’ve adopted and highly recommend. In Italy, the majority of stores close from 1:00 to 4:30 p.m. to allow for the time needed to eat, drink, linger and sleep. Enrico Ferro, a Morse freshman from Sardinia, misses this tradition in particular. “Sleeping after lunch is part of lunch. To fully understand the pleasure of food you have to sleep after it.” Wise words.

The basic structure of American meals vastly differs from that of Italian meals, which consist of antipasto (the starter), primo (the first course: usually pasta), and secondo (the second course: meat or fish), accompanied with vegetables and sides. Meals are finished with fruit, espresso and sometimes desserts. Because each component is served separately — meat, pasta, vegetables and bread — each distinctive flavor maintains its own integrity. Some Italian Yalies find it befuddling when students pile everything onto one plate.

“I never, ever put everything on the same plate,” says Ferro. “The main course goes on one plate, the salad always on a different plate. If you mix the flavors, they’re not as good.”

As for Yale Dining’s offerings, Italian Yalies have little to complain about, considering the scale of the cooking operation. Stefano Giulietti, a Timothy Dwight junior from Rome, had low expectations for the food when he arrived in America, but has found Yale Dining’s effort commendable.

Italian offerings, however, sometimes come up short. The pasta can be overcooked, and the ingredients aren’t always as fresh as they could be. Malfitano laments the lack of wine with meals. He suggests that Yale Dining “move a little bit of the funds to drinking … wine should be part of the eating experience.” I imagine that most Yale students could get behind such an initiative.

Ferro misses his mother’s homemade lasagna, layered with fresh tomato sauce, sausage and local cheese, which she made for him when he came home for break.

But when it comes to desserts, these Italians have nothing but giddy praise.

“American dessert is powerful,” says Malfitano. “There’s a special satisfaction in eating a cupcake. Oh, and cheesecake … that should be like a religion.” Ferro, too, goes crazy over chocolate chip cookies, cakes, and apple pie. Perhaps this is why many Italians lose weight when they return home.

As for the weak, watery American coffee, Malfitano is currently petitioning for an espresso machine in Berkeley. Beck even purchased his own machine, after being “very confused by the amount of water in the coffee here.”

I commend these brave students. Not so much because they had the courage to leave their beautiful country, their families and their language behind on the other side of the Atlantic — but rather, because they had to give up what is perhaps the richest food culture known to man. And yet despite this incredible loss, they remain in remarkably good spirits.

“I’m not French, so I’m not complaining all the time,” says Malfitano. “I like Yale Dining. I’m a Yalie, so I’ll eat like a Yalie.”

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