For eight days in March, I spent time visiting with family in Rome and L’Aquila, Italy. My excitement at seeing my cousins tempered the hassle and sometimes daunting challenge of traveling internationally. What’s more, as one who is passionate about food, I couldn’t wait to start plotting where we would go to eat in the short time we had in a country renowned for its cuisine.
On the days when my relatives were working, my American family and I enjoyed some typical vacation experiences: Touring the “scavi” or excavation site of the Vatican’s papal mausoleums, spending time in the Vatican and Sistine Chapel, appreciating the architecture of the Pantheon and Colosseum, posing with the modern-day gladiators who were seemingly everywhere and exploring the historic – and bawdy – delights of Pompeii and the shopping district in Sorrento.
While dodging the chaos that is known as Roman traffic – with cars that look like they’d fit in my purse – and the countless historic charms of my father’s homeland, I couldn’t help but think of the saying: “One who eats well, lives well.”
So much of the Mediterranean culture is based on food. As we wended our way from Rome to L’Aquila to Pompeii and Sorrento and back to the Eternal City, the times we shared a meal at trattorias, cafes, food trucks and gelaterias were among the top highlights of the trip. The well-deserved reputation of Italians as food-and-wine-obsessed epicures was apparent everywhere from the small villages to Vatican City and the major metropolitan areas we visited.
Rooted in the old world, the menu items were mostly simple and comforting: homemade pasta with a fresh tomato and herb sauce, just-baked panini chock full of eggplant and fresh mozzarella, fried artichokes, roasted pork and potatoes. Even the gelato was light and simply prepared. I noticed, too, that a plate of olive oil was available on every table; no butter or margarine was in evidence.
The most elaborate pasta dish we enjoyed was served at my cousin’s apartment. It featured layers of tender noodles with a light meat sauce and sheets of gooey cheese. The dish was rich and delicious, but most of the other cuisine was much less elaborate and not nearly as gut-busting. At this point, I was looking for the translation of “elastic pants.”
The other main ingredient in the mix? All intangibles and something we could take a page from – quality time together talking and debating over a meal, appreciating the aromas and the presentation of the food, paying attention to each other instead of texting or watching television as we eat, and not rushing through a fast-food concoction that we barely remember inhaling. I usually take pride in my ability to multitask – eat and drive; eat and watch TV; eat and work – but now I wonder if it’s worth it.
Now that I’m back to reality, I need to remember to immerse myself not only in the food but the dining experience itself.
My European adventure has me hoping that area restaurant owners become more aware of the importance of the total dining experience, rather than just what is served on the plate and how quickly the tables can be turned.
My cousins like to say “mangia, mangia,” meaning “let’s all eat.” Their sentiment is not just one of hospitality, but it conveys an enthusiasm for the time together and the dining experience as a whole.
So, please, mangia, talk, argue, laugh and enjoy! I have learned that savoring the experience is as important as enjoying the food.
Brenda Alesii is a salesperson at Entercom Radio and also hosts “Brenda’s Bites” on ESPN 1520.