My appreciation for the Italian ritual of eating together around a table stems from my own upbringing. I grew up in Kent, England, part of a noisy family of six who always sat around a table at meal times. We ate together at breakfast and every evening – it was a space to talk, cry and laugh (and also a way of containing the inevitable mess to one space). Pasta was big in our family simply because it fed many cheaply. We weren’t allowed phones at the table, or to watch the TV. My mum has always paid attention to the way in which the tavola is laid (her big-occasion spreads rival Italian standards) and, as children, we were instructed to set the table as one of our weekly chores. For mum, laying a table properly is an important way of honouring the food and the company. The call of ‘dinner’s ready’ meant stop everything you’re doing, stop watching TV, doing your homework or hang up the phone to whoever you’re talking to and make space for the family. During weekdays, dinner wouldn’t be long – maybe 45 minutes to an hour, but when my grandparents were there, it would stretch to a three, maybe four-hour event that usually started late. There was one memorable occasion, where my brothers and I were left in the care of our grandparents while my parents went out for the evening. They arrived home at 10.30pm to my youngest brother asleep in his empty soup bowl, aged nine, while the three of us sat around the table still waiting for dinner.
Big communal pots, pans and sharing plates would be passed around, forcing even the shyest of relations and newcomers to look each other in the eye and converse. Friends were always warmly welcomed, and there was usually an extra face or two at our kitchen table. As children, we were encouraged to have opinions on the news and the world – the table was a place to have those conversations. There was no such thing as oversharing. Meals were never calm – there was a lot of noise, talking over one another and often a debate would get heated. Sometimes there would be tears and an argument, usually there would be laughing, warmth and shared acceptance. This is still the case today. One of the hardest things I found about the pandemic and its many lockdowns was being unable to sit around the table with four generations of family like I have done for years. Life happens around a table.
I always understood that my family’s dining ritual was uncommon among most other British families where meals would be a rare, quickly wrapped up and much quieter affair. I was never embarrassed by this point of difference, mostly because I enjoyed mine so much. We rarely ate at restaurants, but whenever we did, I was always surprised by how quiet other tables were – how joyless it all felt. It was only when we as a family went to Italy for the first time when I was 19 that I realised that this tradition of noisy family meals was a much-treasured tenet of Italian life. As I became an Italophile in earnest, I learnt that sitting around a table is symbolic of Italy’s philosophy of appreciating what’s in front of you and taking time for those you love the most. Work is important, but drinking up the joys of life more so. The Italians are consummate life enthusiasts, so it makes sense they should have such an acute appreciation – or godiamo – over what and how we eat, humanity’s simplest of pleasures.
The Italians have always known that one of the most important rituals of humanity is eating together. The image of family and friends sitting around a table filling up on homemade food is as closely tied with Italian culture as gesticulating, pasta and impeccably dressed policemen. In Italy, food is not about food, or really about nourishment, but rather pleasure and hospitality. They understand that if you make time for eating at a table with loved ones, then everything else is worthwhile.
The great journalist, restaurant critic and author AA Gill once said that the most important discovery known to mankind was the invention of the dining table, and that the most important thing we all do as a species is sit around that table with others and eat. The reason is this – everything worth saying, doing or knowing happens with people we love around a kitchen or dining table. It is about socialising and connecting over the minutiae of our day. It is a space for arguing, discussing issues, laughing and loving. When people have a plate in front of them, they talk – they unload and relax. Food is about memory and emotion. The Italians understand this more than in other places where this tradition is losing steam. They know that while what we eat is crucial, what’s really important is how we eat.
Cultures all over the world regularly eat at a table with loved ones, although perhaps not as often as in years past. The tradition goes back a long way – Jesus spent his last night on earth sitting around a table with his nearest and dearest breaking bread and drinking wine. The Italians weren’t first to eat with company at a table (the Ancient Egyptians were the earliest recorded originators, eating around tables made of stones), but they do it best and more regularly than any other country in the world. They prioritise it because they understand its importance. Italian group dining is a cross-generational, noisy affair – kitchen tables are flanked by grandparents, parents, children, cousins, aunts and uncles. It is where la famiglia merge and discuss their lives and how they feel, often with noise levels that would make the audio-sensitive shudder. Food is spoken about as a pleasure – to cook is an expression of love and to sit around a tavola with loved ones is a sacred act more important than any job. For Italians, the event of talking and connecting is as vital as what’s on the plates. Every meal, regardless of how informal, is presented with a table cloth and appropriate glassware and cutlery. This beautiful pomp is a way of showing love for those who sit around that table – I love you, therefore I have made an extra effort for you – you are someone I love and value, so I have created this experience for you. We all know how food tastes has everything to do with how it is presented and the company. My favourite restaurant in the world is a small trattoria in a tiny square in Catania, Sicily. The food is good – the pasta alla norma outstanding – but my opinion of it also has everything to do with the setting and the way I feel when I am there, relaxed and warm, cocooned by golden street lamps and the sound of a language I don’t understand, but find musical to hear. Italians are incredibly adept at turning the essential act of eating into a celebration of life.
One of my favourite things to do when I visit Italy is to walk around before dinner and just absorb the hum of families eating, shouting and living. It is one of the reasons I feel so comfortable there and why I feel such a strong shared kinship with it. Italy feels like home.