When I first began asking myself this question I half expected the answer to be a straight-forward one. Something like “after centuries of studying we realized that the best way of eating was by having antipasti first, followed by a primo, secondo with contorno and dolce”. I should have known better, because in Italy nothing is straightforward—especially when it comes to eating, a practice which has been refined and revisited since the Big Bang.
I started thinking of what it would be like to eat a meal in a completely different order than the standard Italian meal structure, such as starting with an arrosto, continuing with small antipasti, then a huge bowl of pasta followed by salad and il dolce. Just thinking about it not only gives me goosebumps but gives rise to a bitter taste in my mouth. The thought of messing up the traditional order sends me into a state of utter confusion.
So after coming to terms with the fact that modifying our traditional meal structure is simply not in the cards, I began to wonder why our meal structure is the way it is and, even more importantly, where does it originate?
Since humans stopped hunting and gathering food, we have switched diets, manners and customs countless times, influenced by geography, climate, politics, wars and innovations. Almost every major event which has occurred around the world has influenced the way we eat, from the discovery of the Americas to the Arab conquests of Sicily.
In order to understand why we eat in a specific order, we need to trace back dining rituals to Ancient Rome. Ancient Romans coined the term antipasto, by merging the terms ante and paestum (literally “before the meal”) together. Although not everyone has a name for it, most Old World countries begin a meal with a “pre-dish” or series of dishes, which tend to be lighter than what is coming next. One notion that everyone seemed to agree upon since the beginning is that if any food is to be eaten before the main part of the meal, it must be light, in order to open the stomach and leave appetite for the rest of the meal.
Antipasti completely disappeared from meal structures during the Middle Ages, when most of Italy – although divided – was ruled by northern populations, who had a radically different approach to food than Ancient Rome. In those days it was common to open a meal with a multitude of roasted, stuffed or braised locally-sourced meat. However, urbanization and population growth between the 15th and 16th centuries caused antipasti to reappear on dining tables. Growing one’s own food and keeping animals was becoming less common, so dry, transportable foods became a necessity. In addition, The meat available to the masses wasn’t fresh or of the highest quality, and as a result people started including less of it in their diets.
The Italian meal structure, as we know it today, only came to be when pasta entered the households of every Italian family on a daily basis. Before then – from Ancient Rome all the way to the 20th century – meals mostly consisted of an antipasto, a secondo (prima mensa for the Romans) and dolce. This meal structure was followed by the elite on a regular basis and on Sundays and special occasions for the rest of the population.
However, a new dish was beginning to gradually make its way up the Italian peninsula, from Sicily and Naples, passing by every town, hamlet and city. La pasta. Straightforward to make, as it required just a few ingredients and no special machinery, its success was immediate. Pasta’s popularity rose rapidly in lower social classes – as it was extremely filling – and was mostly eaten as a side dish, slowly substituting meat out of diets.
Pellegrino Artusi, the writer and gastronomer who defined Italian regional cuisine, is credited with shifting pasta’s role from a side dish to a main dish in his 1891 publication La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiare bene. Every recipe Artusi recorded was avidly read and copied by the housewives and massaie throughout Italy. These housewives, perhaps unknowingly, changed the course of our gastronomic history by aligning their family’s food rituals with his writings.
Interestingly in some parts of the world, especially in countries that border with Italy, pasta is still consumed as a side dish—a spectacle that often makes Italians shudder.
Prior to becoming a staple dish and an intrinsic part of Italian daily life, pasta was consumed on special occasions such as Sundays, weddings and other religious festivities. Due to the nature of the event, women would spend days perfecting each dish, rolling out the pasta by hand and working on a multi-layered sauce, producing elaborate primi whose legacy and consumption has survived to this day. The vast majority of pasta dishes – especially fresh pasta dishes – which are still popular today, originate from the cucina povera (poor cuisine): the extensive variety of pasta shapes and accompanying sauces that adorn our tables today can be traced back to the creative genius of peasants that inhabited the peninsula. Their scarce resources allowed them to come up with trofie, strascinati, busiate and maccheroni al ferretto – to name a few – from the same two ingredients: flour and water.
Pasta’s ultimate vessel to success was, however, the invention of the torchio, a machine which sped up production and made it more accessible, inevitably reducing pasta’s price as well. What I find particularly intriguing is that since industrialisation, we consume pasta in the exact opposite manner compared to the past: dry pasta is consumed daily whereas fresh, handmade pasta is saved for special occasions, when people take the time to go through the lengthy process to celebrate – through food and conviviality – someone or something.
It is important to note that pasta is not the only primo whose consumption is widespread throughout the Italian peninsula. Minestra, the original term to define all primi piatti – which could be either asciutta, so similar to pasta – or in brodo, with broth, as was often the case, due to the surplus of broth created when boiling vegetables. Minestra can be made with all sorts of grains and pulses, from barley to spelt, lentils and rice – or pasta itself! Nowadays minestra is eaten predominantly in winter months, where it is consumed basically as a piatto unico (one-plate meal), paying homage to the true origin of the dish.
Perhaps the course which has changed the least over the span of Italian history is il secondo, besides a few minor alterations to cooking methods and types of meat. It is the embodiment of one of the first and subsequently most popular schools of thought on structuring a meal that exists: the idea that the heaviest elements of a meal should be eaten last. Every dish that comes before il secondo is a gradual crescendo in flavour, intensity and “weight”. This explains why home cooks and chefs began pairing light, vegetable dishes – often raw salad in Italy – with the heavy, elaborate meat and fish dishes. A raw salad was thought to freshen and clean the palate, giving it a break from the intense flavour belonging to the secondo, and preparing it for another bite.
Salad in itself plays a vital role in Italian gastronomy, so much so that it is often consumed on its own, as an entire meal. It has long been associated with healthiness and diets, and its success is also due to its vast versatility. Foreigners often marvel at the wonderful simplicity of Italian cuisine and I believe that la insalata is the perfect embodiment of that simplicity. With a handful of fresh leaves, ripe tomatoes, a pinch of salt (hence the name insalata) and a dollop of the best extra virgin olive oil, one can produce the most delicious dish ever – all that’s needed are seasonal, fresh and high quality ingredients.
Sweet spices and fruits historically played central roles in cuisine – and not in desserts. Through the Middle Ages it was common to lather meat in spices, fruits and honey, as a way of exalting flavours whilst simultaneously showing off one’s wealth. Ancient Romans enjoyed creating innovative flavour combinations by mixing sweet and sour ingredients into savory dishes, as the contrasting aromas appealed to them.
Therefore, alongside eating sweet foods for centuries, sweet ingredients played a vital role throughout the rest of the meal – a much more significant role than they do nowadays.
Honey was the main source of sweetness for the Romans, who often mixed it with milk, eggs and flour to create all sorts of concoctions, to which they would add fruit. The most common dolce found on an Ancient Roman dinner table was fruit, eaten raw when ripe and in season and dried throughout the rest of the year. They had an abundance of berries, pears, figs, grapes and apples, and around the 1st Century BC discovered peaches, cherries and apricots.
Fruit, alongside il secondo, is perhaps the most recurring element of the Italian meal structure throughout history. Whereas i dolci changed drastically with the introduction of sugar and vanilla, fruit was always present and enjoyed by everyone—perhaps because it is ready to eat and simultaneously delicious when preserved.
There is no easy conclusion, understandably, since the history of food goes hand in hand with the history of the world which is complex and multilayered. The traditional meal structure that we know and love today is the collective result of urbanization, industrialization and growing economic prosperity, which over the years shifted our gastronomic habits and patterns. L’antipasto, il primo, il secondo and il dolce are the result of a cultural – rather than a natural – ritual which evolved and refined itself over the course of time.