La Cena: Italy’s Daily Celebration

We moved from Italy to the US when I was almost 11 years old. It was the end of March, so the school year was wrapping up, and although I would start it in Italy, at the small elementary school located right across the street from our home, it would end at the Franklin School in Newton, MA.  We all knew the transition would be difficult, but in my 11-year-old rationale, I saw this as far more of an adventure than scary.  It would be my first time on a plane, and ironically, I recall vividly what I was wearing: purple pants and a purple and hot pink sweater, far too heavy for the season. 

My lil cousin Luca knows the value of family dining at the table.

​It’s funny the things we recall, and although 31 years have since passed, I still have vivid memories of my time in Italy, and the yearly trips we would take back growing up. It’s not surprising that most of those memories revolve around food in some fashion or another. Whether it’s family dinners, picking olives in our small plot of land, stopping by the pastry shop on Sundays on the way home from church, throwing on a kiddie apron and baking with mom, or simply coming home from school and finding a delicious lunch freshly prepared by mom. And that’s the beauty of food, these scenes become permanent bookmarks in our mind and, like mom’s famous “S” cookies, one is never enough.

In Brishighella with a tour group, we reunite at the table.

While every meal is important to Italians, la cena, (dinner) is perhaps the most beloved of them all. Just like the US, daytime is reserved for school, work, errands, appointments and whatever else may come your way.  And while some, in fact, many, are able to return home to have their pranzo (lunch), it is often rushed, and many times, may not include every family member at the table. As such, la cena is a sacred time for Italians. Time to regroup, reconnect, and enjoy dinner at a more leisurely pace.  Much of an Italian’s life revolves around the dinner table, time to gossip, catch up and discuss what tomorrow’s meal will be! 

With a tour group in Veneto. Cheers!

“Si mangia?” If I recall correctly, those were my father’s favorite words! “Are we eating already?” or “Butta la pasta,” he’d proclaim, meaning, “throw the pasta in the water.” If my sister and I were working on a homework assignment in our room, mom or dad would come calling us, alerting us that dinner would be served soon and it was time to get ready for dinner, or help was needed in some fashion in the kitchen. Seeing my dislike for homework, I didn’t need a second asking. I would have preferred being in the kitchen all along.  My sister, on the other hand, who didn’t have many domestic inclinations, had to be pulled away from her schoolwork, frequently doing assignments that weren’t yet assigned just to get a head start. A philosophy I never understood! 

Birthdays are best celebrated at the table.

“Ti hai lavato le mani?” That was the first question I would be asked before I was permitted to touch anything in the kitchen. “Did you wash your hands?” I’d put my hands up to my mother’s nose, where she’d get a whiff of our Felce Azzurra hand soap on my hands as validation. I loved and still love that soap, using 3 – 4 pumps at a time, far more than my tiny hands required.  

At the table during an in-home cooking class

Over the course of those years growing up in Italy, I became my mother’s shadow, and frequently “helped” her with the daily chores of a housewife. I use quote marks around the word “helped,” as I am sure I was perhaps more of a nuisance, though she never said so, I likely delayed her more than anything! I recall dropping, and breaking, the occasional water glass while attempting to put them away, much to my father’s dismay, or eating most of the peas I shelled while assisting mom with the dinner preparation. “Solo questi ci sono?” “This is all you got out of all that peas you shelled?” My mother would ask. I would say yes, but of course, had likely eaten about a quarter of a pound during the shelling process! I have no doubt that my mother knew what I was up to, especially since inevitably, I would be lamenting of a stomachache soon there after.  “Troppo piselli?” She would ask? “Too much peas?”  With a wink and a nod that said, I know what you’re up to! 

“A tavola non si invecchia” – At the table, one does not age.

One of my preferred tasks was setting the table. Then, just like now, we would use a linen tablecloth over the table and I would fold the napkins in half, diagonally, ever so delicately. My father used a cloth napkin, that is what he preferred, but my mother soon realized that cloth napkins were futile with kids, since we’d get more sauce on our face than anywhere else, they would get dirty within one use, not to mention occasionally using them as nose tissues, so best for us to get the paper kind! And boy, did we go through tons of napkins!

At an in-home cooking class, strangers become friends.

Occasionally at dinner, when something a bit more formal was served, such as a roast, or perhaps fresh pork, my sister and I would be permitted to drink some gassosa. It was a treat to have this soft drink, which closely resembles what we know here as 7Up, minus the lemon and lime. And this was the time where I would butter up my father for an even greater treat. I’d look at my dad, playfully. He knew what I wanted without asking. I would look at him, he at me, and then we’d both look at my glass. I’d give him a pitiful look. “La vuoi rosa?” “Do you want me to turn that pink?” And I did. And he would add a few drops of red wine, no more than a teaspoon or two, into my glass. And my drink would turn pink, my kiddie wine. We’d bang our glasses together and proclaim “salute!” To our health.

Former travel clients, forever friends now, enjoying la cena.

La cena for an Italian family is sacred. It’s a daily celebration of life. It was then, and for my Italians and Italian Americans, it still remains so, I am happy to say. Memories are made, laughter is shared and yes, delicious food is eaten. But even when the meal is a simple soup or just some pasta al pomodoro, it turns out, it’s less about the food, and all about the family and the memories. Oh the memories…. 

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What to Pack for Italy

Cosa Mettere in Valigia per l'Italia

Everyone is always asking me what they should pack for Italy,
so I’ve created a quick reference guide that you can use for your next trip.

Hint: You don’t need nearly as much as you think you do!

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