The Italian’s traditional way to start the day is to gulp a cup of sugared espresso at the bar, with perhaps a croissant. In Italy, croissants are called brioches (confusing). They come in a variety of guises – ‘liscia’ (plain), con marmelata (jam, usually apricot), con crema (filled with confectioner’s custard), and cioccolata. So if you want a plain croissant, you ask for ‘una brioche liscia (pronounced lee-sha) per favore’.
Largely thanks to an aggressive marketing campaign by Nestle and Kellogg’s, Italians are cottoning on to the idea of breakfast cereals, especially for children. But you may have difficulty finding anything in the shops that isn’t loaded with sugar. Weetabix is hard to come by, but if you are desperate, it can sometimes be found at the Iperal supermarket on the road into Porlezza from Menaggio. For people who live so close to Switzerland, the Comaschi seem to consume very little muesli, but you can find something masquerading as muesli in most supermarkets. We tend to cram enough for a week into our hand luggage.
Traditionally, lunch was the main meal of the day, which accounts for the long lunch break when shops are closed until 3.30. A long lunch is still a good way to while away the hottest hours of the day, but most tourists make do with a sandwich. (Note, the singular of panini is panino). You won’t find pizza available in restaurants in the middle of the day. This is because the pizza oven doesn’t get lit until about 7 pm, which makes sense when you think about it. A bar with a notice saying ‘tavola calda’ will serve a couple of hot dishes at lunchtime. A word about cappuccino – many people drink cappuccino at breakfast or in the middle of the morning. But no self-respecting Italian would ever order a cappuccino after lunch, although for a foreigner it is allowed. And ordering a cappuccino after dinner is considered just plain weird.
Can be whatever you want it to be, from a light bite to a four-course extravaganza. The Italian menu can be a bit confusing, but once you understand how it works, it is simple, and every menu follows the same pattern.
Antipasti, or starters, are light dishes that stimulate the palate. The primo, or first course, is a substantial dish, usually based on carbohydrates, i.e. rice or pasta, and is designed to satisfy the hunger pangs. Italian soups are hearty, with pasta and pulses, and are therefore included in the list of primi.
The secondo, or second course, is based on prime protein, and fish and meat dishes are usually presented in separate lists. A contorno is a side plate of vegetables or salad that can either accompany your secondo or come after it. An insalatone is a main-course salad. Vegetarian cuisine is not very well understood in Italy, but vegetarian tourists can usually find something delicious in the primo list. However, very strict vegetarians need to check on whether meat stock is used for risottos. In recent years northern Italians have become very health- and weight-conscious, and it is normal to have just a starter and either a primo or secondo, but not both, except on special occasions. Specialities of Lake Como are of course of the fishy variety – persico (perch, often served with rice), lavarello, usually served fried with lemon, and misulltit, a type of shad, dried in the sun and preserved with bayleaves.
Pizzas are listed separately at the end of the menu. If it’s pizza you’re after, the Italian way is to skip the starters and go straight to the pizza, drinking beer or coke with it rather than wine. Many pizzerias will do takeaways if you want to eat at home. Italy has become gluten-aware in the last couple of years, and it is now easy to find a gluten-free pizza.
If you want a small margerita pizza for a young child, ask for a ‘pizza baby’. But our experience is that any self-respecting child of six or more will want a full-size one!
Desserts are the same as desserts everywhere, and cheese will usually be local, and served with a knife and fork. For an economical dessert, leave the restaurant and finish the evening at the gelateria, enjoying a fabulous ice cream.
As far as drink is concerned, Italians drink moderately with dinner and are sometimes shocked at how much their northern European cousins can put away. Generally, the house wine will be perfectly good, and you can order it in fractions of a litre, un quarto being just about a couple of glasses for one person, or un mezzo just about enough for two. There are many evil local liqueurs to try, both bitter and sweet.