Met friends for un pranzo di lavoro. Euro 10. 11 bucks and change. Can’t beat it. Two options for each course: il primo piatto… THE PASTA DISH!!!… A or B, il secondo… THE MEAT DISH!!!.. again, an A or B, un contorno… THE VEGETABLE DISH!!! which can run from white beans to an actual veggie… vino, acqua & pane. A nap afterwards. We all chose spaghetti with muscles, then went our individual ways for il secondo but, we all selected meat. No other choice. Fish is rarely on a menu in the Lunigiana. One ristoratore told me to go hop into the sea if I wanted fish at his establishment. Sorry. We are in the Lunigiana. Pork, beef, veal, lamb, in any form, are the mainstay of the diet here.
Requires a knife. A serrated, pointy one. Not too short nor too long. No Williams-Sonoma cleavers, please. Adore the old type of a wood handled knife with flat-head steel nails to hold the complex of blade to handle. Black, of course. There’s something cheesy about a natural bleached-wood or stained handled knife, particularly for dining. Props for too many photo-styling sessions. Bet they never knew what they were really intended.
I love the art of manipulating a knife and fork to meat, especially when attached to a bone. A challenge. Often an adventure. So civilised to use the point to extract to taste by what was formerly attached by grissle. It’s what has a lot of flavor. Took a bit of practice when I was a kid. Wanted to go straight to eating with my fingers. My Mother was vehemently contrary to that tendency.
Learning the use and occasions for cutlery in Italy was my first embarrassing moment upon arriving in my adopted country. We Americans, I’m sorry to say, are barbarians, when it comes to when or, upon what you use a knife. We just attack. Questions, which rarely come, are for later. I was seated at a long & lovely table with eleven other folk of various grades, inclinations, occupations but… ALL ITALIANS!!!… in a magnificently vaulted ceiling Sala da Pranzo… or, Dining Room, in an apartment high above Lungarno Serristori, FIRENZE!!! Forks to the left, knives to the right. Cannot remember the actual order of the numerable and delicious plates, well beyond A or B. At a certain moment a kind of luxurious multi-layered frittata landed before me and as soon as our Hostess began, I dove in by cutting with a fork AND knife. Everyone came to a stop. Complete silence. All eyes on me. The woman seated to my right lent quietly toward me and gently suggested ditching the knife. Solamente la forchetta, caro. I did. Dinners resumed. My brow beaded with sweat. The dictate learned? In Italy, knives are ONLY used on meat.
I was at another dinner recently and full of bubbling & funny around-30 women. Five Americans. I started to translate the waiter’s discussion on the night’s menu when I was detained by raised hands and voices… I’m a vegan… I don’t eat meat… I can’t eat cheese. All news to me. Five raised hands wiped out 80% of the Italian menu. Few options left. The ristorante’s forte are a simple bread one eats by filling it full of fresh salumi and/or cheese and the other is a slab of meat seared & served. The creativity of the five plus the waiter, we managed to avoid a culinarily sad dinner.
Two thoughts came to mind… the knife is a has-been, if the overwhelming consensus at a dining table was for vegetables. No more challenges. No more adventures. No more Civilisation??? Only hope is to classify la scappetta as di rigore politesse with a piece of bread, like we Southerners do. And the second was… do we just chuck into the garbage pail l’intera cucina italiana??? I was in shock. Now, days later I am reverberating with nostalgia.