Cultural Differences: In the Restaurant

One of the experiences that constantly teaches me new things about Italian behaviour standards is going out to eat dinner. I’ve mostly been making my own food at home (a lot of rice and veggies; also, I recently found some gluten-free tamari/soy sauce! Yay!), but I do go out every few days for dinner (often using the AIFS meal vouchers, which I highly recommend).

My two favourite restaurants so far are Masticabrodo and Golden View. (I’ll write restaurant reviews about these two places soon. Also, both participate in with AIFS’s meal voucher plan).

First off, Italians serve their food in courses. Even when ordering a simple dinner, they’ll sometimes ask which course you would like first. I’m used to having all of my meal available during dinner, so it has been interesting eating dinner this way.

My delicious (vegetarian and gluten free) minestrone soup at Masticabrodo. I was having dinner alone, and I think the waitress figured that I may as well have all my food — you can spot the (delicious) roasted potatoes in the background.

Water is not always included free with the meal. Italians often drink “fizzy” or mineral water, so the waiter always asks whether you’d prefer the water still or mineral. They do not serve water with ice, something very typical of American culture. I never drink iced water, so I actually really like this. Also, water is typically served out of a bottle, instead of the sneaky tap water you get in the U.S.

Ice cream is not as common a dessert item in Florence as is tiramisu, cheesecake and (sometimes) panna cotta. Crème brûlée and various types of mousse are also available in nicer restaurants. In the U.S., ice cream is a very common item on the dessert menu (often available in Japanese and Indian restaurants).

From what I’ve seen, gelato does not usually appear on restaurant menus. Gelato is found in “Gelaterias” (gelato booths/sweets stores) or in grocery stores.

Also, in Italy customers are not generally shepherded out a café or restaurant after the meal is over. I think this stems from the more Italian culture of enjoying a meal with family or friends; time is spend enjoying life through some leisure. In the U.S., it is socially expected of the diners to leave after finishing their meal. In a coffee shop, you are expected to purchase something every hour; there is basically a “drink minimum.” This is not part of Italian culture. If you buy one coffee, you may sit in a café for the rest of the day; you will not be asked to leave. America’s approach to meals is much more business like: once the goal of satisfying hunger is accomplished, the person leaves. In Italy places value on the process of appreciating the meal relishing the moment.

Random Cultural Differences:

America: It is polite to keep your hands in your lap/off of the table.

Italy: It is polite to keep your hands both on the table.

America: The waiter brings you the bill near the end of your meal/during dessert.

Italy: The waiters will not bring the bill until it is requested. Confused tourists/new study abroad students sometimes spend a confusingly long amount of time waiting around until this is realised. A simple “Il conto, per favore” is sufficient to request the bill.

America: Alcohol is treated a little differently — In Italy is it considered “American” to drink to get drunk.

Italy: Alcohol (like wine) is a part of Italian culture, and has its own way of fitting into social behaviour.

Age Limits: In America the legal age limit for purchasing alcohol is 21. In Italy, no one asks for proof of age when purchasing alcohol.

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Italian Cooking Class 1 — With Panna Cotta

I signed up to take the Italian cooking class offered through my study abroad program, AIFS!

Ponte Vecchio = Old Bridge.

We met on the Ponte Vecchio and were led to the kitchen of the restaurant “In Tavola” across the bridge by an AIFS staff member. I let AIFS know before hand that I’m gluten free so that they could inform the restaurant and make adjustments for me.

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We entered the kitchen through a back street, put on plastic aprons, and right after that the lead chef yelled out “who is my gluten-free?!” I yelled back “me!” and immediately got put in charge of stirring panna cotta on the stove top.

The menu:

  • Ravioli di spinaci e ricotta (Spinach and ricotta ravioli).
  • Sformato di verdure (An artichoke soufflé).
  • Panna Cotta (A cold, Italian custard).

A group of my classmates blending the sformato.

Mikaela and I in our awesome plastic aprons.

My team making the (spinach) ravioli filling.
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The teacher/chef demonstrating how to make the ravioli pasta.
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We got to use a pasta machine!

We learned how to shape raviolis too! (These are not gluten free)

Since the sformato contained some gluten, the teacher/chef made me an artichoke appetizer.
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The sformato.
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Sformato di verdure!
After we finished cooking, we were led downstairs to a room of the restaurant where we got to eat the dinner we had made together 🙂
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Ravioli di spinaci e ricotta!

The teacher/chef made me my own (huge) bowl of gluten free pasta with tomato sauce — it was really good.
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Dinner in a cool, underground room!

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And finally.. Panna cotta for dessert! There is some strawberry sauce poured on top (just strawberries and sugar blended into smithereens). I’m a panna cotta fan so I enjoyed myself!
At the end we were given a little booklet with all the recipes we’d made that day.
Tips for Italian cooking classes:
  • Sign up for one!
  • Don’t wear black — the flour can go everywhere.
  • If you don’t get a booklet of recipes, write everything down!
  • If your class ends in the evening, make sure someone walks you home! A classmate walked me home and it was great to not walk back in the dark alone!

Organic Grocery Store: Sugar Blues

I found a tiny health food store called Sugar Blues in Florence! I was so excited.

Vegguide.org calls it “[a] heath food store sells fresh and packaged organic food, macrobiotic items, health products, herbs, flower remedies, products for personal care, and books.”

They sell a lot of gluten free food options, like rice-based pasta and many gluten free breads. I was so excited! They also sell these adorable chocolate-covered rice cakes for 1 euro (I really liked them!)
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I also found coconut oil, organic tomato sauce, and gluten-free tamari sauce (soy sauce).

It’s a small store on the south side of the Arno river, only a few blocks away from the Santo Spirito church.
The Santo Spirito. I passed it on my way from Sugar Blues to the Ponte Vecchio, where I met up with my group to go to the Italian Cooking Class I had scheduled that same evening. I showed up to the cooking class with three bulging bags of groceries.

Adventure Day! — Top of the Duomo and Campanile

I decided to use the better part of the day for some adventures, now that I’m feeling better. I enjoyed my own company, and we’ll start the adventure here: by one of the statues by the Palazzo Vecchio (“Old Palace”) and Piazze Signoria (the surrounding square). 
I walked to the Mercado Centrale (Central Market), glimpsed the San Lorenzo church, then headed to the Duomo.
I’ll write about the Santa Maria del Fiore (also known as “the Duomo”) another time. This is a shot of the amazing floor in the church. I descended to the level below the church to buy a ticket and saw the “scavi” (excavations below the church). My ticket cost 10 euros: it’s valid for 24 hours, and it gets you into the campanile/bell tower, the scavi, the museum and also the dome.
Very low ceilings, and parts of what I assume were the original floor remain.
I left the building, and walked to the side entrance that leads to the stairs that take you to the top of the dome. About halfway there you end up standing inside the dome, and can look up:
These are from the same vantage point.
Looking down — the picture is foggy because of the clear barrier.
The walkway is right here, below the stained glass windows.
Back inside the round maze. The dome is actually doubled; one is inside the other. The stairs are built in-between the two domes. You can see the interior dome to the right here.
I found the walk up pretty easy — I didn’t end up panting like some of the tourists. I’m a little afraid of heights, so the walk down the steep staircases was more nerve-wracking (they aren’t these ones, but the final set of stairs is nearly vertical.) Not close to as many stairs as I thought there’d be. There are about 463 steps to the top.
View of Florence.
Guess what: it’s Fiesole!
The white Santa Croce church (I live a few blocks from there). If you look closely the San Miniato church on the hill is visible, as is the Piazzale Michelangelo.
Looking at the tourists on the campanile/bell tower that’s right next to the Duomo. Right after climbing to the top of the Duomo I climbed the bell tower and stood where those tourists are standing.
Florence’s/our beautiful campanile.
Pictures from the top of the campanile:
View of the Santa Croce (again. I get a warm feeling when I see this church now, it reminds me that I live in Florence).
View of the lantern — the top part of the dome. That’s where I stood earlier in the day.
View of the Palazzo Vecchio (from the campanile) where I began my day!

Carnevale di Viareggio

Carnevale di Viareggio is a large-scale parade of floats and masks that occurs every year in the Tuscan city of Viareggio. It’s considered one of the greatest celebrations in both Italy and Europe.

I went on the AIFS day trip to Viareggio to see the Carnevale parade. The floats were extraordinary, and have always been very political in nature, often depicting famous people and politicians.

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The first float was so amazing! It was John Lennon’s head. One of the most amazing things about the floats, aside from their size, is how mobile they are. This float began with Lennon’s head cradled in his hands with a black and white background. As the music began playing, Lennon lifts his head and looks from side to side as everything explodes with confetti, movement and Beatles’ music. It was spectacular!!!
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The floats are huge — a bit of the 3-story building is visible next to this float. Each float played its own music, and large groups of dressed up people and dancers moved along between each huge float.

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Excited and dressed like a girl for Carnevale!
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Another amazing float. The shaman could move his head and hands, as well as blink. The butterfly pillars spun around crazily too.
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The crowd. That’s where the floats approached me from where I stood. That’s a 3-story building next to the shaman float, which gives you an idea of scale. The floats travelled a loop, so they moved down the street, then turned and came back along another street.
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One of the dancers in the parade.
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A giant voo-doo doll.
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This was so cool! The scale of it was just incredible. It makes you realise how almost all large-scale things are rendered digitally in movies — I can’t imagine how much effort went into constructing an actual, huge, mobile model of a robotic spider. Really loud techno/electronic music played, and the people on the float danced a little techno routine.

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I’m honestly not really sure what this is about.
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This float is definitely very political. Just consider the camouflage colours, painted face, and expression of the soldier in the tank. Anyway, this was a super cool float. It was so mobile; the helmet, hands, eyes, tongue and hair all moved. It’s erie to have the huge floats loom down over you.
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 The people on the floats were very dressed up too.
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This scary thing coming along the other side of the street. It was breathing smoke.
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Creeper Shot #7: Just chilling with an admirable tuft of texture.
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That devil float made it around to my side of the street. He’s dressed as a puppet master (his mask could come down over his entire face as well) manipulating (what I presume to be) politicians in a boxing rink. The pope was depicted as one of the puppets hanging off the back of this float.

Creeper shot #8: This looks like the same guy as in #7, but I’m 70% sure it’s not. The hair is a tiny bit different.

All I can work out is that Immigrazione= Immigration.
Omosessualita = Homosexuality. I have to admit that I’m very entertained by how willing the Italian men are to dress up like this.
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I’m not sure what the message is here, but this was such an awesome float. The guy could fold his wings and duck his head, to where he wasn’t that visible. Then he rose up while spreading his wings.
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Creeper shot #8: This guy’s carrying some figurines.

Figurines like this one were carried along on the back of a single, dedicated \ person.
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They Hysteria float — the lady (dressed in the colours of Italy) basically just screams (there’s a sound track). A scientist and psychologist are on either side of her. Again, I’m not sure what the message is here, but I interpreted it as representation of Italy’s (social and political) problems that are understood neither by the scientist (who studies physical bodies), nor by the psychologist (who studies the mind).
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This thing was pretty intense — it’s eyes, jaw, head and arms all moved. It just leered creepily over the crowd.
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Poseidon appeared. He could both sit and stand upright.
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Creeper shot #9: A cute soccer-playing child with that hair cut I need to photograph.
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I ran off to explore and found the beach!! The mountains in the distance were such an unexpected sight!
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Me by the sea shore of the  Mediterranean Sea.
Tips for Viareggio:
  • Bring layers! It may be warm for a while, but the temperature drops in the evening.
  • Ride the ferris wheel! I didn’t do this, but some classmates had a great time (and a great view).
  • Walk through/along with the parade. You see everything faster this way, and get to dance around and stuff (I didn’t do this, I stood in one spot).
  • Take sunglasses, it can get sunny.
  • Don’t let the kids throw confetti at you — they tend to scoop it off of the ground.
  • Go run over to the beach! It’s so gorgeous.

Osteria de’ Peccatori — Restaurant Review

Osteria de’ Peccatori serves typical Tuscan food.

It’s name translates as “Restaurant of Sinners.”

It’s open until midnight, which is why my hungry roommates and I decided to go stop by and have a (very) late dinner.

Basics: the food was mediocre, and I probably won’t go back — if you do go, I’d recommend paying for it in cash and saving your AIFS program meal vouchers for Golden View where it pays off more.

Positives: they’re accommodating to vegetarian and gluten-free requests, they made me something off the menu; rice and mushrooms and a salad. The rice-mushroom thing was very mushroomy. I like mushrooms, but this was very intense.

We had dessert too, which was better than the food, I think.

Kat’s “Sinner’s cup of Ice Cream” (or something like that).

My tiramisu was alright. In my opinion, Masticabrodo’s tiramisu is the best I’ve had so far (they’re a meal voucher restaurant too).
My disclaimer is that this review is written from a gluten-free, vegetarian standpoint. Their pizzas/pastas might be good; I wouldn’t know.
Tips for Osteria de’ Peccatori
  • Pay in euros, don’t use up your meal vouchers here.
  • Their mushroom risotto is very, very mushroomy tasting. Be warned.

Special Diet tip: Directly ask your server what they can make you that fits your dietary needs 🙂 I don’t know how I didn’t think of this earlier, but from now on I’ll be directly asking for help choosing foods from my waiter in the future.

Just An Update

Hi! I’ve been so busy lately, I haven’t quite set aside the time to sort out my favourite photos from my Venice trip this past weekend. I’ve been getting over feeling sick the past three days. Also I’m getting the hang of my classes finally, which is great!

I got home today after our Italian Life and Culture (ILC) class lecture on Italian Politics, and switched on our television — a nature show on some sort of river seals was on (in Italian). It was so exciting! I used to watch a lot of animal shows as a kid.

I walked about — next week I’ll have my cooking class, which has been arranged to be gluten-free! Yay! We’ll be making:

  • “Ravioli di spinaci e ricotta” (Spinach and ricotta cheese ravioli)
  • “Sformato di verdure” (I have no idea what this is)
  • Panna cotta! My favorite dessert!

Anyway, I spent the evening drawing in my sketchbook and listening to a calming audiobook on my iPod.

Bonus points to whoever recognises this image from one of my earlier posts! Diario Visivo di Fiona = my rough translation of “Fiona’s Visual Journal.” I don’t usually like to share any of my art online, but whatever. I draw for pleasure occasionally nowadays. I should probably practice more, but it’s much more exciting to see Florence!
Me in Verona; photo by Elizabeth V. , my awesome room mate. On our AIFS (American Institute of Foreign Study) Venice trip we first stopped by Verona. Like I said, I still need to put together my Venice posts. See you all soon in my next post! 🙂 -Fi