Words and Pictures by Christine Webb

Years ago, while staying near the Amalfi coast, I saw four heavy men in sateen suits emerge from a large black car. On their fat fingers, rings flashed in the midday sun and their glossy black hair was combed from grimly set faces.

They had driven that morning from Naples and I gasped at the thought that they were Mafia hit men. No, laughed my host. They were visiting their mother for Sunday lunch and were more afraid of missing lunch than of any Cosa Nostra.

The youngest greeted my host and warmly shook his hand. I was astonished at his impeccable grooming, well-cut suit perfectly coordinated with a silk tie and matching shirt complete with delicate aftershave.
All this for his mother? ‘Why not?’ replied my host, astonished at my question. ‘After all it is Sunday lunch’.

Cometh the hour

All across Italy in restaurants, houses and dining rooms, every Sunday at about one in the afternoon, the majority of people will be sitting to eat with friends and family, dressed in their finest. Like clockwork, piazzas will suddenly empty of their crowds; churches, having finished mass will close their doors; bars will serve their last grappa and there’ll be no-one about to ask what the heck is going on.

An immovable feast

The time for lunch is lunchtime. Italians do not have our loose handle on time, doing such crazy Sunday things as eating brunch or indulging in a late lunch. Lunch is always 12.30 for 1pm. If in doubt ask what time you’re expected but the answer will probably be l’ora di pranzo (lunchtime).

Bring flowers and chocolates, keep wine to the local varieties. Many Italians think a bottle of French is special, but to be on the safe side a bottle of Prosecco is excellent, Grappa is great if you like it and there is always everyone’s favourite – Vin Santo (sweet dessert wine).

A matter of course

First course will be antipasto: bruschetta, prosciutto, cheeses and salami and may include seafood. Wine will be served throughout the meal but be careful if you suddenly find your fluency in Italian improving.

Second course will be pasta, usually homemade and wonderful. You will possibly be offered a second helping and fatally accept leaving absolutely no room for more. This is where the absurd declaration that you are on a diet will be accepted without offending the cook.

For the third course, a selection of roasted meats is often served at restaurants but at home it will usually be chicken, rabbit or duck. You may have roast potatoes at the same time but sometimes you will have to wait before a course of vegetables or salad is served.

Your hosts by this stage will have devoured each plateful as it arrives without waiting for the others to start and will often be
on to second helpings. Finally dolce (dessert) which is when the ‘diet’ excuse won’t wash and you will have to find room.

By the time the coffee has arrived you will have mastered the art of being full of praise for the delicious food and fending off unstoppable serving platters.

Food fads forbidden

If you have children, you will be expected to bring them and they will be expected to eat what is served. This can be amazingly tricky as the spaghetti Bolognese that they enjoy at home may be a different taste altogether to the one served in an Italian home.

Italians have an amazing blind spot to the finicky tastes of British children and seriously think children are ill if they do not eat. This is the conversation stopper and difficult to out manoeuvre.

Well before the lunch tell the hostess that your child is an impossible eater and that you will feed it before you arrive, this way the ensuing conversation about your child’s eating problems is out of the way before the day and you are spared any embarrassment.

Obviously you would not help clear up, but you may be astonished to find that many Italians now serve these multi-course meals on disposable plastic plates. This has happened to us more times than not.

Grand Sudnay lunches

The really grand occasions are Prima Comunione (First Communion for a child of ten or 11 years old) or Cresima (Confirmation, usually at 13 or 14 years). You’ll be expected to bring a present: a serious gift is more appropriate than a video game or toy. If in doubt, money in a card is quite acceptable.

The biggest and best lunch on the Italian calendar is Ferragosto, August 15. This is the one day of the year when all Italy stops and celebrates lunch. Our village has a grand outdoor lunch. Everybody has a marvellous time and afterward, when the sensible totter home for a sleep, the kids have a great water battle in the fountain.

Later in the evening an outdoor disco thumps out the favourites and everyone who can dances the Pinguino and the girls show off their slim brown bodies as they mechanically step-dance to the hit parade.