Italy Week

How to Lunch Like an Italian (Even If You're Not)

September 23, 2018

It’s Italy Week! All week long, we’re celebrating everything Italian and Italy-inspired: recipes, stories, and travel tips.

In Italy, breakfast is usually small, just enough to jumpstart the day—and your appetite. Dinner is short and sweet and sends you to bed not swollen but satisfied. Lunch, however, takes on an almost spiritual importance. In the Italian culinary psyche, the midday meal is like the ego, the id, and the superego all rolled into one. It dictates your mood, your hunger, your schedule. In my family, lunch was so important my grandmother used to wake up before sunrise to start preparing pasta and sauce so that it was ready to eat by 1 p.m. By the time the sun swelled highest in the sky, we crowded back in the house to escape the heat and seek comfort in her plump, ricotta-filled ravioli.

Obviously, no one (not even me) is asking for that level of dedication. It’s admittedly a lot of food: a teeming plate of pasta, a secondo (meat or fish), vegetables (usually local, seasonal, and so delicious), all punctuated by freshly cut fruit and a hot, slightly sugared shot of espresso (no milk!).

We lead busy lives—like leave home before sunrise and return after sunset busy—so expecting anyone to lunch like a Ligurian is probably out of the question. Even though our American work schedules don’t encourage a two to three hour early afternoon work break, that doesn’t mean that we can’t all take a midday moment to savor a nice meal, to bask in the comfort of a satisfied stomach, and indulge a conversation as it lopes its way across a table. All without leaving the office. Here are just a few suggestions:

Lean into leftovers.

Italians love to repurpose foods. Why throw out a perfectly good meal? Lunch, particularly when eaten on the go, is prime time to give last night’s dinner new life. For example, a pasta with red sauce becomes silkier than ever when reheated with a splash of milk (a trick I learned from my aunt). And steak or rotisserie chicken chopped and tossed with fresh seasonal vegetables is a feast on its own.

Tango with Tupperware.

If you’re committed to the structure of a primo (pasta dish), secondo (meat dish), and contorni (vegetable-centric sides) then its a good time to invest in some sturdy, organized container. Think something like a tiffin that’ll keep your courses separate and easily accessible. Easy to clean is always a plus, too!

Don’t be afraid of the sandwich.

Or, as Italians call them, the panino. Sandwiches, though on the simpler side, are a perfectly acceptable lunch alternative. The Italian secret is maximizing the best ingredients. Think: oily, artisan focaccia, freshly sliced prosciutto, sliced, salty, sumptuous mozzarella. The sandwich becomes elegant when its components are treated as such.

Fruit’s a friend.

In Italy, fruit is almost always used to signal the end of a meal.The sweet bookend leaves you feeling full but not stuffed Try packing a fresh peach or some grapes for your last bite—a pear’s always a good idea, too. Think seasonal, easily transportable fruit that’ll satisfy your sweet tooth without being too saccharine.

End with an espresso.

There’s a hard and fast Italian rule that after 11 p.m., no one should drink milk with their coffee. It may sound downright un-American, but there’s some sense to it: Milky, frothy drinks are too filling and nap-provoking for later in the day. Instead, Italians opt for a quick shot of earthy, black espresso. This helps cut through the midday meal and give you enough energy to curb that early afternoon slump. If black coffee isn’t your thing, go for a macchiato—an espresso with just a dash of steamed milk.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“11am, not pm, for no milk with coffee. ”

You may be miles from Milan, but still, the ease and elegance of an Italian meal doesn’t have to be so far away.

Here's a great place to start

What are your favorite lunch packing tips? Let us know in the comments.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

Valerio is a freelance food writer, editor, researcher and cook. He grew up in his parent's Italian restaurants covered in pizza flour and drinking a Shirley Temple a day. Since, he's worked as a cheesemonger in New York City and a paella instructor in Barcelona. He now lives in Berlin, Germany where he's most likely to be found eating shawarma.

1 Comment

CAROL W. October 26, 2018
11am, not pm, for no milk with coffee.