Company is Family
Benvenuto. It means “welcome” but the literal translation speaks to the art of hospitality. ”Bene” means “well or fine.” Venuto is derived from the verb “venire” which means “to come.” While it does, in fact, mean “well come” it’s message is “it is good that you have come.” How can we show this to the people that walk through our doors and sit at our tables? Well, there are lots of ways. Italians are, by nature, a sensuous people. By sensuous I mean “of the senses”. Seeing. Hearing. Touching. Smelling. Tasting. All of these are essential components in embracing visitors into our homes.
This is why “food is love” as such. It satisfies all the five senses and it offers up of ourselves in a way that nothing else can. Italians have mastered this art of celebrating these senses and using them as a way to include guests at our hearths.
Even before our guests are welcomed into our homes, we want them to feel pampered. Porch lights and potted plants are a beacon of home. Crossing the front door envelopes us into warmth. Fussing for company is part of the anticipation. We buy the flowers, light the candles, wipe the bathroom mirrors. Why? We want our guests to feel our love. Tidiness, in it’s own way, is a sign of respect. We see the home before we ever taste the food.
They say that you taste food first with your eyes. I believe this to be true. There is something to be said for the beauty of a ripe tomato, a bottle of wine, a loaf of bread and glistening olives cuddled together in an intimate tableau. The beauty of Deruta ceramics add color to the table, as well as the kitchen, like sparkling yellow flowers. I’ve said before that there is a paradox of Italian decor, “sparse and ornate” to quote myself….somehow the table is both. Whether it is the style of the wood or the color of the placemats, there is a definitive essence to The Italian Table. Each scratch and stain is a “riccordo” of meals gone by. Before you even sit down, you know that You Are Welcome. The presence of fresh food, a tray with olives and cheese and prosciutto…all of these feed our sense of sight. We are satisfied before we even put anything into our mouths.
Hearing is subtle, but it is strong. There may be music playing, and the laughter is abound. However; the sound I am talking about is in the cooking. Only those with whom we are closest do we feel comfortable enough to crack eggs and sizzle oil with. I love the sound that risotto makes, that scraping, hissing noise when you stir with your wooden spoon. It connects me to every risotto meal I’ve ever made. It creates a response in us that allows us to relax and enjoy the moment of listening to the food cook. There is no pretentiousness as you open the wine and hear the pop of the cork and the hiss of the meat as it cooks. Leaning against a counter you bond with your guests. Sense memories in sound. Have you ever heard a sound that transported you to another place and time? Even today, I still think of my Nonna when I bang the cheese against the grater those last few times. She would make a show of banging the cheese onto our macaroni. We loved it. She loved us. We loved her. Creating those moods for our guests is a way to show our love.
Touch. The tactile sense creates a sensation in our hands that pours out in our hearts. Food is about touching. When we are preparing a meal, we handle food that our loved ones will put in their mouths. Every rope of gnocchi that is rolled and cut, every meatball, every zucchini flower that is filled, literally has been touched with love. There is an intimacy in touching the food that will feed others. We take time as we cook, maybe humming along the way. The touch of food inspires us as we prepare for our guests. (Just don’t get any hair in the food or your mother will kill you.) Kneading dough for bread becomes the epicenter of the home. It is really a living thing that needs to be nurtured. When hands are busy, hearts are full. This is how the best conversations are born. Together at a table, rolling cookies or frosting cakes, we are able to bear our souls. Kinesthetic evidence of welcoming our guests is evident in the way we arrange our table. It is there in the placement of food before our guests. We want them to enjoy our meal. Tearing a loaf of bread has a satisfying feeling like no other….but holding hands for grace is a very close second.
Smell is actually our strongest sense. The Olefactory nerve in our noses is what predicates the mouth watering and primes us to taste the food. The sense of smell can transport us immediately to a memory. We can make our guest feel welcome in the scents of garlic, sauteeing onions, freshly baked bread. Our homes all have a scent. It is the culmination of laundry soap, candles, perfume, pets, people, wood, smoke and so on. To this day, the smell of bleach and tomato sauce cooking reminds me of Nonna. Hers was a home that was clean and smelled of herbs. We knew when there was soup on the stove when we came through the main door. The Welcome Scent of Food. The fragrance fills our guests’ hearts. How can we make our guests feel welcome through scent? Fresh sheets, (if they’re house guests) the smell of espresso and cornetto in the morning. The wafting scents of welcome.
This brings us to the final sense of taste. We have been primed with our other senses before we begin our meal. The first course is the antipasto. Antipasto literally means, “before food”. It is a chance to taste and savor and relax. It whets the appetite while at the same time, it creates anticipation. Italians serve their food in a progression of courses. It serves a two-fold purpose. The first purpose is that we are able to sit together at the table for a longer period of time. The second is that each dish is celebrated for the gift that it is. Unadorned on a plate, there is nothing as elegant as fried baccala. Each taste is appreciated, the primo piatto, the contorno, through to a sweet and a little bite of fennel. Each part of the meal is given its own moment to shine. We share these treasures with our guests.
I’ve been taught by my mother that if people come over, you put food out. That’s the rule. Family. Friends. Food. The Triumvirate of hospitality. You are welcome. It is good that you are here.