“Food is fuel. You get picky about what you put in the tank, your engine is gonna die. Now shut up and eat your garbage.” Django the Rat
Admittedly, I've developed some poor eating habits over the years which go beyond being a picky eater and lean more towards a legitimate eating disorder. I feel like a lot of Americans suffer from this issue in silence, but it’s not surprising when you consider our diets. From a young age we’re continually fed processed or frozen food, plus sugar, butter, and corn syrup are a main staple of our diet.
Those same eating habits are starting to crop up in my daughter and I’ve found myself struggling with how to teach her about nutrition without sounding like a hypocrite the entire time. The trip served as therapy for both of us and showed me that seasonal food, prepared by a chef who makes a living wage, can be both healthy and tasty.
This constant walking burned calories quickly in all of us and it seemed like someone in the group was always hungry. The cafes in Paris were nice to stop by for a quick snack to keep us moving, but when selecting an appropriate restaurant to spend a considerable amount of money, we stuck to a few rules.
The most important rule was to never eat at restaurants which had pictures of food on their menu or on posters outside their restaurant. These type of places like to cater to the tourist market and typically show large portions to entice hungry visitors into choosing their establishment after being overwhelmed by the abundance of choices surrounding them. A lot of these restaurants are located close to tourist centers such as The Eiffel Tower or Leaning Tower of Pisa and sometimes it’s necessary to excuse yourself and leave to find another restaurant when you notice photos on the menu, even after sitting down at the table. You want to eat local cuisine, not something frozen and shipped in from out of the country for the high profit margin.
Another good rule is to make sure you allocate a decent amount of time to the meal, the servers consider it rude to speak to you while you’re eating and will not come to check on you unless you make eye contact and request them. We never deciphered the tipping etiquette either, some people would demand a tip if we didn’t write one in, some included it on the check, and some servers didn’t expect one at all because they’re already paid a fair wage. I’m still not sure what’s customary, but we found it easier to just tip everyone if the service was good, like we do at home.
Some servers were rude to us when asking for the check, but most were very helpful and understanding of our inherited impatience. While at the Livernano Winery in Chianti we waited for the check for 40 minutes until I finally left to seek out our server in the kitchen and ask for it, but I was then shooed out like a child and told to wait. After sitting around for another 15 minutes we left some cash on the table and departed, but they made us feel like intruders to their remote countryside.
It may be customary to expect the patron to remain at the restaurant, making friends with other guests while sipping espresso and watching the sun go down, but we had three very tired kids with us and despite our best efforts to control their impulses, their obnoxiousness increased the longer we stayed. We started calling this wasted time “paying the American tax” because it felt like we were being held hostage by the server as a punishment for our impatient archetypes.
I could live in France eating solely at the patisseries, my eyes were constantly drawn to the vast array of croissants, baguettes, macarons, and eclairs. However, I learned very quickly to not ask for butter as there was never any available and it just made me sound like a fat American, but I also found the food to be so flavorful that butter wasn’t necessary anyways. The meals were bountiful, but also lighter, healthier, and more flavorful (the double footlong hot dog baguette being an exception).
On our second night in Paris our jet-lagged bodies were all very hungry, but we still wanted to pick the perfect restaurant for our inaugural meal in the city of lights. This led to me over analyzing several menus, which I could barely translate, while my wife second guessed her decision to not eat at restaurants with pictures of food on the menu. Her hunger grew along with the complaints coming from the children.
Eventually I caved and agreed to the next restaurant we found, the menu had no prices, but we were in Paris and my wife wanted an authentic French dining experience. There were no kid's menus, but I wanted them to try something different anyways and they ended up enjoying the food quite a bit, even with the smaller portion sizes. At the conclusion of the meal I received the check and was surprised to see a bill of over €450! This wasn’t even including tip, which the waiter made sure to point out. We may have been taken advantage of as tourists because we never paid anywhere close to that, eating better food elsewhere for the rest of the trip, but it was my own fault for not doing my research beforehand.
I paid the bill with a smile and tipped my hat to the elderly French ladies at the table parallel to us, whom my children thoroughly entertained during the meal with their funny accents and strange requests. It was definitely a mediocre meal for the price, but also one that I will never forget, but on the bright side, it led to a cheap breakfast the next day which ended up being one of the best meals of my life.
Following that overly expensive, yet small dinner the night before, we chose a random patisserie with an amazing view of the Eiffel Tower and an available outdoor table. The restaurant had a resident dog which danced around the legs of the waiters as traffic poured from the kitchen staring at us as if we didn’t belong there. The waitress greeted us and set down a basket containing a wide variety of delicious baked goods and jams. I ordered a coffee and the foam arrived in the shape of a flower. I noticed that the people of France pay attention to detail and take every opportunity to create, even if it’s something as temporary as a cup of coffee. The atmosphere may have played into my love of the food, but sipping my latte while those around me still sipped wine from the night before, watching a dog sit obediently by a kitchen full of food, and observing an orderly line of elementary-aged school children shuffling through the city center to their next lesson gave me an inexplicable sense of calm. My kids had a variety of eggs, crepes, and fruit while my wife finished her omelet and I devoured the unlimited croissants, taking a full-size baguette with me to go. I felt like I might want to call Paris home someday.
After leaving Paris we realized that finding meals would become more difficult the further into the country we ventured. We were turned away with our loud American children in the Alps when a man speaking little English ran outside and scooted our dancing children away like raccoons. We pressed on and found a family restaurant catering to local lumberjacks during the off season offering a variety of burgers, flank steak, pork, and duck dishes, my wife decided on the “Jeanne d'Arc” which wasn’t what we expected, but ended up being a highlight of our trip to the French countryside.
When the 'Joan of Ark' dish showed up to the table it was raw steak on an iron skewer, the waitress lit a fire at the table and my wife proceeded to salt and cook the meat to her liking. This option was available at several more restaurants throughout the trip and by the time we left, our pyro-aged boys were masters at table cooking turkey, duck, pork, and beef to perfection.
We noticed after passing into Italy that the portion sizes increased dramatically and the wine seemed to be giving us a hangover again. For some reason, in France we could drink all day and night and still wake up early the next day, while the Italian wine seemed to be stronger and we had to drink less of it if we wanted to function the next day (thank God for espresso). We later found out at a wine tour in Tuscany that even Italian wine is aged in rented French oak barrels, which are considered priceless in the region. That's probably why we enjoyed French wine a bit more.
Translating the menu became a game of food roulette for me in Italy and I would usually use Google translate to figure out a few words and then just roll the dice. I always made an attempt to order in the native language without pointing at the menu, and the waiters seemed to appreciate that. It felt rude to assume that they would speak English, and I thought that since I’m in their country I should try to speak their language, albeit very poorly.
This sometimes led to dishes I didn’t expect, but I tried to eat every bite and it was good therapy for my selective eating habits. I noticed in Italy that the waiters were much more open to banter at the table and wanted to get to know the guests. We had one waiter applaud with the kitchen staff when my teenage stepson finished his lasagna before she could even put down the rest of our plates, and another made me try a bite of my eggplant before she would agree to clear my place setting. We even had someone attempt to teach us how to cook Coq au vin when we asked them if they could recommend a restaurant selling it. I also felt like a local when I helped with some tech support in Riomaggiore after a waitress was having trouble with her POS system.
How people perceive time in Italy is also very different and took some getting used to. Restaurants and shops close around 1:30 PM and then reopen again around 6:30 PM everyday.
This sounds ideal for those who live there, but for a tourist, it just gives snarky servers a reason to profile your group and then refuse you to serve you based on some arbitrary close time. We were turned away from many establishments even if their sign said open, just because we had kids who they assumed would be loud and messy. Italians also expect dinner to be an all night affair and when we showed up at 6:30 PM they would be a bit surprised by our early arrival, but would usually let us in while they continued to prepare the restaurant for the evening. In Rome, we saw some very large families with young children who wouldn’t even show up at the restaurant until 11:00 P.M. They would stay until well after Midnight, drinking wine and passing large plates of pasta around like a choreographed dance.
While I personally preferred the meals in France, they couldn’t compete with the snacks of Italy. I would have been happy eating only pizza, gelato, and biscotti. If I had to pick my favorite pizza of the trip it would be Mateo’s Pizzeria in Rome, and the best gelato we found was at a small gelateria on the way to the rocky beach of Riomaggiore, taking the stairs on the left rather than heading towards the train station.
My wife and I also enjoyed allowing the kids to have a small bit of wine so they could experience some of the best vintages in the world, but in Italy we were told by a vintner in Tuscany that the drinking age was 18 and underage drinking carried a hefty fine of €500. Drinking in public was much more lenient in France, and we saw people drinking responsibly everywhere we went. When we would misread the menu and accidentally order a bottle instead of a glass, we’d be offered a to-go cup to finish our drinks out by the river or park. People in the states might be more active in government if it weren’t for the public intoxication laws, then they wouldn't have to choose between protesting, or locking themselves away in a bar after a long day of work.
My stepson spoke the universal language of soccer to the locals, but I’ve carefully sculpted my beer gut over the years and the French servers were impressed by my relentless orders for absinthe and additional wine. However, the Italians were less than impressed and took my binging as more of a challenge, offering me complimentary limoncello and Irish coffee until, well, I can’t really remember.
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