Say what you will about French parenting but when it comes to food and family around a table, no one does it better, or enjoys it more, than Italians.
We've lived in Rome for three years, where our baby and toddler were both born, and while our Dolce Vita's had its share of ups and downs, one of our absolute favorite activities is spending a long afternoon together ... at a restaurant.
There are cloth napkins and waiters in black jackets, usually one high chair for the whole place, never a children's menu and don't even think about a changing table in the bathroom. Yet, the experience is completely welcoming, comfortable and, believe it or not, fun. Even for kids. Even for other diners.
Italians expect children to be involved in mealtime experiences, whether they're long, fancy or both, and I love them for it.
"Italian children are reared at the table," writes Helen Ruchti in "La Bella Vita". "They grow up sitting on the laps of parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. They are held and kissed. They learn all the family stories and secrets of neighbors and friends. They learn to talk and listen simultaneously, to talk loud enough to be heard. They learn the joy of being with family and the value of a lazy Sunday afternoon."
When we walk into a restaurant with our mini brood, the response is a mix of smiles and rounds of "Ciao bella!" Even crusty old Italian waiters who usually reserve their gruffest persona for tourists (we may live here but it's still obvious that we're American) squeak out a smile. They can't seem to help it.
Italians put food, family and noise together, explains my friend Amy, a long-time ex-pat and mother of two in Rome. They'd be bored if there was nothing going on and no one to talk about. Even top rated restaurants are open to the littlest diners; the last time she went to Roman hot spot Agata e Romeo, a baby was celebrating his first birthday at the next table.
In fact, there aren't many chain restaurants or venues marketed as "family-friendly". No Red Robin, definitely no Chuck E. Cheese. But boy do they have pizza! It just happens to be handmade and freshly roasted in a fiery oven. Waiters always ask if we'd like some variation of pasta with sauce served immediately for the little ones, and we usually decline. Instead we order enough regular plates to share with the kids, allowing us to eat together.
But the experience isn't quick. There's bread, water and wine upon arrival. Then antipasto. Then pasta, primo. Meat, secondo. And finally dolce followed by caffé. This often takes two to three hours. Sometimes four. We're usually joined by another family or two with small children of their own. Kids sit together at the table, flanked by adults who lend a hand as needed. They eat. They draw. They play with toys. A corner table allows them to get up from the table (yes, up from the table) in between courses and play quietly out of the way. Obviously there is no yelling, no fighting and no running allowed. But it's still not stressful and the kids actually love going to restaurants. Part of this, I imagine, is the fact that the parents enjoy it. Plus, we've been doing it a lot, and often, so the rituals (napkins in laps, check out the menu, here comes the pasta...) are familiar by now.
Our daughters are typically good eaters (I chronicle the ups and downs of life at our table on Foodlets), and with pasta and pizza in abundance, Italian food is about as kid-friendly as it gets. However, we still try to stack the deck in our favor with basic strategies like these:
Always make it lunch, never dinner.
In Italy, dinner isn't usually served until 8 PM which is exactly one hour past our kids' bedtime. "Dining" with an overtired baby plus toddler in tow is no fun for anyone. The last thing I want to do is battle fatigue when we're supposed to be enjoying a meal. Especially one we're paying for.
Take it outside.
Sometimes we pick a spot with a playground, yard or outdoor area for them to run around before and after the meal. The kids get fresh air and fun, we get a great meal. It's a win-win.
Or we'll head to a country farm-turned-restaurant called an agriturismo. Many things are grown on the premises and it's all regional fare cooked according to tradition. Plus, you really can't go wrong with a visit to the barn.
Bring something fun.
We have a bag sitting by the door, loaded with goodies, diapers and snacks. Now that our toddler is old enough, we let her assemble her own backpack full of activities. She calls it her "fun pack" and puts it on first thing in the morning.
Have a plan B.
We have an iPhone available for desperate occasions. Maybe the meal is going even longer than usual or the kids didn't sleep well the night before. This is our Hail Mary move, but I'm not ashamed to say that we've got an episode of "Olivia" locked and loaded if we need it.
Know when to call it quits.
If the meal becomes more stressful than special, there's no sense in sticking it out. When our babies were very young, this was occasionally the case. Invoking the family motto, can't win 'em all, we'd pack it up and try again another time.
Life in Rome is beautiful, frustrating (don't even get me started on pushing a stroller through cobblestone alleys) and delicious, possibly in that order. But one thing is for sure, Italians just adore babies -- even strangers' babies -- and that helps. With a giant blue stroller and two kids, we're something between local oddities and celebrities in our neighborhood. Maybe it's because most Italians have only one child (According to Theodora, Italy has a negative population growth rate of -.075%.), their rarity makes the little guys even more special.
This isn't to say that other cultures don't love and cherish kids but the Italian attitude toward children is one of my favorite things about living here (the driving, smoking and graffiti are all tied for my least favorite). From teenagers in skinny jeans to old men at our local cafe and ladies at the grocery store, they all coo and "quanto sei bella" their way through every interaction with our girls -- and eating out is just par for the delicious course.
These are the memories we'll cherish most when we eventually move away from Italy. Sometimes, certainly not all the time, the t-shirt is right: Italians do it better.