The “Tavola Calda” – Part 1

BEFORE THE TAVOLA CALDA

My father likes to reminisce about the wonderful meals he ate while living in Rome in the 1950s. Perhaps surprisingly, one of his favorite lunches consisted of a big plate of cooked spinach on which he drizzled olive oil and squeezed a lemon. He would lap it up with several slices of a hearty, crusty bread and wash it down with a glass of white wine. It was a dish he really enjoyed and he liked the fact that in Italy spinaci al limone could be ordered, eaten, and most importantly, savored as a meal in itself. 

IMG_5402 - Version 2Perhaps my father’s choice had been subliminally influenced by Popeye, the classic cartoon character who ate his spinach straight from the can. There’s no way of knowing. However, in Italy where the sailor is known as Braccio di Ferro (Arm of Iron), the greens in that Roman eatery were a far cry from the sort tipped out of a can or sucked through a pipe. 

My father’s nutritious lunch was consumed in a trattoria, a simple establishment with good quality, local food. He still remembers the name of his regular haunt, “Sorachiara,” and the short Neapolitan woman who ran it. For 90-100 Lire (15-16 cents) he had his spinach, a little more change for un quarto (1/4 liter) of the local white wine, Vino dei Castelli Romani.

His friends scratched their heads at his order – a side dish with bread. They figured he couldn’t afford a full meal. So when Tonino and Giovanni invited him to join them, they insisted on buying him un pasto completo or a full meal consisting of several courses including pasta and meat dishes. He obliged, but he really would have preferred his spinach.

WHAT IS A TAVOLA CALDA?

Today, it’s difficult to find little trattorias such as the one my father frequented “back in the day.” While many eating establishments still use the name, the prices have increased beyond what would be considered truly economical and the food has often veered away from traditional local fare.

Where would the protagonist of the Bicycle Thief bring his poor son Bruno to eat in the 21st century? I would suggest a tavola calda, a type of casual restaurant found throughout Italy.

Translated literally, tavola calda means “hot table” and it could be analogous to a type of cafeteria or other catering enterprise where food is ordered at a counter or selected from an array of pre-made dishes. With the food already cooked, the service is quick, and in English “tavola calda” is sometimes translated as “fast food” or “snack bar.”

FAST FOOD VS. SLOW FOOD

Funny to think of a plate of spinach as fast food. Clearly, today’s conception of “fast food” has evolved to a meaning all its own – a conception brought about in 1950s America with the development of the type of establishment that allowed the consumer to practically drive through the eating experience.

IMG_7694It seems to me that sitting down to a plate of spinach picked locally and prepared just the way Grandma used to would be just the opposite. That spinach would have more to do with what’s known as “slow food” today. And not surprisingly, the international movement was started by an Italian, Carlo Petrini, as a reaction to the invasion of American-style fast food restaurants in Italy. The focus is to preserve traditional and regional cuisine, highlighting quality, flavor and naturalness.

So does Italy have its own fast food? Well, if thinking in terms of fast service, then the tavola calda, the tavola fredda (cold table) and bars that serve sandwiches and other such food would fill the bill. The type of tavola fredda or bar that also serves reheated frozen products would certainly bridge the gap between the two worlds.

Many bars offer an array of food items in addition to pastries. Sometimes next to fresh panini (sandwiches) there will be platters with bite-sized frozen pizzas or tater tots to be eaten as snacks or with cocktails – definitely not slow food. I have often marveled at the Italian who on the one hand will turn his nose up when someone uses parmigiano instead of pecorino cheese in a recipe for pasta alla carbonara, but who then has no problem downing, for all intents and purposes, junk food. Everyone has his weak spot, or a need for that quick fix every so often.

FROM SOUP TO NUTS

IMG_5403While the tavola calda usually offers the quick sandwich and other foodstuffs found at a bar, it can also serve complete meals for lunch or dinner. The choices can be quite extensive with the food presentation ranging from takeaway to cafeteria style to table service. In Reggio there’s a bar/tavola calda on the main pedestrian street where the waitstaff serves up three-course menus dressed in white dinner jackets.

Atmosphere is always casual, although there may be a few places aiming at contemporary chic in their choice of décor. It’s Italy, after all.

Many years ago my father frequently chose just a plate of spinach. And now that I think of it, perhaps he was a bit like Popeye, as accompanying his greens was none other than the sailor’s girlfriend Olive Oyl (or Olivia Oyl, as she’s known in Italian).


Calabria bookRead Part 2 – Calabrian Eateries: “Il Gastronauta”

More about Italian food can be found in Calabria: The Other Italy, my award-winning, nonfiction book that explores daily life, culture, history, the arts, food, society and tourism of Calabria, Italy.

Do you enjoy food? Read about a couple of noteworthy meals I enjoyed to the max – Trattoria: La Collinetta in Martone, Lunch at a Neapolitan Trattoria and Trattoria in Cosenza – and don’t miss The Bergamot: Calabria’s Incredible Citrus.

Taste delicious Calabrian food for yourself on Karen’s Travel LLC Calabria Tour!

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      Thanks, Lisa. I remember reading an article written by a German that described American eating establishments to his fellow countrymen – the basics of fast food, diners and family-style restaurants, chain restaurants and “higher-end” places. I was surprised with the detail he gave things that I took for granted, but as you say, its important for a traveler to understand the options.

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