Lunchtime in Italy.
Italians are thought to take a 'siesta' at lunch time - in some places lunchbreak lasts three hours. But it's not called a 'siesta' and they rarely have a kip.
Lunch is traditionally the most important and substantial meal of the day. While we might not go from antipasto through to dolcetto e poi café, there's often a touch of every course, just not in vast quantities. Italians are so used to having a proper meal at lunch that restaurants will offer a lunch-time menu for workers at a reduced price but including a bit of everything. You'll be seated, offered a bread basket, mineral water, perhaps even un quarto di vino - a quarter litre of wine. Meal choices might be three or four for the primo and the same for the secondo, plus salad or seasonal vegetables and then a small slice of crostata or cake before your coffee. This will be priced between £10 and £15. It's nothing fancy or gourmet or beautifully garnished but because we're in Italy, we can assume the quality is up-there.
La pausa pranzo - the lunchtime 'rest' is exactly that - a moment to pause.
If you've visited Italy much, you'll have bumped into many a "CHIUSO" sign on the locked door at lunchtime. This includes any shop, bank, post office, newsagents, even doctors, because there's an order to the day here and almost everyone follows it. Work starts at 8.30, 9.00 or 10.00 and stops at 12.30, 13.00 or 14.00. Everyone shuts their computer down, locks up the office and heads someone to sit down for lunch. It may be a canteen, a bar or a restaurant but if Italians can get home, they will and if they're heading home, they probably already know what's for lunch and that whoever is home first 'ha messo su l'acqua' - has put the pasta water on to boil.
Some habits die hard and many revolve around food but it's comforting to think that lunch is, for the most part, predictable, this is where pasta comes in. Pasta is Italy's most eaten food at 28 kilos per capita per year, that's 76g a day - a small bowl of spaghetti. We all know Italians eat more pasta than any other country but while there's a global shift away from gluten and meat, the quintessential pasta con ragu could dwindle in popularity but will always remain Italy's comfort food, bringing a contended smile with a memory of home kitchens.
Does eating lunch take three hours every day? No, it doesn't, there may be odd-jobs around the house to do, gym before lunch, a walk with the dog, coffee at the bar on the way back to work and even a little nap. In the height of summer when it's 35 degrees in the shade nobody does much, let alone work. In fact, in many places shops will adhere to both summer and winter time schedules, closing even longer for la pausa pranzo between June and September. Be that as it may, times are changing. When I moved to Italy 20 years ago, everything shut at midday, absolutely everything, excluding restaurants and bars. So, when in Rome... what to do except find a table to sit at like everyone else. But these days, supermarkets will stay open from 8am until 8pm orario continuato, meaning we can pick up those groceries on our lunch break! Incredibly, some even open on a Sunday.
Opening shop times in Italy
In Venice, expect shops to open at 8.30 close at 12.30 and reopen from 15.30 until 19.30.
In Rome shops open from 10.00 until 14.00 and 15.00 to 19.00.
In Naples, 10.00 until 14.00 and 15.00 to 20.00.
In Florence, summer hours: 9.00 until 13.00 and 16.00 until 20.00, winter hours: 9.00 to 13.00 and 15.30 to 19.30.
In Como, 10.30 to 12.30 and 15.30 to 19.30.
In Milan city centre, 10.00 to 20.00.
Banks have different hours but all close for lunch, as do post offices, police stations, government offices, pharmacies and bakeries so always check online or in the window and if you do find a 'CHIUSO' sign on the door, just go get lunch. Look for a trattoria or bar around the corner.
As inconvenient as it appears, there's something to be said for taking a break, sitting down at a table to enjoy some gorgeous food and leaving your work worries back at your desk. Italy has the seventh highest life expectancy in the world, perhaps the key is a long pausa pranzo.