Jan 28, 2014

Italian Working Lunch

The whole point of this blog is to share my insight on Italian culture starting from what happens in the kitchen and around the dinner table. It's exciting when readers email me asking to develop a topic, so it was with great enthusiasm that I welcomed Joseph's request.

What do people in Italy eat during their work day? This particular subject gives me the chance to explore exactly those Italian eating customs I like to talk about. It's flattering that a reader of my blog would ask me to shed a little insight on how Italians do lunch, asking me to share ideas to apply to daily routine across the pond.

There is often a lot of talk about the gargantuan meals Italians prepare at home on Sundays, or what delights they can devour at restaurants on their time off, but not much information is shared about what gli italiani eat during the work week.

If you've been following my articles – given the recipes I share and my self-indulging habits – you may still be under the assumption that Italians eat 5-course meals twice a day, 7 days a week. We'd be all obese. The Mediterranean diet is healthy and keeps (most of) us Italians fit, but at that rate, anyone ingesting all those carbs, wine, cheese and cured pork would simply explode.

No, during the week, and particularly at work, we Italians exercise measure. Incredible, right?
How people in Italy do that depends on their line of work.

Occupation makes the difference. A white-collar obviously does not follow the same lunch routine as the guy pouring concrete. While the one with the higher paycheck and benefits grabs a quick panino or a salad at the nearby cafe or tavola calda that has an agreement with his firm, providing employees with "buoni pasto" prepaid meal coupons; it is the low-income labor that gets the best grub. Why? Because most hard hats carry home-cooked meals to work. Warm spoonfuls of risotto, heated carbonara; cacciatora chicken legs or yesterday's roast – always complete with a healthy vegetal side – come neatly packed in stacked lunch boxes called "porta-pranzo" or "porta vivande" (la schiscetta in Milanese dialect), tupperware, or other snap-lid containers.

But don't get me wrong, the lunch pail solution is frequently used throughout Italy, and not restricted to the construction site, but in other professional settings during the work week. Commuters, shop owners and full-timers all shut down for the pausa pranzo (lunch break) and may bring lunch from home. Despite leaving a restaurant with a doggy bag is unthinkable in all social statuses, the Italian bento box represents a cultural lens into how working class vs administrative executive positions attribute value to the workday meal.

Of course there's the social aspect, which on occasion is honored. But rarely will a group of colleagues march down the road to the nearby trattoria during their nine-to-five midday break. A classic Italian restaurant lunch means a) waiting too long (how can a respectful establishment feed a table of 4 in under an hour?); b) paying too steeply for food on a daily basis; and c) simply ingesting too much food. Expect to efficiently check the cash flow numbers on a stomach stuffed with amatriciana, involtini and cassata? Inconceivable.

Office employees will occasionally grab lunch at the nearest restaurant that cuts them deals on complete meal dishes, effectively zeroing out on issues a), b) and c). This practice has recently gained the anglophone menu billing "business lunch," or "light lunch." These commonly include a pasta or a main, a vegetable side dish, water, bread and fruit; with prices ranging anything between €9 and €12.

Another option of course is wolfing down a quick tramezzino (soft white bread, crusts removed, lots of mayo and assorted fillings) or a stuffed focaccia at the corner cafe. Panini (plural) come in all variants, sizes and flavors. Some cafes even have a griddle on which hamburger patties are cooked and slid with fixings in a bun. Regular Italian sandwich fillings vary according to season, but the quality of the ingredients does make the difference between acceptable panini and awful ones. My neighborhood bar makes excellent breakfast cappuccinos, and then at lunch produces some of the best sandwiches in the area: I like to occasionally tuck into some of their warm ciabatta filled with silken prosciutto slices and milky mozzarella; or crusty homestyle pane "rustico" slathered with Taleggio and sauteed spinach; or shrimp salad with tomato, or even salami and hard boiled egg... choices are boundless.

Others prefer their lunch seated, twirling a fork in a plate of pasta, followed by un caffè; while others rely more on the unfailing insalatona. Large niçoise-like salads are a constant factor of the Italian work week meal routine. These rather large productions come served undressed and usually sporting a central ball of mozzarella, arugula, radicchio, shredded carrots, 3 scattered cherry tomatoes, occasional pitted olives, and always tuna. Mysterious olive oil, vinegar and a salt shakers containing crystal concretions stand by on special dressings counters to which patrons help themselves.

In the 12 years I worked in the film industry, I learned that lunch on set can be of different sorts, according to the picture's budget. On Hollywood studio films, with stars worth 6 zeros and big crews, the catering service included food trucks that churned Louis XIV banquets virtually non-stop during the 10-hour work day: barbecued fish or steak, several choices in pasta, gnocchi or soup in winter; salads, fruit and crudité in summer; and offerings changed daily. Besides actual meals, it was the substantials that were the best. Substantials are the food served by craft service companies on film productions, three hours into the day, and again three hours after lunch. As their name suggests, these are a "substantial" enough snack to get the crew through the harder hours of work. Smart line producers will have a budget for clever substantials to keep the work force happy. When I worked on these high budget films (usually international pictures) handsome perks were awaited with anticipation during the laziest part of the day: one time it was chili con carne, one day roasted chestnuts hot off the coals, another time homemade gelato, one other time freshly baked cookies and milk. The daily craft table loaded with snacks and down-time nibbles alone could solve troubles in Ethiopia.

On indie movies and Italian small budget flicks, on the other hand, the meals were not as fancy. Nor that abundant. Rarely able to dine at a catered buffet, we'd more commonly lunch on a pre-packed "cestino," a box distributed to each crew member and fitted with a full, heated meal contained in small aluminum tins: one holding 6 forkfuls of non-al dente pasta, another with an entree, some of us chose vegetarian or celiac options, there was usually one or more pieces fruit, sometimes cheese and always wine. Yes! The cine-cestino meatloaf may be yesterday's recycled piccata, but the vino is always present.

Although drinking during work hours isn't acceptable overseas, Italian employers will tolerate the one glass during midday meals because, again, their hired consumers won't exaggerate. So, if after shooting a complex dialogue sequence, or a dynamic 4-camera set up for the car chase, a little wine will not hurt with lunch, on the contrary. If the boxed meal includes fish, white wine; while if the menu lists minestrone and stew, the wine will probably be red. We're not talking biodynamic or fancy, these wines are boxed in 8-fl oz cartons. But it's the chill-effect that counts.
Needless to say the post-lunch cue at the on set double espresso machine hooked up to the genny is always huge.
Pictured below is a typical rush to lunch situation after the Assistant Director yells "Pausa!" through the bullhorn.

Following are some common Italian work-week lunch solutions, either purchased or packed:

Pasta + salad This is a classic Italian work meal. It keeps faith to tradition, without weighing in on the digestive system. Carbs provide fuel, leafy greens lends crisp palate cleansing freshness

Chicken/meat/fish + grilled vegetables Popular mostly among those watching their figure

Frittata + sauteed greens Which can both also be stuffed in a sandwich...

Soup, cheese + fruit salad Vegetarians have it easy in Italy

Big mixed salad I've fallen victim of the insalatona constant myself: lean, reliable and good for clearing fridge of odd leftovers

Panino The sandwich option implies a hasty lunch, usually followed by numerous coffee breaks, and occasional chocolate supplements

Pizza al taglio In Rome as well as in many other parts of Italy, pizza is available in take-away shops which sell pizza al taglio baked with electric ovens in long, rectangular baking pans and relatively thick (1–2 cm), and intended for take out only. Pizza al taglio is available with an infinite amount of rotating different toppings; and portions are cut with scissors and sold by weight. In this range of bakery goods is also a flat, pizza-like bread called pizza bianca, which is topped with olive oil and coarse salt. A typical Roman custom is stuffing this plain pizza bread with mortadella, or prosciutto and figs, the result being known as pizza prosciutto e fichi.

Fritti (portable fried foods) and all Italian street food faithful to local regional tradition applies to lunch

Gelato complete meal summer staple

I hope to have provided Joseph and anyone else interested in adopting the Italian work week lunch habit some useful information with this article. I am open to discussion. And suggestions!



  1. Hey, Eleonora! Great post! There's definitely a disconnect between what foreigners think Italians eat and what they actually eat on a regular basis. I'm an expat living in Bologna and when I first moved here, I was very baffled on this subject. I was overwhelmed by the heaviness of the typical Bolognese meals my boyfriend and I were eating at restaurants. How can Italians eat this stuff all the time, I thought? I later learned, as you noted, that Italians only eat the full Italian meal on Sundays and some even less often (just on holidays). When I started meeting Italians for lunch or aperitivo, the portions we ate were small and I usually left the meeting still hungry. At this point, I was convinced that Italians hardly eat at all (though the fact I usually eat with very slim Italian women is probably pertinent). When I eat lunch with Italians during the work week, we usually grab a panino or a piadina and eat it while standing, or we head to a cafeteria-style restaurant where they serve things like soup, vegetable sides, chicken breast, roasted potatoes, pasta, or risotto. I have a middle-aged friend (now retired) who actually fasts every Friday, saving up for the big Sunday meal.

    1. Raised in Rome I tend to take these notions for granted, but I too was amazed to realize that the rest of the world imagines the 5-course Sunday extravaganza as the norm. You just reminded me of piadina!
      Thanks for your kind comment :)

  2. Even when not presenting a buffet the Italians still do food right!!! Looks delicious. I usually bring a lunch from home. A bit of leftovers from the previous night's supper or a fresh salad. I eat a bowl pineapple and mango pieces at my desk throughout the morning to tide me over until it is lunchtime or maybe some yoghurt.
    The coffee at work is not very good so I don't have any once I leave home in the morning.

    1. The bowl of fruit at the desk is a great idea! Yogurt is not good for me, as it gets my appetite going and opening a bottomless pit in my stomach. Coffee on the other hand here...

  3. Love the sound of your local bar and their sandwiches , I was drooling :-) and the Pizza in slices, I remember those from our holidays , Little walk , pizza slice , café , all good. There are great ideas for lunch here too,

  4. How I used to love our Italian working lunches in Padua and Milan! Indeed, a quick tramezzino, or a 3-courser or a salad. Whatever it was, it was a proper 'pausa'. A moment to down tools, eat, think, talk, reflect, digest, communicate. I used to join my husband out of the office, complete with new baby in sling - happy times when a good meal, or just a happy feeding and communicating interlude, was the order of the day.
    PS: I had a postcard of the very same picture you have illustrating your post!

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words! Lovely image of you with babe in sling. <3

  5. Excellent article !
    I spent 2 weeks in a Sicilian family and unfortunately it was a "5-course meals twice a day", but it was soooo good !
    I was looking for a good recipe of Melanzane alla Parmiggiana and then and went through your blog. I'm definitely gonna read more! Well done

  6. When you consider that your child eats, on average, 120 lunches in a school year, those are great opportunities for you to give them nutritious meals.
    Lunch Box shop