As one might suspect, family dinners are a huge part of my Italian life. These happen an almost-monthly basis, marking the important events on the family calendar: holidays, birthdays and the occasional "Just Because" meetings. In the last eight years, there are certain things I have come to expect and look forward to each time we meet.
A typical dinner usually goes like this:
Unless there is a storm of some kind, my husband, Alle and I walk the three or four blocks to his father, Paolo's place. I enjoy this most in autumn or winter, my favorite seasons, as the quiet and calm of our neighborhood is especially noticeable then. A walk in the cold tends to increase the appetite, after all – and it keeps the bottle of wine we bring along that much colder, too.
When we arrive at the palazzo, we call on the citofono to let him know we're there. He buzzes the door open and we take the elevator up to the top floor, where the door to Paolo's flat is already open, waiting for us to enter. The smell of whatever is cooking wafts out to us, filling the small entryway when we step inside and start to remove our coats and hang them up in the small corridor where the bedrooms are.
We go into the living/dining room, where the TV is usually on, the sound low while everyone talks or plays with Mia, the littlest member of the family. The chit-chat continues, sometimes in a mix of Italian and English. My sister-in-law, Roberta and her English husband, Andrew let us know what's new with them (even though we just saw them the night before at their place, in the flat right below our own).
A few minutes pass while Paolo and his girlfriend, Tamara, bustle about in the kitchen, one or the other of them popping out to put some sort of appetizers out on the table. Various types of bread and sliced meats frequently feature in this part of the dinner, and I allow myself a few bites only, so I won't spoil my appetite.
It isn't long, however, before we're encouraged to sit for the meal we've come to share, and that's when it happens. You see, there's a little ritual my Italian father-in-law undertakes each time we gather for a meal; at least, it happens whenever I'm there. Sometimes it's before we sit down to eat, sometimes it's after, but it always happens.
Paolo takes care to show me that he's purchased at least one or two 1.5-liter bottles of Coca-Cola (or Pepsi). One is placed on the table amongst the bottles of mineral water – both still and sparkling – and vino, the other left out on the balcony (in winter, of course) to chill along with the other, unopened bottles of wine. Then, he points out the one or two bottles of Lambrusco amabile – which he doesn't much care for, but he purchased just for me, because I once let him know I could drink it.
You see, I'm not much of a wine drinker. I never developed a taste for wine or other alcohol (aside from Bailey's Irish Cream – which tastes like candy to me), and this was something which puzzled Paolo from the start. For what it's worth, my husband isn't a big drinker, either: the occasional glass of wine with friends, a sampling of bitters with Andrew after a dinner and he's satisfied.
At one dinner – one of the first I can recall – Paolo offered me some wine. When I refused as politely as I could, my husband explained that I didn't drink it, and everything was fine. At the next dinner, Paolo offered again, and Alle explained once more that I'm not a wine drinker. Soon enough, this happened at every meal, until at last Paolo insisted that I try a particularly sweet dessert wine. I liked that one well enough (it was, I believe, a fragolino, or strawberry-infused wine).
In time, I realized he was on a quest. Every meal brought with it another bottle of wine, selected with me in mind. Whether it was dessert wine (dolce) or something simply a little less dry, Paolo brought out another glass for me to sample. If I tried it and didn't like it, that was okay: but I had to try it.
On occasion, when I tried to refuse altogether, Paolo would resort to pouring a splash into my empty water glass (the other glass would usually have some sort of cola in it). This made me laugh, as it was done playfully, and I would drink a little and then give the rest to my husband.
As I sat at one dinner drinking my water after refusing the wine yet again, Paolo shook his head with a half-grin and poured himself another glass. "Kim, Kiiim..." he said, making sure I looked his way. "L'Acqua fa la ruggine," he said, toasting me. I looked at my husband, puzzled, as everyone laughed.
"What did he say?" I asked, and my husband laughed again.
"He said, 'Water makes rust'," Alle explained, and I had to laugh, too.
Clearly, I was part of the family if my father-in-law was so willing to work so hard to protect me from rusting.