Let us begin in the morning. According to Italian mores, in order to insure proper digestion throughout your day, one must never have a cappuccino after 11:30 a.m. because milk is bad for digestion. I have no idea why milk is ok for digestion before 11:30 a.m. or how the body knows the precise time to cut off the processing of milk. I never got a clear answer to that question. Also, interesting is that Italians do not eat breakfast. They may have a coffee and a brioche or a cookie, but that it is. Now, Americans are continuously told that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Not so in Italy. And Italians would never think of having a cappuccino with eggs, because . . . you guessed it, eggs and milk together are bad for digestion.
When you have moved on to pranzo or cena (lunch or dinner) the traditional Italian meal is designed specifically to aid in proper digestion. First is the antipasti course made up of cured meats and cheeses. This course is designed to get your digestive juices flowing. Second is the pasta, then the meat course. These are two separate courses. You will not see spaghetti and meatballs served together in an authentic Italian restaurant. If you see it on the menu, you are in a tourist restaurant. You don't see them served together because eating the meat with the pasta is bad for digestion. Eating them one right after the other, however, is good for digestion. Again, it was never clearly explained to me how the body knows exactly when a person has finished the second course and then moved on the the third course, but I digress.
At the end of your meal you have the contorno or the vegetable course. The logic behind eating your vegetables last is that the fiber will help you digest your meal. This rule I understand. It makes sense and seems reasonable to me, but, I still like to eat my veggies first.
After your meal, and in case the vegetables didn't work, you really should have an espresso to aid in proper digestion. And the final stage of an Italian meal are the alcoholic digestivi. These regional liqueurs are made from herbs, plants or nuts. Grappa and Limoncello are the most famous digestivi, but here in Parma it is common to have a Nocino after dinner. Nocino is made from unripe green walnuts. Nocino is quite tasty, but in my experience, Nocino or Grappa after dinner does anything but aid in my digestion. In fact, the sugar content actually leaves me feeling ill, but that is probably because I am not Italian.
Another tool to aid your digestion is to eat your meal slowly. In addition to the belief that one must cook with fresh, local ingredients, another reason that fast food is not very popular in Italy is that eating on the go is not good for digestion. Similarly, drinking on the go is not good for digestion and you will not see people walking around with paper cups adorned with their first name scribbled in black sharpie ink. The first week we were here it was unGodly hot and humid. Not being used to such weather, I took to walking to and from school with a hard plastic reusable glass of ice water. People were staring at me. Really staring at me. Imagine someone "tsk tsk"ing you with their eyes because that is what was happening. I screwed up my courage and asked an Italian mom. "Oh, you really should not walk with a drink. If you are going to have a drink, you should sit down and enjoy it." Thing is, I WAS enjoying it. It was a life raft in the humid hell that is August in Italy. And as for my digestion, it was too damn hot to eat anyway.
Speaking of drinking, Italians believe that one should not drink ice in your beverages or drink cold beverages too quickly. Cold drinks are bad for digestion. During the aforementioned unGodly hot and humid summer months, cold water is necessary to rehydrate. And at times I admit I tend to gulp the ice cold water down like a prisoner on the chain gang since I feel like I am literally melting. It is refreshing to get the cool water inside my body. I can't help myself. And Italian women cannot help themselves either. I have been scolded many times for drinking my cold water too quickly. "Senora, basta! Mio dio! Non beva veloce. Non veloce!"
With the exception of ice cold drinks and veggies at the end of the meal, the Italians have rubbed off on me. I have learned to stop and enjoy. I have learned that people "go for a coffee." They take a break, leave work and go to the bar for 15 minutes to sit and enjoy a hot espresso in a real ceramic cup and saucer at a table with a tablecloth. When we first arrived we made an appointment with the bank to have accounts set up, get a debit card, etc. We arrived at the bank at our appointed time. We were ushered inside and taken to the desk of the person who would be helping us. We were introduced and sat down. Then the clerk disappeared for 20 minutes. When I asked where he had gone the response was "Oh, he went for a coffee" as if it is the most normal thing in the world to head out for a coffee when your client has arrived. It was then that I realized that coffee is like a religious experience here. You don't mess with a person's coffee as it may well mess with that person's digestion. And that is, well, unforgivable.
The final bit of digestive advice from Italy - one must never eat with your shirt off or your belly exposed. This has not been an issue for this 51 year old overweight woman, but it is something one must consider when planning a trip to Italy. No belly shirts and no eating poolside or at the beach. A covered stomach insures proper digestion. After an outdoor party one evening, an American friend pulled his shirt up exposing his stomach and shouted "Look all you Italians. My stomach is exposed and I am not going to get sick!" I didn't follow up with him to see what happened, but I saw him around town a few days later and he seemed fine.
We Americani are a resilient bunch.