In spite of regional differences, Italian food and Italian cooking in general is often characterized as being flexible and innovative, building itself on a model of theme and variation. So, no two gnocchi with Bolognese sauce will be quite the same from any two kitchens. Compare this to a classic French béarnaise sauce which, so the cliches hold, should be as constant as the morning star, no matter who prepares it. Thus, the best in Italian cooking is not only found in the finest Italian restaurants but in the pots of home cooks as well.
For all of its variation and its celebrated incarnation in the home, Italian cuisine and Italian cooking have had a profound influence on cooking and eating throughout Europe, and particularly in France. In 1533, Catherine de Médicis married the future Henry II of France and brought to her new home cooks and pastry-makers who lay the groundwork for French haute cuisine. Moreover, it seems that the Italians were the first in Europe to use a fork (Venetians) and the first to consider both the order of courses -- which presented an array of dishes -- and the relationship of the dishes served (Florentines). And, finally, these busy Italians brought sweets, preserves, and fruit pastes to the western world.
Italian culture and Italian cooking assume everyone else is familiar with it too. And assume, like most people who live in a given area, that things have always been done as they are now. Most Italians still eat a simple breakfast consisting of coffee or a cappuccino and a pastry, but the main meal is, if possible, at 1:00, and there is a light supper at about 8:00.
What are the distinctive feature of Italian restaurants? The portions are generally larger, and, more importantly, the meals have been organized as a primary entree, be it pasta, meat, or fish, with some sort of side dish. Culinarily, Italy is an incredibly diverse country -- dishes, ingredients, cooking times, and spicings change radically from one region to the next. However, the basic philosophy of the meal, seen as an occasion for friends or family to gather around the table and share a relaxed interval before leaping back into the fray (during the work week) remains constant.
A weekday lunch will begin with a primo, or first course, a deep-dish plate of soup, risotto, or pasta of one sort or another. The serving size is about a cup, or perhaps slightly more, and is not intended to be a full meal. In restaurant meals or festive dinners there may be several first courses, for example a risotto, a pasta dish, and ravioli, but their total volume will still be about a cup. By the way, this is called an assaggio di primi, a sampling of firsts.
The primo will be followed by a secondo, a fish, meat, egg or vegetable-based main course with a side dish chosen to complement it (for example, scottiglia, a hearty Tuscan stew, might be accompanied by boiled spinach squeezed dry and seasoned with olive oil and garlic). Again, portions are small -- about a quarter pound of the second course, plus a serving of the side dish, and bread. And again, in especially festive occasions there may be more than one secondo. Lunch will usually close with fresh fruit, and a demitasse of espresso. Taken as a whole the meal is extremely balanced: carbohydrates from the first course and the bread, proteins from the first and second courses, vitamins and minerals from the vegetables and the fruit.