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    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    Anyone who has ever read this column knows that Italians are a bit obsessed with appearances. The concept of the bella figura is an important one in the culture. People are expected to look fabulous, follow social conventions, and put on a good show. The very concept of the piazza life - where everybody watches everyone else - depends on it. If you've been invited into an Italian's home, which is his or her personal piazza, then you could use a bit of advice on how to fit in. Here, four ways to make good with the paesani at the next dinner party:

    Be generous with hugs and kisses. Italians expect two kisses - one on each cheek - when greeting friends and family. And a big bear hug is never frowned upon among good buddies - even men. In fact, Italian men even kiss one another as a greeting. Handshakes are reserved for those you are just meeting or with whom you have a very formal relationship. Some might tell you that southern Italians are more affectionate and warmer, but I can't say that I've found that to be true in my travels through the country. My advice: don't be afraid to go for the peck on the cheek if you're unsure.

    Come bearing gifts. Italians might never show up on time for a house party, but they never come empty handed. Some of the popular gifts you could bring to a host include a bouquet of flowers, bundles of pastries or cookies from the local bakery, a bin of gelato, or wine. If you opt for a bottle of wine, try to find out what the host plans to serve and choose accordingly. Most Italians pair their wines to the meal - and they would never, for example, serve a red with fish. If you're great in the kitchen, you might consider making something homemade like tiramisu or a dessert that symbolizes your culture. For instance, my Italian friends can't get enough of my American apple pie served with panna gelato.

    Just eat it. Consider going off your diet when you visit with your Italian friends. While it's true that Italians work to maintain a svelte figure because looks are an important part of one's success in life, they enjoy eating with friends and family. Long, elaborate meals are a big part of socializing in Italy. When someone invites you to his house, he is likely to want to fill you with food. If he offers you something you're not sure about, at least try it. It's considered offensive to go to a party and eat very little or to never accept what the host offers you. If you absolutely hate one of the items on the menu, try to find something else that you love - and compliment the host on it.

    Appreciate your hosts. Like everyone else, Italians like to know that what they do - especially if they've just cooked and cleaned and opened their homes to friends and family - means something. Although Italians are not used to snail-mail thank you cards, they would probably still like one. Sending a text message or calling your hosts on the phone is another appropriate way to say "grazie mille" - and one that is more expected among Italians. If your host sent you home with any of the goodies from the party, be sure to return the containers in a timely manner. Bring back your host's Tupperware or dishes filled with candy or treats that you have whipped up. It's a nice way to return the favor. Inviting your host to a dinner at your place is even better!

    For more information on Di Meglio, visit www.francescadimeglio.com.

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