The Language of Home

Let’s Eat Out

Or better yet, al fresco

By Noah Salt


One dreamy summer many years ago, during a three-week sojourn  across Italy and Greece, my wife, young son and I managed to eat every evening meal, and half of our lunches, al fresco — in other words, out of doors and in the spectacular open air of the Old World.

Of course, it was August and dry season in that part of the Mediterranean, which meant the lunches were sunlit and the dinners cool and starry.

A sunset dinner of wild boar and leeks in a fragrant olive orchard in Umbria stands tall in my gustatory memory of those languid days, while fish, fresh from the Ligurian Sea, grilled to golden perfection and served on a terrace in Camogli during its annual sardine festival still sets my bride’s heart aflutter. For his part, our son, now 28, recalls a simple Greek taverna on the water in tiny Parga. He played soccer with the local boys as Mom and Dad savored sea bass and grilled vegetables washed down by an Olympic-quality local red, cooled by a breeze straight off the Ionian Sea. There were similar open-air meals rendered perfect by views of the Corinthian Sea in Delphi, the buzz of a family reunion at a Chianti hilltop café, and a cozy seaside hotel in Crete where we imagined Queen Dido rising from the sea.

“After such unforgettable food-with-a-view, I’ll never be able to eat indoors again,” my wife summed up as we reluctantly made our way home.   

In English, the word al fresco simply means “an activity, especially a meal that takes place in the open air.” Its origin is, not surprisingly, Italian, and was in common use throughout Europe as early as the mid-18th century, particularly popular in the Regency courts of England and France. 

The original Italian meaning of the word was “in the cool” or simply “in the fresh,” often used in the context of classical frescos, paintings on walls and ceilings when the plaster is still wet, a style of Early Renaissance art typified by Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Closer to home, you can see stunning frescoes by artist Ben Long IV at the tiny Holy Trinity Church in Glendale Springs, and its sister parish, St. Mary’s Church in West Jefferson, a lovely place to have a picnic on the grounds.

A word to the wise if you use the word “al fresco” in Italy today, however. The common modern usage of the expression generally refers to someone being sent to jail.

Despite its peculiar etymology and lovely quirk of the Romance language, Carolina summertime and the original concept of al fresco make ideal home companions for almost any activity one can dream up beneath the sun and stars. 

Around our house, because of those glorious hours eating our way across the ancient world, eating al fresco is simply taken for granted, something one does in the cool of the evening.   h

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