While the term ‘al fresco’ conjures romantic images of dining in the fresh, open air, the meaning is actually (somewhat hilariously) at odds with this notion. Yes, the phrase roughly translates to “in the cool/open air”, though in Italy, ‘al fresco’ is not typically associated with summer dining, and is instead often used as a polite way to refer to someone who is spending time in jail! Should you want to dine outside like an Italian, you could trade the phrase ‘al fresco’ for 'fuori' (meaning 'outside'), or 'all'aperto' ('open air').
This unfortunate truth aside, the spirit of dining ‘al fresco’ is still one that we - especially in current times - yearn for. That sense of occasion, while dining at home, transporting us (albeit vicariously) to an ambient outdoor dining spot, perhaps perched on a mountainous vantage with views of the Mediterranean sea, or in the terrace of a laid back restaurant on a still-warm evening at the height of summer.
And while we may not be able to enjoy a hearty bowl of Venetian duck ragu with pappardelle by the city’s Grand Canal, or a zesty plate of pasta al limone cliffside on the Amalfi Coast, we can certainly do our best to evoke the spirit of summer ‘al fresco’ dining, wherever we should find ourselves. Be it a cosy corner of your garden, or a makeshift evening sky under the glow of fairy lights in your flat, we could all benefit from a little al fresco romanticism every now and then. Here are just a few of our tips for transforming your dining space into a stunning ‘al fresco’ retreat.
Designing your ‘al fresco’ space
It is important to remember here, that the spirit of al fresco dining is one that is laid back. An uncomplicated space provides the perfect setting to while away a summer afternoon. A small bistro table is ideal for both outdoor and indoor spaces - this will create an intimate setting, and can be folded and stored in smaller flats or patios. Should you wish to ‘dress up’ your table, a simple, white tablecloth does wonders in creating that ‘restaurant’ feel.
That being said, any table or dining space can be transformed into an al fresco-style retreat - it really only takes a couple of strategically placed candles and some airy plants or flowers. The former adds ambient light while adding a sense of occasion, and mimicking that restaurant-feel. Should you not be able to dine under the stars in the open air, some carefully hung fairy lights in an unlit room offer a distant glimpse of the night sky, or evoke the setting of a romantic terrazza in Venice or Rome. Nothing quite brings the great outdoors inside like a houseplant or two - fresh herbs from the kitchen are perfect here, as they lend their pleasant perfume. In lieu of these, fresh-cut flowers add a real sense of occasion to a dining space.
It may seem obvious, but for those aiming to replicate al fresco dining indoors, open windows add a much-needed sense of airiness to any space. And should the sounds of the street below inhibit your visions of tranquility, we’ve got you covered. We’ve compiled our own curated #ItalyatHome playlist, encapsulating the sound of summer in Italia to soundtrack your ‘al fresco’ dining experience.
Italian dining, ‘al fresco’ style
While ‘al fresco’ dining is casual at heart, there’s no denying the sense of occasion that comes with eating in the open air. The best way to transform your dining experience is by treating it as such: an occasion - something to savour. While a multi-course Italian dinner is a more traditional affair, picking and choosing from this dining structure will certainly help in transporting you vicariously to il bel paese.
First and foremost, to recreate Italian summer dining, have an aperitif to hand - this is a must! There is nothing like soaking up the sun with a glass of something refreshing. Classics include the Florentine Negroni, mouth-watering Martini cocktail, and - of course - the Aperol Spritz alla Venezia.
Select a quality wine to pair with your meal - open it prior to cooking, allowing the wine to aerate a little. Something light to medium-bodied, with fresh and crisp notes. Both white, red and rose wines work well in an al fresco setting, just be sure to go for something vibrant, and not too heavy, perhaps of a lower alcohol percentage. For whites, aim for citrus notes and good acidity. With reds, avoid anything too smoky, opting for wines with fresh berry flavours instead. For more information, be sure to check out our various regional wine guides, accessible from our Italy at Home page.
The perfect al fresco meal
Though ritual in Italian households, a multi-course meal is another way to add a sense of occasion to your dining, and is similarly typical to al fresco dining. Having a stunning plate of antipasto from which to graze is a perfect way to begin - build your board with an array of Italian staples, including a mixture of soft and hard cheeses, like a stunning burrata from Apulia and a punchy Pecorino Romano or a good taleggio. For carnivores, cured meats like salami and prosciutto, or the spicy and spreadable ‘nduja are welcome additions to any antipasto platter. Add dimension to the board with textural elements like crunchy taralli or grissini, and bright flavours in the form of juicy olives, datterini tomatoes, artichoke hearts or grilled aubergine.
While often served as a primo-piatto (first course), as you may have guessed, we have no aversion to a pasta-rich dining experience. A good filled pasta with a light butter sauce is a great option, should you want to enjoy a first course. Often, main courses consist of a meat or fish dish, with a complimentary ‘contorno’ (side dish) and/or ‘insalata’ (salad). For a pasta feast, go with a slightly heavier dish here, something like a rich meaty ragu, or indulgent cheese sauce like cacio e pepe, and serve this with a simple salad. Co-founder and Evangelist Giles Coren can attest to this - he recommends a simple salad of fresh bitter leaves and herbs, dressed in just oil, lemon and salt, for a delightfully satisfying insalata.
Should you have room for another course, we like to pick and choose from a formal dinner structure, either a cheese board, a small dessert, a short coffee or a digestivo (a short, sippable alcoholic drink - liqueur and limoncello are popular choices). That being said, typical al fresco dining is definitely a more laid back affair, so omitting any of these courses certainly wouldn’t be an issue.
And in the spirit of laid-back al fresco dining, how about having your meal delivered to your door? Order from our weekly menu today, for an array of restaurant-quality dishes, expertly prepared, and ready to enjoy in five minutes.
Want to further your al fresco dining experience? Why not theme your evening to a specific region, a la our #ItalyatHome initiative? For 8 glorious weeks this summer, we’ll be travelling (vicariously) through some of Italy’s most stunning regions, providing you with all the holiday inspiration you need to bring lo Stivale to your home! Think signature dish and cocktail recipes, wanderlust-inducing content and a limited edition menu each week, with its own unique look and feel. This is the grand tour of all grand tours, and we can’t wait to see you there.