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Italian lessons Mauro Golmarvi

Mauro Golmarvi, founder and longtime chef at Seattle’s Assaggio Ristorante, and daughter Francesca. Photo by Joshua Huston

Lessons from an Italian table

Chef Mauro Golmarvi on kids’ palates, manners and more

Before my grandmother Julie left us to greet the holy pasta maker in the sky, sitting at the table for long meals that turned into games that turned into meandering conversations that eventually turned into dessert was the norm for the Italian side of my family.

Dinners at Grandma’s house or with her out at a restaurant might go on for hours. Even so, we kids, for the most part, stayed seated, didn’t complain, participated in the play, ate what the adults ate, and, if we got bored, quietly gathered at the end of the table to play. Tantrums were unheard of.

The Italian Way

Turns out this is The Italian Way. In her 2008 book “La Bella Vita: Daily Inspiration from Italy,” author Helen Ruchti summed up Italian family mealtime perfectly: “That’s where kids,” she says, “learn all the family stories and secrets of neighbors and friends. They learn to talk and listen simultaneously; to talk loud enough to be heard. They learn the joy of being with family and the value of a lazy Sunday afternoon.”

Having been to Italy many times, I’ve witnessed this scenario time and again. Italian kids enjoy eating out and seem to innately know how to act.

This all made me wonder what lessons American families might take from their Italian parent compatriots 5,000-plus miles away. I turned to a local pro, Mauro Golmarvi, for answers. Golmarvi was the founder and longtime chef at Seattle’s Assaggio Ristorante. The award-winning restaurant celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2023.

“The table is the most sacrosanct place in the Italian family. You do everything at the table,” Golmarvi, born and raised in Italy, says. “From a young age your grandma is sitting next to you and explaining everything: ‘This how you eat a mussel, this how you behave, this how we use the fork.”

Not so long ago, Golmarvi’s daughter Francesca stepped up to take over the family restaurant, another Italian tradition. Here are Mauro Golmarvi’s thoughts on kids, the family table, and dining out with kids.

Seattle’s Child (SC): What do you think of making special food for kids – or asking the chef to prepare it?

Mauro Golmarvi: This is one thing that is very different in Italy. If you don’t like the food that was prepared for the table, then tough luck. From eight years old, my daughter knew how to eat clams, anchovies and oysters. I’m her teacher. My job is to help her train her palate. We don’t give different choices at my table. I’m not going to make the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. That is not the Italian way. There, kids learn to eat all foods and spices and learn how to enjoy them.

SC: How do you build a child’s palate?

Mauro Golmarvi: From a very young age, kids must be taught to test and taste everything. In Italy, we tell our children, ‘You are going to like this, you’ll see.” We set a positive expectation. We don’t say, ‘If you don’t like this, you can have another thing.’ If they don’t like a taste, we say, ‘Try it again; let me show you how to eat this.’

SC: Is it common for restaurants in Italy to offer kid menus?

Mauro Golmarvi: Absolutely not! In Italy, that doesn’t exist there. Here, everywhere I go, I see for kids there’s only macaroni and cheese or french fries. They don’t learn to grow their palate from this.

Italian lessions Mauro Golmarvi

Setting the table is an important part of training Italian kids to appreciate and behave at the table.

SC: Do you see a difference in kids’ behaviors between the two countries?

Mauro Golmarvi: Manners and sitting at the table are very big things in Italy, the most important part of the values. Parents will not let a kid throw things on the floor and make a mess, not even the babies. When you are a baby, [parents] are constantly cleaning off your mouth and teaching you manners. From a very young age, they are showing you how to sit at the table. Every child knows how to set the table and participates that way. It’s a big difference. From a young age, they are learning how to listen, how not to interrupt, how to be comfortable with the chaos of a loud restaurant, and how to enjoy it.”

SC: What happens when a child starts to fall apart in a restaurant in Italy?

Mauro Golmarvi: Italy is a small country, unlike here, where we have the biggest spaces. Every table in Italy is right next [inches sometimes] to each other. If a child is misbehaving, one parent will always get up fast, take the child outside for a walk, and not come back until they are calm. For kids, adults, and grandparents, everything is about coexisting in Italy. You have to know how to manage your space. The cultural expectation is that they allow other people to eat in peace. It’s all about co-existing in Italy, and it’s the parent’s job to ensure everybody else is not being bothered by their child. It’s not about the kid, it’s about parents taking the time to teach and teach.

SC: How is that different from what you’ve seen and experienced here in Seattle?

Mauro Golmarvi: My restaurant has been in Seattle for 30 years and is well known. It’s a classy place. I really tried to make everybody happy — the kids and the customers and the business people and everybody. But it’s sometimes very hard when parents don’t manage kids.
One time, a child was really out of control, and I went to the parent and said, ‘Can we do anything for your child? Can I bring some crayons?’ She called me prejudiced. She said, ‘You’re a very hard, cold-hearted person telling me my kid is misbehaving!’

SC: Does managing kids mean they must be super quiet when dining out?

Mauro Golmarvi: No, no. I’m from a country where eating out is always a celebration. To me, that noise is happiness, it’s bustling, it’s family and joy. You go to the restaurant to be celebrated. Otherwise, you can stay home and cook. Set expectations for kids. [If you don’t], it takes the whole experience away from you and hurts the celebration for everyone.

Read more:

Got food allergies? Dine out in and around Seattle

Dealing with picky eaters: tips from a pediatrician

Your kid wants to drink coffee: Is that OK?

Joe to go (or stay!): Kid-friendly coffee shops around Seattle

About the Author

Cheryl Murfin

Cheryl Murfin is managing editor at Seattle's Child. She is also a certified doula, lactation educator for NestingInstinctsSeattle.com and a certified AWA writing workshop facilitator at Compasswriters.com.