The weather isn’t the only thing that can spoil a pretty picnic. Bringing the wrong food, not having the right utensils or materials, and picking the wrong time or location can make the experience more exhausting than enjoyable.
It sounds melodramatic, until you’ve done it once or twice and thought, “Why is this so hard?” There’s a reason that spoiled picnics are both an idiom and a common TV trope.
The trouble is probably that we are so spoiled eating indoors, next to a fully equipped kitchen with air conditioning, that we get caught off guard by things like sweaty cheese, or not having napkins.
Fortunately, dining al fresco – or all’aperto, as Italians more commonly say today – has been perfected over the centuries, and modern science and equipment has made it even more enjoyable. Here’s some useful background and basic concepts to help you master eating outdoors.
The origins of picnic culture
From famous paintings, to famous movies, to famous TV shows, we’ve all been indoctrinated with images of what a quintessential picnic looks like: a basket, a blanket, and a smorgasbord of food and drink.
The word picnic stems from the French term “picque-nique,” which originated in the 18th century. It has a complicated history. The modern term only came to mean what we think of today in the 20th century.
As more people concentrated in cities, more people yearned to get out of the city, and the idea of escaping to the countryside became an event. With the invention of cars and public transportation, there was also a new way to travel quickly.
“In a sense the first meal that man ever ate was a picnic. For the essence of picnics is that they use the open air as sauce. But people who live in houses and particularly people who live in paved cities are the people who have kept the custom of the picnic alive,” starts a New York Times article from 1936.
Around that time, you started to see mass-market, specialized picnic baskets produced like the stereotypical ones we think of today – with placeholders for dishes and silverware and glasses and napkins.
The type of food served at American picnics has changed dramatically, and still varies by your preference and location. If you really want to do a deep dive, here is an incredible history of recipes and recommendations for picnics, culled from cookbooks printed between the 1910s and 1950s.
Suffice it to say, food preferences have changed dramatically through the decades, and therefore so have picnic food preferences. Ultimately, the food and drink you choose is probably going to be based on your own preferences, which are probably further based on where you live and where you come from. We are obviously going to take an Italian angle with our recommendations, and hope that you can take away some good ideas for your own.
A simple Italian-inspired picnic menu
We believe there are five quintessential food categories to creating a stellar, easy-to-execute, Italian-style picnic spread: cheeses, cured meats, bread or crackers, fruit, and beverages.
A simple, yet well-planned picnic goes a long way, from selecting foods that will hold up well to the outdoor conditions (both the weather and temperature), to considering reverse packing to make for an easier set up (blanket on top), and making sure to bring along any helpful non-food items, like a wine opener or a knife.
Below is a breakdown of our recommendations for an Italian-inspired picnic in southern New Jersey and Greater Philadelphia. We’ve also curated picnic bundles for purchase to make your planning even easier.
In our opinion, it’s not a picnic without the cheese. The main thing to think about when choosing the right cheeses for your picnic is temperature and texture. You’ll want something that won’t get too sweaty. Hard cheeses are best because they travel well. Given the tougher texture though, you’ll need to either pack a knife or pre-cube it. If you’re packing a knife, then a small chopping board isn’t a bad idea either as it doubles nicely as a shareable serving board.
And if you really want to enjoy the cheese in its full flavor, then you’ll want to make a mental note or set a phone alarm to set it out in the shade about ten minutes to an hour (preferred) before eating it.
We suggest buying a couple of smaller hunks of a few good ones. The main reason is for maximum flavor, but also because you won’t want to take home uneaten, sitting-in-the-sun cheeses.
Our recommendation is Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Both pecorino and parmigiano are hard, crumbly Italian cheeses, but they differ in that pecorino is made from fermented sheep’s milk, while parmigiano is produced from aged cow’s milk.
They each stand well on their own or served over a hunk of fresh Italian bread and with Italian cured meats. And they both pair nicely with Prosecco as the sharp saltiness and nutty flavors of the cheeses balances well with the light bubbles.
You can’t go wrong with some Prosciutto and Sopressata. Prosciutto is a thinly-sliced, Italian dry-cured ham and Sopressata is an Italian dry, coarse salami. Both pair nicely with the cheeses listed above. Again, you may need to bring along a knife depending on your selection and prep.
Bread or Crackers
We recommend grabbing a fresh baked loaf of Italian bread or focaccia or bringing some crackers. You can either tear off hunks of the bread as you eat it, or pre-slice it. If you’re bringing crackers, we recommend something unflavored to allow the cheeses and meats to really shine, like a stack of classic Panzanella crackers, a thin, artisan Italian cracker with crispy golden bubbles, which we serve on our pre-made cheese boards.
Soft fruits like berries don’t travel very well, so we recommend going for whole or dried fruits. Whole apples and pears are really nice choices. If you’d rather have sliced fruit, bring a knife. If you’re going the dried fruit route, try dried apricots or figs, or even a spread.
What’s an Italian picnic without the wine. Like with the cheeses, it’s a good idea to prep the wine before you pour it by chilling it with ice, or at least sitting it in the shade. There are many very good wineries right here in the Garden State, and we wholeheartedly suggest supporting them. (As we post this, during the peak of the COVID-19 crisis, many are providing safe curbside pickup options.)
We recommend grabbing a bottle of Auburn Road Vineyards’ Blanc Nu 2018, described as a “refreshing bright white wine with enticing aromas of the outdoors on a spring day” and a bottle of Prosecco. Don’t forget the wine opener, and if possible, bring along some stemless wine glasses, but at the least some sort of cups.
Aside from alcoholic beverages, we suggest packing a couple of Italian sodas and waters.
While you don’t absolutely need all of these, it’s a good idea to go through your menu and consider what might make your experience better or potentially save the day.
- Knife: To slice the cheese, meats, breads and fruits as needed.
- Small cutting board: As noted above, this can double as a shareable serving tray.
- Wine opener.
- Rigid drinkware with big flat bases: Something you won’t have to worry about breaking or sitting on the ground.
- Ice packs or ice.
- Napkins or hand towel.
- Blanket and tarp or shower curtain liner: If you’re planning to sit on the ground, first make sure your blanket’s big enough for both everyone and all the supplies when laid out. The tarp or liner will block any ground moisture from dampening the blanket.
- Bug spray or a portable fan: A fan can keep you cool, but is also an effective way to keep bugs away.
- Plastic bag: Makes clean-up easier, by keeping dirty items separate for the transport back home. (We strongly frown upon the Betty Draper approach to clean-up.)
One last point is when to have a picnic. Obviously, it’s a good idea to check the weather forecast. What we should also note for our region, in and outside Philadelphia, it that mosquitoes and other pests are most active in the early morning and evenings (dawn and dusk) and can really ruin a relaxing outdoor meal. Lunch or brunch is probably a better idea than dinner.
We hope this has inspired you to eat all’aperto, and that we have helped to make your picnic planning easy and fun. If you’d like more hands-on support, we would love for you to visit us at Valente’s Italian Specialties and allow our team of professionals the opportunity to walk and talk you through a tasting of our offerings.
Also, if picking out individual items to pack isn’t your thing or you don’t have the time, check out our pre-made cheese and charcuterie boards and sandwiches, many of which feature our recommended picnic menu items as ingredients.