We were eating dinner on the back patio a couple of weeks ago, when the evenings were cool but not yet cold. As usual, Marco, our 17-year-old, and Francesco, our 11-year-old, gobbled up the main dish and slinked back into the house. My husband and I linger. After the main course we have salad. After the salad we have fruit. I wish the kids would stick around for the tableside conversation (and the fiber), but I understand that they get bored.

“What’s that?” asked Da’Marco, the only person left at the table with us, pointing at a few sardines remaining on a white plate.

Da’Marco went to high school with our son Marco. On his eighteenth birthday, his mom kicked him out. A month later, he was driving a friend’s go kart, flipped it and messed up his knee. Because of his injury, he couldn’t work at his fast-food job. Without a paycheck, he lost the room he had rented. 

In August, when Marco asked if Da’Marco could stay all night, we had no idea that he would still be living with us almost three months later, but we’re committed to helping him get back on his feet, literally. He’s had knee surgery, six weeks of physical therapy, three different types of leg braces and eight more weeks of therapy to go. My husband gave him a job, and he has found a spot in our family --and at our dinner table.

“It’s a sardine,” my husband, Ben, said to Da’Marco. He recoiled, but he kept looking. 

“Taste it,” I said. “Just pop it in your mouth.”

“Eew, that’s nasty,” Da’Marco said. “Does it have a bone?”

“How will you ever go to Italy if you won’t try new foods?” I asked. Da’Marco has a hidden talent for languages, and our conversations about Italy interest him. But last week we went through a similar scene when Ben cooked lamb. Da’Marco eyed the browned edges and juicy center of the meat on the platter; he just had a hard time reconciling that with his image of a lamb. He finally tasted it then quietly finished it off.

“I’ll just eat pasta in Italy,” Da’Marco said, probably imagining the macaroni with Velveeta that he likes or tomato sauce that tastes like Ragu. He wouldn’t find those in Italy, and besides, part of the wonder of traveling is trying new foods.

“Would you eat horse meat?” I ask him.

“No!” he exclaims. “You’re not supposed to literally eat a horse. That’s just an expression.” However, Italians do eat horse meat and declare it especially good for the elderly, the infirm and children. I admit, it was a little shocking the first time I saw the picture of a horse on the label of a jar of baby food. 

“How about rabbit?” I asked.

“No,” Da’Marco said. “You’re not supposed to eat rabbits.” 

I described my husband’s favorite Sunday dinner: roasted rabbit with rosemary and porcini mushrooms dished over a heap of polenta.

“Tell him about Pianico and the asino,” Ben says to me, and I recount how a town close to Ben’s hometown puts together a huge, living nativity scene every year, including a real donkey in the stall with Mary and Jesus. They recreate a whole village with traditional shops, trades and village scenes. When the Christmas season ends on January 6, the town tears down the nativity village and feasts on the donkey. 

“No!” Da’Marco yells. “That’s nasty. Donkeys eat anything.”

“Pigs eats anything,” I say, “yet you eat pork.” “Bacon is good, though,” he answers.

Ben and I pepper Da’Marco with more questions. Would he eat frog? Snails? (“No,” he says. “I stepped on one of those and slid.”) Dog? Cat? (Where Ben’s from, people used to eat cat cooked in red wine. Some people still do.) Tiny birds that are sauteed then cooked in a heavy cream sauce and served over polenta?

No, no, no. Da’Marco is sticking to beef steak and chicken wings it seems.

After Da’Marco left the table to join the other kids, my husband leaned close to me and asked in a conspiratorial tone, “Where’s the best place in town to buy fresh seafood? I want to make a risotto with octopus for dinner tomorrow.”