A version of this article originally appeared on MUNCHIES Italy.
Eating with my hands amuses me. I ditch cutlery often, regardless of the context and whether or not it’s necessary. So, when I found out about Contatto Experience, a dinner with total strangers who eat food off their hands, I obviously had to go.
Contatto Experience was created by Giulia Soldati, a 27-year-old Milanese designer who, during her year studying abroad in the Netherlands, started reflecting on the cultural differences that come up at the kitchen table. These reflections initially led to her Bachelor's thesis at the Eindhoven Design Academy in 2016, which soon after transformed into a three-dimensional project—or "experience," if you prefer—which has since involved chefs, restaurants, and museums.
Contatto Experience challenges diners to approach food in a more direct way, bypassing barriers and taboos. First, plates and utensils are abandoned—all the dishes are served and consumed on the individual’s hands. This forces the diner to examine the temperature, consistency, and structure of what he or she is about to eat and, above all, to adopt an etiquette that, whether we like it or not, doesn’t allow us to be ourselves. Food is consumed in a primordial fashion that democratizes the act of eating. Having said that, it's definitely not suitable for germaphobes.
My dinner with Contatto Experience was set in an apartment in Milan where two of Giulia’s friends, Emanuele and Laura, live. I didn’t know anyone. I shook everyone's hands, but I immediately forgot their names. I do know that there were three couples and two guys.
All along the large black table in the center of the dining room, across from the fireplace, there were nine white placemats with set with wine glasses, water glasses, and a wedge of lime—a very nice mise en place.
There weren’t any seats directly at the table, requiring diners to remain standing (although there were comfortable seats placed two feet from the table, for the sake of accessibility). Giulia moved calmly from the stove to the counter next to the fireplace, taking ingredients in bowls with her.
After Emanuele poured the first round of Piedmontese Spumante, the first course on the lengthy menu arrived on our hands: guacamole and blanched oar shrimp. It was served right on the “anatomical snuffbox,” to be exact—the area between the index finger and the thumb. The spot gets its name from the fact that people used to rest their tobacco on it before sniffing it.
Giuliana placed the ingredients on each participant’s hand. They were very cold. I concentrated on the consistency of the avocado, which slowly grew beneath the weight of the shrimp in a way that almost tickled. I closed my eyes and opened my mouth. The taste was delicate and the guacamole provided a bit of acidity for balance.
Next, we were offered Marzemino, a light-bodied red wine. It paired well with the fried artichoke with burrata stracciatella that was parked on my wrist. The ingredients in the second course had a nice contrast between the the hot artichoke and the cold stracciatella, creating a yin-yang dynamic that I eagerly gobbled up.
The “plating” moved to the back of our hands for our third course, which was marinated salmon tartare with caramelized lemon zest and a splash of gin, as though it were a perfume. As we moved from dish to dish and the wine gradually became drier, the chatter between the participants started to be more fluid and continuous, a departure from the brief period of collective self-consciousness.
We rubbed a garlic clove on our palms. Giulia extended and then dipped the tips of her fingers into a bowl of oil and delicately passed them over each of our hands. If she was at all uncomfortable, she didn’t show it. The new dish was composed of salted anchovies, puntarelle, and breadcrumbs: a deconstructed bruschetta that perfectly mimicked the taste of actual bruschetta minus the tomatoes (which aren’t in season yet).
None of the plates were complex, which I think was the right move. Giulia confirmed that she’s not a chef, but I don’t find this to be a creative limit. A meal with flavorful, easily intelligible tasting notes helped us to concentrate on the tactile sensations without having to rack our brains over combinations that were difficult to decipher.
The next dish was even more basic and primitive than the others: fresh egg yolk with salt and pepper. I made it jiggle around the palm of my hand, where I’d tried to remove the garlic smell by rubbing my skin with the lime wedge.
It was fun to feel the pliable surface of the yolk roll over my fingers and think that I’d only need to squeeze my hand to destroy it. But I wouldn’t dare waste it, and when I threw it back into my mouth, a childhood memory of eating soft-boiled eggs instantly bubbled to the surface.
All of the diners gradually became more intoxicated which naturally made us friendlier and more talkative. A glass of Teroldego, an intensely fruity varietal of Italian wine, accompanied our next dish, which was a rather fun mixture of minced pistachio and mullet bottarga. Giulia set down some spaghetti—still warm but not overly so, seasoned in the pan with garlic, oil, and lemon zest.
Giulia explained that the fork was only introduced to the Western table in the 1800s, and that it became associated with the figure of the Devil because it had two spikes like a Satanic pitchfork. She then went on to tell us that this dish was inspired by 1700s-era pasta eaters, who’d use their hands to consume macaroni in the streets of Naples and who figure into many historical Italian illustrations.
I closed my hand around the ingredients and begin to massage the spaghetti in order to season it, and then popped it into my mouth.
Even if you consider yourself to be one of the pretentious types when it comes to food, the formalities vanish after enough wine, and you’re surprisingly down with the usual caveman behavior. Apparently dribbling all over yourself can make you kinder to yourself and to the rest of the world.
It was good that our inhibitions were mostly gone, because the next dish required tongue skills. Giulia placed a piece of fresh handmade egg pasta shaped like a bicycle seat onto my anatomical snuffbox; it was very hot but it cooled quickly enough.
It was followed by squash puree, crispy pork cheek, and salted ricotta: an open ravioli that I closed by lifting the narrowest part of the pasta, which was near my wrist, with my tongue. It was gone in a single bite. The warm octopus with Jerusalem artichoke went down equally as smooth (and quickly), even though it was an interesting combination of flavors.
You could say I was drunk by my seventh glass of wine, but I held on like a champ.
Giulia extracted rocks from the oven. They were very warm, but she wasn’t at risk of burning herself. We passed them around among the guests, holding them in our hands for about ten seconds. Their purpose was to warm our hands and loosen the fat from a thin slice of pork cheek that was placed in our palms, seasoned with chestnut honey.
After having my eighth glass of wine, I caved and stopped drinking alcohol. But I didn’t forget about dessert: brownie crumbs with citrus peels, chili, and a dab of chocolate ice cream. It started to sting my skin after a few moments, so I threw it back.
Lastly, there was the coup de grace: a shot of rum, and the experience was complete. I don’t remember saying goodbye to my fellow diners. I only remember the subway that arrived to take me home.