My hosts and I drive a half hour or so from their casa in the oak cork forest of Maremma to a town called Castiglione, on the western coast of Mar Tirreno, known as the Tyrrhenian Sea to me. We are going out for drinks and hors d’oeuvres, an unusual event for the vegan among us; my host prefers her own cooking. Castiglione is like Sarasota Bay in Florida, San Diego Harbor in California, probably like bays and beaches in South Africa or Vladivostok in Russia in that way of fancy restaurants and high-end clothing shops next to tee-shirt shops and souvenir stores, pizzerias, and ice cream parlors.

Stretched along the harbor of the sea town that climbs up a steep hill is a wide piazza reached by broad, shallow steps from the boardwalk. The piazza is a long mall with smaller piazzas branching off every block or so with more shops, fountains and benches. Flowers tumble down the fronts of buildings that are built of both modern materials—stainless steel and glass storefronts—and ancient square-stoned edifices with doors like the entrance to caves.

Stretched 20 feet above the cobblestones between the shops on either side of the promenade are sparkling blue neon Italian words that read gratitudine (gratitude), amicizia (friendship), felicitá (happiness), risata (laughter), gioia (joy). My friend and I read the words as we saunter along, I guessing at them, she knowing quite a bit of Italian. I have learned that the letter “g” is pronounced in Italy like our “j” so gioia says joy-a—and I am filled with it as I figure this out, thinking the whole glossary swaying along above me a series of subtly apt hints in a place designed for consuming.

As we sit in a restaurant built and styled like a cruise ship, the Castiglione marina beside us is quiet. It is wintertime, and no boaters are sailing out to watch the sun sink into the wine-dark sea. The yachts bob and slumber, calm like sleek ducks tucked into themselves for the night. Old men sit on upturned buckets and fish from the quay in the dying light; we all watch the little lamps glowing on their bobbers, a modern device for an ancient meditation.

We order drinks. The waiter brings chips and olives; he points at the bar and rattles away in smiling Italian. He is inviting us to partake, for the bar is lined with food—a phenom along bartops in Italy in the late afternoon. Before dinnertime is buffet time, at 5. Italians like to serve small sandwiches of cheese or tomatoes; slices of various pizzas—with salami, without, black olives and sardines, not as much cheese as in the States but plenty of fresh tomatoes; there is one fried potato pizza—I have had it before, and it is oddly wonderful. Beside it is a large bowl of fried potatoes next to a large bowl of potato chips; there are long platters of cheeses. It seems, however, that if we want sweets from the glass case, we must pay for the mango, chocolate, pistachio cheesecakes, the peach and lemon fruit tarts, and the tiramisu. I am not a sweets eater, so I move on, happy with potato pizza; my hostess loves sweet things and lingers long at the case from which she will choose nothing.

The most expensive glass of wine or beer I’ve ordered anywhere is $3 in euros—a little under $5 US. There is no tipping, so I ask if that is because bartenders and waiters make a living wage. No one knows, so I look it up: in Tuscany, nine euros an hour or 18 thousand a year. In Florida, the average “wait pay” is $5.54 US an hour, but if, with tips, his or her shift’s income doesn’t meet the minimum wage of $8.25, the employer makes it up.

Italians eat late—never before 8 p.m. and preferably after 9. If you enter a restaurant too early, employees ignore you. It is unnerving. The 5 o’clock of drinks and bar food—only at a bar, to carry to a table but never served to you at a table—enables diners to survive until the restaurant opens for real food. This is when the pasta is served. Even at home with my hosts, there is a snack of some sort around five, with infusion (hot tea) or caffé, birro, vino. Dinner comes late on the Italian peninsula.

I have forgotten to mention that we have Coco Channel, the dog, with us. Wherever we go, except the grocery store, Coco Cola, AKA Coachilla, Cokina, Cokie companions us. She knows people in the post office and is happy to make new friends, both canine and human, on the street, in the medieval church, or at the restaurant. At home, she runs the acreage chasing bees and barking at critters we can’t see. She likes napping on a hillock, running through mud puddles, and digging holes. She always begs to play with the sheepdog that passes now and then. But he is mean, and Coco’s owner won’t let her leave the yard. At noon each day but Sunday, she quakes when the far-away quarry sets off its round of dynamite. Something in Coco’s past that has to do with hunters and gunshots arouses PTSD in her; she paws at the front door to be let in so she can hide under the dining room table.

But away from home, out and about in society, Coco is the model of decorum. A pretty fluff of very friendly white bichon mix, Coco lies under our little round table at the marina bar, scooting ever so sneakily toward a skinny, hairless, not the least bit attractive dog under his own table next to ours. We are talking to the couple, so the dogs know they, too, can engage.

In Italy, dogs on leashes are everywhere. And people stop and talk to the pups and their owners with great interest. One time, as we sat at a table drinking wine outside a grocery superstore, a couple stopped to exclaim over Coco, take pictures, and tell us all about their dog, who looked exactly like Coco. We were intimate friends by the time they moved on. I saw no Italians annoyed at the presence of dogs or children.

While at restaurants, we do not feed Coco from the table, she never begs; there is peace between the species in Italia. I like the customs of the prevalent pups, the bar buffets, the lingering over late meals...a slower, more congenial time than in the American restaurants I know.