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Looking Past the Children’s Menu

Nicola Marzovilla runs a business, so when a client at his Gramercy Park restaurant, I Trulli, asks for a children’s menu, he does not say what he really thinks. What he says is, “I’m sure we can find something on the menu your child will like.” What he thinks is, “Children’s menus are the death of civilization.”

Parents have so come to expect the safe fare (and cheaper prices) of a children’s menu that Fornino, a pizza restaurant in Park Slope, nearly faced a boycott when it opened earlier this month without one. But Mr. Marzovilla has never had one and swears he never will. Easy for him to say: He’s not in nurture-happy Park Slope, and maybe expectations are different at a restaurant where a plate of handmade pasta costs $24. But even if he were running a pizza joint, he would never offer children what he considers a “dumbed down” menu on the side.

Mr. Marzovilla welcomes young children at his restaurant, even discounts their meals on Sunday evenings, and is not above serving a simple appetizer portion of pasta to please little ones. But he has strong opinions about food, and about the messages parents convey to their offspring through what they eat. Children’s menus aim too low, he argues — they’re a parenting crutch.

“The table is very important,” Mr. Marzovilla explained as we sat around one at his restaurant early Sunday evening with our five collective children. “It’s about nutrition, it’s about family; you go right down the line. And the children’s menu is about the opposite — it’s about making it quick, making it easy, and moving on.”

Mr. Marzovilla, 50, moved with his family to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx from the Puglia region of Italy when he was 11. Even if Mr. Marzovilla was not a foodie by profession, it would be important to him that his children try, say, octopus: “It’s my culture.”

He does not make it easy for his children to refuse new foods of any kind, a policy that has yielded a 14-year-old daughter who devours all manner of raw fish, a 17-year-old son who prefers his fish whole, and an 11-year-old daughter who slurps down snails in Chinatown with such relish that the waiters sometimes line up to stare.

Try it. No. Just try it. No. Just try it! No! — such is the dialogue that accompanies many a family meal, usually ending with the parent in defeat. How is it that Mr. Marzovilla encouraged them so successfully?

Everyone at the table had a good laugh at that one. “Encouraged: that’s a good word,” said Mr. Marzovilla.

“Try ‘forced,’ ” said Julia, the 14-year-old.

“There wasn’t a time we didn’t end up trying it,” said Domenico, the 17-year-old. “Sometimes it took longer than others.”

“You know, I’m their parent, I’m not their best friend,” Mr. Marzovilla noted. “I have a duty to mold and teach.”

Olivia, the 11-year-old, was looking at the menu. “How does fried rabbit taste?” she asked.

“Very good,” advised Domenico.

Mr. Marzovilla works most evenings, but the children sit down every night at their home in SoHo with his wife, Astrid, for a meal she cooked, usually no later than 6 p.m. It’s such a given that the children do not bother trying to negotiate their way out of it.

“Some parents, it’s important to them that their kids do sports,” Mr. Marzovilla said. “To me, it doesn’t mean a thing. To have this experience with their family is more important.”

The table was not just a place to eat for a young Mr. Marzovilla — it was a place to grow. At mealtime, he literally had a seat at the table, along with the adults and his older cousins. Two of his three siblings now live nearby, and their families often join forces in Chinatown or at their mother’s home in Murray Hill, where smaller children see older ones keeping it together for the course of the meal and eating whatever is put in front of them with an open mind.

It happened at our table Sunday at I Trulli. The restaurant experience of my twin boys, who will turn 4 this summer, extends to exactly one local diner, where, yes, they have been known to eat chicken fingers and fries. At a worshipful distance across the round table, they kept their eyes trained on Julia, Olivia and Domenico. Like them, my children devoured orecchiette with rabbit ragout. When offered a clam off the shell, one asked that I remove some brown stuff at the base — and then ate it. No, he didn’t like it. But he tried it.

“If you don’t ask your children to try things, how will they ever know what they’re capable of?” Mr. Marzovilla said. “And isn’t the same true of us?”

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