Italians are passionate people when it comes to food. And when there’s passion, there’s bound to be a couple of rules. Here is a list of unspoken rules about the art of Italian culture I gained from both living with an Italian host family and my own experiences.
1)Drinking anything other than a shot of espresso after midday is strange.
When I first arrived in Italy, I expected them to drink cappuccinos all the time, but they only drink cappuccinos in the mornings! I’m not really sure why, but when I drank a cappuccino with my lunch at a restaurant in Milan, I got stared at. When I brought this subject up to my au pair parents, all I received was my host dad’s firm shaking of his head.
2) Don’t eat alone.
For me, I absolutely love travelling alone as it’s valuable time for me to find my better self. Part of the experience of travelling alone is of course when I eat out, and what I didn’t realise before going to Italy was that Italians basically never eat out alone. For them, food is a central element that brings people together. I even met someone while I was in Perugia who said: “Wow you eat in restaurants alone. That’s a little weird.” Even after two months of living in Italy, I still feel very conscious about eating alone.
3) On the bright side, staff will be nicer to you if you eat alone.
Because Italians will (unreasonably) pity you for eating alone, they will also go out of their way to make your dining enjoyable, even on days when you just feel like being left alone. When I was having lunch in a busy restaurant in Bologna on a Saturday, my waitress kept stopping by my table every time he walked out of the kitchen. He asked me about my book, and we even have a conversation about mental illness.
4) Only have wine or water with your meal.
I only realised this towards the end of my stay in Italy as I always assumed my host family only did this because they were trying to be healthy. Even to this day, I’m not even sure why that’s the case, but my inference is that it’s because other drinks have tastes too powerful that they would overpower the food that they were only supposed to accompany.
5) Don’t ask for a spaghetti bolognese or fettuccine carbonara.
These things are simply not Italian. I confirmed this with my Italian host family. Italians are very particular with which type of pasta goes with which type of sauce, and these are simply not combinations you’d expect. In fact, what we know as bolognese sauce is known as ragu and goes with tagliatelle, and carbonara actually goes well with spaghetti.
6) Don’t expect huge amounts of meat in your primo dish (pasta and rice dishes), because meat and seafood dishes come second as a secondi.
Eating in Italy is a multi-course experience because they want you to enjoy all the favours. The order of an Italian multi-course meal is as followed:
- Pasta or rice dish
- Meat or fish dish
- Sweets and coffee
- Digestive drink (usually grappa or amaro)
However, of course you don’t have to have all of these. It’s just the order if you’re splashing out. Usually I’m happy enough with just a pasta dish or a salad.
7) Asking for tap water is really uncommon, so expect to pay for bottles of waters instead (usually around €1.50 or so).
Living in Australia, I grew up drinking tap water whenever I go out to restaurants, but when I asked my host parents about it and even learnt how to say ‘tap water’ from Google Translate, all I received were blank faces when I said it in the real world. This was very puzzling to me, as somewhere like Rome is home to about 2000 water fountains that are all safe to drink from. My inference is that in European countries in general, they just don’t drink tap water, but please let me know if I’m wrong.
8) Expect to pay for service fees (servizio) and bread and cover charge (pane e coperto).
Every waiter will give you some bread even if you haven’t asked for them, because Italians eat bread with every meal (more on that in the next point), but expect to pay about €1.50 of pane e coperto per head and also about €2 per head of servizio. Although, these things should be written at the bottom of the menu.
9) Wait until after you’ve finished your pasta dish to eat the bread.
Bread is near your pasta dish because of the old-fashioned word: scarpetta, which basically means to wipe of the rest of your dish with the bread. Also, expect the bread to taste very plain, as they’re usually made without salt. Don’t expect to have it with butter, olive oil or vinegar either.
10) Only use olive oil or vinegar with your salad.
The Americanised world expects Italians to eat salads with salad dressings like Caesar or ranch, but Italian vinegar and olive oil are so fresh and flavoursome that it would be a shame to have salad dressings that overpower the fresh ingredients.
11) Don’t have savoury food for breakfast.
Italian breakfast usually consists of a cappuccino and a sweet pastry (usually a brioche). It might not seem like much food, but at least it gets them up and going until their snack time at around 11am (usually with an espresso at this point).
12) Don’t sit down at the local cafe.
Or you’ll get charged with at least twice the amount that others will. Italians go to the local cafe (which they call a bar) and stand to drink and eat. When you go to a bar, usually their menus will have two columns: banco and tavolo. Banco means for you to stand, and tavolo is for people who sit.
13) Don’t have dinner early.
Italians usually have their dinner (cena) from around 8pm onwards. You’ll find that some restaurants aren’t even open for dinner at around 6pm. This is because they usually have an aperitivo right after work at around 5pm, where restaurants offer free buffet when an alcoholic drink is bought. The aperitivo thus fills their appetite until late at night. For me, the kids I took care of didn’t finish their after-school activities until around 6pm, so when we all eventually get home, it was usually already 7pm, which was when my host parents could finally start cooking dinner.
14) There should be no chance for you to eat fast, ever.
Meals can last for hours because eating out should be an enjoyable experience. You should never expect a waiter or waitress to kindly ask you to leave because they have a customer waiting at the door. You should also never get takeaway food, especially coffee. It’s quite rare that you’ll find someone walking on the streets with food in their hands. Even if you do see a food stall on the streets, you’ll see Italians finding a spot to sit to savour it. For me, my most vivid memory was when my host family took me to an outing with their friends in Greve in Chianti in the Tuscan wine region. All up, our five-course dinner lasted for 3 hours, and we all drove about 35km to get there. It is this kind of experience that Italians treasure, and I hope you’ll have this type of experience while you’re in Italy too.