It's easy to feel like Italy is familiar. From movies to fashion and, of course, Italian food, the culture of Italy is embedded deep into our collective psyche. But when it comes to eating in Italy, there still are a few things that aren't commonly known.
When we lead our group trips to Italy, there are tips we pass onto our guests time and again. And, as you can guess, a lot of those tips are about eating.
We've shared etiquette tips for Italian dining in the past but we figured it time to share some general tips that cover the Italian way of eating from how much to eat at breakfast to how to eat your bread.
So here they are -- our top tips for eating you should know before you next travel to Italy:
Breakfast Is The Smallest Meal Of The Day
Often eaten standing with an espresso and a small pastry, breakfast is literally not a big thing in Italy. Most Italians -- especially those en route to work -- will just grab a pastry and a coffee before heading into the office. Or, if you're in Genoa, you might even see them dunk their focaccia into their morning cappuccino!
Speaking Of, Cappuccino Is Only A Breakfast Thing
A common mistakes Americans make when it comes to coffee in Italy? Ordering cappuccino all day long. In Italy, cappuccino is considered a breakfast drink (thanks to the dairy) so, if you order it after noon, you might get a curious look from your waiter.
If you still want a bit of milk in your coffee and it's after noon, you still can do so. Order an espresso macchiato (aka a caffè macchiato), which is not the drink you see at Starbucks but is rather a shot of espresso marked with a tiny dollop of foamed milk.
Drinking Tap Water Isn't Really A Thing
Speaking of drinks, tap water is a no go at most restaurants in Italy. For one reason or another -- some say because the water has high calcium content others say it's merely a country-wide habit -- the majority of Italians order bottled water when they dine out.
You can ask for tap water (aka acqua di rubinetto) but don't be surprised if you get a bit of a surprised look from your waiter (or if they even forget to refill your glasses) because it's not super common. However, for environmental reasons, you are starting to see some of the more progressive restaurants offer in-house filtered water so don't be surprised if you get that in the bigger citites.
Bread Doesn't Come With Butter Or Balsamic Or Olive Oil
When I lived in Italy one of the things I most commonly told my American friends who were visiting was this: bread is eaten plain so condiments lik butter or balsamic vinegar or olive oil are uncommon.
You can, of course, ask for it if you'd like but the waiter may be confused because it's not an Italian thing. As far as we can tell the concept of having bread with a combination of olive oil and balsamic vinegar is something somebody in the States came up with back in the 90s so it's pretty much only Americans who request that.
But Use Can Your Bread To Fare La Scarpetta
One thing my nonno (aka grandfather) would do at the end of any meal involving a saucy dish? Fare la scarpetta, which literally translates to "making a little shoe" but refers to using a bit of bread to soak up the last of a sauce.
Note this is pretty much okay to do in most cafes or more casual settings. However, at a white tablecloth restaurant, it's not done quite the same way -- you can either use your fork to drag the bread across the plate or, if you're at a find dining Michelin-starred establishment, just not do it.
Pasta Will Be Served Al Dente
Read any self-respecting Italian cookbook and you'll hear about the importance of cooking your pasta al dente. The term translates as "to the tooth" and means that your pasta should be cooked so that it is no longer chalky tasting but there is still a bit of bite to the pasta. We love our pasta this way because it provides a welcome texture to the dish.
Lately we've noticed that some restaurants have taken it a step farther and are cooking their pastas even less (just past chalky and raw but barely) and coining it al chiodo or "to the nail."
Spaghetti and Meatballs Is Not A Thing
You probably already know this but we just have to cover our bases: spaghetti and meatballs is not a dish that is served in Italy. Okay, yes, the pasta shape known as spaghetti is used in all sort of pasta dishes and meatballs are served on their own but the two together is a decidedly Italian-American combination so don't expect to see it when you travel to Italy.
Neither Is Alfredo Sauce
Same thing goes for Alfredo: this creamy cheese sauce is nowhere to be seen in Italy. There are quite a few cream-based pasta sauces in Italy but they're usually more delicate than alfredo sauce and don't usually have cheese added to them.
Oh, And You Don’t Cut Your Noodles
The last telltale sign you're a foreigner eating pasta in Italy? That you use a knife to cut the pasta noodles into bite-sized pieces. Italians will wind the longer pastas around their fork (using the plate not a spoon to do so) and a knife never really comes into play.
Cheese Is Not Added To Pastas With Fish
We'll give it to the Italians: there are certain food rules that they dare not break. One such rule is that cheese should not be added to pasta dishes with fish as it's believed the cheese will compete with the seafood flavors.
Pizza Is Not Always Served Sliced
If you order a whole pizza in Italy, it will come unsliced the majority of the time but you'll often be given a serrated knife to DIY.
The exception is when you go to a takeaway pizza joint that serves pizza a taglio aka pizza al trancio where they serve pizza as a rectangular slice. Because this style of pizza originated in Rome, you'll see a ton of shops the most famous of which is arguably the unparalleled Pizzarium.
Caesar Salad Is Not At All Italian
As we've talked about before, Caesar salad is not at all Italian but is instead from Tijuana, Mexico. Okay, yes, it's believed it was an Italian man who came up with the dish but it is not a traditional Italian recipe so you pretty much will not find it in Italy.
Digestion Is A Big Deal
Aside from being concerned about catching a cold if I left the house with wet hair, the other thing that majorly preoccupied my Italian ex was digestion. And he's not alone. The concept of having good digestion is so prevalent in the Italian culture that there's a whole suite of liqueurs known as digstivi which exist to help you digest your meal.
There's Not Necessarily Lunch After 2PM
Since most Italians have a pretty light breakfast, they almost all eat lunch and do so at a pretty regular time. The majority of Italians will eat lunch between 1PM and 2PM though you'll see some restaurants serve as early as 12PM and as late as 3PM.
Of course, there are options for getting pizza al taglio (by the slice) and, in the bigger cities, ever more cafes that will serve a light bite between meals. However, if you want to sit down to a proper meal, especially when you're traveling to smaller towns, plan to eat before 2PM.
But You Can Do Aperitivo As Early As 6PM
Around here we're huge fans of the chic Italian happy hour tradition known as aperitivo. Starting as early as 6PM (and usually not running past 9PM), bars will serve small bites and drinks. There is a whole culture to aperitivo and a series of classic Italian cocktails that are often sipped on during that time.
And Italians Eat Dinner Later Than Americans
Generally in Italy they eat dinner later than we do as Americans. A lot of restaurants don't really open until 7 or 7:30 PM so a common dinner time is around 8PM. So, if you get the first reservation of the night and the restaurant is empty, don't be worried as it's possible you're just eating earlier than the locals. Keep in mind that the farther south you go, the later they eat so you'll want to adjust accordingly.
But You Can Hang At The Restaurant (Almost) As Long As You Like
When you travel in Italy, you'll notice that people take their time at dinner. In fact, at the majority of restaurants, the table is pretty much yours for the night once you sit down. That's not to say you have to stay for hours, but should you desire to dive deep into a conversation while you sip your digestivi no one will mind!
Any other tips you've learned while traveling in Italy? Leave them below!
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Photo Credit: by Christine Davis