Salt & Wind Travel

The Traditional Italian Dining Customs To Know

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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 most travelers commonly don’t know. When we lead our group trips to Italy, there are tips we pass on to our guests time and again. And, as you can guess, a lot of those tips are about eating.

More Than 15 Tips For Eating In Italy

We’ve shared etiquette tips for Italian dining in the past, but we figured it time to share some general tips covering Italian food culture, from how much to eat at breakfast to eating bread. So here are our top tips for eating that 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 not a big thing in Italy. Most Italians—especially those en route to work—will 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!

Cappuccino Is Only A Breakfast Thing

A common mistake 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 midday, 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 can still do so. Order an espresso macchiato (aka a caffè macchiato), which is not the drink you see at Starbucks but is 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, you are starting to see some of the more progressive restaurants offer in-house filtered water with unlimited refills for environmental reasons, so don’t be surprised if you get that in the bigger cities.

Bread Doesn’t Come With Condiments

When I lived in Italy, I most commonly told my American friends who were visiting this: bread is eaten plain. In other words, condiments like 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 You Can Use 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 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 a trattoria or more casual setting. 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 fine-dining Michelin-starred establishment, simply don’t 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 further and are cooking their pasta 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 have to cover our bases: spaghetti and meatballs are not a dish in Italy. Okay, yes, the pasta shape known as spaghetti is used in all sorts of pasta dishes, and meatballs are served on their own. Still, the two together are a decidedly Italian-American combination, so don’t expect to see it served at Italian meals.

Neither Is Alfredo Sauce

The same thing goes for Alfredo: this creamy cheese sauce is not really a thing in Italy. There is a dish from Rome that is similar but it’s not the same as what we have in the United States. There are quite a few cream-based pasta sauces in Italy, but they’re usually more delicate than American-style alfredo sauce and don’t typically have cheese added to them. 

You Don’t Cut Your Noodles

The last most obvious sign you’re a foreigner eating pasta in Italy is that you use a knife to cut the pasta noodles into bite-sized pieces. Italians will wind the longer pasta around their fork (using the plate, not a spoon to do so), and a knife never really comes into play.

Pastas With Seafood Don’t Get Cheese

We’ll give it to the Italians: there are specific 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 most 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 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 digestivi and amaro (from grappa to Ramazzotti), which exist to help you digest your meal.

Lunch Is Rare After 2 PM

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 1 PM and 2 PM though you’ll see some restaurants serve as early as noon and as late as 3 PM.

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 traveling to smaller towns, plan to eat before 2 PM.

You Can Do Aperitivo As Early As 6 PM

Around here, we’re huge fans of the chic Italian happy hour tradition known as aperitivo. Starting as early as 6 PM (and usually not running past 9 PM), bars will serve small bites like antipasti and drinks. There is a whole culture to aperitivo, and a series of classic Italian cocktails often sipped on during that time.

Italians Eat Dinner Later Than Americans

Generally, in Italy, they eat dinner later than we do as Americans. Many restaurants don’t open until 7 or 7:30 PM, so a standard dinner time is around 8 PM. So, if you get the first reservation of the night and the restaurant is empty, don’t be worried as you may be 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 knowing that you might not eat until say 9 PM when you’re in Sicily.

They Don’t Always Eat All The Courses

On a standard Italian restaurant menu, you’ll have, like in the States, a variety of courses listed. The antipasto course is the appetizer; the primi are the first course like pasta and rice courses; the secondo is the main course, and the contorni is a side dish like vegetables or salads.

If very hungry, you might find people ordering every course. But, more often than not, people choose a mix and match of the courses.

Salad Dressing Isn’t A Thing

Speaking of salads, know that a proper salad dressing (like a vinaigrette) isn’t commonplace. More often than not—especially at more casual spots—you’ll be served olive oil (sometimes with or without vinegar), and then you drizzle on as much as you’d like.

You Can Hang At The Restaurant (Almost) As Long As You Like

When you travel to 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 digestive, no one will mind!

Any other tips you’ve learned while traveling in Italy? Please leave them below!

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Photo Credit: Christine Davis

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