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Eating in Italy

Italians are serious about food. I am pretty sure there are more rules about food in Italy than driving. Actually, I am definitely sure about that.

Most Americans think that they know Italian food, but trust me, navigating Italian food culture is very different from the American and even Italian-American customs you are used to. Expect to be a little surprised not only by what is served, but how things are served, eaten, and the social protocols surrounding food. My advice? Don’t fight it, go with the (wine) flow. It has been working for the Italians for centuries, why stop now?

Whenever you travel, remember, don’t focus on what you miss, embrace what is different and how (and when) things are eaten. Promise yourself that you will at least try something once and remember that much of taste is socially constructed.

I have rounded up many of the “rules” of food and drink in Italy so you can prepare for your foodie tour of Italy! Becuase eating in Italy is one of the biggest highlights of visiting.

Wine is consumed in order of “heaviness”
Begin with prosecco and move to white, red, dessert wines. Of course you don’t have to drink all of these in one sitting. But, you never want to start with red and then move to white. You can learn more about wine drinking in Italy here.

Meals should last a long time
If you are thinking, “wow, consuming several types of wine in one sitting seems like a lot for one meal,” then you are forgetting that eating in Italy is a social and joyous occasion that is savored for many hours.NEVER cut your pasta

Only Americans cut their pasta. All you need is a fork and a good wrist twirl. If the pasta is too long, simply bite it off and let the remainder fall back into your dish.

Begin eating as soon as you are served
It is not considered rude to begin eating as soon as your food arrives in Italy, even if others are still waiting for their meals. Kitchens are small and plates are usually staggered. You should always enjoy your food at its peak freshness, and this includes temperature. Trust me, calcio and pepe is not nearly as good at room temperature.

Where to eat in Rome

Italians eat in multi-courses: antipasto, primi, secondi and contorni, dolci
Like wine, food courses have an order that you should adhere to. While Americans typically only have one or two courses, Italians have numerous. Pace your self and try them all! Although, it is fine to just order a primi (aka a pasta dish) if you are not hungry, they are used to Americans doing this. We just can’t hang.

Foods have their own plates
In addition to a specific sequence, every dish also gets its own plate. Meat, salad, and pasta would never be placed or served on the same plate. Meats and side dishes are not even served on the same plate, and have to be ordered separately. The exception to this rule is the aperitivo (a buffet style, pre-dinner ritual).

Diner will not be served before 7:30
I still struggle with this one! Italians eat late. Not as late as Spain, but pretty close. Most of my Italian friends won’t do dinner before 9. Getting them to eat with me at 8 takes a lot of begging and negotiation.

Eat your pizza with a knife and fork (and yes, the entire thing is for you) and don’t add parmesan!
You think you know pizza. But unless you have had Neapolitan pizza, you don’t know real pizza. Most Americans are shocked by a couple things when it comes to pizza in Italy – its doughy-ness, liquidy center (not liquid, just oil FYI), not-completely melted cheese (fresh buffalo mozzarella doesn’t melt like processed cheese), and the fact that the entire pizza is for one. Again, embrace it. Pizza in Naples is particularly life affirming.
Don’t look or ask for the following because it isn’t a thing in Italy:
  • pepperoni pizza
  • alfredo sauce
  • chicken parmesan
  • spaghetti and meatballs

These were created by Italian immigrants in the US and/or have evolved outside of the context of mainland Italy.

Salad dressing consists of oil, salt, and pepper
You’re not going to find ranch or Italian dressing in Italy. Italians dress their salads simply and eat them after the second course, not as a starter.

Bread and oil is not a thing (although if you ask, most will capitulate)
The bread on the table is not for dipping in olive oil. It is for cleaning every last drop of sauce and piece of food off your plate, or for layering with prosciutto and cheese.

No cappuccini after 11 (and definitely not after a meal)
Cappuccinos are viewed as a heavy coffee beverage and is only consumed in the morning. Order a cappuccino after dinner and you’ll have to watch your waiter’s face cringe. Instead, Italians drink an espresso after a heavy meal to help digestion (and all meals are heavy lol).

If your espresso is served with water, drink the water first
It is meant to cleanse your palette so you can better enjoy the espresso, not wash it down.

The smaller glass is for wine
Sorry guys, at casual restaurants, if you will find two cups on the table, the smaller one is for wine, the larger is for water.

You pay for water (and a table charge, but no tipping)
Speaking of water, most Americans really struggle with the idea of paying for water when dining out. While the tap water is safe, most Italians don’t drink it. So, you will be charged for water at a meal. You will also likely have a table charge, but remember, all of this is offset by the fact that they don’t tip an automatic 20%. You can leave a euro or two for good service, but that is all that is necessary.

Clean your plate (and wipe up any excess with bread)
Italians are the superstars of the clean plate club. Wasting food means it was not very good.

Feel free to indulge in gelato daily
Italians love gelato, and so will you. Since you will be walking a ton and gelato has (on average) less fat than ice cream, feel free to indulge daily!

Eat local delicacies
When ever I am in a new region of Italy, I always try the local specialties. It is a great way to try everything and appreciate how diverse Italian food is by region.

Choose wisely
There are a lot of tourists in Italy, which means there are a lot of tourist traps and sub-par food. Check out my tried and true tips for picking restaurants in Italy here.